By Meera Jagannathan
Hollywood has little problem putting women in the White House.
Jennifer Aniston will swear in as POTUS for the forthcoming Netflix political comedy “First Ladies,” the streaming giant announced recently, with comedian Tig Notaro playing her wife. The film, co-written and produced by Notaro and her real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne, also has Aniston, Will Ferrell and his frequent collaborator Adam McKay attached as producers. “When Beverly and Kasey Nicholson move into the White House, they’ll prove that behind every great woman … is another great woman,” reads the movie’s logline.
Despite Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 bid to become America’s first woman president, a handful of fictional females have risen to the highest office in the land. But the earliest onscreen attempts to install a woman in the White House lacked seriousness and played blatantly into gender stereotypes, said Caroline Heldman, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
There was 1964’s “Kisses for My President,” which culminated in the President (Polly Bergen) resigning after learning she’s pregnant. Patty Duke played a head of state trying to strike work-family balance in the 1985 serialized ABC sitcom “Hail to the Chief.” In the 1998 “Godfather” spoof “Mafia!,” Heldman said, Christina Applegate’s “whole presence in the White House was a joke.”
But a broader cultural shift around the turn of the century — which Heldman traces back to Elizabeth Dole in 2000 becoming “the first female presidential contender that the press treated as serious” — coincided with pop culture beginning to deliver more serious portrayals of women presidents, she said. On the one-season ABC drama “Commander in Chief,” for example, Geena Davis’s turn as President Mackenzie Allen won her a 2006 Golden Globe. Cherry Jones played President Allison Taylor on “24,” while Alfre Woodard starred as the first black woman president on NBC’s short-lived Katherine Heigl series “State of Affairs.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus has racked up Emmys on HBO’s “Veep” for her ruthless, ribald Selina Meyer, who becomes president in the third season upon her boss’s resignation.
Davis’s “Commander in Chief” run seemed to have a positive impact at the time, points out Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: A 2006 Kaplan Thaler Group survey found that of the roughly three in four Americans familiar with the show, 58% said they were now more likely to take the notion of a woman presidential candidate seriously.
The “if she can see it, she can be it” effect doesn’t stop at the Oval Office. Researchconducted this year by 21st Century Fox, the Geena Davis Institute and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence looked into the “Scully Effect” of “The X-Files” paranormal detective Dana Scully — finding that nine in 10 women familiar with the character said she was a role model for women and girls, and 63% of women working in STEM said she served as a personal role model. Among females familiar with the positive portrayal, nearly two-thirds said she’d boosted their confidence of excelling in a predominantly male profession.
All of this is to say that “media images matter,” Di Nonno told Moneyish. “It influences our social and cultural norms, our behaviors, and particularly for children, it can inspire them,” she added. “Do I think it’s important to show women as presidents in fiction? Absolutely.”
“The more we see that,” Heldman agreed, “the more normal it becomes for little girls and little boys, and ultimately will shape our acceptance of a female president.”
“So much of our work is rooted in making the case for women’s representation and the barriers that stand in our way to get there — and one of those is that you can’t be it if you can’t see it,” said Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of women running for office. “So increasing examples of women in positions of political leadership can only help.”
Writers create storylines like the gay First Couple in “First Ladies,” Cutraro said, because “it is in fact those storylines that will forever change the lives of a number of women … who suddenly imagine what’s possible for their leadership.”
But the ways in which pop culture currently portrays female presidents reflect “a double-edged sword,” Heldman said. “It both reinforces gender stereotypes that make it more difficult to elect a woman in real life,” she said, “while at the same time simply portraying a woman in that position makes it normalized, which increases the electability of a woman in real life.” So while Davis’s “Commander in Chief” role may have helped in some ways, the series also presented her as “hypersexualized,” Heldman argued, and centered many plotlines around her balancing family life with running the country. “I think that neither of those would actually make sense if a man were in that role,” she said.
Even on “Veep,” Heldman said, Meyer’s comic disregard for her family may turn the stereotype on its head — but the joke still reminds people “that that’s an expectation.”
“They’re playing with it, which I really appreciate, but at the end of the day it’s still a really gendered portrayal of a woman in power,” she said. And “it’s not happenstance” that female series leads like Louis-Dreyfus and Davis, reflecting a broader Hollywood standard, are “strikingly beautiful,” she added. “We get this incredible variety of body types and ages for men who are successful in Hollywood,” Heldman said. “For women, there are much more constrained, narrow physical standards.”
One indicator that the country has overcome its obvious and implicit gender biases, Heldman said, will be when female presidents are portrayed as “unremarkable” — meaning the plotline centers on their presidency rather than on their gender, and “you could use them interchangeably with a male president.”
Di Nonno called Aniston and Notaro’s new Netflix venture “terrific,” adding she hoped the showrunners would be empowered to hire plenty of intersectional directors and writers, too. “It’s a great way to let media pave the way, and then perhaps real life will imitate art,” she said. “It’s exciting to see what they’ll do onscreen, but also very exciting to see what opportunities they may offer behind the camera, as well.”
“Something really good could come out of it. I think it’ll be probably more interesting than if it was some kind of homogenized piece that would appeal to everybody,” said Paul Schneider, chair of the department of film and television at Boston University. “That’s one of the reasons why I think the networks have always had difficulty — because they’re trying not to offend anybody, so they end up with kind of vanilla most of the time.” Given Notaro and her team’s involvement, Schneider predicted, “they’re not going to shy away from the difficult, touchy, edgy areas of the whole thing. They’ll probably wade right into them.”