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).