Monday, October 14, 2013

Olivia Pope's Abusive Dad

[Content note: verbal/emotional abuse and control, sex shaming, body shaming, mild spoilers for the current season of Scandal]

As I've written before, I'm a fan of Scandal, and as I've said, I really like the main character, Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. Olivia is not a perfect character, and that is part of what makes her all the more interesting. In the incredibly complex, back stabbing, ruthless, and yet perfectly polished political world that Olivia operates in and runs, it can be hard to keep track of or even decide who we should be rooting for, but ultimately I care about Olivia, time after time.

That has perhaps never been more true than in the recent episodes which show her relationship with her father, Rowan Pope (Joe Morton). In the opening of this season, Rowan, now aware of Olivia's affair with the president, screams at and berates her, throwing all manner of horrible comment her way. Here's one such gem:
You’ve raised your skirt and opened your knees and gave it away to a man with too much power. You’re not rare, you’re not special, your story is no different than a thousand other stories in this town. [Episode 3.1 "It's Handled"]
In the second episode of the season, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" we see through flashbacks how Olivia and Rowan used to have a very strained, although more civil relationship, where he required her to go to dinner with him every Sunday as payment for her law school tuition.

I'll be honest, while the situations between Olivia and Rowan couldn't be less similar to my own life (confession, I'm not having a secret affair with the president and my dad is not the head of a highly classified black ops program) I really, really related to the way Olivia was being treated. The first way that I could see echoes of my own abuse in Olivia was in how Rowan couched so much of his tirade toward her in "It's Handled" to be about protecting her or being for her own good. Just as my dad berated me and put down my body for my "health," Rowan is mad because he feels that Olivia is ruining her life. He's mad because she hasn't listened to his lessons...and apparently the only outlet that he (or my own dad) sees is to point out these perceived flaws and hold them up for beratement and ridicule. But in their logic, it's not ridicule if it's aimed at "helping" you.

The second big similarity is abuse by control. In my household, I had to do things in just the exact way my dad saw fit, or I was undermining him. This hit a fever pitch during my time as an undergrad. I was living semi-on my own, but my dad was still paying tuition bills. Every time I dared to do something he didn't approve of, he would threaten to stop paying my school bills. And keep in mind, the stuff he disapproved of wasn't self destructive or dangerous was not getting an oil change at right at 2,000 miles which he felt was a must do. Or not immediately answer his phone calls within the first few rings. Or not eating what he thought I should eat. By comparison here, Rowan is making Olivia have dinner with him every Sunday. Watching those scenes (the forced smiling, the looking down when he gets upset, the hurt and anger that rips out of her when she finally tries to speak up for herself) felt all too familiar to me.

Abusive situations like mine often result in lots of intense approval seeking. Where some kids might shut down, others, like me, will try to do everything they can to receive that allusive gold star (affection, attention, praise) so sparingly doled out by the abusive parent. So achieve I did, and I would suspect that Olivia's astronomical level of success is probably in part due to this same mentality, now that we know her father's character.

I've talked before about a narcissistic kind of fatherhood which places daughters on a pedestal of sorts and expects great things from them. Rowan and my dad also seem to share this perspective. And the problem with being up on that pedestal is that when you fall...and you will fall... the drop is so much greater. While the praise for success is rare and precious, criticism flows freely and you never hear the end of your failures (like that scene quoted above.)

Honestly, typing this all out and reflecting on it is exhausting so I'm going to go ahead and just summarize here by saying that if the writers of Scandal were aiming to nearly perfectly depict an abusive father/daughter relationship, I feel they hit the nail on the head. Oh and before I end, I also want to put in a BIG plug for a piece by Trudy over at Gradient Lair, who wrote about how Rowan is a symbol of Black Patriarchy. There was also a huge Black cultural element to the way that Rowan treats Olivia, which Trudy beautifully analyzed and I learned a lot reading it.

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