Many people will love Divergent, the new Hunger Games-style science-fiction movie that arrives Friday in theaters: fans of the blockbuster young-adult novel by Veronica Roth on which the film is based; fans of actress Shailene Woodley, who plays Roth’s nonconformist heroine Tris; fans of a post-apocalyptic future in which the Earth’s remaining human beings wall themselves off inside the ruins of a major metropolis (in this case, Chicago) and split up into five factions (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite) designed to “keep the peace.”
One person who won’t love Divergent, however, is Hillary Clinton.
As the former first lady, 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, and Obama Administration Secretary of State prepares—inevitably, inexorably—to make one last bid for the Oval Office in 2016, it’s unlikely that she has the time to concern herself with what’s happening in the movies. But the movies, it seems, are concerned about what’s happening with her.
Consider Divergent. In the film, Kate Winslet plays a character named Jeanine Matthews. Actually, “character” is too weak a word. “Villain” is more like it. The leader of the brainy Erudite clan, Matthews plots to overthrow the reigning Abnegation government and seize power by injecting into the Dauntless faction a computerized serum that transforms the city’s brave defenders into an army of suggestible, sleepwalking drones. She believes that a strong, hyper-rational central government is the only way to keep human nature’s less savory impulses in check. She takes pains to affect a compassionate, concerned demeanor that nonetheless always feels calculated and self-interested.
Oh, and she just happens to have a Middle-American accent, blonde, bobbed hair, a matronly figure, and a closet full of long, collarless pantsuits.
In short, Matthews looks and acts exactly like Hillary Clinton—or at least Hillary Clinton as imagined by the conservative contingent at Comic Con.
Matthews isn’t alone. In Neil Blomkamp’s 2013 sci-fi action thriller Elysium, Matt Damon faces off against Delacourt, the Defense Secretary of the titular space habitat—a luxurious colony where the One Percent live in absolute comfort while the citizens of a devastated Earth are oppressed by brutal robots. Like Matthews, Delacourt plots to oust the current leadership (i.e., her boss, President Patel) and take control of the government with the help of advanced computer technology (i.e., program developed by a private defense contractor that can override Elysium’s core systems). She’s also a middle-aged woman with cropped blonde hair, a cool, martial demeanor, and a penchant for pantsuits. And later this year, Julianne Moore will star in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 as President Alma Coin: another cold, calculating, devious, power-hungry, besuited, light-haired woman leader who “will do whatever it takes to attain her goals.”
Why are all these Hillary Clinton caricatures suddenly showing up on the big screen? Women, of course, have been movie villains before. But this new crop of hyperbolic Clintonistas seems different. All of them live in the future. All of them are political leaders. All of them preside over dystopic societies. And unlike Catwoman, or Alex Forrest, or Satánico Pandemonium—or the vast majority of cinematic bad girls, to be honest—none of them use their sexuality to get what they want. Instead they use power, technology, and intellect.
Some critics will say that we should interpret the sudden big-screen appearance of Jeanine Matthews, Secretary Delacourt, and President Alma Coin—leaders who happen to resemble Barack Obama’s likeliest successor—as a sign that we’re still very, very uncomfortable with the prospect of putting a woman in charge. What these movies prove, they will add, is that America is still afraid of women like Clinton. Women who are tough, brilliant, and plainly ambitious. Women who don’t conform to society’s sexual expectations. Women who try to run the world rather than seduce it. We are so stressed out about the havoc these women will wreak on the future, the argument will go, that we’ve begun to subconsciously channel our anxieties into science fiction.
Perhaps. But it’s worth considering whether the opposite may be true instead: that we’re encountering more Clinton clones on screen because we’re actually becoming more comfortable with female leaders off screen. That the rise of the Hillaryesque sci-fi villain is a sign of growth, not statis. Science fiction tends to reflect reality, exaggerating it to make a point. But for most of movie history, an antagonist like Jeanine Matthews would have seemed too far-fetched, even for sci-fi; she wouldn’t have mirrored anything in the real world. Now she does.
After all, equality cuts both ways. It used to be that the only political villains we could conjure up were men. Now it’s just as easy to imagine a woman scheming and spinning her way to the top. In its own funny way, that seems like progress.