July 27, 2016

Popular Culture Presidential Candidates: #We're With Them

Yesterday was an historic day for the United States. One of the U.S.'s two major political parties nominated a woman as its Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. Admittedly, other parties have nominated women as standard-bearers, beginning with the wonderful (and wonderfully scandalous) Victoria Woodhull in 1872 (Equal Rights Party). Her Veep pick was the legendary Frederick Douglass, writer, lecturer, abolitionist, and rights advocate, who brought balance to the ticket.

Belva Ann Lockwood ran on the similarly named National Equal Rights Party (1884); she had a female V.P. pick in Marietta Stow. She also ran in 1888. The comedian Gracie Allen ran on the Surprise Party ticket in 1940. Not a surprise--she wasn't really serious about campaigning and she didn't win. Shades of Pat Paulsen.

Other, more serious nominees on third party tickets have included Mary Kennery on the American Party ticket (1952), Charlene Mitchell on the Communist Party ticket (1968), and Margaret Wright on the People's Party ticket (1976), with the noted physician Benjamin Spock ("keep out of the draft") as her running mate. In 1992 we had a bumper crop: four parties nominated women: Leonora Fulani (New Alliance Party), Helen Halyard (Socialist Equality Party), Isabell Masters (Looking Back Party--my personal favorite for "Best Political Party Name"), and Gloria La Riva (Workers World Party).  Roseanne Barr was the standard bearer of the Peace and Freedom Party in 2012, receiving more than 67,000 votes; Jill Stein ran for the Green Party, as she is doing this year, and Peta Lindsay represented the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

It's true that major U.S. political parties have nominated women for the Vice Presidential slot:  the Dems called on Geraldine Ferraro to join Walter Mondale's Presidential ticket in 1984, and interestingly and perhaps more memorably, the Republicans nominated Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate in 2008.

Let's turn to pop culture politics, where female politicians, and other non-pols, have actually made their mark in the Oval Office. Here are some of them?

The most recent and obvious Madam President is the main character in CBS' drama Madam Secretary: Elizabeth Faulkner (Tea Leoni), whose career shadows a number of real life female Secretaries of State, including Hillary Clinton's. As Cabinet member #1. the Secretary of State ranks behind the Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and President pro tem (pro tempore) of the Senate in the order of succession to the Presidency. Of persons in these offices, the voters elect only the Vice President, which is somewhat problematic in terms of democracy. During what began as the second Nixon Administration (1973-1977), we had a situation in which neither the sitting President (Mr. Ford) nor the sitting Vice President (Mr. Rockefeller) were actually elected to those offices. Mr. Ford was elected neither Vice President, nor President. Similarly, in The Show Must Go On, the first episode of the season season of Madam Secretary, Faulkner takes over as acting President after Air Force One's telecommunications go out with the President aboard, the Vice President is abroad and incapacitated with a really bad case of some weird illness, the Speaker (I think it's the Speaker), believes Ronald Reagan is the President (and so demonstrates that he's not compos mentis and the President Pro Tem is not qualified for some other reason. So, Liz, yer up. Faulkner is as intense a President as she was a Secretary of State, even though the show has its moments of levity.  Solving the nation's problems is a woman's business. Madam Secretary is a drama, after all.

Another current female Oval Office denizen is Selina Meyer (HBO's Veep), who started out, sensibly enough from the name of the series, as Vice President and ascended to the office of President at the end of the third season when the incumbent resigned.  As played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Meyer is calculating, somewhat mean-spirited, ambitious, and more than a little crazed. She's Frank Underwood without quite so much murderous intent.

Patricia Wettig is President Caroline Reynolds on Prison Break, which ran from 2005 to 2009 on Fox, and gives us an unnerving portrayal of a corrupt female Chief Executive who can run with the guys.

In Commander in Chief (2005-2006), Geena Davis plays Mackenzie Allen, the first woman to become President after the Chief Executive dies in office. Incidentally, Polly Bergen (Kisses for My President--see below) plays Mackenzie's mother. Note the androgynous name given to the Presidential character here.

The late Patty Duke played a female President in the short-lived Hail to the Chief (ABC, 1985); even in the rather progressive 1980s, the show was ahead of its time. Small wonder that Polly Bergen as a female President in Kisses for My President (1964) came off as rather less than fully emancipated against easy going Fred MacMurray as First Dude. MacMurray often played these kinds of roles in the later part of his career (think My Three Sons) but one can imagine a 1960s audience rejecting the notion that even he would accept being a house husband to the Most Powerful Woman in the World. All is eventually right with the world again when Polly regains her senses and her rightful place as the little woman when he does his husbandly duty, she becomes pregnant, and resigns her political office.

In an episode of Inside Amy Schumer, the comedian is elected President (aired May 12, 2016). Note that Ms. Schumer is a cousin of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Most recently, the Showtime drama Homeland is casting Elizabeth Marvel as President-elect Elizabeth Keane, this news just in from The Hollywood Reporter. 

For female presidents of other nations, check out

Madame President (2004) (a Canadian becomes president of a foreign country).

Selected bibliography:

A Complete, Kind of Depressing History of Fictional Female Presidents

Serena Elavia, Television Loves Female Presidents, As Long As They're Republican, The Atlantic, March 4, 2015

From Veep to 24: Pop Culture's Female Politicians Ranked

Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidental Politics (Justin S. Wright and Lily J. Goren, eds.; University Press of Kentucky,  2012).

At some point, I'll write a post about male pop culture Presidential candidates. Stay tuned.

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