“Scandal” Stands Up for Abortion Rights

Thursday is the best day on TV for one reason: Shonda Rhimes. Episodes like Scandal’s midseason finale, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which aired on November 19th, sum up that reason to a tee. Shonda Rhimes is one of the most daring, unapologetic, and ferocious showrunners in Hollywood, unafraid of her three shows making social commentary about difficult subjects. In this case, Scandal proved to be even more eerily prescient than usual: One week after the show directly confronted the reproductive choice culture wars in America, a man would walk armed into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado and kill three people, in a living manifestation of the attitudes brought to the fore in the episode.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a Christmas episode and these types of holiday episodes tend to keep it on the light side, with a little holiday cheer and perhaps a tearjerker B-plot to get viewers in the spirit of the season. Rhimes, however, went dark in keeping with Scandal as a whole. The characters on the show aren’t nice people. Nice things don’t happen to them. The show is one big snarl of moral gray areas and you didn’t need a viewer discretion warning at the opener to know that something was going to go down in the halls of the White House by the time the closing credits roll.

The central plotline of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Senator Mellie Grant’s (Bellamy Young) determined filibuster to shut down a government spending bill that would have moved funding for Planned Parenthood into the discretionary budget, making it easier to slash in the future. Her battle in the Senate was a clear throwback to Senator Wendy Davis, who took to the Texas Senate floor in 2013 for an 11-hour filibuster against abortion restriction laws. It was also a nod to the repeated shutdowns that have stalled the federal government in recent years as Republicans stonewall over funding.

The filibuster is almost obligatory in shows set in and around Capitol Hill, but in this episode, it carried an especially potent sting since it directly tapped into the infuriating current debate over Planned Parenthood funding and governmental attempts at controlling bodies. Planned Parenthood is the largest reproductive health provider in the United States. Repeated attempts by Republicans to defund the organization are paired with demonizing rhetoric—exactly the same kind of rhetoric that leads extremists to think it’s acceptable to enter a clinic and kill people. These acts of domestic terrorism are fueled by the right’s vicious attacks on choice. But confronting those attitudes in pop culture is surprisingly unusual, given Hollywood’s liberal bent.  

These speeches by both Mellie Grant and Vice President Susan Ross (Artemis Pebdani) weren’t just drama to drive the story, or political grandstanding, but a confrontation of the absence of frank conversations about women’s health in pop culture. Here’s how Senator Grant begins her filibuster:

“By making [funds for Planned Parenthood] discretionary, you give the people in this room the power to say, ‘You know what? We’re a little over budget this year. How about we don’t give that little ladies’ organization the full amount they’re asking for?’ So you don’t. And then, next year, you give them even less, and even less the year after that, and you keep chipping away at their budget until, before you know it, Planned Parenthood no longer exists. Thirty-eight million women living in this country are in need of contraceptive care. Twenty million of those women depend on government services to provide them birth control because they are under the age of 20 or are living below the poverty line or both.”

Visibly exhausted, Senator Grant keeps filibustering for women’s health as the Senate grows more and more restless. Vice President Ross, in her usual chipper and seemingly blundering (but actually quite shrewd way), gave Mellie a bit of a respite by storming onto the Senate floor to interrupt for a question. “I don’t want to be the kind of person who marches in here and throws her weight around,” she informs the Senate President, but she has a bit more to add. “I am the Vice President. That makes me president of the Senate… which means you’re in my chair.” Once settled in, to murmurs from the crowd, she starts in, picking up right where Mellie left off with the now-iconic: “Now, I’m not up here to ask you about abortions which, as you know, only makes up three percent of all Planned Parenthood business … Let’s talk about gonorrhea!”

For viewers accustomed to settling in for three hours of fervent tweeting every Shonday night, the speeches were a profound validation not just of their love of Rhimes, but their fight for rights outside the small screen, a clear reflection of the fact that what people say and do in the television landscape translates to the larger world. Senator Grant and VP Ross reflect real women in politics fighting to protect access to health care, sometimes against the will of their own parties.

“Never one to shy away from critical issues,” said Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, after the episode aired. “Shonda Rhimes used her platform to tell the world that if Planned Parenthood lost funding for contraception counseling, STI testing, cancer screenings, and safe, legal abortion—millions of people would suffer.” The right, predictably, was furious at what it labeled an “ad for Planned Parenthood”—not the first time it’s accused Rhimes of shilling for the organization or “plugging pro-abortion propaganda.”

In the episode, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) can’t intervene directly to support the filibuster because of political expectations that surround her role as a sitting president’s wife—something she clearly chafes at. She’s constrained in the gilded birdcage of the White House, a striking commentary on how America treats First Ladies with demands that they refrain from “advancing a political agenda,” instead sticking to things like cookie recipes and Christmas trees. Since she can’t help out directly, Olivia engages in stealthy solidarity, recruiting supporters for the cause quietly. We’d come to expect nothing less from Olivia, who hasn’t been shy about defending women. But her battle is personal as well as political: In this episode, Olivia decides to get an abortion. The plotline is a surprise—we don’t learn much about her decision. But in a brief and pivotal scene set in the hushed room of an abortion clinic, Pope lies silently on a table, all alone, staring at the ceiling while the vacuum aspiration machine ticks away. She has one hand clenched on the procedure table and she seems to be thinking about the kind of woman she wants to be, in a rare moment of vulnerability for the character.

The scene marks one of the rare times abortion has been depicted onscreen at all, let alone in a value-neutral way. It’s not a first for Scandal, though: In a prior season, Olivia accompanied a client to an abortion clinic. It’s not a first for Rhimes, who showed an abortion on Grey’s Anatomy, discussed the topic on Private Practice, and expressly tries to normalize discussions of reproductive health on her shows (listen to this interview about her coining the term “vajayjay” to get around network censors). While the abortion in the context of the show was presented neutrally, ABC was nervous enough about the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” episode to tag it with an adult content warning. That’s something the network has only done a handful of times on the show that often includes sex and violence—including on a prior episode that dealt with abortion. The need to warn people about the appearance of an abortion onscreen is a reminder that discussing abortion is still so taboo that Standards and Practices fears recrimination from angry viewers.

There’s nothing wrong with abortion, Rhimes’ characters have shown us repeatedly, but there is something wrong with a culture that shames people for wanting or needing abortions. That culture feeds into the attitudes that leads the real-world Senate to attempt to yank funding from critically needed health care programs, validating beliefs on the part of the right that those who need abortions should be punished for it. It’s this culture that contributes to a world in which it’s life-threatening for care providers and support staff to go to work and for patients to get necessary health care.

As a stand-alone episode and commentary on the state of American culture, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” would have been an important entry into the pop culture pantheon, and it always will be. But in the more immediate sense, it is almost painful to reflect back on when one thinks of what happened in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado a week later, when a man much like those Susan Ross and Mellie Grant were speaking out against stormed into a clinic to force his political values on the lives of others. The so-called “pro-life” narrative that strips people of their rights, and their lives, was on grim display in Colorado Springs, and Rhimes’s commentary on it came with a particularly sharp bite as a result.

Until America can behave rationally about abortion, making it a personal choice—like Pope’s, which remains unexplained and undiscussed—we vitally need pop culture like this, with creators willing to take on issues that the public needs to deal with. When a worst case scenario on the TV screen is ordinary daily business in the real world, that’s a problem, and when the speeches defending fundamental human rights on the fictional Senate floor sound painfully familiar, that’s a powerful indictment of modern society. 

by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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