SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers for ABC’s Scandal, including the latest developments.
The late Andrew Breitbart used to say “Politics is downstream from culture.” Never has this been more relevant. President Obama isn’t just the king of all media (apologies to Howard Stern), he is also the King of Pop (culture.) Naturally, he has an open door to every major network, newspaper, and news outlet—but he also glides, roach-like, in and out of the cracks and crevices of entertainment and sports media, including chat shows, podcasts, radio programs, and of course, every form of social media.
I was reminded of the importance of pop-culture fluency last week when the conservative Internet erupted in outrage. Olivia Pope, the main character of ABC’s hit show, Scandal, had undergone an abortion while “Silent Night” played in the background. While abortion is rare on television, it is a bit hard to see why this particular abortion was suddenly a matter of high importance. It was in poor taste, of course. It was 110 percent pro-abortion biased.
But what were we expecting?
The fact is, most people talking about this episode weren’t expecting anything—because they’ve never watched the show. This is the Season 5 mid-season finale—where have you been since day one, outraged conservatives?
To those who watch the show, bloggers collapsing on their fainting couches over Olivia Pope having an abortion seem a little late to the party.
Anyone unclear on the moral content of Scandal can just Netflix it back to the first episode. A very conservative anti-gay activist Republican military hero almost goes to prison rather than admit (I bet you can finish this sentence) he’s gay. His alibi for the murder of his fake girlfriend is that he was busy kissing a man on a street corner at the time. Naturally, Olivia (self-described “white hat” leading a team of “gladiators in suits”) pep-talks him into telling the truth. He becomes a gay hero, cleared of all wrongdoing.
Oh, yeah. This would clearly become a family-friendly favorite.
But to leave it there would be unfair to the complex development of the characters over time from superficially valiant warriors for justice and goodness into the morally bankrupt, venal, murderous, adulterous, damaged and damaging monsters they are eventually revealed to be. None are pure. All are deeply compromised. Despite Olivia’s alleged first rule—“don’t lie”—all of her own life is a lie, and most of her actions are in service of protecting those lies.
Everyone is evil. Olivia’s father kills President Fitzgerald Grant’s son to ensure his re-election. The president kills a Supreme Court Justice while she’s being treated for terminal cancer, to prevent her impending deathbed confession that she (with Olivia, the president’s Chief of Staff, the First Lady, and an oil tycoon) rigged the original election. The president’s gay Chief of Staff enters into a sham marriage with a male prostitute to avoid the impending scandal of his affair being exposed. This is considered the best answer because “America loves a love story.” And Olivia sleeps with the president, during and after his marriage.
At one point, two characters burst into laughter upon realizing that all the candidates for president have secretly murdered someone.
This ain’t your grandma’s soap opera.
This show is a cavalcade of sin, shame, and secrets, and the primary lesson it teaches is “sin will find you out.” Yes, Olivia has just aborted (we assume) the President’s child, which will probably utterly crush him. But the truth is, Olivia isn’t getting away scot-free. She’s destroying the life she always wanted with Fitz—which she visualizes as a bucolic post-presidency where he is the mayor of some little town in Vermont, and she makes jam—and immediately after the abortion she picks a fight with him and breaks up with him (Yes, again.) She does not tell him what she has just done—probably because even pro-abortion producers know abortion is a shameful secret, not a joy to the world.
Understand this: this show has been a runaway success, making producer Shonda Rhimes a brand unto herself. The millennials know who she is. The voters know.
The people complaining about this episode on the Internet do not.
This is the problem we have. We cultural conservatives are citizens of a nation we barely know, hoping to persuade people we cannot talk to into electing people they can’t be bothered to care about. While we as cultural conservatives are free to skip actually consuming much of pop culture, woe be unto us if we are foolish enough to ignore it. While we cannot pander, we must at least know what we are not pandering to.
More people are waiting eagerly for the new Star Wars movie than a new president. We are barreling toward an election in which voters will be reached by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. Saturday Night Live will define our candidates in broad-brush memes, and George Stephanopoulos and Anderson Cooper will filter their images for us. We can cover our eyes and ignore pop culture, but it will still spew its poison downstream to our political realities. We need to know what’s going on up there. We need to be ready for the destructive effects it will bring.
If we don’t, we will drown in it, suddenly, and without any warning–and look like fools doing it.