“I FEEL I’M letting so many people down,” the American president tells a confidant shortly after resigning from office. The leader of the free world is not mired in scandal; rather, in the film “Kisses for my President” (1964), Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) is pregnant. The commander-in-chief decides to give up her “strenuous duties” and devote herself to her family. America has yet to elect a Madam President, but the film was hardly revolutionary. Its focus was not McCloud, but her husband, Thad (Fred MacMurray). Billed as a comedy, it follows him as he struggles to execute the customary duties of a First Lady and sees his attempts at seducing his wife kiboshed by matters of state.
If the very idea of a female president was a hilarious premise for a film in the 1960s, today they govern on screen more regularly and more seriously. The (usually white) women who rule America—Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) on ABC’s nighttime soap “Scandal”, Selina Meyer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) on the HBO satire “Veep”, Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) on the Showtime spy thriller “Homeland”—are no longer minor and underdeveloped characters like McCloud, but protagonists. They even manage to run the country while pregnant. In the sixth and final season of “House of Cards”, the unpopular Claire Hale (Robin Wright) weaponises her pregnancy, partially to boost her approval ratings.
These characters might seem to be exercises in wish fulfilment, given America’s recent refusal to elect a qualified woman to the highest office in the land, but they reify the fact that the White House is men’s to give up. Rarely elected on their merits, the female presidents of the small screen frequently gain access to the Oval Office via the vice presidency or an absurd plot twist. Meyer, Hale, Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in the short-lived drama “Commander in Chief” (2005), and Claire Haas (Marcia Cross) on the recently cancelled “Quantico”, inherit the office after the male president resigns or dies. On “Scandal”, where no plotline is too outlandish, Grant, a former First Lady, loses the presidential election. But after the president-elect is assassinated during his victory speech and the vice-president-elect is framed for it, the electoral college picks her as his replacement. Even in fiction, women are the second-best option.
Many shows with female presidents focus their attention on questions surrounding work-life balance—preoccupations that are rarely, if at all, explored on shows where men are at the helm. In “Commander in Chief”, Allen’s most strenuous problems are on the home front, where she struggles to juggle the demands of a husband, three children and a widowed mother. In “Scandal”, Grant, a woman who finished first in her class at Harvard Law School and then stifled her own career ambitions to allow her ex-husband to pursue his, enters the White House single and lonely. She complains that men find her intimidating because of her job and that the nature of her work precludes her from having a fulfilling sex life. One struggles to imagine President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on “The West Wing” tearing himself away from the minutiae of policymaking to complain to his chief of staff that he is unable to “smuggle in an orgasm”, as Grant does.
Stereotypes about women’s unbalanced emotional state unsurprisingly feature in these shows. When Grant develops feelings for the president of the fictional country of Bashran, her closest advisers fret that sentimentality will prevent her from acting in the best interests of the country, so they blow up his plane as he leaves America. “You couldn’t keep your damn legs closed,” an aide snipes when explaining the reason for the assassination. The writers of “House of Cards” at least make the cliché a plot point. Hale fakes an emotional breakdown so that she can weed out the male lawmakers who are trying to undermine her and replace them with an all-female cabinet. It works, despite the fact that Hale has shown herself over the course of the series to be as ruthless and cunning as her late husband and predecessor, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Episodes earlier, in fact, her steely comportment prompts opponents to question whether “she’s a person or just playing the part of one”. That they have no trouble believing that she is having a “full-blown Howard Hughes” episode suggests that they think such wavering is inevitable with a female president.
How political figures are portrayed on television matters—not only because lazily drawn characters are dull to watch, but because pop culture has a role in easing public acceptance of social issues. “The reign of the middle-aged white man is over,” Hale tells a potential Supreme Court nominee; turning to the camera, she reminds viewers that it’s her “turn”. The question is how long it will take for life to imitate art.