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