In the recent documentary Miss Representation — which criticized American culture and the media for its negative impact on women and girls — child advocate Marian Wright Edelman lamented the scarcity of American women politicians saying that, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Given the latest uptick in the number of fictional female pols appearing on television, the vision of all those women politicians in their red, white and blue clothing ought to give Wright Edelman something to cheer about.
Female characters seeking or occupying elected office have been popping up on a number of shows across primetime, from the new Shonda Rhimes drama Scandal and the dark HBO comedy Veep, to comedies like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. Alongside the strong, brainy women, there are a fair number of female pols who are occasionally depicted as tone deaf, goofy or a bit off, but the other male pols with whom they share the screen aren’t exactly Nobel Prize winning brain trusts either.
Take, for example, the soapy, D.C.-based Rhimes show Scandal. In addition to the main character — a powerful, savvy, whip-smart D.C. scandal fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) who has a team of what she calls “gladiators in suits” who worship her — there’s also a female vice president, Sally Langston (Kate Burton). And Vice President Langston is no slouch. She attempted to take quick political advantage of a situation when the president was caught doing something he shouldn’t have. And while she didn’t succeed in her maneuver, the viewers saw her as just as much a political player as her colleagues.
On the sardonic HBO comedy Veep, there’s another female vice president who is also depicted as the “first” woman to hold that office. However while Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ vice president Selina Meyer, a former senator, is intelligent and ruthless, she’s very awkward, similar to the way in which Joe Biden can be awkward. She can be commanding when she wants to but not entirely convincing when she tries to smooth out political waves, largely of her own making. The latest plot twist — the first female vice president was impregnated by her boyfriend and she’s unmarried — could’ve been ground-breaking, as I can’t recall seeing a pregnant politician on a TV show. But having Meyer suffer a miscarriage, thus disposing of a potentially thorny plotline, left the vice president looking for a scapegoat to stave off the rumors of her pregnancy. Who took the fall? Meyer’s quick-thinking chief of staff Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) who claimed that she’d been the one who was pregnant, not the vice president.
Veep has also featured a powerful female senator, Barbara Hallowes (also played by Burton, the vice president from Scandal), who politically tussled with Louis-Dreyfus’ Meyer on a few occasions. Burton’s really good at the politician thing, perhaps even better than she was as Meredith Grey’s mother Ellis on Grey’s Anatomy.
One TV pol who shares some of Meyer’s political DNA but is painfully earnest (in contrast to the uber-cynical Vice President Meyer) is Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) who spent the past season campaigning for a seat on the Pawnee City Council after taking a leave of absence from her post in the Parks and Recreation Department. Knope, a clever and big-hearted candidate, had to match wits with her moronic chief opponent’s professional campaign consultant – another knowledgeable woman — who played very, very dirty. Knope held her own throughout the season as her campaign had little cash and a tiny volunteer staff, but Knope kicked some serious behind during the big debate, even bested her opponent after he threatened that his father would shut down the big Pawnee candy factory and throw a bunch of people out of work if Knope won. In the end, Knope squeezed out the victory.
Not so lucky was Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) who also campaigned for Town Council but had an utterly disastrous debate performance, thanks largely to her husband Phil and a Valentine’s Day surprise that went terribly awry. The refusal of Town Councilman Duane Bailey to erect a stop sign at a dangerous intersection — after Dunphy had collected all the necessary signatures from concerned citizens and made an impassioned argument for the sign – was the catalyst for Dunphy’s first bid for elected office. Although Dunphy lost, at least, in the end, her opponent gave her the stop sign she wanted.
As disappointing as it is to learn that all of these programs won’t be airing new installments until the fall (or later in the case of Veep), there’s at least one new summer show that will make the case that women can flourish in the political realm (or at least stumble around as well as the men do). USA Network’s Political Animals will be premiering next month featuring Signourney Weaver as the U.S. Secretary of State and the former wife of a U.S. president who had difficulty keeping his fly zipped. With the exception of the “former” wife part, does the premise ring any bells, right down to her denial that she’ll ever run for president . . . again?