Once again, we see a prime time television show take on sexual assault as a story line. In a recent episode of Scandal entitled, “Everything Coming Up Mellie,” the First Lady, Mellie Grant, recounts a rape at the hands of her father-in-law in a series of flashbacks. Up to this point, Mellie’s character has been portrayed as rather cold and detached. She is not a well-loved character on the show and tends to stop at nothing to get her way. This episode, and the sexual assault in particular, may have been the writers’ way of developing Mellie’s character and soliciting empathy for her. Some might walk away from this episode believing they now understand why Mellie acts the way she does. It would be easy to conclude that she is cold and detached as a result of her trauma seeing as how she never shared what happened or sought treatment. This scene left me wondering why we need an explanation for how a woman is powerful, ambitious, and will stop at nothing to get her way. These are all characteristics we cheer for in male characters, but these same features in a woman tend to elicit labels such as cold, conniving, or bitchy. Why can’t we have a strong female character without requiring a backstory of difficulty to explain it?
Another major aspect of the situation is Mellie’s silence about the assault. Earlier in the episode we see another flashback where her husband’s chief advisor, Cyrus, counsels Mellie that she needed to leave her position as a partner at a law firm in order to focus all of her time in her new role as a political wife. Not only was she told to quit her job but also that her suggestion of volunteering her time to various charities was vetoed as she was informed all her time needed to be spent supporting her husband in any way necessary. This set the tone for her to not only bury the trauma but to use it as a means to get her father-in-law to support her husband in his bid for governor. The message this sends is that women are expected to put their needs on hold in order to meet the needs of their husbands. It illustrates that the preferred way to handle such situations, especially in people and families where image is valued above the individual, is to be silent while you endure. Sexual assault is already substantially underreported with almost 60% of rapes going unreported according to the Justice Department in the National Crime Victimization Survey: 2008-2012 and we don’t need any more cultural reminders to remain silent.
Within a few episodes of the show, I recognized a pattern of forcefulness in the sexual relationship of President Fitzgerald (Fitz) Grant and the show’s star, Olivia Pope. There are countless scenes where Olivia is obviously conflicted about their relationship, and when Fitz initiates sexual contact, she tells him to stop. Almost every time he continues as if she couldn’t possibly mean it and as if he could win her over by pushing her further. There was one instance in particular where Fitz and Olivia are in an elevator, and he is drunk. He starts kissing her, she tells him to stop and pushes him away, but he refuses to quit. The door opens, and Mellie is standing there. She automatically ascertains that Fitz is pressuring Olivia and is quick to apologize for his behavior without even considering they may also be having an affair. It makes sense that she would read the situation from the lens of her own experience when her father in law had too much to drink and sexually assaulted her. Their relationship is set as the one fans are generally cheering for in the show. Thus, the message conveyed to viewers is that a man shows his love by being a pursuer that does not back down until he wins the girl, and that a woman should play hard to get–but ultimately, what she wants is the man. It reinforces the idea that the word “no” does not carry enough weight to be honored.
Lastly, the lack of trigger warning before the episode or referral to programs for anyone needing support afterwards was noted. The rape scene was very graphic and could be triggering to survivors. There was much debate online about the necessity of such a vivid, detailed assault. Many people felt that it was gratuitous and unnecessary while others felt that it was useful, because it showed the spectrum of starting to fight, the realization that she could not stop him, and her resignation to herself about what was about to happen, and finally a dissociative expression on her face. While I think the depiction was an accurate picture of rape, I do not think that much detail was necessary. Watching her go into their bedroom after the assault disheveled and visibly distressed and then telling Fitz multiple times she wants to take a shower before going to bed, adequately portrays the trauma of the situation. Again, however, we see her put her husband’s needs above her own when she gives in to his insistence that she come directly to bed. As she lies in his arms, she is visibly crying and trembling and Fitz is verbalizing his concerns with his father and his desire to quit politics while being completely oblivious to his wife’s distress. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, the show addresses this situation in future episodes. I hope this isn’t the last we hear about this situation. Now that it is in the story line, I would like to see them realistically weave the assault into Mellie’s character. Hopefully, they will seek support from advocates to help the integration be pragmatic and ultimately positive for viewers healing from their own trauma.
Identifying and discussing examples of rape culture and misogyny is vital in order to create a future that includes empowerment of women as equal to men and is free of sexual violence. These messages are implicit throughout society, and it can be easy to overlook them as status quo. It won’t be until these messages are universally evaluated as problematic that we will start seeing systemic change.