Madam President, Madam President

Madam President, Madam President

As the backlash against women gets daily more open and absurd, our real-life female politicians seem paralyzed. It’s up to television now: Run, Geena, run!


I can’t help it. I love Commander in Chief. Sure, it’s cheesy and underwritten and not as good as The West Wing. More story lines, please! More characters! More witty banter and moral ambiguity and multiple crises all coming to a head at the same time! But in a TV season in which the major network roles for women over 30 are as desperate housewives in size 0 stretch pants, this feminist fantasy about the first woman President gives me a thrill every Tuesday night at 9. Maybe there’s more to life than Wisteria Lane, after all. I love Geena Davis as President Mackenzie “Mac” Allen, so unflappable and warm and confident and kind and clever, to say nothing of gorgeous and six feet tall. But then I’ve loved Geena Davis ever since she wrote a letter to Newsweek, at the height of the “date rape hype” hysteria, pointing out that speaking out against rape wasn’t embracing the role of victim but rejecting it. Commander in Chief makes you realize how rarely on TV you get to see a woman in charge who isn’t a dragon or a bundle of nerves–or a likable one who isn’t incompetent, clumsy, silly or self-­hating. Imagine, the show’s been on since September 27, and Mac hasn’t–yet–dissolved into a puddle of tears from the stress of running the free world while raising three kids and foiling the plots of sexist Republican Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton, played with delicious malice by Donald Sutherland.

Even more amazing, her husband, Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor), isn’t sulking and acting out, even though one of Mac’s first official acts when she moved up from being Vice President was to fire him as her Chief of Staff because otherwise people would assume he was running the show. He takes being First Gentleman with a sense of humor, pitches in equally with the kids and still wants to have sex. More miraculous still, so does Mac. Well, I said it was a fantasy. (Update: Looks like trouble is brewing in paradise. Sigh.)

Pundits wonder out loud if Commander in Chief will pave the way for a real-life woman President, like–oh let’s just pick a name out of a hat–Hillary Clinton. Far be it from me to suggest that TV dramas don’t affect Americans’ real-life attitudes–I’d never even heard of cosmopolitans before Sex and the City and now I drink them all the time. The show may persuade some voters that it would be cool to have a woman President–“Madam President” has a nice ring to it. But it’s unlikely to reach the gender-­prejudiced. The substantial minority of voters who, according to polls, wouldn’t vote for a woman nominated by their own party probably aren’t watching the show, and besides, they’re most likely Republicans (20 percent, versus 7 percent of Democrats) who would sooner admit the Earth is more than 10,000 years old than vote for Hillary. Mac Allen, moreover, is so androgynously terrific–even her name is unisex–she’s less like a real woman politician than like one of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines–Rosalind, or Portia. It’s hard to think of a woman within a thousand miles of the White House she doesn’t make look frumpy and fussy and old and short.

But then, Mac isn’t a politician–she doesn’t even belong to a political party. She’s an idealistic ex-Congresswoman turned academic who rather improbably accepted the vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket, despite being a liberal and understanding that she was there to win women’s votes. So little interested is Mac in power that she’s all set to heed the President’s dying wish and step aside so Templeton can take over–the Speaker of the House is next in line of succession, a fact that must brighten Denny Hastert’s life considerably. But then Templeton makes one coarse, woman-hating remark too many and next thing you know, President Allen is sending in the Navy to rescue a Nigerian woman scheduled to be stoned for sex out of wedlock, sending in the Air Force to restore democracy to an unnamed Latin American country by threatening to destroy its coca crop, and using her summit meeting with the arrogant and sexist Russian president to win freedom for imprisoned dissident journalists. Can a woman be tough enough to lead the free world? Take that, misogynists and drug lords and enemies of free speech! In future episodes Mac will capture Osama bin Laden, rewrite the Iraqi Constitution and raise SAT scores by 75 points–all while dealing with a sullen teenage daughter who wishes Pat Buchanan had her mother’s job.

There’s a lot of paint-by-numbers feel-good feminism here: See Mac cope when her younger daughter spills juice on the presidential blouse just before she addresses the nation; see Mac and the former First Lady bond over the old joke about how if Moses had been a woman she would have asked for directions and been in Israel in a week; see Mac elegantly trump man after man who makes the mistake of talking down to her. I’m not happy about the show’s penchant for calling out the troops, but feel-good feminism? I’ll take it. In the real world, after all, it’s hard to read the paper without coming across a Larry Summers sound-alike. “Women don’t make it to the top because they don’t deserve to,” top British advertising executive Neil French told a posh Toronto audience in October. “They’re crap.” French went on to call women “wimps” who inevitably “go suckle something.” (Interestingly, the New York Times made no mention of the crude language in its report.) French resigned but that didn’t stop Brit celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay from announcing that “the girls” these days “can’t cook to save their lives.” Harriet Miers is ridiculed for her eyeliner, her thank-you notes and her lack of hot dates, and attacked as a mediocrity–which she is, but I don’t want to hear about it from people who think Clarence Thomas is a brilliant jurist. New data showing that in Minnesota women now get more academic degrees than men at every level is reported as a problem, not just for men but for women. Whom will they marry, poor overeducated dears? Funny how no one worried about marriage when the numbers went the other way.

As the backlash gets daily more open and absurd, our real-life female politicians seem paralyzed. It’s up to television now: Run, Geena, run!

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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