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Scandal’s Rape Isn’t About Likability

Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC

[This post talks about plot details from last night’s Scandal.] On Thursday’s ironically titled “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie,” we learned that yet another one of our main Scandal characters has been the victim of abuse: Fifteen years ago, Mellie’s father-in- law Big Jer raped her — and might be the father of her son, also named Jerry. It was a horrifying scene, even for a show that often depicts torture, assault, murder, and emotional abuse. There’s plenty of discussion to be had about rape-as-cheap-plot-device, though I’ll hold off on accusing Scandal of that until we see whether the assault is ever referenced again. (My guess is yes, and my guess is that Mellie tells Olivia.)

But I’m not convinced that this was Scandal’s attempt to “humanize Mellie, and perhaps move a couple people from the ‘Love to Hate’ camp to the just ‘Straight Up Love,’” as EW put it. According to Yahoo TV, “Mellie is no longer the villain.” At Complex, it’s “If you don’t like or at least have more sympathy for Mellie after last night, you have no soul and kick puppies for sport.” “I feel like the writers have really tried to make Mellie more likeable this season and Thursday’s episode was the pinnacle of that,” says the Washington Post.Scandal fans, it’s time to stop hating on Mellie,” announces Hollywood Life. “Scandal refuses to let Mellie be the Skyler White of the Fitz administration,” says Bustle. (That’s its own can o’worms.) The basic through line of these: I used to just think she was an icy bitch, but now that I know she’s been raped, I guess I’ll cut her some slack! Believe it or not, some of us have been cutting her slack this whole time.

I don’t suddenly like Mellie more or less because she is a survivor of rape. This idea that Mellie’s behavior is somehow lovable because it has some of its origins in a devastating sexual assault absolutely does not compute. For starters, I already loved Mellie’s behavior. But more important, Scandal is not that interested in us liking anyone. I’m interested in these characters, I have compassion for them, and I find their wild and violent exploits endlessly fascinating and intriguing. But like? This show does not operate on a like economy. It operates on an action economy. To wit: Harrison has been tremendously likable in the last few weeks, but he’s been so totally nonessential I was worried they were writing him off the show, Henry Ian Cusick–style.

There are plenty of reasons to root for Mellie as a character: She’s funny, she’s ambitious, she’s acerbic, and in a hive of calculating, manipulative, and dangerous emotional vampires, she may be the queen bee. Mellie’s rape is not a referendum on her likability. It is also not the totality of her personhood. Does her trauma explain some of her behavioral traits in the present day? Yes, of course. Rape is catastrophic, and none of this should be construed as minimized or denying the impact of sexual assault and abuse. But we knew a lot about Mellie before we knew that she was a rape survivor, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to learn other things about her backstory, be they related to her assault or not.

Scandal’s Rape Isn’t About Likability