‘Scandal’ Schools Journalists On Perpetuating Sexist Stereotypes
By Tracie Powell
I am a gladiator. That simply means that I am a huge fan of the ABC series Scandal; I even belong to a Facebook fan group of Scandalholics comprised primarily of journalists who appreciate the show’s great storytelling.
Set in Washington, D.C. the show follows the travails of a fictional president (Tony Goldwyn’s Fitzgerald Grant), his mistress (Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope) and a series of dramatic subplots that often highlight the interaction between politicians and journalists that keeps nearly 9 million viewers tuned in each and every week. In the last episode Lisa Kudrow (yes, Phoebe of Friends fame), who plays member of congress and Democratic presidential candidate Josephine Marcus, schools journalists on their complicity in pushing sexist stereotypes.
The speech, as you can see below, provides a lesson not only for the fictional characters on the show, but also real-life journalists.
In the scene, Marcus is being interviewed by reporter James Novak (not likely inspired by the syndicated columnist and commentator Robert Novak who died in 2009). Anyway, the live interview opens with the characterization of Marcus as “a real life Cinderella story,” war widow, first time “congresswoman” and questions whether she is qualified or “a political lightweight squeaking by on her down-home charm.” The introduction conveniently leaves out the fact that Marcus is a former soldier and lieutenant in the army, experience her primary Democratic challenger, who is male, does not have. Novak, the reporter, adds to the sexist narrative, first pushed by Marcus’ rival, by thanking Marcus for having him in her “lovely home,” a request the news network made but is not revealed by the journalist. As the scene unfolds, viewers (both fictional and real) glimpse a serving of ice tea, which was furnished by TV producers, not Marcus, a little fact that she lets be known via a speech on sexism that is nothing short of epic.
Watch for yourself:
Lessons for Journalists
After Marcus finishes with Novak, he doesn’t quite know what hit him. Here are a few tips that could have helped Novak and may come in handy for real-life journos too:
1. Use gender neutral language. Instead of “congresswoman,” the term Novak employs, use the proper name labels “Representative” or “Senator” instead. Use “business person” rather than “businesswoman” and “chairperson” instead of “chairwoman,” etc.
2. Follow AP Style. The AP Stylebook states: “Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject.” The news announcer’s introduction of Marcus as a Cinderalla story and war widow should have been red flags, and Novak could have avoided a headache by simply not mentioning Marcus’ “lovely home.” And what was the point of that ice tea anyway, other than to call attention to kitchen skills over her military and political skills? The AP also warns that copy “should not express surprise that an attractive (or charming) woman can be professionally accomplished.” In the Scandal scene, Marcus’ accomplishments were barely mentioned or not mentioned at all, until she brought them to light. That’s a major no-no.
3. Be Transparent. Unless overly obvious (inside a TV studio, for example) share with viewers where the interview is being conducted and perhaps why. It helps engage viewers and readers by putting them “in the room” with the subject and let’s them know why they are there. It also helps build credibility with viewers by helping them to understand how journalists do their jobs.
4. Do your homework and tell a complete story. It’s not clear whether Novak knows about Marcus’ military history at all since he does not mention it. That kind of biographical information should have been key to the introduction of a candidate running to lead the country’s armed forces, don’t you think?
Sadiyyah Rice contributed to this report.