Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Lillian Forrester falling for President Fitzgerald Grant on Scandal.
It’s one of the surest clichés in TV and movies: If a female journalist shows up onscreen, you almost can guarantee she’ll sleep with her subject. See: Trainwreck, House of Cards, Top Five, Man of Steel, the list goes on. As of last night, ABC’s Scandal joined that august company, when Pulitzer Prize–winning feature reporter Lillian Forrester (Annabeth Gish) abandoned the assignment of a lifetime after a single look into President Fitz’s eyes and hopped into his bed instead.
The issue isn’t that this never happens in real life — Petraeus’s biographer; Gael Greene and Elvis, and Clint Eastwood, and Burt Reynolds; we’re all human — but that male reporters onscreen almost never have to resort to sex as a manipulation tactic. (Quite the opposite, they’re usually portrayed as pillars of morality and truth. See: All the President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck.) Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz wrote about the phenomenon just last year, comparing two movies with journalist protagonists: Trainwreck, in which Amy Schumer’s magazine-writer character gets drunk and screws the orthopedist she’s supposed to be profiling, and End of the Tour, in which Jesse Eisenberg’s magazine-writer character bros-out hard with David Foster Wallace and ends up getting enough great material to later write a book about him. And Trainwreck isn’t nearly as bad as House of Cards, in which ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) is told by her mentor, Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer), that she doesn’t have to bang her way into every scoop, even though that’s how Skorsky rose through the ranks. “We can laugh these kinds of stereotypes off as campy clichés,” writes Zoladz, “but they linger in the cultural imagination.” This has actual implications, such as Drake repeatedly asking GQ writer Claire Hoffman if she was going to sleep with him.
Where are Rory Gilmore, Mary Tyler Moore, and Murphy Brown when you need ‘em?
The Scandal story line is disheartening not only because it’s on a show run by Shonda Rhimes, who as one of the most powerful feminists in showbiz really ought to know better, but also because of its timing, in the run-up to Sunday’s Oscars, where Spotlight’s Rachel McAdams is up for Best Supporting Actress for playing real-life badass female reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, who actually did win a Pulitzer for the exciting work of doing her job.
Particularly egregious is how the Scandal affair goes down. In last week’s episode, Cyrus and Abby convince Fitz that he needs to cement his legacy by opening up to Lillian Forester, “one of the biggest journalists in the game.” She’s just finished a fair and uncompromising story from inside the Vatican. When she meets Fitz, she proclaims she has no ulterior motive; she just wants to write a damn good article. He tells her it’s nice to meet her, with a handshake full of innuendo, and she — a woman in her 40s — bites her lip as she watches him leave the room.
Cut to their first meeting, on the couch in the Oval office. Lillian asks one question — if the country is better off today than it was when Fitz took office — and stops the tape recorder. “I’m sorry,” she says. Fitz asks if it was something he said. “I don’t know I wasn’t listening,” says Lillian. “I am a respected journalist, I have a Pulitzer, I spent a week with Putin, and yet I cannot focus. I have an enormous crush on you.”
She scurries to gather up her things as Fitz points out that this is clearly a conflict of interest. Then he gives that Fitz smile and asks, “How about we nix this whole interview and instead you have dinner with me.” The next time we see Lillian is at the start of this week’s episode, when she and the president are making out like teenagers in the back of a presidential state car, before Abby interrupts to remind Fitz that if he’s going to go back to Lillian’s place, she’ll need to alert a Secret Service escort and a special team to sweep her house to remove traces of his DNA afterward. Her next scene is half-dressed on Fitz’s bed, and then as she’s being photographed with post-coital hair (they did it during a major hostage crisis) leaving Fitz’s private entrance. From an intellectual equal who went toe-to-toe with dictators and the Pope to a tabloid sensation in under two episodes. That was fast!
Below, more examples of the pernicious #LadyJournalistsSoSlutty cycle. Throw any we missed into the comments.
This super-sexist SNL sketch, in which Cecily Strong plays a tech reporter for Glamour who spends her entire Weekend Update segment flirting with Colin Jost. She brings a Popsicle in a jar onto the show so she can suck on it seductively.
Top Five, in which New York Times reporter Rosario Dawson falls in love with Chris Rock’s sell-out comedy movie star over the course of a day following him around for a profile. She’s at least shown as a complex woman and his intellectual equal, but when they kiss at the end of the night, all I could wonder was what happened to the article, and how could she possibly do an unbiased job? There’s no way the Times wouldn’t fire her ass right then and there.
Thank You For Smoking, in which Katie Holmes’s D.C. newspaper journalist character screws the Big Tobacco lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart) she’s writing about on the couch, in the kitchen, in a closet, and then screws him over in a hit piece. “I presumed anything I said while I was inside you was privileged,” he says. “Nick,” she replies, “if you wanted to talk on a plane or at a movie or over dinner, that would’ve been fine. You wanted to fuck. That’s fine by me.”
House of Cards, in which ambitious young Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) sleeps with Democratic congressman Frank Underwood for scoops, and her mentor Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmerman) just assumes she’s sleeping her way to the top, because otherwise how would “a Metro scrub” have such good intel? Janine ought to know: “I used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story,” she admits.
Trainwreck, in which Amy Schumer’s journalist character gets drunk with and goes home with the sports doctor she’s supposed to be profiling, then dates him, and only after they break up, disregarding that giant conflict of interest, finishes up that article about him. At least she manages to sell the piece to Vanity Fair, and apparently, it’s pretty good.
Hitch, in which Eva Mendes’s gossip columnist sleeps with/falls for Will Smith’s professional dating coach, who’s hiding his identity from her while she’s reporting on one of his clients. Okay, this one gets a bit of a pass because they get together before she knows who he is, but then she writes an exposé as revenge and gets her facts wrong.
Iron Man, in which Vanity Fair reporter Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) proves unable to resist Tony Stark’s charms while interviewing him about military protection.
Entourage, a borderline inclusion because Alice Eve’s Vanity Fair reporter only gets together with Vince after writing an unflattering profile of him. But in doing so she backtracks on every astute observation she’s made about how he has disrespectful relationships with women. They fly off to Paris to get married, and separate after nine days.
50 Shades of Grey, in which one student reporter hands off a plum assignment interviewing 27-year-old business mogul Christian Grey to her inexperienced roommate, Anastasia Steele — because interviews are so easy anyone can do them — and, after stuttering and biting her lip a lot because she’s so turned on, Anastasia gets propositioned by Grey to be his sub in a sadomasochistic relationship.
Crazy Heart, in which an amateur Santa Fe reporter played by Maggie Gyllenhaal sleeps with and/or falls for alcoholic country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges). Their relationship falls apart, but 16 months later he gives her another interview.
ABC’s Nashville, in which a reporter who has a sexual history with Deacon is assigned to write a story on his band, and then sleeps with him again while covering their tour.
Three Kings, in which a Gulf War reporter played by Judy Greer trades sex for stories with a retiring, disillusioned U.S. Army Special Forces officer played by George Clooney.
Sleepless in Seattle, in which Meg Ryan’s reporter character concocts an assignment for herself to fly out to Seattle to chase down a single dad whose voice she heard on the radio.
Superman, Man of Steel, in which reporter Lois Lane develops a sexual obsession with a man in a cape and blue tights whose identity she’s supposed to be uncovering.
Adaptation, in which a character based on real-life respected New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean goes to Florida to cover the trial of a nursery owner accused of stealing orchids to be turned into illicit drugs, and sleeps with him, while she’s still married. She gets a book out of it, that’s then optioned for a movie.
The Fly, in which Geena Davis, playing a serious magazine reporter, can’t resist Jeff Goldblum’s hot scientist after he shows her his teleportation machine. The only problem is that her female editor was already sleeping with him.
Nine, in which Stephanie, a Vogue reporter played by Kate Hudson, tracks down Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) after a press conference, flirts with him, and slips her room key into his pocket. As she’s undressing, he realizes how much he loves his wife, and leaves her in the hotel room.
Scoop, in which young journalism student Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) flies from America to London to interview a film director (played by Kevin McNally) in his hotel room, but gets drunk, sleeps with him, falls asleep, and obviously doesn’t get the interview.