Essayist Max S. Gordon dares to take a close, hard look at some untouchables in modern TV entertainment.
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“Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.”
King James Bible, Revelations Chapter 2:20-21
“I’m not sorry. It’s human nature. I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.”
Madonna, Human Nature, from the album Bedtime Stories
Warning: This essay contains spoilers from the ABC television series "Scandal" and descriptions of violence.
I admire Olivia Pope. She has her own consulting firm, she’s got a fierce walk and an even fiercer handbag, she’s beautiful, she's black, and she has authority. People respect her and listen to what she has to say. And she’s rich. Life-and-death situations revolve around her, and in the fourth season of Scandal, President Fitzgerald Grant, her on-again, off-again lover is willing to put our country at risk and pay close to a billion dollars to save her after she is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Grant even sacrifices the American military to protect her. Creator Shonda Rhimes seems to be saying something new, however warped, about a black woman’s worth.
After accepting the Ally for Equality award at this year’s Human Rights Campaign Gala in Los Angeles, Rhimes said, “I really hate the word ‘diversity,’ it suggests something…other..or rare…as if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: normalizing. I’m normalizing TV…Making TV look like the world looks.”
I was inspired by Rhimes’ words when I read them, and found her response impressive. But what is also being normalized on Scandal, in addition to multiculturalism, gender politics and sexual identity, is torture. And like Olivia’s handbag, her walk, and her "bone-straight" hair, torture is made to appear “fierce”, “fabulous”, something badasses must do from time to time to get the job done. One of Rhimes’ characters, Huck, has acknowledged he is addicted to it, "It's horrible, and it's sickening, and just when you can't take any more it gets fun", and another, Quinn, was, at one time, deeply fascinated and then eventually turned on by it. In the Washington world Scandal inhabits, torture is just one of the tricks of the trade. In Quinn's case, in particular, being tortured and torturing became the rite-of-passage to her personal empowerment, as her character transformed from an annoying, insecure outsider disliked by fans in the first and second seasons, to a woman now sexier, experienced, and bold. Even Olivia Pope herself had a man shanked in prison to get some information she needed.
In our recent wars, America was exposed on the world stage, despite our denials or stated intentions, as a country that engages in torture. So it may be disingenuous to have a TV show about D.C. insider politics that doesn’t at least allude to torture. Perhaps there are those watching who believe Scandal is brave for making us face, and on a major network, what has been hidden in our cultural shadow.
Scandal tortures, almost gleefully at times, but it rarely deals with torture's consequences. In a recent episode, Huck threatens to kill the daughter of Elizabeth North, Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, because Lizzy is involved in Olivia's kidnapping. When Lizzy isn't able to get the information Huck demands, he tortures her. In an extraordinary sequence, we watch Lizzie lower her blouse for the First Lady, revealing the scars where Huck has whipped her skin raw and bloody. Although the violence takes place off-screen, the scars recall depictions of torture during slavery – Sethe showing Paul D. the “tree” on her back from the whipping ordered by the sadistic slavemaster "Schoolteacher" in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Episodes later, North is back in the office, business as usual. This contrasts with the real life experience of Denetria Council, a Brooklyn woman isolated and tortured for seventeen days by her jealous boyfriend, Jason Page in 2009. Council, who has physical scars that will remain on her body for the rest of her life, shared in a television interview, “I still have nightmares to this day, I have trust issues with guys, I know it is going to take some time for me to handle...how to deal with that day by day.” What does it mean when Scandal's creator, a black woman, seems to advocate the use of torture as a way of titillating her viewing audience?
Faithful viewers may recall last season when Huck tortured Quinn for her betrayal of Olivia. The scene plays out in real time, as we watch Quinn whimper, her mouth covered with duct tape, while Huck methodically sets up his tools. Huck tells Quinn, "Peeling off the skin can be beautiful, or removing fingers, toes, I like the feeling of a toe being separated from a foot. I'm disappointed in you, Quinn. You've been a bad girl...Before we start, I just want to say, I'm sorry…because I'm going to enjoy this, I'm going to love it and I don't want to." Huck then licks Quinn's face. He promises not to kill her but tells her he's going to start with her teeth. "It's very effective, the pain of having your teeth ripped from your gums one by one with a pair of pliers. It's special." When he takes the duct tape off, Quinn begs him to stop. Huck puts a bit in her mouth and as she screams, extracts two of her teeth.
I guess one could say, “We’ve come a long way, Baby” when it comes to violence on television. Scandal is a prime time American television show that airs during the most coveted time slot: 9:00 pm. (Scandal comes on an hour later than The Brady Bunch did in the Seventies.) We have to assume, as this is only one hour later than the "family viewing hour", that children are watching.
Soon after their torture scene, Quinn and Huck, to the dismay of many fans, began a sexual relationship. As of this writing, they are just friends, although lines about torture are occasionally delivered for comic relief, reminding us that, while now forgiven, Huck did once rip out Quinn’s teeth. She doesn’t seem resentful, just a little irritated, as you are with a friend who shows you his new watch, and who still owes you fifty bucks.
I, as I imagine many fans do, forgive Scandal for a lot because we want to watch a powerful black woman on television kicking ass. We forgive, for example, corny phrases like “wearing the white hat”, “we’re Gladiators”, “I want to stand in the sun with you,” that are used ad nauseam. We forgive the fact that often a character can't just say, “Pass the salt, please” without a three-minute disquisition on the origins of “salt” and “please”; or that Guillermo Diaz and Jeff Perry, both talented actors, have had their characters wound up so tightly that they are forced into hyperbolically bad acting. Diaz's Huck, eyes bugged out, seems like one of Jim Henson’s Muppets just off a four-day meth binge, and one hopes there is a cardiologist on call when Perry has one of Cyrus' "Wrath of Zeus" tantrums. Joe Morton, once brilliant as Olivia Pope’s father Rowan, could always be counted on for aggressive, truth-telling “reads” (his monologue delivered to a bewildered Fitz was deeply satisfying to anyone who's been on the other side of white male privilege, or encountered an annoying college frat boy). Now Morton’s great gift has become tiresome from overuse, so that when he opens his mouth and cocks his head slightly, you groan, knowing that what comes next will be delivered in the patented, choppy, run-on-Scandal cadence. (At its worst, Scandal is a show where people run around shouting monologues at each other.) We may even appreciate the irony that Columbus Short, who played Harrison, was rightfully fired for violence in his personal life from a show that often seems to revel in it.
But what Scandal does well, it does very well, and its pace can be thrilling. And it knows that it has to raise the stakes to keep us interested, and find new ways to shock us. We like being shocked, especially when we think we are watching how the political game works from the viewpoint of an insider. It's also great to see black people, gay people and women, in power and on the TV screen. But at what cost? Scandal, at times, seems to be having an identity crisis, and I often wonder if the audience who comes for the story of the two star-crossed lovers Fitz and Olivia, really wants to Quinn torture a man with a power drill or Olivia's mother, Maya Pope, chew through her own wrist to escape a high-security prison. With its mix of political intrigue, romance and extreme graphic violence, Scandal isn't sure if it wants to be Primary Colors, The Way We Were or Saw IV.
In his December 12, 2013 piece, "Scandal and Torture Don't Mix Well" Ian Crouch wrote of Scandal, "...torture is presented as the way that all high-value information is extracted...the show relies on the audience’s reflexive cynicism—on the sense that torture is just part of the intelligence-community playbook and, moreover, that it generates useful information at all, despite fervent arguments from many in the intelligence community that the practice produces nothing but desperate noise. This casual, unthinking presentation of torture is just the oddest example of the show’s ultimately flat, almost dissociative affect. As each episode attempts to increase the shock value, every event—murder, rape, the erosion of civil liberties, the vicious practices of torture itself—becomes just another juicy 'scandal.'" A friend of mine considered its deeper political implications, "What are they desensitizing us for in the future and why?"
I’ve promised to quit Scandal twice: once after Quinn's torture, and during a recent episode when, prior to Olivia's suggesting to her kidnappers that she be sold into slavery (!), the President, in a voice-over, sentimentalizes the deaths of soldiers killed in a bogus war he created to ensure Olivia's return. We watch as the First Lady consoles bereaved family members, standing beside their coffins draped with American flags. I imagined the families of actual soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and thought the scene deeply offensive, mixing authentic grief with Scandal's sensationalist tone. When I looked online I found very little criticism, if any, of this scene. I imagine it was forgiven, as are many of Scandal's transgressions, with the arrival of a new plot twist. I gave the show a final chance with Lena Dunham’s episode entitled, "It's Good To Be Kink". This time I won't be back.
Lena Dunham plays a woman named Sue who has written a roman à clef about several men in political power and their sexual proclivities. One of the men in her book, Washington Fix-It Man Leo Bergen, is Abby Whelan's boyfriend. (Abby, the White House press secretary, is a "gladiator" who used to work for Olivia.) Olivia goes to Sue's apartment as a favor to Abby, and assures Sue that, if published, her book will ruin the lives of the men she's written about. Sue, in braided pigtails, overeager and naïve, tells Olivia that she needn't worry, that she used code names for each man. Leo, we find out, is the “Dustbuster” - the term for a man who likes a woman, particularly a heavy one, to sit on his face, while he punches her in the gut and gets her to fart on him. (There is another definition for dustbusting that involves a man's penis and cocaine, but as Abby begins the episode repeated telling Leo how disgusting he is, and then begs Olivia not to look at her when she asks for her help - this isn't the one.) Olivia Pope assures Sue that clever journalists will easily figure out who the men are in a number of hours and promises to destroy her if she goes forward with publishing the book.
Sue later arrives at Olivia’s office in china-doll wig, heels and handbag (she’s transformed herself into the white Olivia Pope), and says she’s reconsidered her offer. She will still drop the book, but she now wants three million dollars. When Olivia reminds her that if she publishes the book the world will call her a whore, Dunham’s Sue gets a trademarked “Shondalogue” of her own, reminding her of the Olivia Pope legend and why she’s disappointed by her reaction.
(I’m not a Lena Dunham fan. I watched an episode of Girls, and found I didn’t trust the tone. Later, I was uncomfortable with an excerpt I read from Dunham's book describing her sexual relationship with her sister. Was this a serious exploration of sexuality in families and abuse, or was her story being offered as something courageous, shocking the reader while congratulating Dunham for being sexually “fearless”? Scandal uses the Dunham "legend" as a lazy shorthand for the character of Sue.)
Yet, despite my reservations, I am impressed with Dunham’s Sue. Dunham is heavier than most female stars in Hollywood, including most of the female cast of Scandal, and her size makes her character seem vulnerable. Something subversive is suggested by having Sue, who is not conventionally beautiful, be sexually empowered and unapologetic when confronted about her sexuality. Olivia, exasperated, tells Sue she is only trying to protect her.
“Protect me?” Sue replies with disgust. “That’s awful. I thought you’d be brave. I thought you’d be adventurous, fearless, sexy, confident. But instead you’re just this dried-up prude, who instead of celebrating the fact that I fully own my body, and use it however I want, with whomever I want, as many times and as many kinky ways as I want, you’re shaking your finger at me? You’re telling me to be afraid of what name someone’s going to call me just ‘cause I have the audacity to have too much great sex, as if picking up a hot stranger in a bar for a dirty screw is a crime? What happened to you? Where did your power go? When did you become so afraid of life? I’m not ashamed. This is my life, my body, my story to sell or tell. Anyway, it’s all I’ve got now. Hey, so go ahead and call me a whore. Everyone who writes a memoir is a whore. You can also call me an author, an artist, a businesswoman. You can call me smart, and pretty soon you can call me successful."
When Sue walks out of the office, designer bag on her arm, my first thought was, “That was sort of amazing!” And my next thought was, “I wonder how they are going to punish her for that speech.” Because Scandal is considered by many to be a feminist show, it is very important that Sue not pay a price for being sexual, powerful and "queer". In this context, queer isn't necessarily gay, as no female partners are revealed in Sue's sexual history. Queer defines Sue's determination to live her life outside the traditional expectations demanded of her as a woman, something the show purports to celebrate.
Later in the episode, Abby Whelan sits in bed writing her letter of resignation to the White House. She has decided to quit her job because two of the men she has been involved with, Attorney General David Rosen, and now her new boyfriend Leo Bergen, are in Sue’s tell-all sex book. When Leo tells her that it isn't her problem, it's his, Abby gives him a monologue about how there is no difference in the public's eye; that, with the way women are perceived and written about in the press, she might as well be considered "property of Leo Bergen". She catalogues the sexist things she deals with as a public figure that he never will - comments about her weight, her clothes, make-up, and their relationship.
Darby Stanchfield finds the right tone in these moments and can be very moving as an actress. But the logic is faulty. (Scandal often believes that if people talk really fast and with enough gravitas, you won’t actually concentrate to hard on what they are saying.) One wonders why, for example, Abby can't just break up with Leo - who we at home feel is clearly beneath her - or simply weather the storm. We know from previous episodes that she's made of stronger stuff: she stands up to her abusive ex-husband, who tries to intimidate her in an underground parking lot, by pulling a gun on him. Although press secretary to the President of the United States and ex-"gladiator", Abby also seems never to have heard of Hillary Clinton, and has no idea how a powerful woman in politics deals with a man’s transgressions and still maintains her career.
Through a series of contrivances too convoluted to mention, we find out that Sue in 2015 hasn’t written her book on a computer but with an old-fashioned Selectric typewriter, which means there is only one copy of the manuscript. Quinn and Huck trick Sue into going on a date with Charlie, one of Huck’s old partners-in-torture, so they can break into her apartment. When Sue asks Charlie how he wants to torture her and he says he wants to nail her feet to the floor, she’s intrigued and demands to know how. Charlie continues: “I’ll take a nail gun and find a nice soft spot between the bones in your feet.” (High-school English Lit. students, here’s your Christ image.)
As the ludicrous plot grinds along, Scandal cranks up the “hipness” by playing inspired music during its transitions. We get Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame”, the Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip", and finally Marvin Gaye’s "Sexual Healing". The music has an innocence and purity that the show hasn’t earned. We are so busy popping our fingers at home, we forget to be offended by the show's presumption. Scandal uses the pleasant memories that the songs evoke, while giving us new, disturbing associations. The saxophone solo in “Shame” blares in the background while Charlie talks torture come-ons to Sue.
Olivia finds the men in the book and tells them that if they are willing to pay close to two hundred thousand dollars each they can make Sue's book go away. David Rosen, one of Sue's assignations, attends the meeting, and reminds them all that what Sue is doing to them is extortion, and as Attorney General he will prosecute all of them, including Olivia, if they go forward with the deal. (The politicians in the room, male and white, not her contemporaries, are old enough to be Sue's father. The show makes no comment on this.) We later find out that Sue is emotionally wounded, that she's been having wonton sex and writing about it to retaliate against an ex-boss who sexually harassed her. After demanding sex at work which she refused, Sue's ex-boss “blackballed” her in her industry. Sue, as a character, is no longer "sexually empowered" or a "girl who wants to have fun" - she’s a victim trying to get even by punishing the wrong man.
Olivia gets her a lawyer and assures her that her boss will get what’s coming to him. We find out that Sue is actually smart, she has a degree in Chemistry from Swarthmore, which means she didn’t need sex after all to prove her worth. In TV and movie terms, women, and particularly intelligent women, only have anonymous or kinky sex when they are emotionally damaged, or have low self-esteem. Someone on the writing team has been watching Looking For Mr. Goodbar. (Sue's intelligence as a chemist also explains, in TV terms, why she is allowed to be “fat”). Olivia gets Sue job interviews so that she won’t have to write any more tell-alls and can go back to work in her field. Sue is given a chance to return to “respectability”, the woman she was before her fall from grace.
Quinn and Huck arrive at Sue’s apartment for some final business and hear Sue calling for help. She is being held at knifepoint by one of the men featured in her book, who is unaware that Olivia has "fixed" the situation. Huck disarms him and tells him to leave the apartment. "This never happened." Quinn rushes to Sue, who is hysterical, and holds her in her arms. Dismayed that Huck let the man go, Quinn steps away from Sue briefly, as Sue cries with relief. "Thank God you guys were here. Another ten seconds I would have..." Huck turns around, takes the man's knife, and cuts Sue’s throat. Her back is to the camera, but we see her blood splatter and spray across Huck’s face.
Sue’s death is justified by the fact that, according to the plot’s machinations, if she had lived, she might have changed her mind about the tell-all one day, which would have had repercussions for David Rosen, which would have had repercussions for Huck, for Abby, and eventually for Olivia Pope. Despite Huck's reasoning, we as viewers, knowing his history of fetishizing violence, suspect he may still have enjoyed this a little.
We don’t know what Sue feels or thinks in her final moments. Her face isn’t shown when she is first killed, and then we see her fall to the floor, and on her back in a pool of blood. What we do know is that she met Huck when she visited the office in their previous encounter and found him attractive. This earlier scene sexualizes Sue's murder, as Quinn's torture scene was also sexualized. Quinn pauses for a moment, shocked by Huck's actions. Whatever empathy she feels for Sue she turns off as she goes into "professional killer" mode. When Olivia later speaks with Quinn about finding Sue's killer, Quinn reminds her that Abby was Olivia's client, not Sue, and that “Justice for Sue comes at a cost to Abby." Olivia looks resigned, and it is clear: Sue's death will go unavenged.
David Rosen pours his heart out to Huck in a meandering monologue about Sue. He has explained to Abby earlier that he had sex with Sue because “I was dead inside, I needed to "feel”. (Men like David have raunchy sex in order to "feel", women like Sue are just whores.)
“It’s crazy how you feel guilty, dirty,” David says to Huck. “I didn’t do anything wrong, it wasn’t wrong to sleep with her. I didn’t slit her throat…And yet, I still feel dirty, I still feel culpable…I didn’t stand up for her, I didn’t try to help her, a young woman, someone’s daughter…just some girl I called Kinky Sue and treated like a sexual vending machine. I didn’t do anything wrong, but also feel like I didn’t do anything especially right either. Do you know that feeling, do you know what I’m talking about, that sense of guilt over nothing?”
Masturbatory and written by-the-numbers, David’s reflections are completely meaningless, without an ounce of real feeling for Sue. They are meant to placate those of us who are outraged by her death and may not come back next week. David’s monologue is typical, middle-of-the-road, play-it-safe, eleventh-hour Scandal writing, that murky territory in which we are never sure about the show's intention, and therefore won't hold it accountable for its morally dubious plots. Joshua Alston of A.V. Club, whom I’ve quoted before, wrote of Scandal this year, “It’s so entertaining, it takes a while for it to register that [it’s] about a black woman who helps a white Republican president get elected through voter disenfranchisement. Seriously, let that marinate for a minute.”
No woman or man grieves Sue's death. I consider Lena Dunham's monologue in Olivia's office, and my hope at the beginning of the episode, despite cynical expectations, that Scandal was better than killing off the "bad girl". I try and imagine a world where television writers have to go through sensitivity training, the kind that other professionals are required to undergo before they are “unleashed” on the public. A trainer would go to the writer’s room and say: “Now, these are archetypes you may be drawn to from your own screwed-up TV viewing and which we needn’t see any longer. Number one, The Mammy: this is the black woman with a heart of gold who never has an angry word for the white children she works for. Number two, The Black Buck: he sacrifices himself, and/or his needs, or is killed so that white people can learn more about themselves and “grow”. And finally, the "Bad Girl", who is murdered or kills herself by the end of the episode for being sexual without apology, powerful, or same-sex-loving – a Modern Day Jezebel.” I know this scenario is unlikely, but I think we’d end up with more "Murdered Sues" in writers’ wastebaskets, or better yet shouted down in pitch meetings.)
In an ugly final scene, we see Leo and Abby in the aftermath of Sue’s death. Abby mentions what a good writer Sue was, and Leo recalls how Sue wasn’t just “deeply, deeply perverted, but also smart and nice”. He remembers that once when he was sick with the flu, she brought him chicken soup and cough syrup, an act of kindness “in a town full of sharks”. The dialogue here is particularly offensive - it’s not enough to murder Sue, they have to condescend to her memory too. The show wants us to let it off the hook by now making Sue a “slut-saint”.
Abby then brings up Chapter Five in Sue’s book as a particularly racy one. Leo, sensing that Abby is turned on, kisses her. When Abby suggests half-heartedly that Leo show some respect (for the dead), he says, “I think we owe it to Sue. Think about [her]. What would Sue being doing right now if she could?" (The assumption is that Sue was ready for sex, anytime, day or night. It is clearly beyond the writer’s imagination that, had she not been murdered, Sue might have been preparing for her upcoming job interviews.) Abby, now hot and bothered, orders Leo, dominatrix style: “Get down to the kitchen, get your clothes off, get the butter,” to which he replies, “Okay, that sounds filthy, and slippery, and I like it already!”
I don’t think I’ve ever hated Scandal more than after this scene. Writers should know better. I doubt many fans care about Leo, who is a smug, reprehensible character. But scenes like this destroy an audience’s rapport with Abby, whom we have grown to love because of Stanchfield’s nuanced performance. What we want from Abby is not hot buttered sex with Leo, but for her to remember her own domestic violence history, and to remind Leo that a woman is dead, and that even if Sue's extortion plot was misguided, her body and her story deserve respect - one victim speaking for another.
Sue dies alone on her kitchen floor, murdered by the people she thought were helping her. Given her reputation, her death will be considered an unfortunate sex crime, part of the dangers of the anonymous, kinky sex world she existed in; a cautionary tale. Her death, however, is powerful enough that it gets Abby and Leo hot for each other. Huck, who was seeking legal immunity from David for his testimony against the nefarious agency B613, will now be able to return home to his wife and son. And a group of politically powerful white men who cheated on their wives and may have used taxpayers’ money to fund their sexual proclivities, all get to walk away with their reputations still intact. They may even have learned a few tricks from Sue to bring home to their marital beds. With Sue's murder, everyone wins (except her). The traditional family is restored, queerness is vanquished, and heteronormativity remains firmly intact. Maybe this show is perfect for the family hour.
It never occurs to the script that Sue might have been a hero for potentially exposing some of the men as hypocrites, men in President Grant’s Republican administration are using their conservative power to vote against women’s reproductive rights, or gay rights. Sue's book may have humiliated men who deserved to be exposed as hypocrites.
In a final plot resolution, Olivia Pope, having been shamed by Sue earlier for being a “prude”, gets her groove back and brings home a one-night stand of her own. The irony, of course, is that it is Olivia who first betrays Sue; when Huck suggests earlier in the episode that they pay Sue the money regardless of David’s threat, Olivia reminds Huck that even when you pay “them” off (women like Sue), they always talk eventually. Olivia in that moment signs Sue’s death warrant with Huck. Scandal, through its plot-manipulation and fast pace, cleverly drives us down a dead-end road where it becomes obvious: the only appropriate response to Sue is to kill her. It’s not possible, on Scandal's terms, that justice and a happy life would have satisfied her, even though the love in Lena Dunham's performance, and the genuine hug she gives Olivia when she thanks her - a hug so tender it takes Olivia aback - suggest otherwise.
There is no other way to say it; the Dunham episode fucked me up for a day, maybe longer. After watching Scandal, I am left with the feeling that I've participated in something sordid. I don't even want to describe the episode to two close friends who are both sexual abuse survivors - it feels too disturbing. So I sit with it alone. I go on social media to see other people's reactions. A reviewer I respect posts clips from the episode in her summary; she loops Huck cutting Sue's throat so that it plays over and over again into eternity. #Scandal on Twitter reveals hundreds of tweets about the episode, including much anticipation about Dunham’s appearance, her selfies with the cast, and Kerry Washington sitting on a table with the male actors who play the men in Sue’s book. Everyone associated with the episode seems to have had a rollicking good time making it. Why do I feel so devastated at home?
Writer Joan Didion began her collection of 1979 essays The White Album with the line "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." And it is important to examine and deconstruct the stories we choose to tell, particularly the ones we tell over again, and why. Scandal as a show is at times dumb and salacious, and one may feel silly being upset by it, as I was at first. But the sexual themes they are playing within Lena Dunham’s episode are real and historic, and tap into core archetypes and images in the collective psyche; of betrayal, sexual violence, women stoned to death for sin, hair shorn, banished or tortured for “adultery” (sexual agency), witches burned at the stake. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen “Sue”, and this isn’t the last time she’ll be sacrificed. The only difference is that Scandal, with its heady mix of sexualized violence and torture porn, gets off on Sue’s death, while presenting itself as a progressive network show.
Sue is killed because of her power to tell, to bring sexual secrets to light. Jezebel, thrown from a window in the Bible because of the misuse of her tongue, is mirrored in the modern-day crime of terrorist bullies throwing gay men to their deaths from roofs. The attack is on feminine power, and when gay men choose not to be complicit in the sexist destruction of women, but affirm our erotic power as homosexuals, we, as Jezebels, threaten patriarchy and we, too, are punished.
Because of the nature of pop culture, it is still very easy to dismiss the impact of a television show on the cultural imagination. One day, perhaps, we will fully acknowledge how an episode like "It's Good to Be Kink" and what it says about women’s sexuality, may influence everything from legislation about birth control to the boy who dates your daughter in high school.
We have a group of over thirty women who have come out publicly and accused a famous man of rape and sexual assault. To speak out is to become a Jezebel in the public eye. They have gone to the media, they have published their stories in the newspaper and online. And then have been called liars and whores. Scandal trades in the current perception that a woman who has been violated seeks revenge on men, any man, whether he deserves it or not, and will go to the media for attention and money so she can "even the score." In this context, the resolution of Sue’s storyline is horrifying. (Clearly we haven’t moved that far from the “kill the bitch” mentality that terrified audiences in the Eighties and Nineties and sent them to Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct in droves.)
The fact that this time it comes from a black woman’s workshop, when the female body, like the black body, continues to be endangered, feels like an extraordinary betrayal, particularly after the Olivia Pope "sold-into-slavery" arc. While the character Sue is white, Leo Bergen’s “What would Sue be doing right now,” line recalls the racist Jezebel mythology which “gave the impression that Black women could not be rape victims because they always desired sex, thereby justifying countless acts of sexual assault of black female slaves by white males.”* The feminist monologues throughout “It’s Good To Be Kink” only make it worse; the sugar that helps the sexist episode go down.
There are images that stay with you, that you can't un-see. Sue, in her last scene, is not shown on a chaise longue sipping champagne in the power outfit of a femme fatale - the vamp in movies who usually gets it in the end. The femme fatale, a familiar Hollywood archetype, might have helped me to distance myself from Sue's tragic demise. Sue is a woman attacked in her own home, dressed in the everyday clothes of someone who shops for comfort, for affordability, not glamour. Dunham is filmed in shots that reveal her broad body, her wide hips. For reasons I can't immediately locate, her death feels like junior-high cruelty: the "fat" girl who is humiliated in gym class for not running fast enough, the boy who got hit in the head playing Smear the Queer, the girl in Judy Blume's Blubber, the kid in the lunchroom who dropped his tray and cried as we all applauded, the girl who was teased for developing breasts early. Basically those who, for whatever reason in our society, are "othered".
I wasn't called a loser in high school, but I was called a nigger, and I have often felt like an "other". I'm black, I'm queer, I'm a recovering addict, I've had anonymous sex, I've been harassed by men, I've considered myself sexually empowered, I've felt like a whore. I've attempted to love myself as a homosexual without shame or self-hatred. I've attempted to live my life as out and gay without killing myself or being killed.
In August of last year, Daniel Ashley Pierce, a twenty-year-old man from Georgia, posted a video on his Facebook page of his family’s reaction to his coming out as gay. With the support of Dan Savage and other media outlets, including this one, the video went viral. Pierce had come out to his immediate family the previous October and believed he had at least his stepmother’s support. Months later, he faced a delayed intervention that included his father, stepmother and his grandparents. Pierce told The Huffington Post that he secretly taped the encounter with his phone “to make sure there was evidence in case something happened.” Clearly his instincts were right - something happened.
We don’t see anyone’s face but a woman, Pierce’s grandmother or stepmother, is heard in the background, acknowledging that she knew Daniel was gay even as a “little tiny boy”, and that she loves him. “I believe in the world of God,” she says, “and God creates nobody that way, it is a path that you have chosen. Since you have chosen that path, we will not support you any longer. You will need to move out, and find wherever you can to live, and do what you want to, because I will not let people believe that I condone what you do.” Pierce replies, “I will be out by Thursday night at midnight…and you will never ever have to see me again.” She then tells him if that is what he chooses, that’s fine. “No, that’s not what I’m choosing,” Daniel clarifies. “I’m doing what you’re telling me to do. And you’re disowning me. And that proves how much of a person you are.”
Daniel is brave. He refuses to be shamed, he forces his family to take responsibility for their beliefs, he stands up to their hypocrisy, and he challenges their religious beliefs with science. One of his relatives even admits calmly, "I have a lot of friends who are gay, but they are friends, they’re not related to me.”
Daniel's stepmother eventually screams at him in exasperation. “You're full of shit! You know you wasn’t born that way!” When he challenges her for withdrawing her original support, “You are a completely different person”, the camera falters and his family begins to attack him physically. The voices overlap in a cacophony of shouting and family violence, a horrific call and response: “Let me tell you something, you little piece of shit!” “Oh no, you’re not going to fucking hit me!” “You son of a bitch!” “Get off of me, bitch, get off me!“ “You fucking queer!” “What’s wrong with you! Get off me!” “You don’t tell lies on me, you little piece of shit!” “I trusted you!” “I’ll beat your fucking ass!” “I claimed you as my own mother! What is wrong with you people?” What breaks your heart is not only their shouting at him, but his appealing to their tenderness.
His father tells him breathlessly as the altercation finally dies down, “You are a disgrace.” Daniel affirms before the video ends, “I am not a disgrace.”
It’s 2015, and we aren’t still supposed to be here, having our families react to us like this, but here we are. Statistics have shown that forty percent of teens that run away are gay, most likely from religious abuse. Daniel was fortunate in that he had a supportive partner who set up an online fund in his name and the money he raised gave Daniel choices. Others who don’t have that option may turn to prostitution, drug addiction or suicide.
Blake Brockington, an eighteen-year-old black transgender activist from Charlotte, North Carolina, is dead. His death, reported only yesterday, will join Leelah Alcorn, a seventeen-year-old from Ohio, fifteen-year-old Zander Mahaffey of Georgia, and Melonie Elizabeth Rose from Laurel, Maryland as another transgender teen has committed suicide this year. Brockington was openly transgender at his high school and was crowned homecoming king, a first in the Charlotte community. Brockington told a local LGBT newspaper about being rejected by his birth family after revealing he was transgender. "That was single-handedly the hardest part of my trans journey," he said. "Really hateful things were said…It was hard. I saw how narrow-minded the world really is."
If you love your body and your sexuality and refuse to be “othered” in a society that seems, in some quarters, to spend its every waking moment attempting to destroy you, then you've got a "bad girl" inside you, a Jezebel; and someone, somewhere has tried, or is trying, to punish her. (Sue's monologue at the beginning of the Scandal episode could also be a variation on a coming-out speech to a homophobic family.) And it is important that the "bad girl" doesn't stay shamed, that every now and then, if it is empowering to you, she puts on that wig, grabs that fabulous bag, works those heels, and says, “I'm not sorry”, or as Daniel tells his family, “I am not a disgrace.” America looks to pop culture for how it should treat the “other”, those of us who are “othered” look to pop culture for how we should treat ourselves. And that's why Sue matters, why queerness in America matters, and why what Sue says about her body and her sexual choices matters. And that's why it sucks that by the end of Scandal everyone takes a shit on her, and on us for caring about her.
At one point during the episode, Cyrus Bean, Chief of Staff, asks to meet with Olivia on a park bench near the White house. With a suitcase containing the three million dollars Sue has asked for, he claims he's there to keep Abby from resigning. Olivia soon realizes that Cyrus doesn’t actually care about Abby at all; he wants the manuscript for his own nefarious aims - the book and what it contains could come in handy someday for extortion. Olivia gets up from the bench, reminded why she doesn't work anymore for the White House.
“This town,” she says with despair, staring at Cyrus in disbelief. “Its heart."
I know how she feels.
*Carolyn West, "Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an 'Oppositional Gaze' Towards the Images of Black Women