Picture this. On route to an appearance on Meet The Press, the vice president engages in a sexually explicit conversation with her lover. Her staff, overhearing, blushes at the graphic nature of the conversation and quickly ushers her into the car, switching the topic from innuendo to the hardline immigration stance she will be taking on air.
Welcome to television’s new world of women and politics: that actually happened on HBO, two Sundays ago. This spring, both ABC and HBO launched two new shows, Scandal and Veep, respectively—that portray women in politics as a sexy, powerful and fun. Both are refreshing departures from the real world of politics and even the cloistered asexuality of The West Wing.
In the cultural imagination, female political figures rarely get to be sexy and powerful. This is partly because politics is still a male-dominated world. Data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University show that women currently hold 16.8 percent of the 535 seats in Congress and 23.7 percent of the seats in state legislatures. There are six female governors; of the 100 big-city mayors, twelve are women.
But this is also because the provenance of politics and sexual attractiveness is itself a double standard. For men, sexual appeal, competence and power are seen as qualities for leadership. Think Bill Clinton’s cool pose on the saxophone, Barack Obama’s inaugurating Men’s Vogue, and even John Edward’s golden-boy smile (pre-trial).
But for women in politics, sexuality is often a liability. Unlike for their male counterparts, competence in a woman is a necessity, but often not very sexy. While this might explain (and this is not always a bad thing) why there are almost no scandals involving women politicians, it also means that to be successful in politics, women have to deliberately play down or inhibit those charismatic qualities—call it swagger, sexiness or a winning smile—upon which many of their ambitious male counterparts thrive.
Not so much on television. Scandal is a fast-paced, surreal Shondra Rimes drama about DC fixer Olivia Pope (played by Kerrie Washington), who regularly dons Armani and Valentino while valiantly taking on Washington’s most powerful men. Veep, on the other hand, is an acerbic comedy about one of the best-dressed politicians ever to appear on television, the foul-mouthed, eco-friendly Vice President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Living up to its title, Scandal is all about forbidden romance and stolen glances. Pope is the African-American woman with whom the married white GOP president, Fitzgerald Grant (played Tony Goldwyn), is desperately in love. She has the White House on speed dial, unabashedly kisses the president in the Oval Office and is DC’s most effective political negotiator (loosely based on real-life Washington strategist Judy Smith). Salvaging the presidency more that once, she is brains and beauty, wrapped in a white Tony Burch trench. Firm in her convictions and keeper of everyone’s secrets, she puts people on edge.
If Pope has too much access to the White House, Veep’s Selina Meyers has too little. She can’t get a single piece of legislation she backs passed because POTUS refuses to coordinate agendas with her. Her ineffectiveness not only comically reveals the limits of the vice presidency but also highlights the gender gaps that most elected women politicians continue to face. Olivia Pope is powerful precisely because she’s not elected. For women, even being elected doesn’t mean they get to be powerful.
This is biggest and most crucial difference between these two shows.
“Scandal” revels in the fact that “smart power” can be sexy too. But then again, Olivia Pope has never run for office. She is powerful, but was never elected—which reflects the fact that there are so few women of color who are elected officials. Currently, women of color constitute 4.5 percent of the total 535 members of Congress, and there are no women of color serving in the US Senate.
Meanwhile, Ernesto Martinez, the costume designer for Veep who dresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus, said in the New York Times’s “Outfitting the Veep” that for “most politicians, their stab at looking good is not really so great. The idea was to be powerful, but attractive.” Neither Nancy Pelosi nor Kirsten Gellibrand worked; instead, he had to turn to our most famous unelected Washington woman: Michelle Obama.
Ultimately, how well dressed or charismatic a politician is shouldn’t matter. But these shows reveal that women who run for office have to play by a different set of rules than everyone else. And they also give us a picture, if only for sixty minutes, of how fun it would be if there were some more cracks in Washington’s glass ceiling.