On strong female characters

21 November 2014

I am a proponent of the philosophy that there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If you genuinely enjoy something, great. Enjoy it. No guilt required. It’s perfectly fine to like a series of books, or style of music, or a television show, for what it is, good or bad, rather than for its adherence to a culturally acceptable set of standards.

On a completely unrelated topic—I love watching Scandal. It took me a long time to start, and I admit it’s occasionally ridiculous. But at its heart is its saving grace: the most interesting strong female character being written right now, Olivia Pope.

God, how I love Olivia Pope. She’s smart, sophisticated, stylish, has good taste in wine and gets serious shit done. She cares about doing right. She’s a firebrand. She’s a gladiator. She’s the type of character, in both fiction and real life, that draws others to her. She’s one of those vital forces of nature that are sometimes difficult to deal with or understand, but whom people gravitate towards nevertheless, inevitably, to follow and support.

Olivia’s complicated nature is her greatest asset as an example of a fictional woman. Because she is one of the few fictional women who exemplify being both successful and complicated, and, of course, “complicated” when it comes to describing women is so often simply code for one of the worst epithets you can affix to a woman who wants to be taken seriously: “emotional.”

Emotion is the old standby tool our society has always and continues to use to discredit women. Men who show emotion are passionate and dedicated. Women who show emotion are unbalanced and unreliable. Even worse judgment falls on black women who express emotion. My favorite thing about Olivia Pope is how she blows that double standard up. She is emotional. She cries, she rages. She shows fear, she makes mistakes, she has flaws. And, throughout it all, she is still clearly the heroine. In being so, she redefines strong on her own terms instead of complying with its existing standard. This makes her a new kind of heroine, and it makes a huge difference to the people watching her.

Watching Olivia succeed in her own way is watching an outdated, unjust paradigm start to slip from its unchallenged power. Which is really what Olivia is all about, isn’t it. We’re all her gladiators. And there are really very few things better that we could be watching.

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