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How Pop Culture Can Enhance Our View of Hillary Clinton

Features
by Alyssa Rosenberg
August 15, 2013 2:15 PM
1 Comment
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Last summer, the USA Network ran an excellent miniseries, Political Animals, about an imagined world in which a Hillary surrogate, Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver) had divorced her ex-president husband after shuttering her own campaign for the presidency. Political Animals was more concerned with the use of power than Primary Colors was: while serving as Secretary of State for a male president who was younger than she was, Barrish had to handle a hostage crisis in Iran and a sunken submarine that damages the U.S.'s relations with China. The as-yet-untitled NBC miniseries, which will star Diane Lane as Clinton, also is poised to focus on Clinton's years in offices she won on her own merits, rather than her time as First Lady. The idea of reclaiming your role in public life after a decade of being painted as a Lady Macbeth isn't just true to Clinton's life: it's incredibly rich creative territory that plenty of anti-hero television creators could stand to learn from.

These fictional accounts may focus more on character than on the substance of policy, but to pretend that presidential elections are decided solely on the substance of briefing papers is laughable. And if we're going to consider character, trying to imagine what's going on inside Hillary Clinton's head isn't a more legitimate enterprise when journalist Gail Sheehy is trying to envision it than when Greg Berlanti, who made Political Animals, gives it a shot. And among the benefits of fiction are a drive for new narratives rather than the ones that have been established and gone stale in the news media: Rodham's examination of a young lawyer's work on the Nixon impeachment inquiry shines light on a period that rarely is a substantive part of the discussion of Clinton's record of public service, while Political Animals examined how the Clinton-Obama relationship could have developed differently.

And these projects don't just matter because of how they help us think about Hillary Rodham Clinton and how it might be to have her as president. They're rare opportunities for pop culture to depict a woman in a significant leadership position. A recent analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that women hold just 34.4 percent of the jobs characters are depicted as having in prime-time television programming, even though women make up 47 percent of the workforce. We're underrepresented in work at all, much less in fictional positions of power.

Davis's presidential drama Commander in Chief was cancelled in 2006. Since 2010, when 24, which at the time had Cherry Jones playing President Allison Taylor, ended its run, Parks and Recreation is one of the only positive ongoing depictions of a woman in public office currently on air, and Leslie Knope is only a city councilwoman in Pawnee, Indiana. On Scandal, the other show about women in politics, Vice President Sally Langston is portrayed as a scheming arch-conservative who briefly served as acting president while President Fitzgerald Grant was in a coma, and who attempted to use his illness as a means of effectively staging a coup. On film, the most recent woman to play a fictional president is Stephanie Paul, but who got the role in Iron Sky, a trashy science fiction film that posited that Nazis were attacking earth from space.

Culture may be the realm of the imagination, but apparently our imaginations remain pretty limited when it comes to women in high office. If nothing else, Hillary will play a very small part in expanding our fictional thinking, and in remedying the gross gender imbalance on our TV screens.

And let's remember the women who are involved in the project, not just the business executive who ordered it. The creative voice behind Hillary is Courtney Hunt, who wrote and directed Frozen River, the nervy 2008 drama about a woman drawn into a cross-border smuggling scheme in the part of upstate New York that meets Quebec that produced a Best Actress-nominated performance from Melissa Leo. And she's done similar work with complex female characters in directing episodes of therapy drama In Treatment that focused on the woman patients, and of the long-running police procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Diane Lane's worked selectively in recent years, in part because her career's been a good illustration of the limited work available to even the most talented actresses once they hit forty. But in this summer's blockbuster Superman reboot Man of Steel and in HBO's Cinema Verite, a fictionalized look at the Loud family, who agreed to be filmed for what became America's first real reality television program, she gave excellent performances as women under enormous pressure, and in Cinema Verite, grappling with her sudden fame. It'll be fantastic to see her get to step out from domestic roles and into a character with a rich public and professional life.

In other words, before we get all hot and bothered about the possible content of one of the many pieces of media about Hillary Rodham Clinton that will air on television in between now and November 8, 2016, maybe we should see what it's going to look like? If the work of these two women--and the Hillary projects that precede them--are any indication, we'll get a miniseries that's richer and more emotionally sensitive than the evening news. And our conversations about the candidate will be better off for it.

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1 Comment

  • Alexandrea Merrell | August 16, 2013 2:34 PMReply

    I'm sorry, but there is a huge difference between televisions shows that make us think about the similarities to a candidate and works of fiction that actually portray that candidate by name and face.

    We live in a world where many were unable to tell the difference between Tina Fey and Sarah Palin. Where people attributed to Palin, comedy routine from SNL sketches. Doyou honestly think that people will know the difference between fictional accounts of Clinton and actual accounts? Of course not.

    And that is the problem. If you want to have a fictionalized show about Clinton (which I think would be very interesting) it is appropriate to have it after the elections. Having it before the elections simply allows real issues in character and conduct (of any candidate) to be whitewashed, shined up, and dramatized.

    People largely believe that what they see is factual. Our political system is flawed enough thanks to incredible amounts of money used to spin and smear. We need MORE truth, more reality, and more accountability, we don't need the Harlequin novel version or the Jame Bond version or any other fictionalized version of a candidate skewing the perception of voters.

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