There’s a heavy sense of irony when watching Lena Dunham, lambasted for crafting a very white version of Brooklyn on Girls, guest starring on a show crafted by the woman who has been praised for singlehandedly prompting the television industry to focus on diversity. (There’s a phrase for it: “The Shonda Effect.”) But here we are, with a highly anticipated episode of Scandal in which Dunham plays Su Thomas, a kinky young woman shopping around a tell-all book about her dalliances with prominent political figures. And just because Dunham seems to not have had too much experience interacting with non-white people both on and off screen doesn’t mean she can’t idolize them from a distance.
In an excerpt from the upcoming issue of Marie Claire, Dunham gushes about her admiration for Scandal star Kerry Washington, whom she interviewed for their cover story: “If I believed in the term girl crush, I would use it on her,” she writes. “And if I needed advice on how to stay classy, strong, and honest in the public eye, she is who I would consult.” This enthusiasm bleeds into the episode “It’s Good to Be Kink,” when Su tells Olivia: “You’re Olivia Pope … you and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, that’s it, that’s all we’ve got. The power you wield in this town, Olivia, it’s LEGEND. You used to exude it, it came out of every pore, it gave other women a contact high.”
But as Su’s speech continues, she dresses down Olivia for trying to suppress her book, while insisting that she has every right to embrace her sexuality in any way she pleases. It kicks off an emphatically feminist episode of Scandal, and it feels as though Dunham herself could have written it—which is probably why it works so well. She’s essentially playing a much more confident—and frankly, less irritating—version of Hannah Horvath; a woman who’s aspirational, knows she’s smart, is unabashedly feminist, and uninterested in abiding by social norms. Basically, she’s playing Lena Dunham.
There are other similarities that can be found between Dunham’s character and Dunham’s public persona. In Su’s book, for instance, she uses code names without realizing that they’re pretty easy to decipher if one knows anything about the political paramours she describes. (Recall the kerfuffle around Dunham’s recent memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, in which she used a pseudonym and description of her alleged rapist that too closely resembled that of another student with that same name at her small alma mater, Oberlin College.) And like Dunham, Su is also the victim of sexual assault—later in the episode, Huck and Quinn are able to find out the real reason Su wants to come forth: Her reputation for kink and having multiple sexual partners made her new boss think he was entitled to sleeping with her, too—something she did not want. Soon after reporting him to HR, Su was fired and blackballed from the industry.
It would be easy for this narrative twist to betray the episode’s initial sex-positive and feminist bent, but thankfully, Rhimes doesn’t turn the revelation of her assault into a punishment for Su’s love of kink. Instead, Olivia takes control and has Su file a lawsuit against her former boss. She also pitches a column for her to tell her story in the Washington Post. “He didn’t just sexually harass you,” a newly empowered Olivia tells her. “He stole your intellect. That is what you need, not money, not notoriety.”
Of course, it’s not a true episode of Scandal without at least one character winding up dead, no matter how minor, and this time, it’s Su at the hands of disturbed Gladiator (and serial killer) Huck. Rhimes concocts an elaborate explanation for why Huck had to kill her (based largely upon his “testimony” in last week’s episode to David Rosen about B613 in front of his wife), but it feels a little unearned. Su’s death is not in vain, however—her existence in the episode has an interesting trickledown effect, prompting both Abby and Olivia to explore different aspects of their sexuality. Olivia, for her part, finally gets laid by someone other than Jake or Fitz, taking a tall, handsome stranger back to her place. It’s the most liberating thing we’ve seen her do in quite some time.