Scandal, #WhyIStayed and standing against abuse

Kory Plockmeyer

Scandalis back on ABC this fall, further detailing the illicit relationship between public-relations guru Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and married President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn). Watching the first few episodes, it strikes me that the show could play a helpful role in our current national conversation about abusive relationships.

Scandal follows Olivia and her team of PR “gladiators” as they try to clear the name of innocent victims and fight for justice. Despite trying to don the “white hat” (a play on her papal last name), Pope frequently gets dragged into darkness, particularly when it comes to her relationship with Fitz.

Prone to alcoholism and anger, Fitz claims to love Olivia, frequently promising her that some day they will settle down for a quiet, peaceful life together. Yet on multiple occasions, he has forced himself upon Olivia, pushing her against the wall, kissing her despite her protests. While Olivia sometimes refuses Fitz’s advances, at other times the romantic music begins to swell and Olivia melts into his arms, giving in to his pursuit. Fitz also abuses his office in his attempts to woo Olivia, exposing the power imbalance that is at the core of their dynamic.

Control is at the center of abusive relationships. When video surfaced in early September of football star Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, it prompted a national conversation about domestic violence, causing many people to wonder why Janay Rice eventually married the man who physically assaulted her. The conversation took to Twitter via the hashtag #WhyIStayed, which included heartbreaking stories of women who believed the apologies and who continued to hope for an idyllic vision of love that would never be fulfilled. The common refrain of these stories involved a man intent upon controlling his world through violence and coercion.

Scandal’s popularity creates space to continue the much-needed conversation around domestic abuse.

As Christians, we need to hear these stories of women whose partners resort to abuse. We need to create generous space where we can listen to the stories of women who have been told by the church and its leaders that their Christian duty is to remain in an abusive relationship. We ought to mourn that, despite knowing that domestic abuse happens at alarming rates both in and out of the church, many pastors remain nearly silent about it. We need to grieve that the message of Jesus Christ, who came “to set the oppressed free,” is twisted so as to continue cycles of abuse and deny the inherent dignity and worth of so many women. We need to lament that the call on men to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” is used instead to justify the cycles of control that give rise to abuse.

Most victims of domestic abuse do not spark a national conversation on social media. The conversation around #WhyIStayed has died down, at least for the time being. Most women, both inside and outside of the church, suffer in silence. Yet each week, Olivia Pope and her gladiators rise to the top of Twitter’s trend list. Scandal’s popularity creates space to continue the much-needed conversation around domestic abuse. As fans of the show, we are invited to cheer for Olivia as she fights to break out of Fitz’s cycle of coercion. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are invited to put on the “white hat” with Olivia, to speak up for innocent victims, to expose the reality of abuse in our midst and to create gracious space where the conversation around abuse can continue.

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