Last Sunday, Julia Louis-Dreyfus returned to our screens as the bitingly funny Vice President Selina Meyer in the third season premiere of HBO’s political farce “Veep.” The show has become widely known thanks to its uproarious foul-mouthedness and fabulous cast, which features a host of seasoned comedy actors from Seinfeld’s Louis-Dreyfus to “Arrested Development’s” Tony Hale.
But besides teaching us new and inventive methods to curse six ways to Sunday, “Veep” joins a legion of television shows that challenge modern-day perceptions of women in governance.
Today, we can take our pick of a whole array of political shows — “Veep,” “House of Cards” and “Scandal,” to name a few. But divergent from traditional Washington dramas, where the order of the day ranged from an almost clinical asexuality to pure misogyny, this new generation of programming has brought about a debate on the current and future roles of female politicos both on and off the screen.
The 2008 U.S. election cycle was momentous in more ways than one. The country elected its first African American president, who only narrowly beat a woman in the Democratic primaries, and the Republican Party nominated its first woman for the position of Vice President. A truly historic time indeed.
Yet, while Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s standing would seem to be indicative of the “closing gap” between men and women in the American political world, a closer look at the situation seems to suggest otherwise.
I like to think that when electing officials to power, we take into consideration primarily their competence and ability to do the job as best as possible. But rampant sexism continues to plague this process. Women in particular frequently fall prey to media attacks that either oversexualize them or criticize them for being “too masculine,” and as a result, the societal perception that women are less qualified to lead pervades.
Thankfully, this new wave of shows tackles these stereotypes head-on.
The gorgeous and wildly intelligent Olivia Pope of “Scandal,” though not an elected official, oozes confidence and power, navigates the toughest job in D.C. and an affair with the POTUS, all while draped in a stunning white Burberry trench coat.
“House of Cards” features a range of strong female characters, from the opinionated Jackie Sharp to icy, strong-willed rape survivor Claire Underwood. Some are elected officials, some are not — but they certainly didn’t get to where they are by batting their eyelashes at any males.
And then there’s “Veep.” Unlike many shows, it does not feel the need to sugarcoat the political experience of females in power. Selina Meyer is not trying to have it all. She wants the presidency, and that is what she goes after ruthlessly. Often, this is to the detriment of her family, something we infer has always been the case — from early on, we learn that Selina has a daughter but is already divorced.
The creators also make no efforts to portray her as the plucky girl who, through charm and good luck, achieves all her goals. In fact, though she gains the position of VP and thus finds herself as the second most powerful person in the Free World, she is powerless thanks to the endless drag of bureaucracy, forever incapable of accomplishing anything concrete.
In all three of these shows, we see time and again that the women are deep, richly developed characters, but in their own fictional worlds are undermined and made one-dimensional by the media that hounds them. Whether it is “the President’s mistress,” “the victim” or any other number of labels, the shows continue to highlight the media’s propagation of harmful stereotypes surrounding women in power.
Though each role is accompanied by its own issues and shortcomings — of these examples, all are successful, heterosexual women, and the only woman of color is not an elected official — they’ve successfully popularized a discussion that needs to be had. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the shows, looking toward the 2016 election cycle, it will be vital to scrutinize the candidates and media coverage in a way that simply wasn’t done in 2008. And who knows? Perhaps the time for America’s first female president will finally have arrived.