White hats off: Feministing writers deconstruct the Scandal rape scene

Ed. note: Last week’s episode of Scandal, “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie,” has gotten a lot of attention for its depiction of a rape involving  Mellie Grant and her father in law, Big Jerry. The Feministing crew had a lot of thoughts on the rape scene itself as well as some of the larger issues it raises around depictions and tropes of sexual assault in mainstream media. We organized our thoughts into a group post, below, just in time for the next episode to air tonight. Enjoy!

Lori: I’m not that surprised that Scandal depicted a graphic sexual assault. The show is by definition sensationalist and, let’s face it, borderline absurd at points with its wild plot twists and highly oversimplified depiction of a corrupt political DC scene. So to the extent that an incestuous rape scene certainly qualifies as yet another “extreme” and shocking plot twist, I don’t see it as a great departure from the rest of the show. What I am a bit more interested in, and concerned by, is that through this act of rape, Mellie is depicted as making a transition from being an innocent, green, girl-next-door character to a cunning, politically expedient strategist and shark. It’s not some brilliant theatrical device to make rape a literal stand in for loss of innocence. It’s actually drawing on one of the oldest and most pernicious narratives in the book about rape: that it removes the victim’s innocence and sets them up for a life filled with lies and manipulation.

Think about it: after the rape, Mellie lies to Fitz, seemingly for one of the first times in their relationship. It’s hard not to look at the love that they shared, compare it to their present day loveless reality, and point to the rape as one in a long line of things that went wrong between them. Yes, Mellie used it to strongarm Fitz’ dad into offering the apology that he needed to hear. But at what cost? That is what feels most manipulative and unfair to rape survivors, to me.

Sesali: That awkward moment when Lori fucks up your analysis with something more brilliant and you’re at a loss for words… But here goes it anyway. While the good girl gone bad script was definitely in full effect, so was the bad guy=rapist script. We were almost led into the scene with Big Jerry claiming to be a good father because he didn’t beat his son. There was so much potential to elaborate on the complexities of rape happening at the hands of those in our most personal circles, or by those who don’t necessarily present as “bad guys”.

I agree with Lori’s point about rape creating a shift in Mellie’s character. I wonder what it would have looked like for her to remain “innocent”. Another subtlety I noticed was the shift in Mellie’s power. She insisted on maintaining control and autonomy over her own career  before Cyrus shut that idea down (also, can we talk about Cyrus’s beard?); and just as she was forced to figure out what it means to have to take a back seat to Fitz and his career, this happened. So was this also some solidification of her role as “wife to the president”? It was almost as if she had to sacrifice her ambition, her career, and in the final and “ultimate” act of submission, her body as well. Am I getting too abstract and in my feelings with that?

Courtney: I don’t think you’re getting too abstract at all, Sesali.  Though, I do wonder if it’s dangerous to assume that Mellie makes a choice to sacrifice her body.  The word sacrifice to me assumes that she’s “submitting” to Gerry, with the idea of Fitz’ future (governor’s mansion, white house, etc) on the foreground of her mind.  When I was watching, I read that moment as Mellie in shock: “WTF is happening to me”.  I highly suspect that what Shonda Rhimes and the rest of Scandal’s production team wants us to believe is that Mellie realizes she has a “choice to make” in the moment: fight Gerry off or realize that her way to help Fitz and their path to the WH is to submit to Gerry in this moment.  However, I think it’s more realistic to say that the moment Mellie stops “fighting” Gerry off (physically) isn’t because she believes she’s helping Fitz but more because she’s in a state of shock.

That’s what’s most dangerous to me in this episode: the implication that Mellie would just “go along with” the rape because she understands the importance of helping get Fitz to the White House.  When in reality, Mellie’s life is being life-alteringly shifted: she’s just trying to survive in that moment.  There’s not going to be time to think about political moves.

Dahlia: I watched the scene with my mouth literally agape. I didn’t see it as Mellie going from innocence to bad girl, but something like the other way around. I saw it as the show trying to set up Mellie for more likeability–because look at what she’s “sacrificed” for her husband. She even says it to Fitz herself, right? She says, “If you knew the sacrifices that I have made, the things that I have given up, and the pieces of myself that I have given away for you, and you treat me this way.”

After seasons of Mellie manipulating and playing everyone around her, I thought this was a move to, horribly enough, make her more sympathetic–to “explain” her in retrospect–because she’d been raped and decided not to tell anyone, carrying a painful burden in silence.

Wagatwe: Lori, you bring up a good point about it being sensationalist. I am not someone easily triggered, but that scene really shook me and made me really wish that TV had trigger warnings.

When I finished watching the show, I decided that I *do* want to see how they use this rape reveal further into the season. Perhaps it is my denial that somehow Shonda will redeem herself, but I am definitely disappointed in using rape as a way to “explain” why a woman is manipulative/a bitch/etc. It makes me think about the insults thrown around when a woman reports and they look at her behavior, deem it “crazy” and thus she cannot be seen as trustworthy. It makes me wonder: does rape always have to be a pivotal, life-changing event that turns women from sweet and innocent into hard and evil? Will Mellie’s behavior now be reduced to a response to being raped if she does something with which the audience doesn’t agree? Was this just a device to make Mellie more sympathetic and less hated? Does a women have to have a known history of violence to be truly “understood” if she is seen as too strong or bitchy?

To Courtney’s point, when I watched the scene I thought that when Mellie stopped fighting him off it was more about shock and potentially dissociation. But now upon hearing this, I do that that is a very real implication, which makes me worried about the depiction of sexual violence in media. There are so many myths out there about rape and I hate to think that a lot of people are getting the wrong ideas reinforced. I remember reading a review about the rape scene where someone said that the rape seemed unrealistic because a flashback aired earlier in the series showed Mellie greeting Jerry warmly. Considering that most survivors are assaulted by someone they know, it isn’t unlikely that many people have done similarly to their attackers (especially one as powerful as Jerry). For me, Mellie’s move to use the rape as a tool to help her husband feels much like the move many survivors make to use their experiences and stories “for the greater good.”

I am going to continue to hold hope that perhaps as this is fleshed out (and it better be fleshed out) over the course of the rest of the season Scandal will debunk some of the problematic implications that have arisen from the scene.

Juliana: I thought Wagatwe brought up a good point: did Shonda have to make Mellie a rape victim in order to explain the woman she is today? Don’t get me wrong, I dislike Mellie as much as is to be expected considering her history of manipulation and lies. However, looking at the way Mellie used to be before the rape–sweet, a little shy, innocent– I can’t help but feel that the show is apologizing for the powerful and intelligent woman that is the First Lady today. When they contrast it with scenes of her hating the domestic tasks she is given as First Lady–choosing china, caring for baby Teddy, etc.–it makes it seem as if she is not a dedicated mother, doesn’t care about dishes and art collections not because all women don’t have to care about those things, but rather because she was raped.

Zerlina: While the scene was triggering and hard to watch, I’m happy they showed the whole thing and didn’t do what most network shows do, and cut away at the beginning of the assault, leaving the audience to use their imagination.  They showed us the reality of how many rapes happen.  I think what was powerful about the scene is that unlike most rape scenes the media allows us to consume, there weren’t any actions taken by Mellie that you could point to that would have changed the outcome if she had done something differently.  That’s really a profound moment for network television and it makes all of the “women shouldn’t drink…” advice seem even more wrongheaded. As to how the rape fits into the larger narrative of the story, it’s too early for me to judge and hopefully they won’t screw it up!

Syreeta: Word, Sesali… you so peeped the bit that’s been getting at me: Jerry the political monster, as well as Mellie, the survivor/victim. The gross Greek myth themes represented here include Zeus raping Europa to birth nations, Zeus abducting insert here, and Cronus swallowing his child for the sake of preserving immortality (immortality in this case being a stand in for a political dynasty). By the time we cut to the scene in the study with drunk, raging Jerry, I had already feared the onset of a rape, and while I watched in horror (mouth open the whole time) that scene, I thought about a flashback in Season 2 (“A Criminal, A Whore, An Idiot and A Liar”), where Fitz grew sexually aggressive with Olivia in the elevator, and Mellie catching him, and stopping him. The threat of rape has been present here with the Grants for awhile. Immediately, I didn’t take the scene as a way to engender sympathy for Mellie (and while this is not my choice in developing character complexity, Mellie is already earning our sympathy. Some of the best scenes of relationship conflict live with Mellie and Fitz, their particular cruel, naked and brutal honestly bitter marriage juxtaposed against the wild, immature and salacious relationship with Liv and Fitz. And while watching that scene was triggering, I understood and was oddly appreciative. of it showing how disassociation works. The interview questions with the Katie Couric’ish reporter was the trigger for these flashbacks. I feel like that was an honest lead in to this story. I don’t believe the writers in the room for the show were thinking of this slapdash without the kind of argument we’re having now.

I don’t feel that Mellie’s rape was also a way to say, this is why she’s a bitch/unsympathetic/power hungry or even understood, therefore, like her. This is a controversial line in terms of thinking of sympathetic/unsympathetic characters in fiction, but the lens of sympathy shift swiftly with these characters episode to episode arc. Nobody on Scandal is truly likable. It’s show made completely of antiheroes. Errybody’s fucked up. There’s a lot we already knew about Mellie before this new detail that only we as audience appear to be privy to before we understand it among the characters. I know that she’s a rape survivor now. (In fact, it only makes me think of how many of us are survivors in plain sight which is an unsettling realization.)

I also feel you, Lori, on a bunch of points… that we would arrive here to have to unpack a rape scene because it’s a such a gross sensational (seemingly easy) thread, and sadly, isn’t surprising. But I kind of trust team Shondaland to not to mishandle this plot line/arc. I think if anything the narrative is to show us in it’s organic time that Mellie has compartmentalized, made sacrifices for Fitz (who is the worst, and I really want to like him but you know… And everything is unraveling. The facade is cracking. We’ve seen in this season more moments of Mellie vulnerability juxtaposed against Olivia’s vulnerability. The two strongest women characters that are at odds with Fitz are coming undone.) There’s still at least another 10-12 episodes of the season for us to monitor how this rape narrative will work out. Last week’s episode isn’t the last word on it.

Jos: Scandal’s paid lip service to feminist issues in recent weeks, with the mention of slut-shaming and Lisa Kudrow’s speech that felt like it was written for Upworthy (where it quickly showed up). Both rubbed me the wrong way – they felt much more like throwing out buzzwords than actually telling stories that get across ideas about sexism. I care way more about what gets communicated through story in fiction than characters standing up and saying something I do or don’t agree with. And as others have mentioned, I think the way Scandal used rape in this episode played into some very problematic tropes (all this could get turned around this week, cause it’s an ABC show that’s all about twists in the narrative, but I’m bothered by what happened in last week’s episode regardless). I thought this was a transparent attempt to make Mellie sympathetic. We’re supposed to like her now because she’s been targeted with violence. It explains away her future actions, as others have mentioned. Mellie is set up as a relatively pure, clean woman who is changed by rape. It’s a classic virgin/whore trope – the possibility of raping Mellie exists because she’s “good.” Women are supposed to be good and pure and only pure women can be raped – a patriarchal double bind. Using the rape to make Mellie sympathetic works because it plays into culturally embedded tropes, which reinforces that set of ideas and perpetuates a culture in which these ideas hold sway.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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