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In Defense of Mellie Grant: Why Scandal’s Scorned First Lady May Be It’s Most Feminist Character

Posted on the 30 November 2015 by Juliez
In Defense of Mellie Grant: Why Scandal’s Scorned First Lady May Be It’s Most Feminist Character

Bellamy Young, who plays Mellie Grant on ‘Scandal’

Writer-director-producer extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes’ hit show Scandal has too many feminist moments to count. Each episode of the show declared “the most feminist show on TV” by the New York Post seems to tackle an important issue, from sexual assault, to domestic violence, to women in the workforce and beyond. The most powerful message this show sends to over one million viewers per week isn’t found solely in the actions of the glass-ceiling-shattering protagonist Olivia Pope, but the ways in which the show demonstrates the glass ceiling remains for all women.

This message is most clearly revealed by the juxtaposition of Olivia —the President’s strong, independent mistress — with Mellie, the president’s “bitchy” wife. The portrayal of the equally ambitious women makes it clear that there are still only two paths to power available to women: We can be Olivia and have a flourishing career but a precarious, stereotypically male sex-centered love life or we can be Mellie and conform to a repressive ideal of womanhood and gain power only by making compromises to navigate the entangled identities of wife, mother, and individual. Olivia’s strength and power may be more obvious, but Mellie’s ability to successfully navigate the unfair expectations women face when trying to navigate domestic and professional lives is an astonishing show of power, too.

Mellie’s intelligence is limited by the traditional expectations of her role as the president’s wife. “The First Lady,” she reminds us in Episode 4, “is still the nation’s first hostess.” Her husband dismisses her as “ornamental” and “not functional,” even though she strategically sacrificed her own ambitions so he could become president. First in her class at Harvard Law, Mellie could care less about China patterns and soft domestic philanthropy. “The unfortunate part about being as educated as I am is that being First Lady is profoundly boring,” she says in one episode. She craves the ability to engage in hardball diplomacy, but is stuck playing house. It’s a position, she notes, deeply rooted in gender inequality. “When a woman is president, they’ll suddenly make first lady an official paid position,” she observes at one point. “They’ll hire someone to do it, the minute a man has to do it. It’ll become a ‘real’ job.”

But when Mellie chooses to formally reject playing this role and runs for a Senate seat in Season 4, she encounters new obstacles. For example, she highlights the way women are tied to both their professional jobs and domestic roles in a way men aren’t. In response to the claim that a mother can’t have “two jobs,” Mellie argues that unlike a real job, you aren’t paid to be a mother and can’t quit: Being a mother is a role and one a woman plays for life. While men can also have a job and a role as father, women are more stringently tied to their roles. Women are still seen as the primary responsibility-holders in the household, which Mellie finds firsthand when she is attacked for seemingly abandoning her role as mother and wife to do a similar job at a similar level of commitment as her husband.

Mellie also demonstrates that women are held to different standards than men in terms of negotiating desire or emotionality and responsibility: Namely, they are judged more harshly when they fail to strike an acceptable balance. When Mellie makes backdoor deals or strategic political moves, the men in her life berate her as being unladylike or crazy, whereas the same behavior would be perfectly acceptable for male politicians. When her husband’s lurid affair surfaces, Mellie laments that she will be blamed, scrutinized and “subjected to humiliation for an affair she didn’t even have” and sidelines her own needs for the sake of the bigger picture, of being taken seriously — something her husband, whose personal decisions are clearly driven by his feelings, categorically does not do.

While it’s easy to write off Mellie Grant as the cold, scorned woman, I think the character challenges us to question why we villainize hyper-political women. The portrayal of Mellie shines a light on the uncomfortable gendered double standards that persist today — especially those that women who adhere to traditional notions and roles of femininity face. As Bellamy Young, who plays Mellie, said in an interview, “It’s so easy to disregard or underestimate Mellie. She can be so hyperbolic. She has big hair. But she is a smart, smart woman. She is often the smartest woman in the room.”

Mellie is just as ambitious and intelligent as Olivia, but as a wife and mother she has to break through more patriarchal walls to get where she wants. This just makes me root for her all the more.

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