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The President. She’s on TV.

TV Tropes predict Sexist Hurdles for the New VP

The President. She’s on TV.
Photo by David Lusvardi on Unsplash

TV mirrors life, except in America where life mirrors tv. From shows like VEEP to the House of Cards women have better luck getting power in the White House in fiction, rather than reality. Thankful VP Harris will be able to break the mold of unfair treatment Hollywood has give the female executive. This paper written by me in December of 2017 may offer some clues as to how female power will be read by the media through the next administration.

Abstract

The findings of this paper suggest that fictional female United States presidents when they are presented in TV and in movies they fall into four archetypes, with distinct characteristics. This paper uses examples from a wide variety of TV and movies to demonstrate these categories. The first is that the character (female president) is used as an element of a science fiction plot. The second is that the character is hindered from doing their job in some way, correlated to negative gender stereotypes. The third is that characters that are portrayed as powerful, or with a desire to be powerful will posses evil qualities as well. The last being that characters that are closer to their male counterparts in competence and benevolence must be reluctant about their responsibilities.

We love Presidents in this country; every American has a few they hate, but a real American has a solid list of their favorites too. This fondness the American Head of State has of course been pervasive in our media, and both real and fictional Presidents have been a common element of our Movies and TV in this country. So what is the status of women in all this? It is well known that the United States Presidency is an office no woman has ever achieved, but it occasionally does happen in fiction.

So how do these ladies stand up compared to their male counterparts? Well first we’d have to take a sampling of what male Presidents look like when they are imagined by Hollywood writers. Generally speaking Presidents on TV and in Movies are very well liked. They often embody the dignity of their office, and have a sort of larger than life presence. All while being confident, competent, and successful. Female presidents on screen rarely are so lucky. If a woman is presented as the Commander in Chief she will fall into one of four categories. Fictional Female Presidents can be an element of a science fiction storyline, unfit for office because of her gender, completely morally corrupt, or reluctant leader if not a mere placeholder for a man indisposed.

This is a problem for many reasons, because though the highest and hardest glass ceiling was broken on screen, a large disparity between the sexes does exist. The Wall Street Journal’s “44 Fake Presidents From Worst to Best” contained only 4 women. President Selena Myer from HBO’s comedy show VEEP, President Lanford from the 2016 Movie Independence Day Resurgence, President Constance Payton from the show State of Affairs, and President Mackenzie Allen from the show Commander in Chief. Ranking in at number 39, number 36, number 27, and number 10 respectively. (Steinberg) The list does have a few notable issues as far as a source goes, it is based on opinions, and ranking does not necessarily correlate to popularity. For example second to last at number 43 is President Francis Underwood from Netflix’s show House of Cards, which has enjoyed an element of popularity recently.

The top three however, are both incredibly popular and possibly the gold standard for Hollywood Presidents. (Steinberg) Number One being Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in the 1997 movie Air Force One, President Marshall is famous for ditching the secret service and personally fighting terrorists.

Number Two being Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet in the 1999 TV show The West Wing. President Bartlet is the dignified man in the office; he is less of a President and more of a philosopher king in the show. His first line in the series is “I am The Lord Your God. Thou shalt worship no other god before me. Boy those were the days, huh?” (Pilot, 36:21-36:35). It’s a well set up scene, and it demonstrates the total superiority the president has throughout the show.

Number three is President Thomas J. Whitmore, from the 1996 movie Independence Day. Where he gives this fantastic speech, which has become very much a cult classic.

“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. ‘Mankind.’ That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom… Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!” Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

The speech checks a lot of boxes, it has no partisan slant, it’s overwhelmingly patriotic, and it derides politics in the real world as petty. This is the moment that solidified this Fictional President’s place on our list, but it does help that moments later he hops into a fighter jets and dog fights with aliens.

It is difficult for even the most seasoned of TV watchers or Feminists to conjure up memories of a woman president behaving like this. Largely because they are written into bad roles, where they can’t achieve. President Selina Meyer from VEEP a comedy show with some legitimate political underpinnings is rated 39 best fictional president. One worse than the 2006 film Idiocracy’s President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho who sits at number 38. His legacy includes famine, economic collapse, and televised execution, but the former wrestler is seen as a more effective leader than President Meyer by the Wall Street Journal, and the blame shouldn’t be left there. (Steinberg) The failure is on her writers, and the society that demands media that fits our templates of how life should be.

To escape the confines of what life is like is coincidentally the mission of a certain genre, science fiction. And that is why it is no coincidence that science fiction is the first and best home of the female president.  “The first woman president to be portrayed in a talking film dates back to 1953, when actress Ernestine Barrier took to the big screen to play “Madame President” in the science fiction flick Project Moon Base, written by beloved writer Robert A. Heinlein.” (Mansky) “Though in the film, Heinlein places the moon landing in September 1970, impressively coming within 15 months of the actual date…” (Mansky) With social aspects he wasn’t as good a guess, 47 years later we still haven’t had a female president. In this movie a trend was born, but the reason that female presidents are more pervasive in science fiction is not a progressive one. It is the mere fact that it implies an impossible future. In Project Moon Base, Madam President appears at the end of the film, and is merely for shock value. (Mansky)

As society ages this trick has changed over time, now we have more dynamic female leaders in our science fiction roles, some of which are even allowed to do well. An excellent example is Lynda Carter’s portrayal of President Olivia Marsdin in season two of the CW’s 2015 show Super Girl. She’s an elected president; she embodies her office, and is a protagonist. On top of being all out adored by the shows main character Super Girl. Though she is an excellent president, Marsdin is a minor character and falls in the same Project Moon Base trend; she’s a woman president for the sake of having one.

In 2016 the American people were presented with a sequel to the movie Independence Day, and hyped throughout the films marketing was the fact that the person filling President Whitmore’s shoes would be a woman. Independence Day Resurgence features President Elizabeth Lanford, played by Sela Ward. She very much sets the film into the future, comparing the 1996 film with its sequel taking place 20 years later. Behold this woman in her female state; it is not the ‘90s any more. The audience does not see much of President Lanford however, because like Madam President from Project Moon Base she is not essential to the plot. Noticeably not giving a speech similar to her processors. In fact the character does not even live through the entire film, the President’s last words being “There will be no peace.” Which strikes the same notion of human resolve to live, but not nearly as uplifting as President Whitmore’s speech. 
 More and more female presidents are becoming commonplace outside of science fiction. Eleven years after Project Moon Base brought lady presidents to talking films, Kisses for my President came out. The 1964 films entire plot was based around a woman sitting in the oval office. It created and epitomized a new kind of female president, outside the science fiction purpose for female presidents. The purpose for these characters is to make a mockery of the idea of a woman president, to tear down the notion. The depiction of President McCloud is an interesting one. To start off the film it shows large crowds of women campaigning on Mrs. McCloud’s behalf, suggesting that President McCloud won her election by capitalizing on the female vote. Which is interesting because at the time little was known about what a female path to victory through the electorate would be, so a nearly exclusively female cadre of voters was the best guess Hollywood could make, because the idea that men would favor a female was too preposterous one must assume.

This film came out during the United States 88th Congress which contained only 15 women. (United States House of Representatives) Compared to 105 in 2017. (“Women in the U.S. Congress 2017”) The 1960s was also a time where widows mandate, a woman taking office after her husbands passing out of convenience to a political party, and other familial connections were the usual means for women to enter office at this time. (United States House of Representatives)

So Kisses for My President could have had a big impact on culture, since the first scene, her election was pretty much political science fiction, for the time. President McCloud is a very complicated character. To say she doesn’t do well as a president would be all to perfect for the argument, but she does score some points as Commander in Chief. She deals with opposition leaders and foreign dictators masterfully, often leaving them angry and speechless. Still the film is embroiled in sexism. One thing that stands out about the film is that the actress playing the most powerful person on earth is never allowed to be alone on screen.

The film instead follows her husband, Mr. McCloud the first gentleman. Whose role turns him from a successful businessman into a feckless dope, as he deals with the boredom of being a stay at home parent, and attempts to avoid the emasculating responsibilities of the presidential spouse. Which is the over all theme of the movie, President McCloud doesn’t run the nation into ruin, but the film makes the idea of a female president very ugly, as the audience must cringe every moment a sexed up Latin American dictator hits on the leader of the free world, all the while her family structure falls into utter decay. By the end of the film her husband has very nearly had an affair, her children are misbehaving, and she is constantly too busy to have spousal relations with her husband. The resolution being she faints one day at work, to discover she is pregnant. The next scene she announces her retirement to the nation, so she can go home and be a good wife and mother, leaving the ship of state with a man at the helm again.

Fortunately this isn’t a point Hollywood has felt it need to make at the American People often, but there exist very much a heir apparent for the title of most sexist portrayal of a female President. HBO’s 2012 comedy series VEEP with Julia Louis-Dreyfus playing Vice President, then President Selina Meyer. Though in respect VEEP is intended to be an over the top comedy, but the premise is usually sexist. While President Meyer is a divorcee the audience must still witness her family issues. Meyer pretty much ignores her adult daughters regular cries for help every episode, and the most powerful woman in the world is regularly snubbed by unfaithful men. Be it her own running mate as she seeks a second term as president, or her ex-husband a serial womanizer.

VEEP also takes a larger foray into what a woman leader might look like at her worst, where as President McCloud was always portrayed as tired, Meyer is undignified and cranky. As she treats her staff really poorly and is often shirks work for rest and vanity, in some episodes forcing her staff to cover for her as she gets plastic surgery.

For all these reasons and more she is probably a bad role model for any woman seeking to enter politics. It is also why she is ranked below the President from Idiocracy who thinks electrolytes are good for plants.

Female President’s at their worst are not portrayed as incompetent, or hindered by their gender, but are instead portrayed as downright evil. It’s a common trope, for example in the 2009 Fox TV show Prison Break features President Caroline Reynolds. A part of a mysterious crime web called “The Company”; President Reynolds is Vice President until she orchestrates the murder of the President and ascends to his office.

A better example is the Ruthless President Claire Underwood. Played by Robin Wright in the Netflix show House of Cards. Though she is mostly an accessory to the heinous crimes of her husband Frank, she has the more villainous vibe. The writers on the show have taken great lengths to make Frank an anti-hero. Steps they haven’t taken on Claire, the new President. Much of this has to do with Frank’s theatric asides, “It illustrates how looking, almost voyeuristically, into Frank’s private life makes us go easier on his evil acts because we get to know him on a personal level.” (Hackett, 232) Claire breaks the first wall almost never, the most notable time happens in Season 5 Episode Eleven, when she says “Just to be clear, it’s not that I haven’t always known you were there. It’s that I have mixed feelings about you. I question your intentions. And, I’m ambivalent about attention. But don’t take it personally; it’s how I feel about most everybody.” It is kind of irritating to the audience that Claire would never justify herself to them, or that they could never see her developing moments. It is what makes her a villain, because her crimes are the same as his, but currently we don’t trust her.

So what is the point of having a woman president be evil, why do audiences accept this as good story telling, turns out it is TV holding a mirror up to reality. Lets take Frank, our power hungry male anti hero, according to Harvard “When participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having greater agency (i.e., being more assertive, stronger, and tougher) and greater competence, while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking female politicians.” (Okimoto and Brescoll 923-936) On the other hand what do they think of power hungry women like President Claire Underwood, or President Reynolds?

“When participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., being unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians. When female politicians were described as power-seeking, participants experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them.”

(Ibid) This study also found that gender had no affect, women and men reacted similarly to the suggested circumstances. (Ibid) With this information it makes sense why we lack really heroic female presidential characters. How are women supposed to ascend to the highest office in the land without power seeking?

Well the highest ranked fictional female President sitting comfortably at number 10 on the Wall Street Journals analysis is President Mackenzie Allen from the TV show Commander in Chief Staring Geena Davis attempts to have that character. In the first episode of the show Vice President Mackenzie Allen debates stepping down from power, to make way for a male Speaker of the House to be President, as the president lays in the hospital dying. She flashes back to when she was an independent Chancellor of the University of Richmond, when she was asked to be the part of the now dying President’s campaign and running mate. The question took her by surprise and she joined the campaign out of duty for her country. Then later on in the episode the Speaker of the House tells her she isn’t suited to the role because she doesn’t want power, and won’t know what to do with it when she has it. (Pilot, 20:00-21:19) The rest of President Allen’s show could be attributed to these moments, because they established she didn’t want power she could be like President Bartlet in West Wing. A benevolent force.

This is the last archetype of the fictional female president, the archetype where the best presidents are found. The women, who didn’t want to be President, but become it. This is why many modern TV shows and movies chose to have at times have some woman take the role of acting president, while men are unable to fill the role. Such as in the 2014 CBS show Madam Secretary, where Téa Leoni stars as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord. In the show there is an episode where Secretary McCord takes the reigns of government, while the President is possibly dead. During the whole affair she is constantly reminded how impermanent her position is, she refuses to allow people to call her Madam President, and opts to stand behind the chair in the oval office, rather than sit in it. (The Show Must Go On, whole episode) Still Acting President McCord does a very good job until the real president releases her of her duty, by being found alive.

This theme of women not wanting to be president being the best ones is really a culmination of every other type of fictional president. The idea that it will be shocking and science fiction like to even have one, and that a female president would be either less competent or evil, because those are the types of women that would dare seek the Presidency. To get a competent president those rules would have to be broken, but currently they are just written around.

The significance being that if media truly does hold a mirror up to our reality, any woman seeking office in the U.S. will face challenges. They will also lack role models in popular culture. Still those facing that unknown may change the face of how female presidents are portrayed forever.

References

Air Force One. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, Columbia Pictures, 1997.

Commander in Chief. Created by Rod Lurie, ABC, 2005.

Hackett, J. Edward. House Of Cards And Philosophy. Print.

House of Cards. Beau Willimon, Netflix, 2013.

House of Representatives, United States. "The Widow And Familial Connections | US House Of Representatives: History, Art & Archives." History.house.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 18 Dec. 2017.

House of Representatives, United States. "Women Representatives And Senators By Congress, 1917–Present | US House Of Representatives: History, Art & Archives." History.house.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 18 Dec. 2017.

Idiocracy. Directed by Mike Judge, Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.

Independence Day. Roland Emmerich, Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.

Independence Day Resurgence. Roland Emmerich, Twentieth Century Fox, 2016.

Kisses for My President. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, Pearlayne, 1964.

Madam Secretary. CBS, 2014.

Mansky, Jackie. "The History Of Women Presidents In Film." Smithsonian. N.p., 2017. Web. 18 Dec. 2017.

Prison Break. Fox, 2012.

Okimoto, Tyler G., and Victoria L. Brescoll. "The Price Of Power: Power Seeking And Backlash Against Female Politicians." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36.7 (2010): 923-936. Web.

Steinberg, Don. "44 Fake Presidents From Worst To Best." The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 2017. Web. 18 Dec. 2017.

Super Girl. The CW, 2015.

VEEP. HBO, 2012.

The West Wing. Created by Aaron Sorkin, NBC, 1999.

"Women In The U.S. Congress 2017 | CAWP." Cawp.rutgers.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 18 Dec. 2017.

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