From Pawnee to Pennsylvania Avenue: The Surge of Political Women on TV
This past year, television has moved in a noticeable and interesting direction–in a genre that has been vacant since the season finale of The West Wing. More series are about politics, and more of them are centered around women.
HBO released the film Game Change, an insider’s look at Palin’s struggles as McCain’s pick for Vice President and the painful-to-watch unraveling of disillusionment his campaign team endures when they realize the Alaskan governor would become a liability.
Based on the book of the same name, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the film shows a side to Palin the public has never seen before. We’ve all become used to her public charismatic persona that made her a hit amongst the conservative base during the 2008 presidential campaign, but the film orbits around a kind the tense anxiety that settles on McCain's camp as they witness their chances at clutching the presidency dwindle before their eyes.
As we all remember from her interviews, Palin's inability to answer even the most simple question becomes more and more evident and demonstrated how truly unprepared and inept Palin actually was to run for public office that would make her the second most powerful person in the nation. To remind viewers that this Palin portrait is based on fact not fiction, the film is peppered with real footage of Palin's interview and campaigning snafu's like her Katie Couric interview and SNL's Palin sketch featuring Tina Fey, as well as other TV moments viewers will quickly recognize but the film also strives to paint Palin with some strokes of complexity instead of relying on harping on the easy know-nothing Veep narrative.
Despite how the media mocked her, Palin found ways to turn their obsession with her in her favor. In the film, Palin discovers that she can use the campaign to make herself a name. Power-hungry and eager, Palin uses the media spotlight to make a name for herself independent of McCain. It is clear that her interest in winning the election no longer exists—Palin wants to be a star.
Enter Veep, HBO's new political comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus that relentlessly slings snarky joke after joke about what's broken up on the Hill.
Says the New York Times:
Every decade gets the political show it deserves, or thinks it deserves, though some decades are pretty disingenuous. “The West Wing” gave us an idealized account of the Clinton era, with a saintly president and high-minded pols. In the ’00s, “24” offered an ultraparanoid version of the Bush era that legitimized torture as the primary means of dealing with a world in a constant state of crisis.
“Veep,” by contrast, comes not to justify Caesar but to goose him. It captures our post-Reagan, post-Clinton, post-Bush, 24-hour tabloid news and Internet-haterade dystopia, and reflects our collective queasy ambivalence toward a political system that we fear simply reflects our own shallowness back at us. If “The West Wing” was a fantasy of hyper-competence, “Veep” is its opposite: a black-humor vision of politics at its bleakest, in which both sides have been co-opted by money and special interests and are reduced to posturing, subterfuge, grandstanding and photo ops. Naturally, it’s hilarious.
Veep wouldn't exist if Sarah Palin hadn't took the national media stage by storm, and it's evident Louis-Dreyfus toys with the idea of an alternate universe where a less-than competent Vice President tries to wield power in a bureaucracy where nobody wants her
In one episode of Veep, [SPOILER ALERT] misinformation about the President having suffered a heart attack is related to Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her staff, and almost immediately she is cloistered away and told to she may soon have to take over duties as President. Although shocked, it's difficult for her to to veil her excitement for the potential promise of exercising real executive power as her face struggles to stifle the smizes that frenetically erupt between the cracks in her frown. When the president's staff is informed that the President is fine, Meyer is unceremoniously kicked out of the room leaving her devastated and embarrassed. The slips in power-thirsty revelations–of Meyer contemplating the President's demise for example, is hilariously human and in a way, evokes sympathy not only for the fictional Meyer but also for Palin who unabashedly plowed a way for herself in spite of the ridicule and scorn that followed her throughout the 2008 campaign.
Veep isn't the only new female powered television series on the block. For a less pitifully hilarious anti-heroine, Kerri Washington plays a headstrong behind-the-scenes fixer-upper for the Washington elite in ABC's Scandal, a series loosely based on the Bush administration's press aide Judy Smith and her crisis management firm. And on Hulu, and online streaming service, there was Battleground, a series about a senatorial campagin. USA’s Political Animals, about a First Lady-turned-Secretary of State and her dysfunctional family just finished its first season, and NBC’s 1600 Penn, a comedy about the first family, will debut this fall. And who can forget the brilliant Amy Poehler's turn as dedicated civil servant turned city councilwoman Leslie Knope and her run for office on NBC's Parks and Recreation.
But should shows like Veep perpetuate the idea that women are incapable of leading in politics at a time when nearly 51 percent of the nation's constituents are women? Even if the show is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, why is mainstream media still adding more layers to the idea that women cannot govern. And while Kerri Washington's role as Olivia Pope (inspired by the real Judy Smith, the former White House deputy press secretary for George H. W. Bush) is depicted as a more than capable, and savvy behind-the-scenes strategizer on ABC's Scandal, is refreshing, there are elements of the show that are problematic– like her tumultuous affair with the very married President of the United States (read: jezebel), or the episode when she defends and protects the secrets of the Washington elite who parrot "family values" by day, while patronizing "top class" brothels after hours.
That's not to say that women characters on television have to be perfect–by all means bring on multifaceted complex characters who have success along with failure–but in a political climate that sees women's rights being attacked every single day, maybe it's time for our media to reflect the strong women who are fighting for their rights, or show us the examples of women who aren't so inept at doing their jobs that we laugh at them rather than with them. Audiences want to see women in politics, but that doesn't mean those representations have to follow traditional models, or even that they all have to follow the same model and be viewed through the same lenses they've always been subject to. Representations of powerful women can be funny, or overtly sexy, but they should also be powerful, reasonable, capable, passionate about the work that they do, and at the end of the day, able to get things done. We deserve nothing less.
This article was originally published on Pushback.org, the politics and policy blog of Campus Progress Action.
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.