I had been toying around with making a blog post about Scandal for a while now, but within the past week or so I was convinced that I needed to get some thoughts out about it. It was a culmination of things I’ve been seeing/hearing concerning Scandal, negative sentiments over the last two seasons.
I decided to make this post in the most unlikely way — after watching a makeup tutorial. I was watching a chatty get ready makeup video by YouTube beauty blogger KathleenLights. About two-thirds of the way through it (around 9:00), she asks her viewers if they had seen the finale of How to Get Away with Murder (which aired March 17). She talks about her reaction to the finale, and then quickly mentions how she’s officially “done” with Scandal. She says it’s time for the show to end and that she’s over Olivia Pope, who in her opinion has become a “stone cold bitch.”
I would have ignored her comment — if it wasn’t something I have been hearing so much lately. My mother is similarly as bored with Scandal as KathleenLights is, and has been since season four (Scandal is now in its fifth season). I myself have even gotten bored with the show, which at one time was my #1 favorite television series. But up until the point I watched this video, I disagreed with KathleenLights. To me, Olivia hadn’t been awful enough in season five to warrant the title of Stone Cold Bitch…until this past week’s episode (March 31) that was essentially about Olivia being a Stone Cold Bitch. The conflict of the episode was Olivia’s friends and colleagues worrying that she had taken off her coveted white hat to go to the dark side. But if we consider Olivia in the grand scheme of the television landscape, with anti-heroes at the forefront of almost every major network or cable series, what exactly makes her a Stone Cold Bitch?
I guess I’m wondering, why have fans given up on Scandal, or specifically, Olivia Pope?
Because to me, with the exception of the most recent week’s episode, she is returning to the Olivia that started the series. Formidable, headstrong, and determined. A woman not to be messed with. And fans loved it. But what has changed between season one and now?
Her relationship status.
People could handle Olivia being fiercely strong when she had a man. They could handle her being formidable when she had a weakness. And that weakness was her forbidden lover, the married President Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III. People don’t have a problem with strong women as long as they have a man to neutralize that power, because strong women (in order to maintain some sort of respect, if you can call it that) have to still value socially-imposed feminine ideals, including love and marriage. Olivia, for most of the series up until recently, “had it all” as they say. She was her own boss with a name that made people shudder, and she had a man that loved her.
But with the onset of this season and especially after the winter finale (where she broke things off with Fitz), Olivia for the first time is not in a committed relationship. She doesn’t even have Jake anymore. For the first time, Olivia is not shackled to a man. She no longer has a weakness. She can do what she wants without having to worry about how her actions will affect a man. Olivia’s only priority is running former First Lady Mellie Grant’s campaign, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to win.
And this is where I think Olivia lost many fans, like KathleenLights, who are used to seeing her care about how her actions affect other people, like Fitz or Jake. Olivia no longer cares; she is out to please herself first and foremost. And so she wears the title now of Stone Cold Bitch.
But I don’t like that title. I think we should question that title. In the makeup video, KathleenLights mentioned HTGAWM. No more than one minute before she expressed her disdain for Olivia Pope did she discuss her strange affinity for Frank, a character in HTGAWM that (SPOILER) was responsible for the near-death of protagonist Annalise Keating and the stillbirth of her child as well as the strangling of Annalise’s husband’s pregnant mistress. But yet, KathleenLights can’t help but like him. Why? Why can she sympathize with a man who has murdered but not with a woman who has never committed such a crime? (EDIT/SPOILER: In the next week’s episode, Olivia finally did commit the act of murder.) Why can’t she find likability in a woman who was taken hostage by terrorists and treated as “the other woman” for years?
Perhaps it was Olivia’s casual abortion in the winter finale that turned her cold for fans, even though it was probably the most realistic and non-degrading portrayal of abortion ever on television. In this week’s episode, perhaps it was that Olivia likely drove a man in jail to kill himself. But even in the context of her own show, Olivia isn’t any different from the (male) political animals she rules D.C. with. Cyrus is still more power-hungry and dastardly than Olivia is. Rowan’s darkness is an abyss. Even Fitz once killed a Supreme Court justice with his bear hands. But Olivia, throughout the course of the series and even now, has not come close to being as “stone cold” as the men on her show have.
And if we want to broaden this conversation to TV in general, how many white male anti-heroes have we had in this Second Golden Age of Television? Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano, Dexter, House, almost any male character on Game of Thrones…all of these men committed more than heinous crimes and betrayals on their respective series, yet they were beloved by fans and revered by critics as the most complex characters to ever grace television. On paper, Olivia Pope is still tame compared to the aforementioned men. If fans are seeing her as a “bitch” now, it’s because she is moving away from the morality that has historically centered her and becoming as ruthless in ways we associate with masculinity.
KathleenLights also mentioned she doesn’t like where Scandal is going. And to this I ask, where else do we expect the show to go? Did people really expect Olitz and Mellie to do a three-person tango forever? Were Mellie and Olivia supposed to stay bound to Fitz for the rest of the series? Was Cyrus always supposed to stay Chief of Staff? Was the series only supposed to exist in the 8 years of Fitz’s presidency and not beyond that? The show had to progress in some way. The characters had to evolve in some way. I don’t think there is any other logical way for the series to move other than where it’s going right now.
I will admit Scandal has lost its luster. I hated last season and feel that the writing has gotten kind of sloppy, with storylines inconsistent or forgotten (what happened to Huck talking to his family?). And I do believe Scandal should end after season six. However, I don’t think the show or Olivia are as awful as people have been saying. And I think Shonda Rhimes is breathing new life into Olivia, making her as complicated and messy as we can all be in real life, as difficult as the many male anti-heroes we’ve seen on TV in the last 15 years. I think Scandal has gotten to a point in its run where Shonda doesn’t care whether or not we like it. And for me, that’s when we should pay attention, because that’s when gutsiest writing can happen.