August 16, 2005

Commander in Chief

There's a billboard in the Philadelphia subway that says, "this fall, a woman will be President." It's an advertisement for a new ABC series called Commander in Chief - short version, Geena Davis plays a woman vice president who takes over when the president dies unexpectedly, before he can enact his plans to force her to resign so the [male] Speaker of the House could take over instead.

The clips don't look great. ABC wants you to know that there will be a strong focus on her family life, and the interactions I saw between her and her kids were total Hollywood shlock. It is Geena Davis, and she's pretty cool. She's also almost old enough to be president, which is nice. She's seriously femmey, but I guess that cuts both ways: still no images of non-femmey women, but more reminders that that kind of self-presentation has no relationship to the actual qualities of a good leader. The writing is almost certainly going to be blah and the acting unconvincing. No matter how good a president she is, she'll be judged on her mothering more. The political premise - that she's an Independent VP in a Republican administration - is absurd.

But who cares? There's going to be a reasonably prominent media image of a woman as president. We've never had a woman president, and we've never had any very good images of one, and I think it's made it very difficult for people to imagine that it could really happen. Even if the series is bad - even if it's poorly written, badly acted, and full of silly gender roles itself - at least it's addressing sexism head-on. At least it's showing the possibility that a woman could be president. It's a huge deal to create that image in people's minds, and I think that we lefties should acknowledge that, and not criticize it (too much) for not being utterly revolutionary. Interestingly, some of the crazy conservatives on the Free Republic message boards are, in between some sexist drivel, arguing that it's a liberal plot to normalize women in the presidency in time for Hillary Clinton to run in 2008.1

I don't think it could possibly be that causal, but who cares? It's great to have this image out there.

1. Others argue that, because it's a Republican administration encouraging her to step down before the president dies, it's an attempt to discredit Republicans if they run Condoleezza Rice as the VP on the 2008 ticket. I think this betrays a basic misunderstanding of how media images work: that kind of complexity is totally ineffective in a mass media image. Subtleties work, yes, but they need to be organized around basic elements of identity and social interaction. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is not strong enough or basic enough to anyone's identity to actually work its way in through this kind of imagery. Gender, on the other hand? Yes.

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