Gender Politics

ABC’s ‘Scandal’: Women in Washington, Political Power, and Holly Petraeus

Alyssa Rosenberg explores how ABC’s “Scandal” mishandles women in Washington and female political power.

Vivian Zink / ABC via Getty Images

Scandal, Shonda Rhimes’s portrait of Washington, D.C., fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)—a character based on real-life crisis-management expert Judy Smith—is meant to be a kind of power fantasy. Olivia is not only one of the few African-American female main characters on both network and cable television, she’s also one with a direct line to the president of the United States. In her cool suits (and sometimes great lingerie), there’s no one she can’t stare down, no scandal she can’t defuse, no trial she can’t undermine, no truth she can’t uncover.

But while it may be fun to imagine being Olivia Pope, particularly for those of us who live and work in Washington, Scandal actually has a remarkably conservative view of what power women have in the nation’s capital, and how we use it. If Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom was about the theory, as NPR’s Linda Holmes put it, that “nothing is more dramatically important than a man becoming great, and men cannot become great without women to inspire, provoke, and drive them,” Scandal explores an almost inverse idea. In Olivia Pope’s Washington, the most potent power a woman has is to destroy men who believe in their own greatness.

Before discussing what women in Rhimes’s Washington do with their days, it’s worth a reminder of how actual powerful women in Washington spend theirs. Five members of Barack Obama’s cabinet in his first term were women, and they served in roles deeply concerned with American security and the economy. As secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton has helped build a strong Democratic advantage on foreign-policy issues. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has presided over President Obama’s tough, and controversial, deportations of undocumented immigrants. At Health and Human Services, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is responsible for implementing the president’s signature accomplishment and a major expansion of the social safety net: the wholesale restructuring of the health-care system. They alone mean that Washington is no longer, as Nora Ephron wrote in “Crazy Ladies,” her 1973 essay about Washington wives, “a city of men and the women they married when they were young.”

And it moved even further away from that tradition on election night this year. A record 20 women will be serving in the United States Senate come January, thanks to victories by Democrats Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (who will also become the first openly gay person to serve in the U.S. Senate), Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Republican Deb Fischer of Kansas. In the House, new representatives mean that women and people of color will outnumber white men in the Democratic caucus.

Scandal began its run with one such woman in a position of power, President Fitzgerald Grant’s (Tony Goldwyn) vice president, Sally Langston (Kate Burton). But that character, a religious Christian who the more moderate Grant added to his ticket to bring along the conservative wing of his party, has been a minor part of the show, appearing in only three episodes of the first season. Even when she’s present on screen, she’s overshadowed by one of her own aides, who ends up complicit in the death of his pregnant lover. And ultimately, she’s blackmailed out of causing trouble for Fitz to improve her own presidential prospects in a plotline that mined the most predictable beats of conservative hypocrisy: her teenage daughter turned out to have had an abortion. She’s a problem to be contained, rather than a player.

By contrast, Fitz’s wife, Mellie (Bellamy Young), is able to carve out some power for herself in the Grant administration, but only by using her femininity and fertility as public-relations tools. On the campaign trail, she garners sympathy for her husband by suggesting that the coldness in their relationship was the result of a traumatic miscarriage. In the second season, she’s used her pregnancy with “America’s Baby” to push Fitz toward military intervention in an ongoing genocide. What gives her status is exactly what granted the Crazy Ladies in Ephron’s essay the little power they had over their husbands: the ability to continue playing, or to abandon, the role of a good political wife. That the show acknowledges that Mellie is a brilliant woman who had a promising career she put aside to stand by her husband doesn’t make it any more depressing to see her so neutered. Even Michelle Obama gets to do more than decorate a White House nursery.

When Olivia’s firm takes on clients, they are often women with that same ability to destroy the reputations of powerful men, or, as Olivia puts it, "These girls, they come here thinking they're going to change the world and then they get involved with some man." She takes care of Amanda Tanner, a young woman who, like Olivia herself, has had an affair with President Grant, and believes herself pregnant by him. Her team helps steal the records of Sharon Marquette, an influential madam who is trying to keep her client list private. She represents a rapist against a victim who is attempting to make sure he goes to jail for an earlier attack on a dear friend. She helps get justice for a wild young woman murdered by an arrogant diplomat. Olivia and her team even reconcile the wife of a famous civil-rights leader and the mistress the man was having sex with when he died suddenly. Women may not run themselves into much trouble in Washington as Rhimes understands it. But they also remain off to the side much of the time, pulled into the great debates of the day when they have the capacity to humiliate the men who actually participate in them.

Even Olivia, for all that she has President Grant’s ear, does so because she’s both the source of his own potential bombshell—they became lovers on the campaign trail, and he continues to seek her out for late-night conversations, for stolen kisses in the Oval Office and country retreats—and of advice on how to handle sticky situations, to project power, even how to manage his own wife. And even there, Olivia is curiously removed from the actual debates of the day. Though there’s some suggestion that she and Grant have differing political views, the advice she offers him, and the influence she wields, is solely strategic. Like Dick Morris, the political animal in Olivia is a creature solely of the news cycle. She appears to hold no passionate perspectives on the issues, to be animated by no cause other than the call of her own gut and her undeniable attraction to Grant.

And that’s an awfully depressing perspective. In the Washington of Scandal, it’s as if the women who hold high office so they can extend health insurance to the people who need it most, help guide the conduct of our wars, and revitalize our economy, never existed. As she moves forward with the show’s second season, Rhimes might do well to consider Holly Petraeus, the wife of former CIA director General Petraeus, whose affair with his biographer, uncovered during an FBI investigation, would make him a prime candidate to become one of Olivia’s clients. Mrs. Petraeus may be a woman wronged, but she also has an important job with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, helping protect military families from frauds and scams. He had an affair. But she still has the ability to make a difference.