Did TV Help Make Us Ready for Hillary?
How the rise of fictional female presidents on TV matched with the rise of the reality of a Clinton presidency—and sometimes hurt the cause as much as it helped it.
The year was 1985 and, for the first time, there was a woman in the Oval Office.
It was Patty Duke, the first actress to play a fictional female president in a U.S. television series, the sitcom Hail to the Chief.
Duke played “a working woman, but there’s trouble on the homefront!” teased an ABC promo for the sitcom. When Duke’s frustrated husband, played by That Girl’s Ted Bessell, complained that his friend has a working wife but she still manages to get home at a decent hour, Duke responds, “She opened a boutique. I’m president of the United States!”
It was a fish-out-of-water comedy; a sitcom in which the notion of a female president was so preposterous the very idea was, in large part, the joke. It was canceled after seven episodes.
In the three decades since Hail to the Chief, TV has seen fictional female presidents used as narrative gimmicks, fantastical plot twists, and for probing provocation. But now, with the prospect of a woman leading the country a real possibility, women in power are beamed into our living rooms on our favorite series on a regular and, more importantly, normative basis.
Scouring that history of TV’s female presidents and the evolution of how they’re portrayed in the weeks before America decides whether to elect is first female president certainly raises the question of how television has made us ready for Hillary.
“Frankly, I think she’s bigger than TV,” says Tom Nunan, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. “I think the role is reversed. I think she has really influenced film and television more than it’s influenced the acceptance of her.”
There’s an impulse, of course, to scoff at the suggestion that television and its depiction of certain characters could influence culture or politics in such a profound way. But it would be foolish to deny the power of, say, Norman Lear’s body of work (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time) in challenging TV fans’ race and gender biases.
Vice President Joe Biden has gone so far as to credit Will and Grace with advancing mainstream acceptance of gay rights. Even recently, with the public coming out of Caitlyn Jenner, the visibility of Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, and the accolades for Amazon’s Transparent, “I think you can really point to the fact that a lot of people had their consciousness raised by television’s representation of transgender people,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University.
With the exception of Hail to the Chief, which predated Hillary Clinton’s more public pursuit of the presidency, Clinton’s rise has influenced the way female characters in political power are scripted on TV and, in some cases, may have even exacerbated certain criticisms about her career and character. Still, says Thompson, “I think female presidents on television are more acting in the shadow of Hillary Clinton than the other way around.”
At the time that Hail to the Chief had premiered, Geraldine Ferraro had just been the first female vice presidential candidate representing a major political party and, not only that, acquitted herself with such credibility, says Nunan, that it got Hollywood imagining: “Let’s take it one step further. Let’s make her president.”
It would take 20 more years for that to happen in a major way, with a character who was the lead of a TV show.
And when the ABC drama Commander in Chief, which starred Geena Davis as president, premiered back in 2005, there were so many conspiracy theories that the show’s existence was part of some nefarious plot to progress the notion of a Hillary Clinton presidency that its creator, Rod Lurie, was forced to exasperatedly deny any sort of agenda.
“I just want to see women in the process, whether they be Democrats or Republicans or Independents. If there’s any social agenda to the show, it’s to be enthusiastic about the idea of a woman president,” he told the Associated Press at the time. “I promise that if there was no Hillary Clinton, there would still be a Commander in Chief.”
While Commander in Chief turned the idea of a female president into a narrative gimmick—the dramatic tension that ostensibly got the show greenlit surrounded the real-world implausibility of such a thing—over a decade later, there’s an undeniable prevalence of female presidents and women in positions of high power on the small screen.
There’s Veep’s Selina Meyer, Scandal’s Mellie Grant, House of Cards’s Claire Underwood, and Madam Secretary’s Elizabeth McCord. And that’s not to mention recent examples like Alfre Woodard’s Constance Payton on the short-lived NBC drama State of Affairs, Sigourney Weaver’s Elaine Barrish in Political Animals, or Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation.
While these characters are all over the map in terms of political power, level of realism, and competence, they all have one thing in common: They are constantly compared to Hillary Clinton.
It’s been our impulse over the last decade—and in this current election season more than ever—to mine all fictional TV politicians for parallels to Hillary Clinton’s real-world narrative or hints that they might be based on her.
That should be understandable. “We are a nation well over 200 years old and fiction has brought us women in the White House but reality has not yet done it,” Thompson says. “Because Hillary Clinton looms as the most likely person to change that, any representation of a female president is going to have those linkages.”
For showrunners, as Commander in Chief’s Lurie attested to all the way back in 2005, that can be a frustrating creative challenge. Current Veep showrunner David Mandel told The Daily Beast that, especially this past season with Clinton campaigning for president, the fact that some viewers reflexively conflate Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer with the former secretary of state sometimes worried him.
“Some of the fun of Selina is the incompetence of her staff and how, sometimes in her desire for success, she leaps at things and makes giant mistakes and honestly is a horrible person,” he said. “She’s horrible to her daughter. Horrible to people who work for her. In a great way! It’s fun to watch shows about horrible people. But you don’t want people sitting around and going, ‘Oh she’s horrible, Hillary must be horrible.’ Not just as a candidate or possible office holder, but as a person.”
In fact, Nunan points out, in order to skirt comparisons to Clinton writers will often add “some kind of topspin” to the fictional character: “Like not only is she the female president, but she’s also Republican!” It’s also interesting that, in many instances, the fictional women aren’t actually elected president. On Hail to the Chief, Commander in Chief, Veep, and Prison Break, in which Patricia Wettig starred as Caroline Reynolds, the characters all rise to the executive position after the sitting president either dies or resigns.
In the case of Prison Break, Wettig assumes the office after poisoning the president, surfacing a potentially problematic byproduct of our impulse to associate all these characters with Hillary Clinton: The comparisons aren’t always flattering.
One of the biggest critiques of Hillary Clinton is that she is a career politician and has perhaps compromised herself in her dogged pursuit of the highest office in the land. When TV fans see fictional representations of Washington that includes lying, duplicitous politicians, corruption, and scheming, there’s an instinct to project those qualities on real-life political figures as well.
If the Underwoods on House of Cards are a political power couple likened to the Clintons, then Claire’s Lady Macbeth machinations, though fictional, don’t necessarily reflect glowingly on Hillary Clinton’s own political pursuits.
Or maybe we’re reading too much into it.
“People have formed opinions about Hillary Clinton,” Thompson says. “She was a much larger dramaturgical presence before these shows came on, and that these shows have in fact ever become. It’s just like, OK, we had a black president on 24. We had Barack Obama. As popular as 24 was, I don’t think that black president on 24 was at all needed to establish the Barack Obama presidency.”
It’s simply too hard, then, to lay out a credible cause and effect relationship between TV’s portrayal of female politicians and Hillary Clinton’s own feasibility as the first female president, largely because, like so many things in the symbiotic relationship between pop culture and the real world, the two things are inextricably linked.
So when you track the evolution from Hail to the Chief, which played the idea of a female president as a joke, to the current spate of female characters in all kinds of political power positions—essentially a normalization of the idea—you’ll see that it follows the trajectory of Clinton’s own political career. They’re parallel journeys.
“I think that there is no question that Hillary is influential in any writers’ room when a female figure is in power,” Nunan says. “Forget about whether she’s a senator, a governor, the speaker of the House or yes, indeed, president of the United States. The chairman of a company. The president of the teacher’s union. Any powerful female figure, Hillary Clinton is in that writers’ room looking over their shoulder.”
The question becomes, should she win on Nov. 8, what happens in those writers’ rooms after.