Why Scandal’s Rape Fails as a Plot Device

And yet, she still didn’t deserve that shoddy writing.

Last night, I watched a fictional character get raped and my guts flipped inside out. I have written before about Scandal and my struggle to fall in love with it beyond Olivia Pope’s peacoats, but I think it might have turned me off for good this time.

Let me confess first of all that I have a soft spot for underdogs and hated, pitiful creatures. I never despised Skyler White on Breaking Bad like many fans did, simply because I felt her plight to be extremely difficult. Vince Gilligan artfully made Skyler innocent-yet-complicit in her husband’s criminal enterprise.

Mellie Grant on Scandal is likely the most derided character on the show, why? Because she has the unmitigated gall to want to keep her husband. Many women viewers call her desperate and conniving as she hangs on to the President’s coattails. She is not an angel, but she is human and I feel sympathy for her character.

Therefore, to have Mellie be raped on a couch by her father-in-law felt like a cheap shot. A sucker punch. In the context of the back story, it was unnecessary. There are better ways to prove that this woman has lain herself on the altar of Fitz’s career and been immolated. This was not the trump card in evoking sympathy for an arch-villain.

With such a heavy topic as rape, the audience feels yanked into a whirl of emotions and needs time to process them. Viewers are still unsure if the network issued a trigger warning. Scandal is too fast-paced to deal with emotional issues using anything more than quips and punchlines (“If you want me, earn me”). So the show blithely skipped on to subsequent scenes as if nothing ever happened. My thought process went something like this:

People laughing at a party. HE RAPED HER.. Quinn is doing something foolish. RAPE. RAPE, THOUGH?! Mama Pope is alive. Oh. RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE RAPE! 

You could argue that rape scenes happen in many dramas (Shonda Rhimes’ own Private Practice, for instance) and it is art depicting life. Law and Order: SVU deals regularly with the horror of sexual trauma, but they do it in a way that underscores the brutality of rape. The victims are remembered, honored, vindicated–or at least loved enough to have the truth investigated.

But Mellie is the most unloved woman on Scandal. She is scorned by the press, her husband, her political handler, by her husband’s mistress, and by Americans themselves because of her husband’s cowardice. Scandal does not care about Mellie. The plot line will not pause to explore how Mellie healed or is still healing from her trauma. It will focus on her ambition for status, her avarice, her struggle loving a man whose father raped her. 

Thus, rape is reduced to a plot device, one that does not work, instead of a plot line. The viewers peep game: we are supposed to say, “Awww, Mellie is not so bad after all.” We are supposed to let our heartstrings be tugged, but we see the puppet master and the ruse has failed. The writers turned rape into something that “happened to Mellie,” like a stubbed toe or a bad haircut. Even a fictional character deserves better treatment.

The next few scenes after the rape, we see Mellie panting after her husband like a toy poodle he forgets to pet, but I am still stuck on that couch. And I don’t think anything else Shonda Rhimes can do with Scandal will wrench me off of it. I am done.

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9 thoughts on “Why Scandal’s Rape Fails as a Plot Device

  1. I’ve never watched Scandal. I couldn’t buy into the hype that surrounded the show. It didn’t seem compelling–but I also don’t watch a lot of television. The last show I was committed was Breaking Bad. This latest episode of Scandal appeared to split the audience. I am positive if I watched this would have been the episode to end the ride.

    1. Yeaaah. I can see an argument that it contributes to show a vulnerability in an otherwise odious character, but it left me feeling heavy-hearted. I don’t think the writers honored rape enough to make it more than just one bad thing. No, it’s THE bad thing. Ugh. That just tipped me over.

    2. This is gonna sound funny, perhaps – I’ve watched it as a study and to critique with my sister. F’real. I don’t live-tweet and I don’t buy it, sorry. I don’t buy it.

      1. It doesn’t sound funny. I watch stuff to understand/critique too. It’s more fun to read the Twitter feeds on Scandal than to watch the actual show now. I’ll stick to Twitter.

  2. EVERY. THING. YOU SAID.

    Despicable and lazy and abhorrent – and YES, you hit the nail on the head yet again: she has the gall to want to keep her husband. How DARE she be ambitious – not to mention the fact that we’re supposed to believe that ambition is the ONLY reason she WANTS her husband. I have been disgusted by her portrayal for so long.

  3. I watch Scandal faithfully, and I agree with pretty much everything you said. Maybe it was just my FB feed…but if another person said something about Mellie not being raped “forreal” because she didn’t fight back…tell her husband… smdh. I was so distracted by people’s terrible comments that I couldn’t even focus on how the rape was just glossed over.

    I’m a little nervous to watch tonight’s episode.

    1. I quit Scandal over that…I was so disappointed. I keep up via Twitter and it makes me feel better. If I hear they’ve veered from focusing on Olitz or gave Mellie some justice, I may come back around.

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