Have we talked about how much I love Political Animals?
Oh, I love this show. It is a very thinly disguised fantasy about the Clintons hanging out with Maureen Dowd. There are a lot of reasons I love this show. I love that Elaine Barrish is a clear stand-in for Hillary Clinton, and Susan Berg is Maureen Down. I love that someone decided that those would be people that America wanted to watch. I love the way the way it contains all sorts of dialogue that is meant to be snappy, but just misses the mark – Ellen Burstyn, who plays the Hillary Clinton character’s mother gets mad at the Maureen Dowd character and exclaims “you just write really smart, really nasty things about people!” – because in doing so, it sounds more like the kind of awkward things people would actually say. And I love seeing Sebastian Stan playing the couple’s gay son, because I really, really miss Kings. I like the way, at first glance, the Bill Clinton character seems sleazy, and you’re dismissive, and then he grips the Maureen Dowd character’s hand and say “act as though you’re conflicted, because you want to give me what I want, but you can’t” and you think “yes, I would probably sleep with him.” This is exactly how I feel about Bill Clinton himself.
And most of all, I love Sigourney Weaver‘s take on Hillary Clinton. As someone who is always bemoaning the fact that the entertainment industry doesn’t showcase enough competent female characters, I love that Elaine Barrish gets to stride around confidently making good decisions. And I love that the men in the show are constantly hitting on her. I haven’t been able to enjoy a female character this much since Candice Bergen played Shirley Schmidt.
“This is so nice,” I thought to myself, “people should hit on Hillary Clinton because she is smart and competent.”
And then I remembered they are hitting on her because she is played by Sigourney Weaver. Which is different.
Because to be an admirable female lead on any major show, you still have to be hot. And while Hillary Clinton might be a perfectly nice looking lady, she is not Riley from Aliens.
This is something so built into my perspective of how TV shows with female leads work that I don’t think I even considered it. Why would it? It holds up throughout history. I Love Lucy? For all she’s supposed to be an average housewife, Lucille Ball was a successful fashion model prior to the show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Crazy beautiful. Sex and the City? The show was about how hot they were. As for Girls – they’re good looking, okay? I know that Hannah is supposed to be average because she is 13 pounds overweight, but that is also seen as a symptom of her life not being pulled together. And all the other girls are super pretty.
Then look at male leads from a similar period. Ralph Belamy on The Honeymooners. Not a looker. Archie Bunker on All In The Family or, for that matter George Jefferson on The Jeffersons. Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld. Today on critically acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad Walter White – who was initially seen as intended to depict someone that “everyone would see as a good, admirable man” – is not really someone anyone would say was traditionally attractive. In fact, when a man, like Don Draper on Mad Men, is too good looking, it’s almost seen as something of a character flaw (he’s good looking so he has tons of affairs! It’s all a mask!)
Male characters can win people over by being funny and smart and a host of other qualities. Female characters can do that as well, but they also have to be hot. That is seemingly non-negotiable.
Just so we’re clear on this: Ned Stark, a political leader on Game of Thrones, wasn’t hot. Elaine Barrish, on Political Animals, pretty much has to be.
Will McAvoy on Newsroom claims he’s Don Quixote. Not that great looking. Mackenzie MacHale on Newsroom also claims to be Don Quixote – super pretty.
This doesn’t seem fair, because it seems to imply that the end goal for women in terms of a character being admirable is just “a bunch of men will lust/love you,” whereas the end goal for men is “saving the country/civilizing the world.” Or at least, making people around them slightly smarter.
All of it seems to fall back to that old joke that goes: what do you need to make a movie for men? A horse and a gun. What do you need to make a movie for women? A man.
The message seems to be that a woman can have any other quality she wants and that’s great – but she also needs to be pretty to be heroic. Which, this is just not true. For reference, I am going to present a picture of beautiful on the inside Mother Teresa:
And I would like to remind you that if there is a TV show version of her life, she will be played by Sophia Loren.
This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing – I’d rather have female characters that were smart and hot and competent than characters who were just hot and incompetent – but I do wish we could get a female version Ned Stark who didn’t look OMG JAW DROPPINGLY AWESOME in thigh high boots.
But! It’s possible that I am just not watching TV all the time. Can you think of any examples of characters who are admirable women who aren’t pretty? I feel like I must surely be missing something, here.