I snuggled into my bed with my laptop on my stomach, as usual, and queued up the first episode of Scandal. It was just my Netflix and I for this date, as is usual for me these days, and I was ready to be entertained. I clicked play, and within two minutes (including buffering time) I had to take a break to reflect. If you’ve ever seen the show, you know that’s partially because the characters speak like auctioneers on speed most of the time, but beyond that, the show already didn’t sit well with my queer, feminist ideals. The rest of the episode didn’t sit any better, either.
I’m not going to pin these issues on Scandal alone, because my frustration stems from the recurring nature of these themes on television shows that I genuinely want to like, but I’m just putting it out there: shows that feature a female lead or a gay character don’t get a free pass to be as problematic as they want. Granted, I’ve only watched the first episode of this show. I’m just not sure that I want to go on.
The lead of this show is Olivia Pope, a former White House lawyer who now runs her own PR firm with a team of self-proclaimed “gladiators in suits.” Admittedly, it’s always nice to see a strong female lead, especially a woman of color, but I couldn’t help but notice Pope’s conformation to qualities that I am truly tired of seeing in female television characters. First of all, the show creators demonstrate her icy nature by showing her tearing other women down with harsh criticism and cruelty. The new girl in the firm, Quinn, faces degrading criticisms immediately upon meeting her first coworker, who lures her into the job with a faux blind date. “Too much cleavage. Olivia will talk about you.” He’s right, because the first thing Olivia says to her addresses Quinn’s breast exposure. “Too much cleavage.” A classic, stereotypical case of one woman criticizing another woman’s physical presentation, scolding her sexuality and playing on the weaknesses that society forces on us.
Then, later on, Olivia is informed that a woman is claiming to have slept with the president and assigned with the job of shutting her up. She does so by cornering her in a park and forcing her to tears. You find out later in the show that the woman was not lying when she tries to kill herself to get the president’s attention. I understand that Olivia Pope is supposed to be a hardened, cold person, but why does that have to manifest itself in her destruction of other women? Can’t we get a female character who actually empathizes with the universal aspects of the female struggle?
But, like any complex character, Pope has a weakness. It’s the same weakness we’re used to seeing in female characters otherwise portrayed as tough and independent: a man. Turns out she does have a soft spot, and it’s for the president, who fostered a secret relationship with her and now that she’s out of the White House has found another woman to bang. He also forces her into an embrace and kiss after she tells him repeatedly not to touch her, so there’s a solid dose of non-consensual sexual aggression, too. Again, why can’t we have a female character whose strength does not come out of hyper-masculine destruction and whose weakness has nothing to do with some dreamy man who is actually a total doucher? How many times have we seen this shit?
Then, the gay storyline emerges. The firm is working on helping a famed conservative politician prove that he didn’t kill his wife despite apparent evidence that he did. As they frantically search for evidence of his alibi they discover that he was with a male lover that night when they come across some security camera footage. Naturally, that means that he is totally gay! Now, we’ve seen something like this storyline many times before. One character is secretly gay, a straight character finds out based on some small incident that actually doesn’t reveal the way in which a person identifies (because only a person telling you how they identify can do that), and drama ensues. Given that Olivia Pope is the knight in shining armor of this show, I immediately knew what was to come.
They battle it out – Pope and her colleagues try to persuade him that coming out as gay is a better fate than life in prison, even for an ex-military conservative leader, but the man refuses, eventually giving himself over to police. The persuading continues, and after Pope delivers the clincher, “This is who you are… Let us help you,” he finally concedes. The episode ends with a dramatic and emotional scene in which the man comes out in a press conference.
Sure, it’s nice that they included a queer character, but that’s just not enough anymore. First of all, I’m over straight characters being the ones who control queer characters’ coming out processes. When Finn forced Santana out of the closet on Glee I was equally miffed. This man was willing to spend his entire life in prison for killing his wife rather than come out, and all Pope has to do is claim that by watching some grainy security footage of him kissing a dude that she knows he loves him and he folds like a cheap suit. What? Give the man some autonomy. Give his experiences some credit. Give the queer community the credit and respect it deserves.
In short, while I can tell that this show was trying to be progressive and subversive, it was far from it. The strong female character is stereotypically catty and gets off on making other women feel self-conscious. And her only weakness is a man. The gay storyline makes the straight people into heroes who save the sad, closeted gay man. I’ve seen it all before, and I’m over it. I’m ready for some strong female characters who are body-positive, sex-positive, and kind to other women. I’m ready for some gay characters who either get help from other queer characters or, get ready for this, find themselves and their sexualities without a superhero straight person scooping them up and saving them from the closet. Is that really so much to ask for?