Essayist Max S. Gordon Takes Another Deep Look Inside ABC's 'Scandal'
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“These movies are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we can bear. They also weaken our ability to deal with the world as it is, ourselves as we are.”
-James Baldwin, Mass Culture and the Creative Artist: Some Personal Notes
“She wakes up early every morning, just to do her hair now.
Because she cares y’all.
Her layout wouldn’t be right without her make-up. She’s never out of make-up.
She’s just like you and me, but she’s homeless. She’s homeless.
As she stands there singing for money."
-Crystal Waters, Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)
(This essay includes spoilers for the television show 'Scandal,' and descriptions of graphic violence.)
On a recent episode of ABC’s evening television show Scandal, a semi-regular character, ex-chief-of-staff Elizabeth North, played with a chic, slightly ribald gusto by Portia De Rossi, is murdered by having her brains beaten out. (We know this because the camera pulls back and reveals her beaten-out brains.)
This occurs after an episode in which a guest character, an assassin named Meg, is tortured for information concerning another character’s whereabouts. Meg lies on the floor naked, surrounded by blood, a drill, and other bits of torture paraphernalia, wrapped in plastic with a piece of duct tape across her mouth. The image recalls the 2004 images of torture from Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. Quinn, one of Olivia Pope Associates and Meg’s torturer, tells her: “Everyone talks eventually. You’re going to talk. I just haven’t hit the right nerve.” Meg’s leg is punctured, a “Nightmare on Elm Street” rake is run down the side of her face, and one of her fingers is cut off with a pair of weed-cutters and lifted for her to see (“Was it this finger that pulled the trigger when you shot my friend?”). She responds, still sassy: “No wonder Huck loved me instead of you”, and spits in her interrogator’s face.
Quinn, in a moment of jealousy and pique, slices Meg’s throat and kills her. When she returns to the office, Olivia, DC ‘fixer’ and the star of the show, reacts not in horror at Meg’s murder, but with annoyance. “Did it feel good?” she asks. “Hope so. Because (now) we have no leads.” Quinn walks away sulking, embarrassed by her lack of control. But true to Scandal’s narrative style, any remorse she feels evaporates with the next plot development.
In an earlier episode of this season entitled “Extinction”, Rowan Pope, Olivia’s father, is extorted by a high-powered agency which threatens to kill the love of his life, a black paleontologist named Sandra, if he doesn’t follow their orders. As Sandra stands by awaiting her fate, Rowan turns around, pulls out a gun, and, after a monologue about how he isn't going to "pick their cotton and shine their shoes", blows Sandra away himself. (Killing a black woman liberates him.) Rowan has informed us earlier of his credo on relationships: “Anyone you love, anyone who’s close to you, is a weakness”. With Sandra’s corpse in the background, Rowan tells the evil agency duo, “I have no weaknesses. No one owns me.” One of the agency thugs, Marjorie, appears slightly impressed: “I gotta give it to you. I did not see that one coming.”
Neither did I, but I should have. In 2014 I wrote a piece entitled, “Modern Day Jezebels: Why I Am No Longer Watching ABC’s Scandal and why the Lena Dunham Episode was Fucked Up.” In that episode, "It's Good To Be Kink", Lena Dunham, playing a EPA chemist/writer named Kinky Sue, is shopping a roman-à-clef on Washington’s most powerful men. Near the conclusion of the episode, Quinn and Huck arrive at Sue's apartment as she is being held at knifepoint. They rescue her, Quinn calms her hysteria, and for reasons too contrived and convoluted to bother going into here, Huck cuts Sue's throat, fearing the day when she might still talk.
With Sue’s death, Scandal prided itself on another “shocking moment”. I, however, vowed at the time that that was my last episode. I guess this makes me a hypocrite and a liar, because I started watching again soon after “to see what happened next.” Continuing to watch a TV series you hate can be a bit like compulsively masturbating: you don’t necessarily want to do it, but you’re at home, it’s there, and after a while it’s become a habit.
The excuse I gave myself is that I had to see how the Dunham/Kinky Sue plot was resolved, and if there was any grief over her death. There was none. In fact, the opposite: after discussing how sexually free Sue was (but still a whore), Pope associate and press secretary Abby Whelan and her boyfriend Leo decide to get their “Last-Tango-in-Paris” on, and run to the kitchen to get some butter - a recipe from Sue's tell-all sex book. Olivia brings home what may be her first a one-night stand. On the soundtrack, we hear Aretha Franklin's "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)".
So I guess Scandal won: I kept watching, which is what ratings are all about. And I can’t blame anyone but myself for the “hangover” I had this week after watching Lizzy North’s murder and the latest torture scenes; the same crummy feeling of despair that I had back in 2015. The feeling I’m trying to describe is what you experience, if you have any conscience at all, when you’ve stumbled online across pornography that is particularly degrading and violent. I avoid violent porn on principle - hooray for me - but I have watched some domination and submission videos in past. Internet porn covers a vast, rangy terrain, and every now and then a pop-up site or an anonymous video is posted where someone goes too far, where you suspect the person you are watching may be in actual pain. Depending how far one is willing to descend into the shadows of that nefarious tunnel, I suspect we are all aware that there are images and videos to be found online that cross lines of morality and legality, depending on where one chooses to draw the line.
With Scandal, it is the show's creator Shonda Rhimes’ and the writers’ “triumph” that they have taken the “vibe” or lurid thrill of hardcore pornography, and its dissociative quality, and turned it into compulsively watchable mainstream TV. And it’s not the violence that distinguishes Scandal; there are plenty of shows with murder and mayhem. It’s the way in which murder and ruthlessness are treated like fashion accessories, or part of some “bad-ass” finishing school. Torturing people makes you “fierce.” Quinn, for example, a somewhat hapless loser in the early seasons of the show, finds her purpose when she tortures - she has a talent for it. Her initiation into torture comes from her colleague Huck. Believing at one point that Quinn may be a traitor, Huck tortures Quinn, licking her face (torture turns Huck on) and pulling out one of her teeth with a pair of pliers. Quinn, a character once despised by many Scandal fans, becomes sexier and more confident after this plot development. She also begins a sexual relationship with Huck. When they are getting it on, she only once refers to the pain from her missing tooth. (Huck had planned to take out all her teeth - "it's very effective, the pain of having your teeth ripped from your gums, one by one" - but he was interrupted by a phone call.)
After watching six seasons of Scandal, I can say with confidence there is barely a single character on the show who has not committed murder. And not murder as self-defense, but as a career move. Olivia Pope beats a man in a wheelchair to death because he calls her some bad names, and Fitzgerald Grant, the President of the United States, murders a Supreme Court justice on life-support to keep her from telling a secret. The character Jake Ballard kills Cyrus Bean’s lover James at point-blank range, Sally Langston kills her homosexual husband Daniel, and on and on. I am at a lost to describe one relationship on the show which is not fueled by pathology. In one of the last episodes of this season, Olivia fights to save her father from prison, which is surprising, given the number of times she has asked other characters to kill him for her, and the time when she pulled a gun on him herself. Olivia Pope’s mother, whom we haven’t seen in a while, escapes from prison by chewing her own flesh.
To read these plots points here, one might imagine a show that, if presented in an over-the-top, Grand Guignol style, might be so ridiculous it would fall into the genre of horror/comedy - everybody killing everybody. But Scandal has very little humor. It takes itself and its lead character very seriously; and, finally, its brutality and gore, and the sour feeling you are left with, make it almost impossible to laugh at. Olivia Pope, with her puritanical, patrician aura, is presented to us as heroic, a role model, a “bad bitch”. Shonda never misses an opportunity to remind us that Olivia wears the “white hat” and that her team of associates are “gladiators”. At home we intuitively know we are watching a successful black woman dissociated from her emotional life as the result of trauma. The show, however, tells us that her coldness in all her relationships is due to her “determination”, “fearlessness”, and “power”.
It is also exasperating that Scandal never comes clean about the fact that Olivia Pope is a black woman working for Republicans. Or what the show calls Republicans: Mellie Grant gives a speech on abortion and reproductive rights that would make any radical feminist proud; the Grant White House supports chief-of-staff Cyrus Bean’s gay marriage (to a man he originally hired as a male prostitute). Never does Olivia Pope watch President Grant cut funding for Head Start, or school lunch programs, or argue against affirmative action. And because Olivia has no black sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents - she is her own black satellite floating alone in the D.C. stratosphere - we never get a speech in which she has to grapple with what a real Republican adminstration does to the black population. The show destroys whatever political credibility it might have by only briefly addressing this, but the bottom line is that if Mellie and Fitz behaved as “real” Republicans, if we actually considered that Olivia used her power to disenfranchise black voters, and what that meant historically, we’d consider Olivia a degraded sell-out. Scandal recently ran an episode called “The Decision” on what might have happened if Olivia Pope hadn’t agreed to use voter fraud to get President Grant elected. What was most fascinating was that, within Scandal’s universe, if you don’t chose ruthlessness and murder, you end up with the alternative - working a low-paying job with “fucked-up” (natural) hair.
Rhimes takes this shit cake of political denial, and lavishly frosts it with the soul music of black artists from the Sixties and Seventies with a special emphasis on the music of Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder. I have written about it before, but never has it been as pronounced as of late, and I believe it deserves to be commented on again. I find it particularly curious that Rhimes won’t go near obnoxious Eighties Steve Wonder (“Part Time Lover”, “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, “Don’t Drive Drunk”), but insists on taking music from Stevie’s most inspired, beautiful periods, when his writing was at its most profound. No one feels anything for anyone on Scandal, so Rhimes plays Simone and Wonder to close the emotional gaps. The main reason I have to stop watching Scandal is this: as someone who grew up during the years when Stevie Wonder was creating that music, I am beginning to associate songs like “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” not with family reunions, black children dancing for grown-ups at parties, and childhood sunshine, but with Olivia Pope’s dysfunction relationship with her father, and with torture. I am being a little facetious when I say I don’t know if Stevie has seen the show, but someone from Stevie’s camp, and from Nina’s, has given their approval for these songs to be used. Whoever the culprits are, it’s a defilement and desecration of black art. Torture if you want to, but find artists who share your sadistic message: please leave Nina and Stevie alone. As usual, the best of black culture is treated like something in the free bin at a yard sale; handled, rummaged through, and discarded. The justification, as always, is simple: we all know that permission to use music in television and movies is expensive. Somebody, somewhere is getting paid.
Stevie sings, “Isn’t She Lovely?” and you’re thinking, No, she’s not. She might have been in the first couple of seasons, but now Olivia Pope’s a mess: she’s a victim, she’s a murderer, she’s out of her ever-loving black mind. (At one point, Scandal has Olivia kidnapped and put on the international auction block like a slave, sold to the highest bidder.) During the period of music Rhimes has chosen, Stevie sings songs like “Big Brother”, “Higher Ground”, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ”, “Living For The City”; poetry, compassion, and politics with a lyricism and courage which the show can’t even begin to approach. And it’s not only the violence and politics on Scandal that are funky: the show has now introduced an FBI director, a black woman named Angela, whom Fitz is sleeping with - his black female “side-piece” until Liv returns to him, or perhaps to humiliate her. We’ll never know, because Liv seems numb to everything and everyone around her. There is no love or chemistry in this new relationship. Fitz looks as if he is sleeping with the White House tour-guide. We never get a scene in which Olivia cusses him out for replacing her with another black girlfriend, and the Scandal writers clearly don’t care what this “jungle feverish” choice of Fitz’s does to our already tenuous rapport with him. It’s just another Scandal plot-point, to make us drop everything and run to Twitter to congratulate the show again for “shocking” us.
I asked a friend: if Scandal were put in a time-capsule for the year 3000, what would it tell anyone of the truth about black lives, or for that matter, white lives? Which begs the question: what is the responsibility of the black artist? Do Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, co-creator of American Horror Story - and I include him in this this conversation as a gay man - have any responsibility other than simply to entertain, to make money for themselves? If you don’t think they do, then you may find this essay intolerable. Nina Simone told us in the Sixties that “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” That doesn’t mean that every black story has to be 12 Years A Slave, mind you. But as black artists and gay artists so rarely have the power of a Shonda Rhimes or a Ryan Murphy, one could argue that they have a responsibility in their mainstream shows to deal with at least some of what it means to be oppressed in this country. (At the same time, one suspects that if they did tell the truth, they wouldn’t have shows in the mainstream.) Perhaps they have no responsibility at all, but if they aren’t going to tell the truth, do they have to make things worse by promulgating the lie?
So we get from Murphy an extended scene on American Horror Story: Hotel in which a gay man - a narcissistic, entitled sissy and heroin addict - is brutally raped by a man wearing a metal dildo in the shape of a "twist" drill while another character says, "The more you scream, the more he likes it" and stares (this was when I stopped watching), and we get explicit torture from a black creator, Rhimes, who is herself the descendant of tortured slaves. I will continue to regret, and will forever be able to unsee, Kathy Bates, an actress I have greatly admired, playing real-life slaveholder Delphine LaLaurie graphically torturing an older black man on American Horror Story: Coven. (I could have used for that series at least some of the empathy which Murphy has brought to this year’s Feud.) It is almost as if artists from oppressed groups are saying to themselves: “You think you know how to torture? We’ll show you how to torture!” It was the argument used to justify the misogyny in some of Madonna’s work in the Eighties: if someone was going to exploit women, at least this time it was a woman and not a man making money from it - even when she harmed herself, when the stunt and media hype around the book Sex, for example, overwhelmed the reception of the great music on Erotica.
Perhaps the violence on Scandal wouldn’t matter - “that’s entertainment”, as they say - if it weren’t for the fact that Steve Stephens the “Facebook Killer” recently live-streamed his murder of an innocent man before his own suicide. The video was passed around on the internet, with fascination and horror, until finally his family members begged the public to appreciate that the victim was not just an image on a screen, but their father, their grandfather, Robert Godwin, Sr. Weeks before this incident, there was a report about a 15-year-old girl gang-raped in a basement in Chicago, her violation also live-streamed on Facebook. News sources reported that not one of the 40 people who watched the stream bothered to interrupt their viewing pleasure to call the police.
Some people get really pissed off when you challenge successful black artists, especially when they are making serious money. Rhimes, like Pope, is seen as a hero, credited with “saving a network”, and has even published an inspirational book. And if that is the bottom line, as it so often is in this country, then I imagine that within that paradigm she deserves to be congratulated. But the fact is, given the images in which Scandal traffics, it isn't that hard to keep people watching. We are a society addicted to titillation, and we constantly need more aggressive and cruel forms of violence to get off. If it is just a matter of getting people to watch, we all know that a group of children may stand around while one child tortures an animal, we know the thrill that used to come from the school playground when someone shouted “Fight!”. Cars slows down past a traffic fatality, not out of pity, but morbid curiosity. And morbidity is part of what this show is selling. Adults may be able to navigate these choppy emotional waters: pre-teens and children, who, I can assure you, are watching, may find themselves bewildered by the cruelty, confused by the lack of grief or even of acknowledgement of the loss of human life. Their “hangovers” after watching the show will last longer and the damage will be more severe. The evidence of their cynicism and psychopathology will be found in the next school, mall, or church shooting. We'll ask ourselves with horror, didn't they feel anything for the people they killed? The answer is they probably felt about the same thing that Quinn felt for Meg when she tortured her to death, or that Huck felt for Sue when he cut her throat.
I feel powerless over the appeal of Scandal. And while I believe in the power of criticism, I know that what I’ve written here probably won’t make a damn bit of difference to Rhimes, ABC’s revenue, or the fans who extol the show’s virtues on social media. I’ve been a fan myself. But I would like to offer this writing for the media course which will one day evaluate Scandal as a social phenonmenon, to discuss what Americans were watching in 2017; and to acknowledge that we have a man currently in the White House (a Scandal and American Horror Story of an entirely different kind) who claimed on the campaign trail that he supports torture, even the forms we had decided were inhuman and violated international law. And I’m frightened, because when torture is depicted regularly on “prime time” television, in American homes and on ABC’s website with such banality, we may say to ourselves, “Well, she just got her finger cut off and she’s still talking back. So President Trump wants more torture to protect us - how bad can it really be? I watch Scandal.” While I wasn't entirely convinced at first, Hulu's recently released The Handmaid's Tale has a scene of interrogation and violence in its third episode so horrifying it snapped me awake emotionally to what is at stake for me as a gay man in our society if I don't resist; what is happening to queer people right now in many parts of the world. It also helped me to appreciate what is truly missing from Scandal - a honest relationship to pain.
The female body, and specifically the transgender female body, is in serious peril in our culture. After Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Nate Parker and Casey Affleck, we still can’t seem to have an honest conversation about male sexual violence and assault in this country (although the firing of Bill O’Reilly may be a wonderful place to start). Scandal prides itself on its black female lead and black female creator - unprecedented in the industry. And yet, while men are killed on Scandal from time to time, it seems that women are disproportionately murdered, and, in increasingly gruesome ways, for our viewing entertainment - dismembered. Nothing new about that. On Scandal people walk down hallways in amazing outfits with expensive handbags, shouting monologues at each other, backstabbing each other. I suppose you could say to the show’s credit that the women are as ruthless, sometimes even more so, than the men, the gay people are assholes just like the straight people. Equal opportunity sadism. It may seem fabulous, and the scenes go by at a rush, hardly giving us time to reflect; but what we are really watching in our culture at this time is the erosion of compassion, at a time when we need it most. The evidence, if you look for it, is only a news headline away: an Asian man, bloody and screaming, is forcibly removed from an oversold flight, a Sikh man is shot in Seattle and told to go back to his own country, two inmates are put to death in the first double execution in Arkansas in seventeen years.
If I were to meet Scandal’s creator, I think I would like to tell her this: in 2017, despite having had a Black incumbent in the White House, and the perceived black respectability that comes from the successes of a Tyler Perry or a Shonda Rhimes, the majority of black people are still, in one way or another, catching hell in America. Anything that coarsens our society’s ability to feel, means a potentially greater attack on the “other” - black, gay, transgender, female. And the society which can torture without remorse or hesitation, which grooves on it, is on its way to fascism. This means that the police officer who pulls your daughter over for speeding may not see her as a human being but as a piece of black “tail”, the agent who interrogates your son may be less interested in justice and more invigorated by his ability to terrify. He may not make any particular connection to these feelings based on the entertainment he’s viewed, and perhaps there aren’t any. But for the “audience” that watched the teenager raped in that Chicago basement, on some level it was just another episode of the ongoing reality series called our lives. There were watchers, but no witnesses. In Scandal, the relationship between popular entertainment, sadistic voyeurism, and torture porn is fully realized, complete. Because when we watch the scenes of torture on Scandal, we're not on Meg's side, we're on Quinn's.
I opened this piece with Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman: She’s Homeless” to show how economical it can be to tell the truth about black life, and to devastate. There is more truth about black experience in America in the opening lines of that song than I’ve found in the entire six years of Scandal combined. Telling the truth isn’t as hard as we think, and sometimes you can even make money from it.
We are out here continuing to have to defend our humanity from people who make decisions daily about whether we will live or die. And while it is arguable that the mainstream culture will never “see” us, or reflect the real truth about our black lives, we need our black artists to throws us life-preservers, Ms. Rhimes, not anchors.
Other essays by Max S. Gordon on NCRM:
"Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence"
"Faggot As Footnote: on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, Can I Get A Witness, and Moonlight"
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