WOMEN
11/20/2014 09:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How 'Scandal' Gives Unsuspecting Viewers Subtle Lessons In Feminism, Week After Week

Adam Taylor via Getty Images

In early October, Gloria Steinem and bell hooks sat on stage at the New School in New York City and addressed an audience of like-minded people who listened attentively, fan-girling over the two feminist icons. A young woman asked how conversations about women's issues can include those who aren't keenly aware of them.

As a female editor who works in the women's space online, that question struck me as particularly interesting. I edit, read, and share stories about what it means to be a woman in the workplace, on the sidewalk, and online on a daily basis. We consider it a success when a blog post about female sexuality as it relates to Kim Kardashian, or a photo series condemning street harassment goes viral, but we're also aware that our readers have a particular interest in that subject matter already. We're preaching to the choir.

"Everyone worries about what we should be doing. Do whatever you can," Steinem told that audience member.

That piece of advice is one Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer behind "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal," and "How To Get A Way With Murder," would likely agree with. Rhimes has found an effective way to put women's issues in front of the masses. All season long, she has worked subtle ideas about feminism into her plot lines, particularly on "Scandal," a show that reaches millions of viewers weekly.

Obviously, Rhimes' shows feature powerful women. Olivia Pope, Annalise Keating and Christina Yang are at the top of their industries professionally, don't claim to be humble and won't apologize for their successes. But "Scandal's" recent scripts take girl-power messaging one step further.

The NY Post's Lindsay Putnam accurately identified "Scandal's" accomplishments when she wrote, "While characters on Rhimes’ other shows are invested in their own success, the women in 'Scandal' are more concerned with breaking down barriers for all womenkind."

When Sheryl Sandberg campaigned to ban the word "bossy," online critics (mostly female) deliberated what that word implies about women, and whether those conclusions are even good or bad things. When Jill Abramson was fired from the New York Times in May, many of us paid close attention to how writers analyzed the difference between adjectives used to describe her -- “brusque” and “pushy” -- compared to how her male counterparts have been painted.

But it wasn't until Olivia Pope reprimanded Fitz this season on "Scandal" for calling Abby a bitch that the topic of how powerful women are labeled came up with my male friends. I watch the show with two 20-something men who work in finance, both of whom I consider respectful, socially aware and intellectually well-rounded. But in contrast to my reading list and general life experience as a woman, these guys hadn't closely considered how words like "bitch" "bossy" or "aggressive" are applied to women -- simply because they haven't had to.

"The words used to describe women! If she was a man you'd say she was 'formidable' or 'bold' or 'right,'" Olivia corrected Fitz. And with that, my friends, millions of viewers, and I, had to think -- if for just a second -- about the truth in her words.

In a later episode, a former first lady conferred with current first lady, Mellie Grant, about the realities of her legacy. She ran the country from behind the scenes while her not-so-bright president husband was having affairs, she explained. "I did all of it. And what will I be remembered for?... I will be remembered as the wife of a man who did something with his life.” While almost 100 percent of "Scandal" viewers will never reside in the White House, the underlying issue shined through her words. In real life, women traditionally are expected to take their husbands' last names, quite literally to be identified primarily as his wife. And even as the number of female breadwinners increases, research shows that housework and parenting is still seen as a woman's role, while the man of the household is expected to work.

Mellie Grant, a badass in her own right who could give two shits about China patterns, has been itching for more legitimate responsibilities for seasons. Mellie agreed with the former first lady, and later identified how that role will change as soon as a a female president hits the White House. "When a woman is president, they'll suddenly make first lady an official paid position... They'll hire someone to do it, the minute a man has to do it. It'll become a 'real' job," she said.

In those moments, "Scandal" fans were challenged to consider nuances of a woman's role at home and at work (and in this case, when your home is White and your work is at home), and how a man would be perceived differently for doing the exact same things.

And you thought you were simply watching a woman involved in two complex love affairs solve every problem in Washington while simultaneously exposing a super-secret covert government agency run by her father who executed her terrorist mother while she sips glass of red wine? Ha!

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
'Scandal' Stars Before They Were Gladiators ... And Villains
CONVERSATIONS