“I can't identify myself as a woman! People can't know that!“ – Female Protagonists in Current Political Drama and Comedy by Maria Sulimma and Bettina Soller

Curator's Note

by Maria Sulimma and Bettina Soller

Contemporary TV series feature a wealth of narratives concerned with the machinations of U.S. democracy, and many shows prominently feature female protagonists. In the US, women hold 18.5% of the seats in congress and no woman has served as president/vice-president. Our video shows how TV series explore the impact of gender within the political sphere as literally embodied in the characters Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation, NBC), Selina Meyer (Veep, HBO), and Olivia Pope (Scandal, ABC).

With a predominantly sinister and cynical look at democratic institutions, these series diverge from stereotypes in the representation of women. It is their power-hungry, manipulative and at times immoral behavior that critics have celebrated, e.g. at the Emmys, placing these characters on par with Television’s celebrated “Difficult Men” such as Tony Soprano or Walter White.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson established the psychological term Double Bind to describe ambiguous expectations female politicians face: In a strenuous balancing act, they need to attend to female and male role expectations in the gender binary of the political arena and are predestined to failure, because being female remains equated with political incompetence.

The accomplishment of the series lies in their address of the complex situation of women in politics. Here, interestingly, one media text, TV series, also incorporates a critique of other media texts, political journalism, as complicit in the perpetuation of gendered stereotypes.

The female politicians feature in plots surrounding the complicated coordination of their private lives with their professional lives and positions of authority.Yet, a gap remains between the narrative’s awareness of the gendered double bind and the expectations towards televised femininity and beauty. While prominent or hyper-feminized attire would make any politician  vulnerable, all female protagonists are conventionally beautiful and wear expensive clothes.

Even though the video ends with Leslie clinking her beer bottle in celebration of her joining the boys’ club, ultimately the TV series do not offer universal solutions to the double bind their protagonists face. In refusing happy conclusions, the shows acknowledge that reframing femininity from “other” to an unmarked, white, upper-class masculinity to politically competent and legitimate is an ongoing struggle.

Comments

Melody C Jue's picture

Taboos of presentation

The clips you’ve assembled are really moving, as is their sequence! I was especially struck by the second to last one from Scandal, and the reactions to Lisa Kudrow’s character calling out the reporter on how he has already staged (or should we say “outed”?) her as a woman. Tangentially, this reminds me of Queen Elizabeth I’s famous demurral that she has the body of a weak woman but the heart of a man—that to be a female politician involves such a disavowel. Your introduction of the double bind is really useful here. Since you also feature Amy Poehler’s character from Parks and Rec, I was wondering how you would situate her and Tina Fey’s infamous SNL skit in relation to the TV series’ portrayals of female politicians?

Bettina Soller's picture

Skit and TV shows

Thank you Melody for pointing out the SNL skit. It is another good example of how one media text criticizes other forms of media practices. And it becomes telling here how delicate the balancing act is between laughing at the fact that the media dares to characterize Palin as a MILF, or laughing at Palin and deriding her as a MILF, and therefore degrading her as a sexual object and not discussing her in relation to her political positions etc.

Often times, these TV shows depict women as being as capable as men in political offices and then again featuring them in plots that show how they lose all control and better judgement once they are in love. So, there are a lot of mixed messages.

Maria Sulimma's picture

more thoughts on professional femininity

Melody, I’m glad you enjoyed our selection of clips. (We did have so many great examples to choose from, i.e. also the excellent Danish series Borgen)

And, how interesting that you thought of Queen Elizabeth I. Seems like the problematic tension between professional femininity and political power has been persisting for a long time…

The double bind also is visible when political journalism points out how exceptional it is that a woman is running for a certain office (the phenomenon of “the first”). Very often seemingly progressive coverage is contra productive because it dedicates more space to a female politician’s gender while her male contenders’/colleagues’ gender is accepted as norm which leaves more space to feature their political agendas.

However, to end on a more positive note, in my research on German politicians I found that once female politicians establish themselves in office their gender is less and less relevant and the news coverage resembles that of their male colleagues or predecessors.

Danielle Leek's picture

When women collide

I spent last night on-air doing political commentary on the US mid-terms. I work with a local ABC affiliate in West Michigan. Two of our most hotly contested races for the legislature featured two women vying for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. Over the past week and throughout last night’s televised coverage I was struck by how the double bind comes to bear when two women are situated across the aisle. In both races, news coverage focused on how “surprising” it was to see “two women” engaged in such “aggressive” “hostile” and “negative” campaigning. Statewide, the comments seemed to imply that it’s one thing for women to masculinize in response to a male opponent, but quite another when two female candidates are on the ballot. Your post was in my mind throughout last night as the election results rolled in. Thanks for giving me something really engaging and important to think about. On a less scholarly note - Maria and Bettina you’ve ruined me. The Lisa Kudrow clip from SCANDAL made me want to get up and cheer. I had resisted starting that series, but it looks like I have a new show to enjoy.

Bettina Soller's picture

Scandal

Dear Danielle, as the assigned Scandal expert of our team I need to warn you. I believe the show has so much potential, but at times it gets really frustrating to watch. Specifically in relation to the figure of the FLOTUS. In all of the shows we investigated more closely, women were pinned against men in the run for offices, thereby always remaining the Other to the male standard. Which is of course largely a reflection of the reality of female politicians. VEEP includes a subplot, where the press assumes that there is a constant cat fight between Selina and the First Lady, even though we never see them interact. The show points at the ways that female interaction is gendered. Hopefully we see two female characters running for the same office soon in one of these shows. It will be interesting how they depict the media’s representation of it then. The characterization you point at also shows how women just cannot get it right in the double bind of this gendered space. It seems like they were expected to be more ‘female’. Thank you for bringing the real life into the discussion. It makes me happy that you felt our post was interesting!

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