This post contains spoilers about Episode 7, Season 4 of "Scandal."
When women open up about their experiences of abuse, or power imbalances within a sexual relationship, it can be an incredibly powerful tool for change. But it also comes with serious risk -- especially when that relationship is with a man in a position of public power.
On last night's episode of "Scandal" (which, sidenote, felt like a beautiful melodrama love letter to feminism with Mellie's mentions of First Lady equal pay), White House press secretary Abby Whelan was in the spotlight. Abby's ex-husband, Chip, who, as "Scandal" viewers know, had previously abused her, was poised to be elected as a Virginia Senator. After a chilling encounter with him, in which Abby nearly shoots him, she goes to Olivia and asks for advice. What follows is an exchange that perfectly illustrates the gap between what women in these situations should feel empowered to do and what often happens when women do step forward.
After a deeply shaken Abby asks Olivia what she should do, Olivia delivers a "fuck yeah" sort of speech, in typical Olivia Pope fashion.
"Use your podium. Don't wait for the election," she says. "Stand up at your podium with its presidential seal and tell the most powerful reporters in the world who Chip is, who he really is. You would destroy his career, just like that. Think about all those battered women who would hear your story and they'd get a little hope. Think of all the lives you could change. You'd be a hero to so many women, right?"
But as Abby points out in her heartbreaking response, coming forward often means that a woman's entire life and legacy becomes defined by victimhood and sex scandal. (Not to mention the fact that many women in less high-profile positions face legitimately life-threatening circumstances if they disclose abuse.)
"I did that. We did that for clients for years," she responds. "They came, we fixed, and we conquered. But what happened to those women, Liv? They became Anita Hill, Monica Lewisnky. They stood up, Liv. They stood up and told their story. But where are they now?"
More than 15 years after the scandal that took over her life, Monica Lewinsky can't join Twitter without being harassed and told to post nudes, and Anita Hill has received "death threats, bomb threats [and] threats of sexual violence" since 1991, when she came forward accusing Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her. In the shadow of those women's stories, it's no wonder that a woman like Abby wouldn't want to step forward, risking that the rest of her life will be defined by her abuse.
When it's a man who has an affair or commits violence, it's often the woman involved who pays the greater price. "Scandal" distilled that into a 2-minute clip. Here's hoping those watching took pause after Abby's speech to think hard about the reality of what she said, just as Olivia did.