Thursday, April 30, 2015

Women’s power is zero-sum

My wife and I agree on very little when it comes to watching television -- she's all "Grey's Anatomy" and "Revenge" and "The Good Wife," while I'm all about "Big Bang Theory" and "The Black List" and "Person of Interest."

There are two shows, however, that we watch together without fail: "Dancing With The Stars" and "Scandal." This column is not about DWTS, although I will say tell you now that Willow Shields will win it because (1) she's almost as good as Rumer Willis and (2) "Hunger Games." [Update: Willow was eliminated on April 27 after a series of disappointing performances. I blame Mark Ballas.]

But our other TV show appointment, "Scandal," has graduated from the realm of guilty pleasure to become serious, issue-driven TV that we all need to watch.

In the most recent episode, Laura Dunham (she of HBO's "Girls" fame) played the writer of a tell-all sexcapade book that threatened to bring down most some of the most powerful men in government. Olivia (Kerry Washington) Pope was hired to dissuade "Dirty Sue" from publishing her book, but the attempt backfired. Sue wanted three mil to be quiet. Problem is, one of her targets was Attorney General David Rosen, who has promised Olivia's associate, Huck, immunity to testify against the B613 covert action group. Are you with me so far?

Turns out, Sue was fired from a government job for which she was eminently qualified because she refused to let her boss screw her. She promptly sank into a miasma of kinky sex with all manner of Washington alpha males, from which experiences she wrote her tell-all book.

 Sue agrees to drop the whole thing when Olivia secures her a decent job doing what she wants so she can reclaim her dignity and her personhood, But when Olivia's associates, Katy and Huck, go to pick up the last copy of the manuscript and all of its notes, Huck summarily assassinates Sue. "She'd tell," he says over and and over. "She knew and she'd tell." Huck, you see, is convinced that Dirty Sue will eventually tell someone about her affair with Rosen, causing Rosen to resign, threatening Huck's immunity and endangering his life. Are you still with me?

The episode was more jam-packed with women's equality issues than the show has ever been, and I don't see it going back on that. One sub-plot involved the White House press secretary, a fetching redhead, who complained that, although she's risen to the very top of the journalism/PR profession, she is constantly identified in the media as the girlfriend of a powerful Washington, D.C. "fixer." She has no identity of her own, she shouts at her paramour. American society identifies her by the man she's sleeping with.

By the way, the show has continued to thump on that theme by making a big deal out of Mellie Grant's bid to follow in Hillary Clinton's footsteps. Mellie is "Scandal's" First Lady and, while her husband is still the president, she runs for the Senate in Virginia. Questions are raised about a conflict of interest if a Virginia senator is sleeping with the president. The show's writers turn that little bit of misogyny on its head by making the bedmates issue a plus for Virginia -- screw the rest of the country, only Virginians will vote for their senator and she's happy to promise them she'll be spreading her legs for POTUS. If Virginia falls for it, is it a win or a loss for women's power and equality?

But back to Sue; she defied Olivia's slut-shaming attempt, telling her the book is "all I have left." She doesn't care if people use the W-word about her because she's done what she wanted with whom she wanted and gotten the pleasure she wanted, and now she's going to enjoy the success she's always wanted. While other women are complaining about being defined by their sex, Sue is reveling in it. Olivia offers her a different kind of validation, one based on her brains instead of her body, and it turns out that’s what Sue really wanted all along.

And then Huck kills her.

Here’s my takeaway from that: Equality is a matter of power, and power is a zero-sum proposition. In order for women to gain power, and thus equality, men have to be willing to share it, or lose it by force. And men need to understand right now that, to paraphrase Emerson, events are in the saddle; women will gain the power they need for true equality, and the only decision we men have is how much or little pain we cause ourselves in the process.

So Huck saw the newly-empowered Sue as a threat. His precipitous assassination of her is a metaphor for the backlash that women suffer even when they gain some of the power they need for equality. I think his action will come back to haunt him in very real and painful way.

Sue meant no harm to Huck and posed no real threat. But like too many men, Huck couldn’t stand a woman having that kind of power. He didn’t trust her with that power. It frightened him.

There isn’t a happy ending here. Every day thousands of women suffer physical and mental harm because the men in their lives -- men they didn't even know were in their lives -- cannot abide women having that much power.