A post-feminist investigation into the representation of women and female empowerment within the narratives of Scandal (2012) and Legally Blonde (2001)
The purpose of this essay is to examine differing approaches to the representation of female characters within the narratives of ‘Scandal’ (ABC, 2012-2018) and ‘Legally Blonde’ (Luketic, 2001), thereby comparing and contrasting the differing approaches used in the representations of women within these texts, through an examination of characters gender, race, class and sexuality. This essay aims to understand how these identities can impact the extent in which females are just as integral to the plot as male protagonists, allowing female characters to reach a full level of development; ultimately creating and promoting a sense of feminism and equality within both the series and film.
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Legally Blonde is an American comedyfilm based on a novel of the same name. Directed by Robert Luketic, the film follows female protagonist Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a sorority girl who has it all but wants nothing more than to be Mrs. Warner Huntington III. After an unexpected dumping, Elle decides to rally all of her resources together and against all odds, gets a place at Harvard with the determination to win him back.
Described as being one of the most “explicitly feminist, race conscious series on television today” (Gomez and McFarlane, 2017), Scandal is an American, prime time, political thriller television series written and created by Shonda Rhimes. The series centres around the White House and fictional PR firm ‘Olivia Pope and Associates’ in Washington DC; headed by crisis manager and ultimate fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), as she sets her sights on doing anything and everything both within and outside of her power to fix any crisis. Throughout the series, the team close the top cases within their field of work, going to the furthest degree of the law and covering up the biggest ‘Scandals’.
“Narratives that explore the diverse relations to power women inhabit depict the first attribute of post feminism in contemporary series. Shows exhibiting this attribute may construct female characters who are complex and distinct from one another despite the commonality of womanhood.” (Lotz, 2001: pp.115).
Scandal is no exemption to this, moreover whilst Lotz bases her critiques on television, this postfeminist attribute can also be applied to Legally Blonde. However, this essay aims to argue that whilst there is room for a complex development of female characters within the narratives, the true narrative is perhaps more toward female empowerment and how whilst the female protagonists are each individual to their own, it is ultimately that sense of womanhood that brings them together and it is only within Scandal that race is brought into the feminist argument.
Scandal (ABC, 2012)
Known to be partially based on lawyer and ultimate fixer Judy Smith, the character of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is perhaps one of the strongest, most complex female protagonists in modern day television. Known to be the anti-hero placed into a society governed by white male elite, Olivia is a very career driven woman who understands that work is her main priority in life. Not afraid of using anyone and everything to her advantage, including the patriarchal system of power, Olivia dominates any competition that poses a threat on herself or her company. Commanding respect from everyone she meets, Olivia overcomes sexism through her smart, confident nature. An example of this being in the very first episode in which she strikes a deal with some armed Russian terrorists in order to receive a mystery package for her client. Whilst her white-male associate remains within the background, fearless ‘gladiator’ Olivia does not back down to fear and instead choses to give them half the money that they demanded alongside an explanation as to why messing with her would lead to an enormous downside to them, keeping direct eye contact as she does so (ABC, 2012).
The character of Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) is first presented to the audience within the narrative as being the jealous wife, the scorned lover and the icy ambitious politician who was using her marriage to Fitz as a method for achieving her own ends. Unlike Olivia, Mellie does not have the respect nor resources on her side in order to be taken seriously. As the narrative develops throughout the series, so does Mellie’s character, proving once again the English idiom; to ‘never judge a book by its cover’.
Flawed in their own individual ways, both characters biggest downfall is perhaps when it comes to male characters within the series shown throughout the narrative. The connection between and ultimate downfall to the two female protagonists of Scandal; Olivia Pope and Mellie Grant begins foremost with the character of President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Throughout the series, as an audience we delve into the illicit affair and flawed relationship between Olivia and Fitz as told within both the ongoing narrative and flashback sequences and how Mellie copes with this throughout.
The relationship between Olivia and Fitz could be described as toxic; they bring out the best and worst within each other as one cannot function without the other. Mellie aware of their affair, condones the relationship to a limited extent and often objectifies Olivia, using her as a reward for Fitz. In series one she invites Olivia to a state dinner in order for Fitz to get his fix and go back to work, running the country “you needed to see her… I trust that tonight, you’ll sleep like a baby” (ABC 2012).
Although Olivia’s independence is clear within the narrative, she often tests Fitz’s abilities as president and as a man, trying to conjure new excuses and ways not to be with him, testing how far he’ll go to prove his love and intention. In series two, still at the beginning of their relationship, Olivia stands above the eagle within the oval office states to Fitz: “I am not a toy you can play with when you’re bored or lonely or horny. I am not the girl the guy gets at the end of the movie. I am not a fantasy. If you want me, Earn me!” (ABC 2013). The connotations of her making that stance shows the power that she has over him, juxtaposing the position of power that he holds as President. In series 4 he choses to send the country to war in order to save her from her kidnappers, proving to her the extent in which he is willing to go. After divorcing Mellie in series five, Fitz plans to marry Olivia however after once again choosing her career over a relationship it is towards the end of series six that Fitz ultimately saves Olivia from herself.
As the “first black female protagonist in a US television drama in nearly 40 years” (Vega, 2013), there is also the suggestion that Olivia Pope lives in a post-racial, post-feminist society; her ethnicity nor gender affects her job or the sense of power that comes with it. Her “ability to thrive in a world in which is governed by white male elite… [is] one free from institutional racism and gender discrimination that might inhabit her professional ascent” (McClearen, 2015). Race is first mentioned in series two through a historical reference in a conversation with Fitz “I’m feeling a little… Sally Hemmings/ Thomas Jefferson about all this” (ABC, 2012) thus showing the significance of their biracial relationship. Whilst Olivia is a free woman unlike 19th century slave Sally, it is possible that this was a writer attempt to show the true power imbalance between them as Olivia seems unable to break away or resist being away from Fitz, adding more layers of complexity. Fitz tries to counter this, asserting that in the relationship it is in fact her with all the power “You own me! You control me. I belong to you… I exist for you” (ABC, 2013), de-emphasizing the role in which race plays within not only their relationship but the narrative itself. The use of the historical reference in such an unconventional manor suggests that perhaps Rhimes wanted to strip away the physical aspects of their relationship, leaving only the enslavement of the two characters in more of an emotional sense. Overall, the reference to race perhaps effectively highlights Olivia’s identity as a post-feminist woman who struggles to come to terms with her all-consuming love for a married man, thereby rendering her vulnerable.
Whilst it is evident that Olivia was not born into the same privileges as these power-hungry political players, she has certainly earned her seat at the table. In series three, Olivia’s father uses the mantra “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have” (ABC,2014), another indictment of white privilege and an acknowledgement of the burden of race, “a rare thing found in mainstream television” (Pixley, 2015). Whilst it is elsewhere evident that Olivia and her father live in a post-racial world empowered by these white-male elite, perhaps race is only recognised still by those affected, a reverse on the society in which we live today.
In the beginning of the series, Olivia is often referenced as a wearer of the “white hat” and the ultimate “gladiator” (ABC, 2012), a symbol of being a hero to society. However, as the narrative develops, Olivia’s character undergoes a drastic metamorphosis, becoming darker, more complex and self-serving; within the narrative, she becomes a character who hungers for power, influence and the hope of freedom they might provide “I am very good at what I do. I am better than anyone else. And that is not arrogance, that is a fact.” (ABC, 2013). Yet despite all of this, Olivia is seen to remain an icon, a role model, an example of the power of representation, the ultimate flawed female antihero. Vaage believes that this shocking change in character arc within Scandal’s narrative “testifies to it still being less acceptable to portray non-conformist, difficult and transgressive female characters on screen” (Vaage, 2016: pp.151).
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From jealous wife in series one to President of the United States, it is perhaps Mellie’s character that makes the biggest leap of them all within the narrative. With the backstory as a successful lawyer who gave up her promising career to advance her husband’s political future, Mellie does not fit the mould of being a perfect political wife; she continuously lies to the public for her husbands’ and Olivia’s expense, keeping their affair a secret and thereby compromising her integrity in order to remain a sizable political force, maintaining her standing as First Lady in pursuit of power and influence. In a heated argument with Olivia in series 3, Mellie reveals her true feelings about standing behind Fitz for all those years “I have been destroyed while I have made him president. IT. IS. MY. TURN”, accidentally revealing within a flashback sequence that she was raped by Fitz’s father, yet another white-male elite. However, it is from series five that the unexpected partnership between Mellie and Olivia forms. Mellie puts aside the affair, her marriage and becomes more power hungry in her dream to become the first female president, voted in by the people. Whilst it appears that Mellie is the one in charge, in reality it is Olivia standing behind her making the decisions and manipulating her every move. Beside all of this, the true female empowerment comes from the respect Olivia holds for Mellie, especially as another woman going up against the white-male elite “You’re the biggest bitch I know, don’t tell me you can’t do this.” (ABC, 2016), pushing each other to achieve the impossible “Mellie, I am with you. No matter what you think I have always been with you. Are you with me?” (ABC, 2018).
In the final scene within the last episode of the last series, two young girls look at a portrait of Olivia Pope dressed in white and blue against a red background and the words “We the people” (ABC, 2018) written along the side, placed within the National Portrait Gallery. Thought to be inspired by a similar scenario of two girls looking at an official portrait of Michelle Obama. During the last few minutes of the episode, Olivia walks past the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Unlike many stereotypes on television Olivia was never a perfect character, she was flawed, going against ideas of what a black woman character should be, especially on a primetime American drama. On the surface, Mellie’s character is an embodiment of empowerment and ambition; yet like other empowered women, she had to make unlawful compromises to the patriarchal system in which we live today; no matter how brutal, she continued to persevere towards her dream. The representation of both these characters helped to drive the narrative of Scandal across seven series as the audience followed each downfall, each flaw and every step towards ambition, with every intention of watching these female characters succeed.
Legally Blonde (Luketic, 2001)
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is an example of a woman who achieves success without sacrificing her principals, femininity or identity. First seen to be a stereotypical blonde sorority girl, Elle singlehandedly manages to reverse this stereotype within the narrative though her determination, sheer tenacity and wit; proving these qualities to be an integral part of her characters personality and therefore uses them to further her career as a lawyer, evidencing the innocence of her client Brook Windham (Ali Larter).
Much like Scandal, it is first the white-male elitist characters within the narrative who are shown to hold the most power. In order to get accepted at Harvard, Elle submits an application video. Whilst referencing her use of lawyer discourse within her day to day life, showing passion and commitment within her role as head of her sorority, it is clear that Elle gets accepted by the admission board (a group of aging white-male elite) based on her looks over skills, citing the University’s need to “diversify its student body” (MGM, 2001). This is perhaps a literal comical depiction of Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (Mulvey, 1975: pp.808) as it demonstrates Elle’s knowledge as a smart individual, knowing that she will more than likely be objectified and instead uses it to her advantage.
Similar to the characters of Olivia and Mellie within Scandal, Legally Blonde actively subverts the nonsense of making a female character first and foremost a romantic lead and instead allows the characters of Elle and Vivian (Selma Blair) to realise how misguided their obsession and fight is over a substandard man, Warner (Matthew Davis); penultimately resulting in them empowering each other as women through friendship and womanhood. Despite Vivian first betraying Elle in class, Elle sticks to her principals of womanhood stating “we girls have to stick together” (MGM, 2001). It is perhaps the female characters that are the strongest within the film again, following the message and third wave feminist approach of female empowerment.
As an audience the growth in the character of Elle within the narrative, from that stereotypical blonde sorority girl to graduating top of her class as a lawyer at Harvard is only achieved through women lifting each other at perhaps their lowest moments within the film. Elle teaches Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) the ways of flirting in order to gain a boyfriend worth her while, and uses her unconventional methods, her gut instinct (much like Olivia in scandal) and her knowledge of femininity to prove the innocence of a convicted Brooke Windham. Even when Elle is at her lowest after a white-male elite, Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) attempts to seduce her after admitting he only let her into his selective study group, once again because of her looks, Elle is brought back to life with more determination to succeed and defy expectation from an unexpected speech from a female professor “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life… you’re not the girl I thought you were.” (MGM, 2001) Elle goes against all forms of patriarchy, once again going against stereotypes, proving that she can be a lawyer without the help of Callahan, or the approval of her ex Warner, taking over and winning the case.
In the final scene of Legally Blonde, we see Elle give an empowering speech to her graduating class “It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.” (MGM, 2001). It is perhaps this message that is strongest within the film. Tearing down misogynistic clichés, Legally Blonde is a perfect example of post feminism within 21st century film. It is not just a film about a stereotypical “Cosmo girl” (MGM, 2001) in her search to find love, it is a film about a woman who achieves success without sacrificing her principals, femininity or identity. Through rooting for these female characters to succeed within the narrative, we as an audience learn about how we should be empowering each other towards success, instead of tearing each other down.
Whilst for its time, Legally Blonde pushed the boundaries for a feminist film, third wave feminism frequently left out women of colour, disability and LGBTQ+, meaning that intersectionality had not been yet considered. Scandal, a television series produced eleven years after Legally Blonde continues to push feminist boundaries with the choice of casting an African American actress as a female protagonist. Whilst romantic stereotypes help to drive the subplots of both Scandal and Legally Blonde, the narratives place the want of success within their chosen fields over that of simply romance, focusing more solely toward female empowerment and ultimately the sense of womanhood, driving them further towards their goals and their intentions to succeed.
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