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Madam President, as seen on TV

September 28th, 2007     by Wesley Fok     Comments

While television news broadcasts and pundit shows have been asking for months now if the United States is ready for President Hillary Clinton, another province of Televisionland has been busy conjuring up fictional visions of what a female leader of the free world would look like.

Or perhaps “busy” isn’t quite the right word; even in the fictional universes of the small screen, female presidents seem to be few and far between. Even so, the past several years have brought television viewers several prominent Madam Presidents, and is set to do so again in January. Will life imitate art in 2008, and if so, what should we expect? A quick review of television leaders may give us some clues.

President Julia Mansfield Term as President: 1985

We’ve seen many farces about the presidency before, most recently with Comedy Central’s That’s My Bush! about the current U.S. president roughly 70% of Americans love to hate. Few people remember this artifact, though: Hail to the Chief was a short-lived ABC comedy about a female president surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of loonies. Conceived and produced by the same people behind the popular parody Soap, Hail to the Chief was intended to shock and titillate; ads for the show played up the outrageous premise and content, calling the show “an equal opportunity offender.”

Full of sexual innuendo, kooky characters and cracks about the Cold War, Hail to the Chief certainly looked outrageous on paper, but apparently the show didn’t find an audience. Put on the schedule in the wilds of April 1985, when most television seasons end, Hail to the Chief disappeared by August. Series creator Susan Harris blamed network interference for the show’s failure, and then went on to put the nail in the coffin herself: she called it a bad show that deserved to be cancelled. Ouch.

There is one saving grace, though: Julia Mansfield played the straightwoman of the show. In other words, of all the crazy characters, it’s the woman president we were supposed to take seriously.

President Mackenzie Allen Term as President: 2005-2006

A decade later, ABC would try out another woman president, only this time in a much different context. Commander in Chief, a highlight of ABC’s fall dramatic lineup, was the brainchild of Rod Lurie, whose previous work included the 2000 film The Contender. That film, you may remember, starred Joan Allen as a female Senator in line for the vice-presidency after the last vice-president dies suddenly. Lurie apparently wanted Joan for the role of President Mackenzie Allen, but Geena Davis came to play the former vice-president who was elevated to the top seat after then-President Teddy Bridges suffers a fatal aneurysm.

From day one Allen has her back against the wall. First she’s asked to resign as VP so that Speaker of the House and Bridges acolyte Nathan Templeton can step into the Presidency. Bridges staffers, Templeton, even Allen’s own daughter tell her not to take the job—but she does anyways, thus setting the stage for a prolonged fight against Templeton, who seems to stop at nothing to ensure the failure of Allen’s term in office.

One of the nice things about Commander in Chief is that Mackenzie Allen isn’t pigeonholed as a Woman President. Though the first episode has Allen demanding the safe haven of a Nigerian woman sentenced to death for having sex out of wedlock (a laudable decision but maybe a bit too obvious?), the show generally doesn’t remind you every two minutes that Allen is the First Woman President and Wow Isn’t That a Big Deal. Allen’s gender is treated as merely one of her traits, not her defining one—for example, her status as an Independent is a significant factor in some of the show’s stories.

All that said, the show does throw in details and subplots that probably wouldn’t exist on a similar show about a male president. For example, Commander in Chief takes great pains to show Allen interacting with her three young children. When Allen’s standing in the kitchen of the Presidential Residence solving family arguments while chomping on an apple, you get the sense that the producers threw in the scene to remind everyone that yes, she is a mother, and yes, she can take care of her family and be President at the same time.

At the beginning of the show’s run, Allen seems just a bit too resourceful, a bit too unshakable, a bit too awesome—essentially, she edges dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. Having a president that can get herself out of every hard situation without a scratch is not exactly realistic. It also implies that any woman president has to be equally awesome in order for her to be taken seriously, which isn’t exactly fair. But Allen becomes less of a paragon and more of an actual human being later on, starting with the episode where she faces her first major terrorism crisis.

For all its problems—most notably the show’s inability to completely escape the shadow of The West WingCommander in Chief gave us the most realistic depiction yet of a woman in the Oval Office. The show’s greatest asset was its ability to subtly and convincingly pursue the ramifications of a female president—and a First Gentleman—without turning the show into a heavy-handed Feminism Issue Of The Week civics lesson. I’ve watched about half the season in the past couple of days (the entire series is available on DVD) and it’s been fairly entertaining and intriguing. Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim and a Golden Globe for Geena Davis, ABC cancelled the series after 18 episodes. Production issues may have had something to do with its demise, but more likely it was the timeslot opposite Hugh Laurie and the ever-popular House.

President Laura Roslin Term as President: 2003-present

Mackenzie Allen and Laura Roslin have a few things in common. Both are tough women who are thrown into the top spot when the then-current President dies (apparently television is not yet ready to give us an elected female president). But that’s where the similarities end. For example, Allen is VP when the president dies of an aneurysm; Roslin is secretary of education when the president and the 42 people ahead of her in line for the presidency are killed thanks to a massive nuclear holocaust. Oh, and did I mention Roslin is actually president of twelve planets in a far-flung future with spaceships and robots?

The 2003 Battlestar Galactica four-hour miniseries/pilot episode starts the series off with a bang—or rather, several hundred bangs. The Cylons are robots designed and built by people living on what’s known as the Twelve Colonies, a dozen planets containing the future descendants of the human race. After a war between the Cylons and humans, a ceasefire is signed and the Cylons retreat to the vacuum of space for 30 years. When they return, they bring hellfire and brimstone; in the space of a couple of hours, the Cylons nuke every single human colony and destroy practically the entire Colonial space fleet. In the process, most of the Colonial government is massacred, and it’s left to Roslin, secretary of education and 43rd in line for the presidency, to pick up the pieces of humanity.

The original 1970s Battlestar Galactica was a goofy space drama produced in the wake of Star Wars, but the 2004 version is relentlessly grim. Merely 50,000 people, living in cramped quarters across a ragtag fleet of whatever ships managed to escape the massacre, make up the entire surviving human race. Provisions are low, morale is even lower, they are never more than a star system away from being crushed by the vastly superior Cylon fleet, and aside from the faint hope of finding the lost 14th colony—Earth—there’s little reason to wake up in the morning. Not a great way to start your first term.

Roslin adapts to her role quickly. Painted initially as lacking in gravitas and decisiveness—at one point it’s noted that the “schoolteacher” has become President—Roslin quickly loses her political naivete and her soft approach. Along the way she makes tough, unpopular, and occasionally problematic decisions. She authorizes the torture and execution of Cylon prisoners without trial, deftly manoeuvres a hand-picked vice-president in order to stave off the political aspirations of a convicted terrorist, and eventually orders military personnel to take action contrary to Adama’s authority, thus breaking the unwritten pact never to interfere in military affairs and causing a schism in the human fleet. And that’s just in the first season.

Roslin is a fully realized character, with plenty of faults to balance out her strengths. Her toughness and perseverance serve her well when fighting off political challenges or dealing with her previously diagnosed breast cancer, but they also lead to stubbornness and occasionally unilateralism. Her strong moral convictions are often undermined by her less-than-moral methods, and her use of hallucinogenic drugs to combat her cancer causes her to lose mental clarity at times. But through it all, Roslin’s authority is rarely questioned, and she manages to win over even the most skeptical members of her cabinet and the military—quite a feat for the 43rd person in the line of succession.

Despite her flaws, Roslin is one of the most sympathetic characters in a series where no character is without blood on their hands. As a vision of a female presidency, Battlestar Galactica leaves much to be desired—it’s too far into the future and too bleak a situation to make a good analogy to the present situation. Plus there’s no indication that Roslin is, in fact, the first female president—and let’s face it, you’d hope she wasn’t the first after thousands of years of social and cultural evolution. Even so, the depiction of a strong and principled female president who nevertheless occasionally makes unpopular and unfortunate decisions is just one good reason to watch this science-fiction success.

President Allison Taylor Term as President: 2008-?

24 has always been a controversial show for its often-cavalier treatment of torture and its continuing use of Muslims and Arabs as terrorist villains. But it’s not exactly the right-wing orgy some people think it is—the show has occasionally hinted at the complexity of the hot button issues it features, like the second season ambiguity over the effectiveness and morality of torture. (That subsequent seasons threw this out the window in favour of protagonist Jack Bauer shocking and beating the hell out of anyone who might have anything remotely resembling pertinent information is perhaps the biggest failure of the show to date.) 24 also has the distinction of being one of the few television shows to have a black president (two, in fact). So perhaps it’s not so surprising that it should take on a woman president as well; next season will open with Allison Taylor in the Oval Office.

Exactly how do the showrunners intend to depict Taylor? It’s pretty much anyone’s guess at the moment, but despite executive producer Joel Surnow’s conservative credentials (he was also responsible for the failed conservative take on The Daily Show, The Half-Hour News Hour) you shouldn’t necessarily expect a grotesque right-wing caricature of Hillary Clinton, as some critics fear. On the other hand, 24 is prone to simplification and caricaturization—most obviously a couple of seasons ago with a civil liberties lawyer sent to stop the torture of a man who clearly has information, and is painted as weak-willed and ineffectual.

We can’t really look back to prior 24 presidents to figure out if she’ll be painted as an ally or a threat, as the Oval Office has seen its share of leaders both principled and corrupt. Plus, with the tried and tested 24 formula being thrown out this year, pretty much everything about the show is up in the air except for Kiefer Sutherland’s return as the unstoppable Jack Bauer. One thing’s for certain: with the next season of 24 ending a scant six months before election day, a lot of people will be watching Allison Taylor as they contemplate the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Tags: film fridays

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