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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Scandal, Year of Yes

While watching the first few episodes of Scandal, I thought, "I know what this is." But I was mistaken. I had no idea whatsoever. I thought it was soap opera, maybe political soap opera, or paperback romance. It is these things, but then there's more, with a dark cloud lurking over every familiar trope. The difficulty to pin it down has been driving me crazy.

On first glance it looks like a particular version of a utopia/dystopia or alternate universe, in which everyone is scheming against everyone else, occasionally murdering their friends' friends or spouses, but nobody apparently gives a shit about race or sexual orientation. 


I thought Rhonda Rhimes was trying to create a color-blind political soap opera as a retort to Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, which I had strongly disliked for being sanctimonious, self-important, and manipulative. Being a liberal does not make me like liberal cliches any better. Scandal's Washington DC is deliciously and indiscriminately vicious, petty, immoral, and ... horny. It's as if party affiliation and ideology matter as much as race, which means none at all.


For a while I thought Rhimes was intentionally striving for the color-blindness to make a point. Maybe she was tired of presenting stereotypes of black characters, even the noble and wise stereotypes. Maybe she was pushing back the pressure for black writers and filmmakers to represent "their people" rather than themselves as individuals. It took me a while to realize that I was wrong. She does not seem to be on a mission to either follow or subvert conventions, nor does she seem interested in representing or not representing any collective group of people. All her characters are extremely self-centered and self-contained.

If any group is represented in the show, be it women, black Americans, white Americans, gays, heterosexuals, Democrats or Republicans, I'm not sure any of them would want to be represented like this. They are all plenty screwed up in the head. Nobody looks good.

True equality I guess.

The subject of race was finally brought up for the first time in Season 2 of Scandal, and it was a bit of a shock. During an argument between Fitzgerald Grant (the president) and Olivia Pope (the mistress) over whether she should return to the White House professionally and his embrace romantically, she blurted out something like "I don't want to be your Sally Hemmings." Fitz screamed back that it was she who owned his obsession. I giggled at the scene nervously. 

While their tortuous and disturbing relationship was filled with power struggle for dominance, comparing it to slavery is almost hilariously callous and vaguely inappropriate. It could be considered as trivializing slavery, except Rhimes gets away with it. I don't know how. 

I have seen a theory that the relationship between Olivia and Fitz is an allegory of the black-white racial relationship over American History. I can understand where the theory came from, it cannot be more wrong. True, in this black-and-white romance, the white man occupies the modern throne of "the most powerful person in the world." However, Olivia is not a victim, and Fitz is not an abuser. Their relationship is not plagued with shame or hatred, including self-hatred. It's intended and presented as a pure and simple sexual relationship, and the intense physical chemistry between the two actors cements it.

In Season 4, Rhimes devised a plot in which Olivia Pope is kidnapped by foreign agents and sold in an international auction, which is blatantly reminiscent of the history of slavery. But all this is also in service of the romance, as Fitz started a war for her sake. The audacity to use slavery this way seems a bit, hmm, cavalier? I don't know how I feel about it. Are you even allowed to do this? Yet she does.

And, of course, the show is so campy and over the top and never takes itself too seriously.

Fascinated, I read Shonda Rhimes' memoir Year of Yes, in which she describes her effort of self-improvement of sorts in 2014. So Rhimes really does talk like she writes in Scandal --- with lots of exclamation points and CAPITAL LETTERS and repeated words for emphasis --- and she does seem to squeeze breathless drama and twists from relatively innocuous life events. The book is both fluffy (with some cheerleading life lessons and advice) and surprisingly earnest with plenty of jokes.

The book also confirms my impression that, while Rhimes is acutely aware of racism, she is not necessarily more weighed down by its multi-century, cumulative history than any given white person, nor does she seem to feel obligated to self-consciously represent all black people. Perhaps she feels the obligation as much as an average white writer feels the obligation to represent all of white Americans. She grew up in a comfortably middle-class family. Her mother has a Ph.D. in education. Her father used to be the chief information officer at Ohio State University and later at USC (years after Shonda had graduated from USC film school).

She did not write much about her parents in the book, except that they are loving and supportive and smart and madly in love with each other. So the twisty and destructive relationship she has created for her characters remains a mystery. Rhimes wrote briefly and superficially about her aversion to marriage but provided no particular insight. More curious perhaps is her treatment of the father figure in Scandal, played by Joe Morton, a powerful man who appears to be the source of all evil in the world. His daughter gets to be a princess, but a damned and imprisoned one, because of him. I was particularly keen on potential origin of this bleak view, but she said almost nothing about her father in the book.

So for now the mind of Shonda Rhimes remains a bit out of my reach, but that's just as well. 

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