Making Sense of the Rape Scene on Scandal


Need we say SPOILER ALERT? There, we said it.

Scandal is a show so full of twists and turns, there are several “OMG” moments in each episode. But last night, OMG was not enough. There were no words strong enough to convey the shock and horror as viewers watched one of the main characters get raped.

The episode, titled “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie,” centered on flashbacks to 15 years ago, long before Fitz became POTUS. Back then, Fitz and Mellie were in love and he was planning to run for Governor of California. Fitz’s father, Senator Fitzgerald Grant II — aka Jerry — was helping them strategize, but mostly berating and belittling his son, and drinking a lot. Late one night after Fitz has gone to bed, Jerry and Mellie discuss Fitz while sitting in front of a fireplace. Jerry says, “Good God, you’re a beautiful woman.” He puts his hand on her knee, and things escalate fairly quickly. Mellie says, “stop, no,” immediately. When Jerry asks, “Do you really want me to stop?” her silence is incredulity, not acquiescence. She continues to protest until it’s basically too late; then she is just paralyzed with fear, disgust and horror. Her husband’s father is raping her.

The next morning, Mellie and Jerry sit down for breakfast together. When he says, “I know things got out a little out of hand last night,” she cuts him off: “Don’t mention it.” She goes on to turn the incident into a bargaining chip, telling Jerry that his job now is to apologize to and support his son, so that they can win the election. Later, it’s hinted at that she may have gotten pregnant by “Big Jerry,” so Fitz’s firstborn son may actually be his brother. Eesh.

From the beginning, Mellie has been a strong, often frosty and aggressive character. Direct, unflinching, unflappable, even as her husband cheats on her and she gets painted as the bitch. Although we have seen glimpses of the ways the now-FLOTUS sacrificed her own goals and career in order to put her husband and his political career first, this is obviously a major, harrowing secret Mellie has kept under wraps, squashing her own feelings and well-being for the good of the team. Viewers are meant to absorb that being raped by her father-in-law had a hand in shaping Mellie’s prickly personality.

But there are plenty of critics on Twitter who find it upsetting that the show would use rape as a plot device to humanize a strong female character. U Penn professor Anthea Butler was among those who reacted negatively, calling the rape scene “gratuitous”:

Over at the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, Cicely K. Dyson writes:

That scene was both disturbing and disgusting. […] As viewers, we’ve been told repeatedly that Big Jerry was a big dirtbag. He continuously cheated on Fitz’s mother, he berated his son at any given opportunity and he had no respect for anyone. But the first time we meet Big Daddy Rapist, in season two’s “A Criminal, a Whore, an Idiot and a Liar,” he and Mellie embrace like the family they are during Fitz’s presidential bid. That Big Jerry’s that low-level kind of scum, I’m not terribly surprised. That Mellie would allow him even to touch her after that seems disingenuous. While I get that Mellie’s character needed a flushed out backstory, trotting out rape at the hands of her father-in-law was not the way to do it. It just doesn’t jibe with what we’d seen of them in the past.
What we’d seen from Mellie is a woman never comfortable in background but able to stand behind and support her husband no matter what. To use that trait in conjunction with rape in order to guilt Big Daddy Rapist into supporting his son makes a mockery of the act. Mellie didn’t even get a chance to shower afterward. But she’s able to break bread with the man the next day and guilt him into standing behind Fitz? I just don’t buy it.

But New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum disagrees, tweeting, “To me, Mellie’s monstrosity in S1 went beyond “was cheated on.” [The rape] clarified an important element… […] to me, it made the timeline make sense & explained why Fitz and Mel couldn’t fix the relationship, even if they wanted to.” She construes the development as proving that Mellie “so badly wanted him to be President that she made this sad, bitter, traumatized decision to bury it, then use it as power.”

It’s obvious that the scene was intended to add depth to an already fierce character, and cast her in a new light. While viewers (including this one in our open thread) may bristle at TV using rape as a plot device, it does spark discussion, draw attention to the hideousness of the crime, and in this instance, expose a filthy truth: It’s so often unreported, unprosecuted, and perpetrated by someone the survivor knows.

And, as blogger and Ebony contributor Feminista Jones pointed out:

Next week’s episode is directed by Ava Du Vernay, who, in 2012, became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at Sundance, for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere. She tweeted:

Editor’s note: We realize that the headline on this item for some folks may constitute a spoiler — though we were careful not to give away any further details, and close watchers of the show agree that the rape is so unexpected that you can’t really guess any further details other than “this is something that happens to someone” — but given the issue we felt it was necessary. We know it sucks a little, sorry. (Hell, it was even a spoiler for me.) -JC

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