Why you should care
Big speeches and grand gestures make for a false sense of independence in our female lead protagonists on television.
I’ve spent every one of the last eight years with Shonda Rhimes.
I’m not talking about just one of her shows; I’m talking about all her shows. I screeched when Addison threatened Meredith and Derek’s relationship on Season 1 of Grey’s Anatomy. I held out against her for a few seasons of her spin-off, Private Practice, until finally succumbing and watching the show. I even ranted at the TV gods when Off the Map was canceled.
And then came Scandal’s Olivia Pope, with her white hat and her gladiators. Last spring, when Olivia gave her now-famous “Earn me” speech to Fitz, I stared wide-eyed at my TV screen. Finally! A glimpse of a new kind of heroine, one who stands up for herself and refuses to put up with a wishy-washy man.
The Big Speech
Olivia, sick of her on-again, off-again affair with the president of the United States, tells him, ”I am not a toy you can play with when you’re bored or lonely or horny. I am not the girl the guy gets at the end of the movie. I am not a fantasy. If you want me, earn me! Until then, we are done.”
This speech, delivered by the ridiculously talented Kerry Washington, seemed to be the antithesis of another famous Shonda Rhimes speech, one from Grey’s Anatomy. Meredith Grey pleads with Derek Shepherd to sign his divorce papers, ending his marriage to Addison. (Hey, Shonda, what is the deal with all the married men?) She says she is “so in” to the relationship it is “humiliating,” because now she’s begging. And then, of course, she begs: “Derek, I love you in a really, really big, pretend to like your taste in music, let you eat the last piece of cheesecake, hold a radio over my head outside your window, unfortunate way that makes me hate you, love you. So pick me, choose me, love me.”
In 2005 when I watched this, I melted. Yes, Meredith: You go for what you want. You demand that man. I mean, he’s Mc-freaking-Dreamy. I jumped onto AIM (yes, shut up) and posted the speech as my autoresponse, in a passive-aggresive attempt to send a message to whatever guy I had a crush on at the time. In 2013, as I rewatched the scene after being reminded of it by the “Earn me” speech, I cringed. Is she really begging for a man to choose her? How horrifying. (Ellen Pompeo agrees.) Has she no self-respect? No dignity? Then a thought hit me, a thought that betrayed my never-ending love for the dark and twisty Mer:
Is Olivia Pope > Meredith Grey?
At first glance, it might appear that there has been a huge evolution in Shonda Rhimes’ lead female protagonists. However, on Scandal, Olivia ends up having sex in the shower with Fitz after he struts over to her apartment, all “watch me earn you” and pointing out that he’s letting his wife reveal their affair, threatening his reelection and effectively choosing Olivia over the presidency of the United States of America. As a self-proclaimed Shonda Rhimes connoisseur, I thought, “This wine is getting better with age.” I mean, swoon, right?
Ladies and gents, this is what I like to call the “last 20 minutes” syndrome. We watch romantic comedies where the guy messes everything up for most of the movie, and in the last 20 minutes he apologizes with some grand gesture, and all is forgiven.
So, we’ve become a generation trained to wait for our Fitzes and our McDreamies to catch on to their mistakes and beg forgiveness. If he hasn’t come back and repented, it’s only because it isn’t our last 20 minutes yet.
The problem is compounded in TV, where lead couples are thrown together and torn apart with each season. Olivia said she’s not the girl at the end of the movie, but in that episode, that is exactly what she ended up being. Her and Fitz’s bounce back from the “Earn me” speech didn’t even take a whole episode. In Grey’s, Derek comes crawling back to Meredith with his own little “I chose wrong” speech, and they end up in Post-It note turned official wedded bliss. However – and listen up, because this is crucial:
Rhimes is not to blame; we are.
We’re the ones who ’ship these characters. We don’t ’ship independence and solitude; we ’ship Big and Carrie, Chuck and Blair, Sam and Diane. Kelly tried to pick herself over Brandon and Dylan on 90210 but ultimately ended up with Dylan. Many of us long for the repented bad boy, and TV sweeps are often full of reunions between the “but this time it’s different” couples. The reason Rhimes is so successful is that she gives us what we want: nuanced, flawed, hopeless romantic characters that cannot stay away from each other even if they know they should. If we are ’shipping these couples because we love the entertainment of their surreal plotline, then that’s fine, but let’s not confuse fantasy with reality. A grand gesture does not equate to bad boy/good guy conversion – all a grand gesture does is signal it’s the end of a Hollywood drama.
Rhimes is offering a temporary or transient rebellion with the ‘Earn me’ speech … Ultimately she has to backtrack.
Suzanne Leonard, an associate professor at Simmons College specializing in feminist media studies, pointed out the importance of giving Rhimes kudos for the “Earn me” speech as well as her non-traditional female characters. “Rhimes is offering a temporary or transient rebellion with the ‘Earn me’ speech or with how Olivia and Cristina [Yang] don’t want traditional lives. Ultimately she has to backtrack, because you of course have to put the hero and heroine together. But we have to give her credit for trying to script characters who at least give voice to something more. [Shonda]’s suggesting alternatives, but there’s a system she has to work within in order to have her audience love her. She can’t break the mold.”
Leonard is right, and maybe what I ultimately need from Rhimes is more rebellion. At the end of Scandal last season, Olivia had presumably left Fitz to focus on her coworkers/gladiators. Here’s what I hope: I hope that we see an independent Olivia, one who doesn’t need an up and down love life in order to be captivating. I hope that Olivia is adored by fans and applauded for her kick-ass fixing talents and not for her trysts with Fitz. Otherwise, what does it say about us? Can we please set a better example than a pathetic “Choose me” or undermined “Earn me” speech – both of which have already become memes and slogans for young men and women?
If we want stronger female protagonists we have to support – and not hate – them when they are presented to us, instead of asking when the next Olitz shower scene is coming. We can’t just beg Shonda Rhimes for a more powerfully single Olivia.
We have to earn her.