Bad-boy politicians are nothing new in popular culture. Mr. Smith was lamenting the sorry state of our politics and Joe Tynan was getting seduced by a lobbyist long before I was born. And television has plenty of them now, in plenty of flavors, from Homeland‘s scheming Senator Andrew Lockhart (Tracy Letts) to Scandal‘s President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn).
But this fall on TV, we’ve also gotten a crop of characters who bring male politicians’ cavalier attitudes towards their offices into high relief. In contrast are their female counterparts, who exhibit a competence and dedication to their jobs that seems downright superheroic in comparison to the lackadaisical or Machiavellian styles favored by their male peers. But the storylines of female-politican characters are also a clear and sometimes funny reminder of why men can take higher office for granted, while women still have to work twice as hard for half the respect.
The fact that Scandal‘s president is a white man — and not just any white man, but one from a wealthy political dynasty who bears a JFK-like record of military service — has always felt a little bit like a throwback, particularly in a show where the chief of staff is a gay Republican and an African-American woman is Washington’s biggest fixer. But that’s always been part of Scandal‘s point. Fitzgerald Grant kept failing upward, aided by women and gay men who dedicated themselves to his rise in the belief that they themselves were unelectable, and therefore in the hopes that he would help them achieve a fraction of their ambitions and desired policies.
In previous seasons, Fitz’s main political rival has been his own vice president, Sally Langston (Kate Burton). A religious conservative whose views and constituency are far to the right of Fitz’s — he’s the kind of moderate Republican who exists only in the fantasies of Hollywood writers and columnists of major national newspapers — Sally is unpleasant, self-righteous, and unstrategic. The closest she’s come to the presidency is overstepping her acting authority while Fitz was in a coma. And though she’s gearing up to a primary face-off with Fitz, it’s hard to see her as a viable candidate.
Women in general may not be unelectable, but Sally’s too nasty and rigid to appeal to voters. And her plan to run to the right is the exact opposite of the strategy that’s worked in the past several Republican presidential primaries, even as Tea Party candidates have captured seats in the House and Senate. But because she’s been the only prominent female political figure we’ve seen on Scandal, Sally’s particular incompetence has at times contributed to the show’s impression that only white men can lock up the highest office in the land.
So it’s been refreshing, even delicious, this season to see Scandal add Rep. Josephine Marcus (Lisa Kudrow), a feisty Democratic Congresswoman — and a viable contender for both her party’s nomination and the presidency. Marcus is herself a veteran. She’s also a widow, and she has a way with a one-liner. She tells the cheating Fitz to “tame the cobra” and refuses to get ruffled when First Lady Mellie is caught insulting her on a microphone she thought had been turned off.
As Marcus has emerged as a viable challenger to Fitz — not just for the presidency, but for the loyalties of Olivia Pope (star Kerry Washington), his one-time fixer and on-again-off-again mistress — Josephine’s stepped out as the embodiment of a different kind of fantasy. Her campaign exists in an imaginary world where a woman in politics speaks out against sexism in the media and defends her decisions around a teenage pregnancy to gain support, rather than be labeled a shrew and a slut.
In her best moment on Scandal, Josephine snaps at an interviewer doing a puff piece on her. “The only reason we’re doing this interview in my house is because you requested it,” she explains. “This was your idea and yet here you are, thanking me for inviting you into my ‘lovely home.’ That’s what you say to the neighbor lady who baked you chocolate chip cookies. This pitcher of iced tea isn’t even mine — it’s what your producer sent here. Why? The same reason you called me a ‘real-life Cinderella story’ — it reminds people that I’m a woman without using the word. For you, it’s an angle. I get that and I’m sure you think it’s innocuous, but guess what? It’s not.”
It was a cathartic thing to hear a female candidate, even a fictional one, say. And it was even more exciting to have a scenario where a woman in politics could say these things not after she was safely in office, or after she’d retired, but as part of a deliberate strategy to make her feminism part of her qualifications for the presidency. That scene made Scandal a world where calling out bias doesn’t make you a whiner or a sore loser, but someone who’s got the credentials to fix serious problems.
Josephine’s arc got even better when the Grant campaign, desperate to stop her before she got out of the primaries, dug up what they thought would be a career-ending secret from her past. At fifteen, Josephine had gotten pregnant and said she’d given the baby up for adoption, when actually, her mother had raised Josephine’s daughter as her sister. Visions of Chinatown danced in the Grant camp’s heads. But though her initial reaction had been to decry the story as just another scandal-mongering invasion of her privacy, Josephine ultimately followed Olivia’s advice and came clean in a primary debate. Her decision to speak frankly about her own youthful decisions, as well as her attempts to do what was best for the baby, were applauded rather than condemned. And her candor opened up a conversation between Josephine and her daughter, clearing the way for them to have an even more honest relationship than their already close bond.
But the arc — and the fairy tale — seemingly came to an end in last week’s episode when Josephine’s daughter got caught framing a rival campaign for stealing strategy documents. Olivia and her team were all for firing the younger woman and forging forward, reasoning that Josephine herself hadn’t been involved in the plot. But Josephine ultimately decided to toss herself under the bus rather than sacrifice her daughter for her own personal gain.
Even in Scandal‘s fantasy-land, the idea that you can do good by your family and by your campaign had its limits. And the line that divides top-level contenders from the wannabes, it turns out, is whether you’re willing to choose your campaign over your family when the choice is forced upon you. Fitzgerald Grant may be a dog of a husband and a mediocre man whose whiteness and good looks weren’t actually enough to bring home the presidency that was stolen for him. But part of the reason he’s been able to stay in the Oval Office — and why it seems Josephine Marcus will never reach it — is that Fitz is willing to put himself first in a way that she couldn’t.
A similar double standard runs through Alpha House, the new Amazon Prime sitcom created by long-time Doonesbury scribe Garry Trudeau. The show focuses on four male Republican Senators: Gil John Biggs (John Goodman), Robert Bettencourt (Clark Johnson), Louis Laffer, Jr. (Matt Malloy), and Andy Guzman (Mark Conseulos), who all live together in a Capitol Hill townhouse owned by Laffer.
Each man seems unworthy of his office in a different way. Gil John, a former championship basketball coach from North Carolina, finds the labors of the Senate a bore and is spurred into action only when a Duke basketball coach plans to challenge him in a primary. Robert is corrupt enough to have attracted the attention of a grand jury and the Senate ethics committee. Louis, who appears to be gay and closeted, spends more time tending his house and covering up his sexual orientation than actually legislating. And Andy is a recently divorced hound who views a filibuster as a chance to carry on his new affair with a fundraising bundler in the room where Senators are trying to catch naps on cots.
Their behavior is even more frustrating when it’s contrasted with that of the women on the show, whose competence only gets them insulted or treated like scolds. Gil John’s wife (Julie White) and legislative aide Tammy (Alicia Stable) have the thankless job of trying to punch up Gil John’s credentials in time for the primary, mostly by shipping him off on a trip of Afghanistan. New York Democratic Senator Carly Armiston (Cynthia Nixon) tries to warn Gil John about the impending ethics investigation into Bettencourt — he and Carly sit on the Ethics Committee together, though Gil John never comes to meetings — only to get blown off, a poor thanks for her effort to be collegial and reach across the aisle. And the senators’ next-door neighbor and colleague, Democrat Roslyn DuPeche (Wanda Sykes), has to put up with Andy’s loud sexcapades when she’s trying to write bills because they share a wall. But rather than have Louis kick Andy out or ask him to tone it down, she offers to do him a favor. “Listen, you want me to water your garden while you’re gone?” Roslyn asks as Louis prepares to join Gil John in Afghanistan. “You almost lost the hydrangeas when you went to Davos.” Women in politics, it seems, still have to be extra-nice, and extra-collegial, even if it doesn’t even get them as much as a thank-you, or a neighbor who has the basic courtesy to quiet down his sex life.
After a summer in which NBC backed down on an announced Hillary Rodham Clinton biopic miniseries and CNN junked a documentary about the same, it’s a reminder that, while Clinton’s detractors and defenders may be able to stifle conversations about the woman who may well be our first female president, they can’t stop a discussion about women like her — nor the double standards that have dogged their career.
Josephine Marcus may have had to drop out of the race. Carly Armiston may have irritating colleagues. But their sacrifices on screens small and smaller may be part of the way we get ready for progress in the next election cycle in our real world.