On #Scandal, “The List,” & A Culture of Workplace “Sex”

I turned in a full draft of my dissertation proposal and finally got a moment to breathe. As an over-committed graduate student working to break the cycle of doing too much (in my best of Moneybagg Yo et al. voices), I decided to allow myself the space to watch four hours of TV this week.

In T.V. time, four hours is nothing. Four one hour episodes, two movies, eight episodes of a 30 min hit, etc. NOTHING. But given just how far behind I was, it was enough time to catch up on Scandal thanks to the lack of episode airings due to the Winter Olympics. I’ve never been happier to have a TV show I love disrupted by sports in my life.

At any rate, I finished my Scandal catch up with the episode “The List”. If you haven’t seen it, spoilers ahead so click off this post.

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The episode enters the Me Too discussion and follows the story of two recent graduates hoping to make it big in D.C. The pair are roommates and serve as Congressional aids/ Interns. At the start of the episode, we see a gorgeous Black woman (Alicia? Alisha? Francis played by Marquise C. Brown) who goes to buy herself a gun and then eventually find out she’s missing and given the purchase presumed dead. It is later revealed the Black woman (t.w.: suicide) killed herself as a result of being unable to gain a full-time position after the close of her internship because of a professional decision. With Olitz, because lol, on the case we find out the true cause of her demise was her unwillingness to participate in administering sexual favors for men she worked with/ for. Her roommate eventually comes forward (at the end of the episode) and it is revealed there’s a list that floats around D.C. so men know who to hire based on their willingness to perform sexual acts and attractiveness because these things are rewarded more than good work.

Whew.

I was particularly interested when Fitz asked Liv about the power dynamics that led to their relationship (but that’s another post entirely) and it brought up flashbacks for me about my own life.

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I once dated a man in my field for a few months only to find out he’d slept with a student who had an internship in his office. Though I spoke with the woman in question and she seemed to have some agency in the situation, I couldn’t stop thinking about the power dynamics associated with men in leadership sleeping with young, new, burgeoning professionals. I immediately thought about my own situation when watching this Scandal episode and wondered just how much agency does one have in a situation where we have to choose between our jobs/ livelihoods and elect to draw a line in the sand as they relate to professional ethics?

The Me Too movement and even this episode of Scandal shows just how differently workplace harassment manifests and how it can be particularly devastating for Black women. I’ll never forget the ways in which people immediately believed the tales about Harvey Weinstein until my fellow Hampshire Alumna and fave Lupita Nyong’o came forward. People couldn’t rationalize that Nyong’o would have been a victim because we position conversations about sexual assault as those where white women are victims and where Black women are willing participants. Because we rely on old stereotypes about the salaciousness of the Black female body (read: Jezebel) and when taken in tandem with white supremacist notions about beauty, we assume no one would assault a Black woman because Black women aren’t even worthy of assault. FFS.

What a ridiculous yet prevalent notion?

If you think I’m nuts, take a gander at the ways in which your favorite local Ashy men on Twitter and white supremacists talk similarly about Black women, our bodies, and our worth. It’s astounding, honestly.

I was shocked at the lack of attention given to this episode of Scandal because it tackled something that women everywhere could identify with.

Trans women (of color) experience sexual violence and harassment at alarmingly high rates.

Black women experience sexual violence and harassment at dangerously high rates

Non-Black women of color experience sexual violence at startling high rates.

White women experience sexual violence and harassment at high rates.

WOMEN. Experience. Sexual. Violence. And. Harassment. At. High. Rates.

And yet, one of the first mainstream primetime T.V. shows to talk about this subject with such nuance and proper timing and I’ve heard almost nothing in the blogosphere? Maybe I missed it because I can no longer live tweet. Maybe I haven’t done enough of my Googles. But this episode had me in my feelings as both a survivor of and champion against sexual harassment and violence. It also reminded me of the ways in which I traded on my own ethics about not speaking up regarding the man I dated and his misdeeds because I’d feel guilty about seeing a Black man fired. There goes that socialization for racial loyalty showing up despite my commitment to a Black feminist practice–I guess I have even more to unlearn.  This brought me back to Mama Pope’s monologue on the ways in which we as Black women work to save everyone even at the expense of saving ourselves.

 

Being in student affairs has made me particularly w(e)ary of conversations around workplace sexual violence and assault because a quick scan of apps and hashtags around conference season shows just how many people who are supposed to be protecting us and our students on campus are the very people committing some of the most heinous acts of violence.

Power dynamics are always at play and while I’ll never take away someone’s agency, I feel inclined to question how much agency a person has in a situation where their future depends on sexual compliance? It was about time for a mainstream television show to highlight this conversation and for us to be forced to contend with how these dynamics can have particularly catastrophic consequences for Black women–even if it is on a fictional television show.

And while I appreciate Scandal for tackling this issue at all, I was reminded by a friend in talking through this post of the ways in which Mellie and Fitz’s initial reactions to Olivia’s desire to take on the case were based in misogynoir and privilege. Fitz’s (white) male privilege had shone through as he didn’t fully grasp the big deal around this particular case and this particular girl (for a while) and Mellie was willing to listen to Jake and wait on seeking legislation around this issue until the face of the movement was Alisha’s white roommate. Yikes. It was a subtle reminder of the ways in which white women betray the sisterhood with their complicity in narratives around Black women’s experiences with sexual violence… And while this is just a show, Lupita’s experiences weren’t.

And silence.

Though Scandal has moved on to other storylines and I can’t wait to see Liv reclaim her power on the show, I am reminded of the power in each and every one of us as Black women calling out workplace harassment and sexual violence. We don’t owe racial loyalty to Black men when it comes in the name of perpetual harm (physical or otherwise) against ourselves and other (Black) women.

I don’t have a neat little bow to wrap this post with, but I hope that we’ll begin to have more real conversations about the impact of sexual violence and harassment on Black women. In the meantime, I’ll be doing my part to call out research that continues to silence Black women’s experience and whitewash dialogues around campus sexual violence. It’s the least I can do within my locus of control and a way for me to continue my commitment to uplifting and centering Black women’s experience.

Our stories and truths are ours for speaking, controlling, and deciding what to do with; We must take command of them to avoid being silenced.

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