Five years ago, a new show premiered with the images we had all come to know and cringe at the sight of: the politician who has just been caught with his pants around his ankles (or with his penis in a twitpic) standing behind a podium, apologizing profusely and promising to be a better man. Usually during those press conferences, I can barely focus on what the schmuck has to say because I can’t take my eyes off the woman standing beside him.
What must be going through her head, I wonder, as she stares blankly at midair, probably just hoping the ground would open up and devour her. Why does she stand beside him? Why do they all stand beside their men?
Obviously I wasn’t the only one asking those questions. Robert and Michelle King were wondering the same things, too. And how brilliant of them to realize that these questions were an excellent premise for a television show.
Five years ago, when “The Good Wife” premiered on CBS, the biggest case of a real life Alicia Florrick in American politics had been Hillary Clinton (and now that Monica Lewinsky is making a comeback, we’ve come full circle).
Since then, Alicia Florrick has gone on to become a powerful lawyer who is living separately from her husband, now the governor of Illinois. She has her own firm and she is running for State’s Attorney. Hillary went on to become Secretary of State.
So CBS gave “The Good Wife” a running mate, “Madam Secretary,” which began its first season this fall in the time slot right before “Good Wife.” Together they perfectly represent how television reflects the evolution of women and their political power in our society: from the little wife who stood by her husband, humiliated but supportive, silencing her own voice for his benefit, to one of the most powerful positions in the world.
This brings to mind a show that I’ve mourned gravely. “Commander in Chief” had premiered just four years before “Good Wife,” but it didn’t last more than one season. The show starred Geena Davis as the president of the United States of America. Of course, she wasn’t elected, but rather she inherited the job after the President died. But that still meant that we were already good enough for Number 2 on the ticket.
First female president Mackenzie Allen had everything and everyone stacked against her, but she was the best possible president. She was firm but sensitive; compassionate but smart. She always found the right way to balance realism with altruism, and she didn’t even nuke neighboring countries every time she got her period.
Which is why, I guess, the show just had to go off the air.
But oh how far we’ve come. The woman who was the inspiration for two shows about powerful women is now possibly going to star in the lead role in her real life “Commander in Chief” spin-off (and you can tell that to my “Ready for Hillary” bumper sticker!).
“The Good Wife” has been one of the best shows on television since the first day it aired. It is intelligent, eloquent and funny, and even in its sixth season it still manages to throw us off with shocking, unpredictable turns. It is filled with interesting, complex and powerful women, from the lead character played flawlessly by Julianna Margulies, to Diane Lockhart (the fabulous Christine Baranski), Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi in the role of her life) and young Grace Florrick.
Women aren’t just an integral part of the show; they are the show. The myriad female roles on every single episode—as attorneys, judges, clients, love interests, mothers, daughters, and colleagues—has given some fine actresses great roles to chew on (Carrie Preston as kooky genius lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni; Mary Beth Peil as smothering yet hilariously clever Mama Florrick; Anika Noni Rose as Wendy Scott-Carr, the infuriating nemesis to Peter Florrick; and Mamie Gummer as the snake-in-the-grass lawyer who uses her deceiving “dumb blonde” act to win cases, are just a few favorites in a long list of fabulous roles for women).
“Madam Secretary” stars Tea Leoni as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord. As Former CIA, Secretary McCord knows everything that guys don’t ever think women know (think Carrie in “Homeland”), but her femininity brings intelligence and collegiality to the job, though she has repeatedly shown that when her male colleagues refuse to play along, she will go off on her own and do what it takes to get the job done.
She has staff whose respect she works hard to earn. Her chief-of-staff is Nadine, played by Bebe Neuwirth, and her press secretary is Daisy, played by Patina Miller. Together, they work, negotiate and run one of the most powerful offices in the world, whether or not their cycles have already synced.
What is the most refreshing is seeing Secretary McCord’s supportive husband Henry (played by Tim Daly). The show, which could have easily fallen into the old trappings of the successful woman who is great at her job but sucks in “real life,” simply refuses to go there. Henry loves and supports his wife and does not let her feel guilty about spending more time at work than at home.
McCord is also raising three children, two girls and a boy. The older girl is struggling with questions about her own independence and place in the world, but all children are supportive of their mother and so far seem to be happy, well-adjusted children.
So now it’s time to take the next step! “State of Affairs” is the new show coming to NBC this November. And if I manage to ignore my dislike for Katherine Heigl, I am no doubt going to love seeing Alfre Woodard rule the world as the first Black female president.
All these women, by the way, are mature women over the age of 40, and they are all in the prime of their lives. They have the experience and the confidence that television has wisely been celebrating more and more these days.
So now, what is missing to complete this picture-perfect televisual idea of real equality? A comedy that mocks these kinds of wonferful depictions. Because you have never truly arrived until you can make fun of yourself, right?
And who better to do the job than Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars as Vice President Selina Meyer in HBO’s “Veep.” If all these powerful network chicks were inspired by Hillary Clinton, this one seems to be inspired by Sarah Palin. She is clueless and messy and can’t wait for the president to drop dead so that she can take over. The show basically continues the “Seinfeld” alum’s best-known topic, nothing, but this time because it appears that nothing is the only thing a Vice President does and does well.
Nevertheless, the show does depict some of the uglier aspects of a female politician’s daily struggles. In the first two episodes (which are, admittedly, the only ones I’ve watched) there were already references to several incidents of sexual harassment she had had to endure in her political career.
Which brings us back to why we celebrate this Election Day. Women still make up only about 20% of politicians. That means that half of the population gets less than half of its representation. And even these brave women still have to endure sexism, sexual harassment and men who think they should be making their coffee instead of making legislation.
So we do need more women to run, but we also need more women to vote. Let these women inspire you and go out there and vote for someone who will promote your health, wellbeing, freedom, equality and dignity.
Pet Peeve of the Week:
Why do people in television think women with curls cannot be taken seriously? This dawned on me a while ago, when I realized all of the reporters on the news had their hair straightened. Julianna Margulies has to wear a wig to portray Alicia Florrick because her hair is naturally curly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus wears one on “Veep.” Why exactly?
What a joy it is to see Bebe Neuwirth, who has straightened her hair for less important guest appearances on television before, wear her curls proudly around the office of the Secretary of State.
The Show that Didn’t Make it in:
“House of Cards” started off its first season with great promise. Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood was even more interesting than Kevin Spacey’s lead character. However, with its second season, the show brought a special kind of cruelty to both characters that I found to be a great turn off.
The show needs to find a balance between power hunger and tarantula venom. Frank cannot just go around killing whomever is in his way and Claire cannot just go around threatening unborn babies. They lose credibility and we lose respect for them and the show.
Therefore, even though Claire is a very powerful woman in politics; even though her relationship with Frank is based on a political game plan of two calculated equals in pursuit of power; and even though Robin Wright does a fantastic job as this enigmatic creature, I did not include the show in my discussion.
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