Men won’t watch what women enjoy: That’s been the golden rule of television for decades. But lately things have begun to loosen up. Female characters are being integrated into traditionally male formats, such as forensic dramas and policiers, without alienating the men in the audience. Guys will tolerate a hard-nosed woman, even if she’s in charge, as long as her major task is dealing with the rambunctious stags around her. But Commander in Chief is doing very well among viewers of both sexes, even though its female protagonist isn’t just another boss. She’s the President.
In a desultory fall season, this show has garnered much attention, especially among right-wing bloggers and pundits. Ostensibly their ire is up because they think President Mackenzie Allen is a stalking horse for a certain ambitious senator from New York. Commander in Chief is “softening up the country” for Hillary Clinton, frets conservative pundit John Fund, echoing a remark by Florida Representative Katherine Harris. That may well be its intention, since several Clintonistas (including disgraced ex-National Security Adviser Sandy Berger) are on the payroll. But it’s not why millions of men are tuning in. That has less to do with Hillary than with the erotics of subverting the sexual order.
Many women and gay men find role-reversal stimulating, and always have. Now, it seems, straight guys can enjoy this process without turning it into a kitten-and-whip fantasy. That’s a shift with social implications. In drama, unlike real life, once you change the sex of the alpha everything changes. Each exchange is loaded with new complexities, and the gender hierarchy is exposed. When President Allen (a&k&a “Mack”) makes a decision and her aides snap, “Yes, ma’am,” there’s a frisson in the air. When she walks past important men with a faintly flirtatious saunter, the sizzle is palpable. It lingers under the banal dialogue like a caffeinated buzz.
The producers of this show have done everything possible to keep this high on the down-low. As a result, Commander in Chief hews to the rules of the female TV narrative. Its hero is a woman struggling to balance the demands of career and family. Her ascendancy is an accident (she takes over after a conservative President has a fatal stroke) and her politics are even more unlikely. She’s neither Democrat nor Republican: She’s an Independent, hawkish but ethical. That’s a combination we’ve yet to see in the White House. But then, President Allen is a latter-day Athena, except in one respect. There are moments in every episode when her composure cracks, and doubts about her capacity to lead crease her brow. In the end she always gets it together, usually with the help of her husband, who’s a good head taller (naturally).
Though politics is the linchpin of this show, at least as much attention is paid to the domestic drama. There’s hubby’s pain that he can’t be baseball commissioner, the teen son’s shame that his dad is officially called the First Gentleman, and two daughters’ yearning for their mom’s undivided attention. These problems wouldn’t wrack a real female leader to anywhere near the extent that they burden Mack. But it’s her reaction, when official duty beckons, that counts: Watch as her pained expression changes to a presidential impassivity. Despite all the strategies of deflection, this rejection of the maternal imperative is a very potent moment.
Indeed, the President’s body language is the real tension in this show. Her lips are lushly lipsticked, but she keeps them closed, signifying the combination of sexuality and power that most female politicians feel compelled to deny. President Allen doesn’t girdle her erotic energy; she uses it to heighten her charisma, just as a male leader would. That may not be entirely realistic, but it’s credible, thanks to Geena Davis’s artful performance. She plays Mack as a woman who can’t get over the feeling that she’s steering through uncharted waters even as she loves the waves.
There’s a link between this character and the one Davis portrayed in Thelma and Louise (1991), the formative, if schematic, feminist road movie that made her a star. Thelma is a woman of repressed desire and curiosity, astonished by her self-assertion. When she acts up, her ambivalence explodes in an ungainly cackle. In the course of the film, as she grows willing to accept the violent consequences of claiming her agency, the giggling stops. Back in 1991 murder was a desperate but plausible response to the viciousness of male power, and suicide a heroic alternative to defeat. Thelma and Louise was a tragedy; Commander in Chief is what Variety would call an inspirational. But what was true then still is: Davis’s face is a map of women’s changing status.
Pop culture often serves as a trial run for social change. It’s an arena where new ways can be tried on for size. Still, enjoying a fantasy is not the same thing as acting on it. The success of Commander in Chief doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are ready to elect a woman President. But the heat this show generates suggests that men have calmed down enough to contemplate the pleasures of female power. The Republicans may no longer be able to play the male-resentment card, their ace in recent elections. So, be afraid, John Fund. Be very afraid.