Emotional Shonda-coaster, Week 17: Beware the Manic Pixie Sex Girl Lena Dunham

SCANDAL LENA

Lena Dunham guest stars on Scandal. (Nicole Wilder/ABC)

My apologies to the Grey’s fans, but in light of last night’s Scandal, I do not have the bandwidth to write to you about that Alzheimer’s story or Meredith’s (deserved) paranoia about Derek’s fidelity, or lack thereof. The teaser for next week tells us that, soon, we’ll be finding all about what (and who!) he’s been doing in D.C., so we’ll get to all that once the facts become known.

No, all I want to write about today is the Lena Dunham Scandal episode (and consider this your official spoiler alert, because this will, in large part, focus on the episode’s ending). We knew this had to happen, ever since her brilliantly on-point SNL parody and her confession in an interview that guest-starring on Scandal would be her “life’s great passion.” Fittingly, Sue (Dunham’s character) is as big of an Olivia Pope fan as Dunham herself. She’s also a young woman who’s written a tell-all book about her sex life, which sounds a little familiar. But instead of writing about the boys one meets at Oberlin College or Brooklyn parties, Sue writes about her kinky escapades with D.C.’s elite. Turns out, she and Abby share taste in men: one chapter of Sue’s book is about Leo Bergen, and another is about David Rosen.

I started feeling squeamish in the opening minutes, when Abby is yelling at Leo for showing up in this sexy memoir. She has every right to be upset that he can make mistakes in his personal life in a way that she can’t, and she has every right to be concerned that a leak about his private business will end up looking poorly on her. But while some of his fetishes might not be the norm (it’s never explained directly in the episode, but his code name in the book is “The Dustbuster”), I cringed when Abby kept calling him “dirty” and “filthy.” It’s one thing to show a character being rightfully angry about some shocking new information in her relationship; it’s another entirely to open your kink episode by immediately shaming and othering kink.

It doesn’t stop there, of course, because everyone sees this book as a bad and dangerous thing. The men described in the book unite and panic about losing their jobs. Abby — who isn’t even included in the book — writes her letter of resignation to the White House. Cyrus gives Olivia three million dollars so that he can own the book for blackmail purposes. And Sue didn’t even write it out of a real desire to share stories from her bedroom — she wrote it to get even with an industry that blacklisted her after she was raped by her former boss and fired for resisting. Sue is shameless enough to write about sex, but since she’s doing it solely for revenge, she clearly views it in as negative terms as everyone else. Look, I’m not a big fan of Lena Dunham’s writing, but at least she writes about sex because she wants to write about it, and not because it’s the best way to avenge her enemies.

And I think I could get past all of this if it wasn’t for the ending, when I actually screamed in shock at my television. After Sue and Olivia reach an agreement that allows for Sue to actually seek justice against her violator without the manuscript going to print, Huck and Quinn drop by Sue’s apartment to discover one of the men from her book holding a knife to her throat. They scare the guy off, and as Quinn is comforting her, Huck slashes her throat, killing her. “She would’ve talked,” he explains to Quinn, justifying the murder as the only way to ensure that David Rosen will be Attorney General long enough to bring B613 to trial and ensure Huck immunity for the crimes he committed as an agent. Which is all well and good, except that IT IS A REALLY HORRIBLE REASON TO KILL AN INNOCENT PERSON.

Nathan Rabin has asked that we all please stop using the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but the concept seems to apply in a rather disturbing way to this episode. Allow me to explain:

Olivia and Abby are both going through some serious stuff (Olivia more so than Abby, but still). Olivia is very clearly suffering from PTSD and is refusing to have anything to do with either of the men who have shown her love in the past. She’s not engaging in intimacy of any kind, and she has flashbacks to her captivity while in a public restroom at a bar. Meanwhile, Abby isn’t a big enough character on Scandal for us to see her relationship with Leo when things are working out, but they’ve been fighting more lately which leads us to think that there is trouble in paradise. The implication here is that both of these women could use some healthy sex.

Enter Sue! Sue is kinky and promiscuous and is happy for the world to know all about this, even at the expense of her lovers and their careers. Sue also has a traumatic history, but this does not get in the way of her sex life. She’s doing her thing, free of shame, spitting in the face of everyone who wants her to feel shame. Save for the conversation that happens once Olivia decides to investigate Sue’s employment termination, she is mostly presented as a problem for Olivia and Abby, an obstacle that needs to be removed one way or another. And yet, Sue’s love of sex is infectious, and not in the unpleasant itchy way.

In the end, Sue is killed, and Olivia and Abby (and Leo and David) learn how to have great sex again. Thanks, Sue! Except I didn’t want her to be a kinky MPDG. I wanted her to go on and have that Washington Post job that Olivia promised. She had the voice and ambition and fearlessness that I’ve always wanted to see in Hannah Horvath. Are we still not comfortable having women like that on television?

It’s not that simple, I’m aware, and frankly, it’s disingenuous of me to accuse Shonda Rhimes of slut-shaming. The Shondaland line-up prides itself on depicting strong women who are in control of their sexuality, and while their choices might be judged by other characters, they’re never judged by the shows themselves. Meredith Grey and Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating aren’t empowered women despite their sexual appetites — they’re empowered because of them, at least in part. But we assume that all of this sex going on is relatively vanilla, and while the audience gets to see this sex, these women aren’t blogging or writing books about their experiences. But here we have Sue, who likes BDSM and doesn’t care who knows that, and all of a sudden she’s a liability. According to ABC, it’s not that women can’t enjoy sexual pleasure, but we still have to be lady-like about it, lest we want to end up with knives against our throats.

Quinn didn’t tell Olivia who killed Sue, and I think it’s clear that Huck isn’t going to volunteer this information himself. More likely than not, this murder will remain unsolved, with Leo and David feeling slightly sad and guilty about the whole thing, but not enough to have actually protected or stood up for her while she was alive. Kinky women aren’t entitled to that kind of protection. Not if they’re loud about it, anyway.

Emotional Shonda-coaster, Week 17: Beware the Manic Pixie Sex Girl Lena Dunham