It's not all mistresses and murder with Scandal. While the soapy political drama frequently takes us deep into the world of make-believe, Scandal is also known for its plucked-straight-from-the-headlines plotlines that tap directly into the zeitgeist, the most noteworthy of which may have been the Ferguson, Mo.-inspired "Lawn Chair" episode. Indeed, in the midst of all the over-the-top shenanigans, Team Scandal often has a message for its viewers.
As we gear up for the season 5 finale, let's look back at five times this season when Scandal imitated life and commented on what's happening in the real world.
1. Dog-whistle politics.
In the episode titled, "Dog-Whistle Politics," Scandal's writers took us to school over the way the media often use coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different, more pejorative and insidious meaning for a targeted subgroup.
After Olivia Pope confessed to the world that she was President Fitz Grant's mistress, she was promptly dragged by the press as journalists described her using terms frequently reserved for black women, like "sassy," "urban" and "overconfident." Gladiator Marcus Walker took the press to task about the way they had been using dog-whistle politics to report on Olivia.
Scandal's creator, Shonda Rhimes, an African-American woman, knows of what she writes. Just a year and a half ago, Rhimes was the target of dog-whistle politics when Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times referred to her as an "angry black woman." Rhimes drove her point home by tweeting a list of adjectives that are commonly used to describe black women.
2. Women and rape threats.
In the same episode, Olivia fell down the dark, bleak rabbit hole of Internet comments to find thousands of rape threats. Frustrated, she asked Fitz, "How come whenever a woman does something that people don't like, the only way these men on the Internet know how to express themselves is threatening rape?"
Much has been written about the disproportionate amount of harassment, sexual or otherwise, that women receive online. According to research from the University of Maryland, feminine usernames in chat rooms incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day, while masculine names received only 3.7. Recently, two female sportswriters put together a video of men reading some of the mean tweets that they have received.
3. Rapists and rape survivors.
In "Even the Devil Deserves a Second Chance," Team Scandal illustrated the unfair burden placed on rape victims when their rapist is a powerful man through a case of the week that was very clearly based on Bill Cosby. In this episode, Fitz intended to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a powerful, well-regarded humanitarian and professor, Frank Holland, until a young female student came forward with allegations that Holland had drugged and raped her. When she reported the rape to the university, the school kicked her out and she was accused of plagiarism, which made it less likely that people would believe her allegations. So the gladiators had to find 22 more women who also claimed to have been drugged and raped by Holland.
They staged a press event during one of Holland's lectures to allow the 22 women to tell their stories to a national audience, much like when 35 of Cosby's accusers came together last summer to share their stories in New York magazine. Olivia clearly pointed out that none of Holland's humanitarian work should be used to sweep under the rug the fact that he's a rapist. In case anyone doubted that Scandal was commenting on Cosby and whether or not he was guilty, the episode kicked off with Junior Walker's "Shotgun," which sounds remarkably like the popular Cosby Show theme song.
4. Planned Parenthood funding.
In "Baby, It's Cold Outside," newly minted Sen. Mellie Grant carried out a 16-hour filibuster in the Senate that was reminiscent of Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis' 11-hour filibuster in 2013 to (temporarily) kill a bill that would have implemented stringent abortion restrictions. Mellie was trying to prevent a spending bill from passing that would jeopardize funding for Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, in the real world, a growing Republican effort to defund the organization was underway because it performs abortions. If you doubted that Team Scandal supports both Planned Parenthood and a woman's right to choose, while Mellie was midfilibuster, Olivia was actually having an abortion.
5. The presidential election.
Not only did Scandal craft a presidential campaign arc that parallels the one that's currently happening in the real world, but in "Trump Card," it brilliantly dusted off Hollis Doyle from season 1, a billionaire bigot with a blond bouffant hairdo, to toss his hat in the ring and make America great again. See what they did there? Dubbed "the Texas Truth Teller," Hollis ran on a platform of getting rid of "pesky border crossers" and "sad little refugees," and the more his opponents tried to out him for his bigotry, the higher he soared in the polls.
When Olivia confronted Hollis about his bigoted rhetoric, he explained that he was just a savvy businessman who was simply appealing to his market by telling those inbred, knuckle-dragging mouth breathers exactly what they want to hear, but he intended to switch up his rhetoric when he got to the general election. Yup.
Subsequently, Hollis dropped out of the race when, as it turns out, Olivia had recorded Hollis' confession and released the tape. Of course, in real life, Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination. If only life actually imitated art in this case! Maybe Rhimes will offer a lesson or two to the Democrats on how to beat Trump. She did just join Emily's List's Creative Council to help get Hillary Clinton elected.
In the meantime, let's see how the election plays out in Scandal's season finale …
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.