As a feminist and a fan of both shows, the comparison between Scandal and Homeland was blatantly and unfortunately obvious to me. Sure, they are both set in Washington, D.C., are both hugely popular dramas with female leads, and both involve a tumultuous romance. But as much as I want to love both shows for their fierce female characters, it’s impossible to deny the model they suggest for future female leads in successful dramas: They need to have a serious character flaw and a sexual tryst with the male lead.
For Carrie, her flaw is her struggle with mental illness, and her desire to be with the only person seemingly more vulnerable than she is — Brody. As a viewer, you are given the insight to believe that Carrie is right in whatever she believes and does, but you, along with her colleagues, constantly question it due to either her mental illness or her relationship with Brody, or sometimes both.
For Olivia, her flaw is her identity as the president’s mistress. While only known to some, until (*SPOILER ALERT*) the end of season two, most people central to the story and her life are well aware of the affair. And while for the most part they all highly value her expertise as a professional fixer and the former press secretary to the president, they all see her relationship with the president as her downfall. Not because they value his marriage, but because for some the affair is a threat to the presidency itself, and for others, it is a threat to Olivia’s successful career and even her personal safety.
There is an argument to be made that flawed characters just make better TV. Don Draper, Dexter, and Breaking Bad’s Walter White a.k.a Heisenberg all have their own serious flaws. But the main difference between these male leads and the few female leads we have to compare them to is that who these men sleep with is largely irrelevant to the story beyond the need to insert a sex scene to titillate the audience.
For female leads like Carrie and Olivia, it is who they sleep with that makes their characters relevant and drives the story.
In both Scandal and Homeland the male counterparts, while not the protagonists, are the crux of the story. Scandal wouldn’t be scandalous if Fitz wasn’t the president, and there wouldn’t be an internal threat to Homeland Security if Brody wasn’t a potential terrorist. By tying the female lead to these male characters in an intimate and explicitly sexual way, it sends the message that Carrie and Olivia are not interesting enough to exist on their own.
You half want to believe that Carrie is sleeping with Brody for intel, that she’s playing him as much as you fear that he is playing her, but then she crumbles and makes this face...
... and either her love for her him or her mental illness is confirmed.
While neither stop her from being excellent at her job, it can be difficult to root for her, knowing she believes he’s a terrorist but falls in love with him anyway. Although you may start to believe that Brody loves Carrie too, in the end you are led to believe he was in fact using her as a part of his terrorist plot.
Olivia, on the other hand, is the mistress you root for. She’s vulnerable, but not needy, and we love her immensely for it. As much as she loves Fitz, she doesn’t fall to his knees. Instead she demands that he “earn” her. And while she doesn’t really believe Fitz will ever choose her over his wife, he does. And so do we.
And then this happens:
In the end she chooses her job over her man but never herself. The president goes on to seek re-election with his wife by his side and Olivia is publicly named as the president’s mistress.
In both cases, the female characters are both literally and figuratively screwed and the male character perseveres.
While both shows offer strong, intelligent, and powerful female characters they fall short of offering the positive role models some of us want them to be. Neither Carrie nor Olivia are married or have children or seem to be concerned about either of those things. Both put their careers first and are exceptionally good at their jobs. And for a second it is refreshing to view them as people, not necessarily as women, that is until their next sex scene is written into the show.
It begs the question, why is it that the only way for a female-led drama to succeed is to have the star sleep with her male counterpart?
As much as some of us are big softies, I’m not sure anyone watches either show for the “romance” but even if that were true why is the need to insert a love story only the case when the lead character is a woman? Sex sells of course, as well, but I’m in no way suggesting these women should exist as sex-less creatures. I just find it disappointing that the sexual relationships written into each show are what make each leading lady central to the story.
Why isn’t Carrie’s career as a CIA operative, or even her mental illness, enough to drive a female-led drama? Why couldn’t a team of “Gladiators in Suits” squashing scandals with Olivia as their fearless leader be a hit?