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The Double Standards for TV's Male and Female Politicians

Features
by Alyssa Rosenberg
November 25, 2013 2:00 PM
1 Comment
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Scene From Scandal

Bad-boy politicians are nothing new in popular culture. Mr. Smith was lamenting the sorry state of our politics and Joe Tynan was getting seduced by a lobbyist long before I was born. And television has plenty of them now, in plenty of flavors, from Homeland's scheming Senator Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) to Scandal's President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). 

But this fall on TV, we've also gotten a crop of characters who bring male politicians' cavalier attitudes towards their offices into high relief. In contrast are their female counterparts, who exhibit a competence and dedication to their jobs that seems downright superheroic in comparison to the lackadaisical or Machiavellian styles favored by their male peers. But the storylines of female-politican characters are also a clear and sometimes funny reminder of why men can take higher office for granted, while women still have to work twice as hard for half the respect.

The fact that Scandal's president is a white man -- and not just any white man, but one from a wealthy political dynasty who bears a JFK-like record of military service -- has always felt a little bit like a throwback, particularly in a show where the chief of staff is a gay Republican and an African-American woman is Washington's biggest fixer. But that's always been part of Scandal's point. Fitzgerald Grant kept failing upward, aided by women and gay men who dedicated themselves to his rise in the belief that they themselves were unelectable, and therefore in the hopes that he would help them achieve a fraction of their ambitions and desired policies.

In previous seasons, Fitz's main political rival has been his own vice president, Sally Langston (Kate Burton). A religious conservative whose views and constituency are far to the right of Fitz's -- he's the kind of moderate Republican who exists only in the fantasies of Hollywood writers and columnists of major national newspapers -- Sally is unpleasant, self-righteous, and unstrategic. The closest she's come to the presidency is overstepping her acting authority while Fitz was in a coma. And though she's gearing up to a primary face-off with Fitz, it's hard to see her as a viable candidate. 

Women in general may not be unelectable, but Sally's too nasty and rigid to appeal to voters. And her plan to run to the right is the exact opposite of the strategy that's worked in the past several Republican presidential primaries, even as Tea Party candidates have captured seats in the House and Senate. But because she's been the only prominent female political figure we've seen on Scandal, Sally's particular incompetence has at times contributed to the show's impression that only white men can lock up the highest office in the land.

So it's been refreshing, even delicious, this season to see Scandal add Rep. Josephine Marcus (Lisa Kudrow), a feisty Democratic Congresswoman -- and a viable contender for both her party's nomination and the presidency. Marcus is herself a veteran. She's also a widow, and she has a way with a one-liner. She tells the cheating Fitz to "tame the cobra" and refuses to get ruffled when First Lady Mellie is caught insulting her on a microphone she thought had been turned off. 

As Marcus has emerged as a viable challenger to Fitz -- not just for the presidency, but for the loyalties of Olivia Pope (star Kerry Washington), his one-time fixer and on-again-off-again mistress -- Josephine's stepped out as the embodiment of a different kind of fantasy. Her campaign exists in an imaginary world where a woman in politics speaks out against sexism in the media and defends her decisions around a teenage pregnancy to gain support, rather than be labeled a shrew and a slut.

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1 Comment

  • HoneyBearKelly | November 26, 2013 6:50 AMReply

    All of the above is why I think Borgen is the best show on teevee.

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