I've eagerly anticipated the series premiere of Scandal, Shonda Rhimes's new foray into DC politics and the people who manage political personalities (and their many issues) behind the scenes. Led by Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope—a legendary game changer with connections all the way to White House leadership—a lawyer-heavy, fast-talking team of People Who Excel have become a kind of Leverage-like problem solvers. (It's just that these problems and situations don't require nearly as many rappel lines or night vision goggles.) I was curious to see what kind of woman Rhimes would create to unravel the misdeeds of political figures, since she's given us other strong-minded, independent women of color in Cristina Yang and Callie Torres on Grey's Anatomy. And with one huge, gaping caveat, I wasn't disappointed in the first episode.
So far we've looked at fictional female politicians who hold office in what is supposed to be our modern reality. Some of the problematic aspects of these characters have included oversexualization, a tendency toward irrationality or emotional response, and being driven by petty politics. We've also seen these characters depicted as needing to have enough energy to do the job of governing while fending off sexism in the workplace. Today I'd like to take a look at female politicians who serve in very different worlds than ours, and ask if these limitations persist in those narratives. SPOILERS for The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica.
Yes, I will look at Laura Roslin, I promise. But first...
If the fictional representatives, senators, and political wannabes we've looked at so far in this series have been limited by sexist stereotyping—emotional instability, petty greed, and weakness among these ideas—some of the women who are portrayed working outside of the spotlight come off a bit better. I want to take a look at a few shows, anticipating Shonda Rhimes' new series, Scandal, debuting next month, and express some hopes for what her show may have in store if she follows form from these other narratives.
We often hear people refer to entertainment as threat-less, as in "It's just a movie," or "It's only a story." The bullets shot in blockbuster action movies are blanks, falls from buildings are all staged, and White House-destroying explosions are created only with pixels. Fantasy, not reality. On the other side of fictional narrative is its credibility—stories are supposed to "suspend disbelief" so that audiences can journey along with the tale presented. When it comes to portraying real people, many directors and writers will give interviews in which they insist the historical characters were researched down to the last eye blink and pinky movement. But for a writer, director, and actor to carve out the personality in question, they make a series of choices: which scenes in this person's life to present? Which known statements to recreate? Which relationships to highlight and which to leave absent from the screen? Even if the people in question were consulted for a particular retelling—which is not usually the case—there must remain a gap between the whole of their lives and the film version. In this case then, these films may say something about the era in which they were produced, as well as our cultural need for a particular representation.
There aren't all that many fictional depictions of women in politics, at least compared with fictional portrayals of women in domestic service, women in trouble with the law, women in the porn industry, and women in some stage of being attacked and killed by a psychopath. Parsing through characters to search for patterns in these portrayals of politicians has led me back through decades, which has given me a little bit of reservation because I believe that different eras highlight their own tensions. On the other hand, we're only one remake away from reviving and re-distilling those stereotypes for today's audiences (I'm looking at you, Manchurian Candidate).
It's something of an understatement to say that politicians have spent a lot of legislative and stump speech time this year talking about women. More specifically, about women's personal lives. If anyone thought that we'd hear about jobs and the economy, or the pressing need to roll back "Obamacare," there may have been some level of surprise when decades-old settled matters like contraception came trotting out onto the national stage instead. Why so much fuss over birth control, which is employed by the majority of women in this country? And how did so many people come to rally around one law student who had her reputation attacked by a man many people already had dismissed and ignored?
Well, perhaps we've never stopped overanalyzing women's personal lives.
Anyone who's spent time on a social networking site, watched cable news, or opened their email inbox in the last two months has probably heard about the "GOP's war on women." From placing humiliating barriers between women and their reproductive health to erasing domestic violence laws out of the criminal code and denouncing any woman in the workplace or on birth control, the attacks have been constant this primary campaign cycle. I'm happy to return to Bitch's blog to discuss politics and feminism in the popular cultural sphere, but this go-round I'll be looking specifically at fictional politicians and policy makers. I'll be asking about what kinds of stories we find in these narrative portrayals and looking for connections to the continuing commentary about women from elected officials and those seeking office.
By now, chances are you've seen the news that the Susan G. Komen Foundation defunded its support of Planned Parenthood, which it had established in 2005. Pressure for the foundation to stop the support began almost immediately, and the national Susan G. Komen board resisted this pressure until yesterday. I spoke with Gina Popovic, Executive Vice President of the Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, who stressed that Komen is not the bad actor in all of this, the anti-choice activists are.
Last month, New York Magazine published a cover story entitled "Parents of a Certain Age: Is there anything wrong with being 53 and pregnant?" The title invites the reader to answer the question with a "yes" or a "no." The author, veteran journalist Lisa Miller, says "no," yet the antagonistic framing invites controversy against the older moms she seeks to defend, as does the sensationalist cover image (shown here) of a decidedly naked, decidedly older pregnant woman.