Saturday, November 21, 2015

'Scandal' tried to get serious and it was shameful

Art imitates life, and in some capacity, television is an art form.  Society loves good television because it reaches us in a variety of ways.  We want to be entertained, informed, and reflect on life.  Some of the programming is far more serious than others, and we expect those shows to tackle difficult topics. 

Opposite the serious programming are the more light-hearted or merely entertaining shows that we know are ridiculous or implausible, but we find it interesting anyway.  When these shows attempt to become something they're not, the result is often a haphazardly made episode that resembles nothing better than an after school special.

ABC's hit show, Scandal, attempted to pull off the serious, and it what it did was mishandle one of the most sensitive topics in the nation.  For the non-viewer of Scandal, the show revolves around the character Olivia Pope, a Washington D.C. insider, who takes on all manner of tasks in her job as a 'fixer' (a job whereby people pay an individual large sums of money to cover up or bury potentially embarrassing or illegal actions, hence the title of the show).  She also helped the president get elected as a political advisor / spin doctor.

The show is the product of ABC programming star, Shonda Rhimes, who has a monopoly on Thursday nights with other hits, Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder.  Common threads exist in all three shows:  strong female lead characters, sex, fast paced action, suspense, and over-the-top plot lines.  You know what you're getting in these shows.  I regularly watch Scandal because I like political dramas.  I know that when I'm watching Scandal, it's typically thin on policy, and thick on the drama.  It's a poor man's House of Cards, but I like it. 

Last Thursday, Scandal attempted to go big on a policy issue -- abortion and Planned Parenthood funding.  The episode focused on Olivia Pope's on and off relationship with President Fitzgerald Grant during the Christmas season.  The relationship started during the campaign while Grant was still married.  Their affair finally fractured the president's marriage and Olivia moved into the White House.

During the Christmas season, the Senate was considering a budget bill whereby the funding for Planned Parenthood would be moved to a discretionary part of the budget.  Senator Mellie Grant (the president's ex-wife) has a problem with this despite the rest of the Senate ready to pass the bill and go home for the holidays.  Grant meets with other senators who sponsored the bill, and when she expressed concerns, she is laughed out of the room by, you guessed it, a group of men. 

Mellie upstages the men by filibustering the budget bill, but during her hours of speaking, she's physically exhausted and needs to use the restroom.  If she relinquishes the floor, though, her filibuster will die and the bill will pass.

Ironically, the desperate help Mellie and Planned Parenthood funding needs comes from her archenemy, Olivia, who arranges for the Vice President (also a woman) to come into the Senate and ask a rather long-winded question so Mellie can use the restroom and defeat the funding bill.

The Vice-President discusses all the typically talking points that liberals tend to discuss about Planned Parenthood:  only 3% of their services are abortions, they provide much needed health care to women, and that women's needs are constantly overlooked.

At this point, the episode appears to be the usual antics of the show.  But after the funding bill is defeated, the show transitions to a montage of each of the main characters and how they're spending their Christmas.  When it moves to Olivia, we see her in a hospital / surgical setting, presumably receiving an abortion.  The show's background music is, astonishingly, Christmas related. 

The show lets viewers down in multiple ways.  We don't know that Olivia is even pregnant until the abortion occurs.  The show trivializes an abortion as an event that doesn't require any thought, conflict, or inner turmoil.  If Olivia agonizes over this decision, she does an excellent job of hiding it. 

In a very liberal tone, Olivia never reveals her pregnancy to the her boyfriend.  Yes, current law and Supreme Court interpretation states women are not required to do this, but it lacks the nuance that a man might feel knowing a woman would abort his child.  In fact, we can't even be certain who the father of the baby is.  We believe it's the president, her boyfriend.  Yet, the show has consistently shown viewers the sexual freedom of Olivia, and she never addresses the issue.

The demonstration of the procedure and the aftermath also does not reflect the problems many women endure after an abortion.  At the end of the episode, Olivia is back at her old apartment, sitting on the couch, and drinking a glass of wine.  While many people suggest this could be her way of coping with the abortion, I doubt it.  Olivia drinking a glass of wine at the end of the day is very commonplace in the show.  It's portrayal here makes the scene seem as if it's just another rough day at the office. 

The psychological problems associated with many women after an abortion includes difficult problems such guilt, shame, remorse, depression, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety.  Maybe these will be explored in a later episode, but there's no hint of it here.  Nor do we see any contemplation of the physical side effects that affect many women who have had abortions, such as post-procedural infections, sterility, excessive bleeding, cervical damage, and in some cases, death. 

Additionally, the show's writers seem to forget the fact that Mellie, who saves Planned Parenthood funding, is a Republican.  The president is also a Republican, and one would presume Olivia has those political tendencies since she aided in his campaign ... twice.  The Vice-President who helps prolong the filibuster is a Republican. The show works on the presumption that women will abandon deeply held beliefs so that they can stick together as women.  They are the heroes of the show because they are united in the cause of all women (at the expense of any personal beliefs they might hold).

In a stark contrast, the episode attempts to vilify the GOP's position on Planned Parenthood funding as a group of backroom dealin' men who try to "mansplain" everything to the oppressed women.  It lacks the depth that is necessary to understand the conservative point of view on abortion.  Many Americans look at abortion as the willful taking of an innocent life.  They are as entrenched in their beliefs as liberals are with theirs. 

There's no discussion of the morality or ethical nature of abortion.  No display of any remorse or regret.  There's no development of the storyline about Olivia's terrible family dynamic, which could have played a role in her decision to act.  Instead, in the absence of a well thought out script, we see Olivia as terribly selfish and cold.  Even pro-choice advocates would not attempt to downplay an abortion as such a routine procedure. 

We see her break up with the president, and the conversation centers around the fact that she's experienced a loss of identity.  Instead of being a power player in the nation's capital, Olivia is now reduced to being a hostess of White House parties.  She's distressed because she's not a 'gladiator' (the title Olivia and associates give themselves).  Olivia no longer wears the 'white hat' like the good guy in a Western flick.  She only wanted the president when it was convenient to her.

Shonda Rhimes' shows are supposed to be empowering to women in a modern era.  Women should have the rights and options that men have.  I can understand why she creates shows in the manner that she does.  Television needs women in strong leading roles.  However, in elevating women to positions of power with the programs she's created, Rhimes' characters provide examples of how equality with men is not quite as progressive as people think.

The leading women in Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder are strong individuals who command respect, wield enormous life and death power carelessly, manipulate everyone around them, and express their sexuality freely with multiple partners.  In bringing women to positions of equality with men, we see the corrupt nature of those women when put in the same circumstances as men. 

The cold nature of an episode centering around abortion hits the height of disgusting by coinciding with Christmas, a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.  The juxtaposition is insulting and disturbing. 

This episode is a disappointment on several levels.  It attempts to desensitize abortions, vilify legitimate concerns of the opposing view, and removes real emotion from what is undoubtedly a life-changing decision. 

I wish both men and women today could be like the women of the past. Women in society once displayed the best in humanity through compassion, fidelity, humility, and quiet strength.  I suppose those qualities don't make for great television, though.  And again, I know Scandal is so outrageous in its plot line, but it bothers me because so many viewers tune in and might somehow be fooled into thinking about abortion as no big deal and conservatives are out to prevent woman from having 'proper healthcare.'

The conservative approach believes abortion is tantamount to killing a child.  No one objects to women receiving legitimate health services, but characterizing abortion as healthcare wrongly numbs us to the loss of human life.  Even if Planned Parenthood performed one abortion, it would be too many.  That is why the conservative position objects to Planned Parenthood receiving federal funding.  Does anyone really believe a group of Republicans sit around and think about how they can make women's lives miserable through denial of health care?

Though I do not believe abortion should be permitted in any circumstance, I understand how the values and beliefs of every producer and writer color their television programming.  They have the right to create an episode about abortion.  Yet, the writers ignored the responsibility that comes with rights.  Americans need to temper the question of "Do I have the right to do this?" with the thought of "Is it wise to do this?"  Clearly, Scandal failed to consider the latter question, and their episode amounted to nothing more than a 60 minute distortion of the debate over abortion and Planned Parenthood.  Bad television, even worse politics.


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