LEAD­ING LADIES

Pow­er­ful, po­lit­i­cal women are all the rage in to­day’s tele­vi­sion drama se­ries, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

EAR­LIER this month, it was re­ported that “in a princess-crazy world, Dis­ney re­mains king”. The re­port, in The Wall Street Jour­nal, re­vealed how the Os­car-win­ning an­i­mated film Frozen, about can-do princesses who save their king­dom from an eter­nal win­ter, con­tin­ues to gen­er­ate truck­loads of rev­enue from mer­chan­dis­ing. Dis­ney has sold more than three mil­lion spinoff princess dresses in North Amer­ica alone, in­clud­ing a frock that has a mu­si­cal, light-up bodice.

Yet else­where in popular cul­ture the vibe is more pres­i­den­tial than princessy as tele­vi­sion net­works pump out a plethora of dra­mas about fe­male po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, with­out a tiara or square-jawed prince in sight. In fact, this could be called the year of the TV stateswoman, given the num­ber of free-to-air and cable dra­mas built around fe­male pro­tag­o­nists in high of­fice or as­pir­ing to it.

Among them is the im­prob­a­ble in­ter­na­tional hit Bor­gen, an exquisitely crafted drama that homes in on the pri­vate and pub­lic tra­vails of Den­mark’s first fe­male prime min­is­ter. Played by the charis­matic Sidse Ba­bett Knud­sen, Bir­gitte Ny­borg is a ca­pa­ble yet vul­ner­a­ble woman who wins her coun­try’s most pow­er­ful job but in the process loses her mar­riage.

Party Tricks, which wrapped up on Chan­nel 10 this month, is an Aus­tralian drama that ex­plores how a past af­fair comes back to haunt a fe­male premier, por­trayed by Gold Lo­gie win­ner Asher Ked­die, while Veep, which airs on Fox­tel’s Showcase, is a scald­ing satire that re­volves around the US’s first fe­male vi­cepres­i­dent.

Played by triple Emmy-award win­ner Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus, Veep’s tit­u­lar character is al­ter­nately pumped up with a sense of her own im­por­tance and de­flated by an ap­pre­hen­sion of her own im­po­tence as Wash­ing­ton’s No 2. In the early episodes, a re­cur­ring gag sees the vi­cepres­i­dent ask her as­sis­tant: “Did the pres­i­dent call?” Nat­u­rally, the an­swer is al­ways no.

The roll­call of fe­male of­fice-hold­ers con­tin­ues with Madam Sec­re­tary (Net­work Ten), an earnest, glossy drama about El­iz­a­beth McCord (Tea Leoni), a CIA an­a­lyst and mother of three who is cat­a­pulted into the role of US sec­re­tary of state. Scan­dal (Chan­nel 7) is a breath­less po­lit­i­cal melo­drama cen­tred on a young black woman who runs a cri­sis man­age­ment agency for Wash­ing­ton’s movers and shak­ers, while the BBC’s The Politi­cian’s Hus­band provoca­tively asks: What hap­pens when the ta­bles are turned and a fe­male politi­cian starts to out­shine her hus­band, once seen as a party leader?

Now in its sixth se­ries, The Good Wife (Ten) fo­cuses on a po­lit­i­cal spouse, Ali­cia Flor­rick, who, stoic and stony, stood by her hus­band after a sex and cor­rup­tion scan­dal. In the cur­rent se­ries, Ali­cia, played with re­frig­er­ated in­ten­sity by Ju­lianna Mar­gulies, is rein­vent­ing her­self. The one-time home­maker forms one of the big­gest fe­male-headed law firms in the US and spends sev­eral episodes denying she will run for state’s at­tor­ney, which can mean only one thing: she will run for state’s at­tor­ney (an elected pros­e­cu­to­rial role).

At a time when the princess syn­drome in­forms many girls’ ideas of them­selves, this new breed of TV top girls — some ide­alised, some as ruth­less and foul-mouthed as their male coun­ter­parts — is pierc­ing the cel­lu­loid ceil­ing, and killing off worn-out myths about pow­er­ful women be­ing a turn-off for view­ers.

Asked about the rise of such char­ac­ters, aca­demic and fem­i­nist Catharine Lumby says: “There are cer­tainly the rum­blings of a seis­mic

Madam Sec­re­tary shift. Peo­ple are now com­fort­able with the idea of women hav­ing power.”

Laura Sivis, from the non-profit group Women in Film and Tele­vi­sion, agrees th­ese dra­mas point to an “ac­cep­tance on a wider level that women are able to en­gage in those po­lit­i­cal roles ... If the Western world wants to see a bit more of a bal­anced view­point in their po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion (be­tween men and women), I sup­pose it makes sense to fun­nel this into the sorts of sto­ries we’re cre­at­ing.”

Lumby, who is pro­fes­sor of me­dia at Syd­ney’s Mac­quarie Univer­sity, says the em­brac­ing of women pro­tag­o­nists who call the shots “opens the door to hav­ing more com­plex fe­male char­ac­ters” . “Women can be evil, too. Women can be bad at their jobs. I think we’re mov­ing away from a fear of rep­re­sent­ing the com­plex­ity of women in those po­si­tions.”

Cer­tainly, Veep’s Selina Meyer is a scathing par­ody of politi­cians who fix­ate on im­age rather than is­sues. She and her staff are flu­ent in dou­ble­s­peak, spin and faux (“pol­i­tics is about peo­ple”) sin­cer­ity. In the first se­ries, when Louis-Drey­fus’s Selina is told the pres­i­dent has had a heart at­tack, we see an epic bat­tle play out across her flaw­lessly made-up fea­tures. She is des­per­ate to have the top job, and her mouth twitches like an eel on a hook as she strug­gles to sup­press her de­light at her boss’s ap­par­ent demise.

In con­trast, Bor­gen’s Ny­borg and Madam Sec­re­tary’s McCord are younger ver­sions of The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet: noble politi­cians who do not feel silly say­ing they want to make a dif­fer­ence, and who some­how do, in episodes of 58 min­utes or less. Just a few eps into her ten­ure, McCord had sin­gle-hand­edly pre­vented a geno­cide in Africa, saved Amer­i­can diplo­mats from a ter­ror­ist bombing and still found time to ask about her kid’s home­work.

So is this lineup of tele­vi­sual pol­lies — most could grace a fash­ion run­way — a case of art im­i­tat­ing life, as women slowly in­crease their rep­re­sen­ta­tion in par­lia­men­tary cham­bers around the world? Or are th­ese dra­mas fem­i­nist fan­tasies, nour­ished para­dox­i­cally by the re­al­ity that women in less ex­alted jobs of­ten strug­gle to rec­on­cile the de­mands of work and fam­ily?

It’s surely a bit of both. Although women have dom­i­nated the US sec­re­tary of state job in re­cent years (Madeleine Al­bright, Con­doleezza Rice and Hil­lary Clin­ton), McCord ini­tially finds her­self in a frosty mi­cro­cli­mate where the pres­i­dent’s chief-of-staff, the mil­i­tary brass and her own staff ques­tion her judg­ment — partly, you sus­pect, be­cause she is a woman, do­ing things her way. She is of­ten am­biva­lent about

Tea Leoni as a for­mer CIA an­a­lyst who be­comes US sec­re­tary of state in

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