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Veep’s Selina Meyer and the Art of the Tantrum

Veep's Selina Meyer and the Art of the Tantrum

“Temperament” is a word that’s been kicking around a lot over the last week in relation to women and the workplace. But let’s talk about the thing that’s really verboten for female bosses: temper. In my years of working in a newsroom, I’ve seen co-workers screamed at, heard terrible insults lobbed toward (and about) subordinates, and cringed as office doors were slammed.

However, I have rarely seen this particular variety of bad behavior from women in charge. Because when you yell while in possession of a vagina, people are likely to call you unhinged; if you’re a guy, that’s just “how he is sometimes,” usually said with a shrug and a rueful grin. Men! So volatile! It must have something to do with the caveman instinct.

The problem is, working in a high-pressure office — like, say, a newspaper — is almost unavoidably enraging at times, unless you are a practicing Buddhist (I have never met a full-time journo with the free time to practice that religion). Occasionally, everyone gets pissed. But only some of us can show it. Personally, I’ve never been or wanted to be a boss — I have actively run from invitations to take on more responsibility — but I’m pretty sure one of the key skills one must learn, as a female in charge, is how to choke down your desire to lob the occasional f-bomb and emerge from your office smiling calmly.

Which is one of the reasons I find it so cathartic to watch HBO’s Veep, where Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer has perfected the art of rage. Sexism and gender struggles certainly exist in the world of Armando Iannucci’s VP office — just take Meyer’s recent pronouncement on identity in the recent abortion episode: “No, no, no, I can’t identify as a woman! People can’t know that. Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that, which, I believe, is most women.”

But there’s a fantasy element to the ease and impunity with which Meyer berates her underlings. The dialogue on Veep is basically profanity laced with a few non-four-letter words. It flows more easily from Louis-Dreyfus’ mouth than anyone else’s, and you don’t see it coming back to haunt her in the form of grumbling about what a crazy bitch she is. Any talk behind Meyer’s back, about her shortcomings and her generally being incompetent (valid talk, at that), remains fairly gender-neutral. For the most part, anyway.

And has there ever been a better time for a little tantrum-throwing wish fulfillment? So much of the Jill Abramson debate, and the ensuing, depressing assessments about how little has changed regarding gender in the workplace, makes me want to indulge in a Selina Meyer-level flip-out. At someone. Anyone. (But when in doubt, Jonah.)

Because here is what happens in the real world when you blow up, per a story in Politico that preceded Abramson’s departure by a year: “Minutes later, [Managing Editor Dan] Baquet burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom.” Baquet? Yes, right, the man who is now replacing Abramson. 

A few paragraphs later in the same piece: “Every editor has a story about how she’s blown up in a meeting,’ one reporter said. ‘Jill can be impossible,’ said another staffer. Just a year and a half into her tenure as executive editor, Abramson is already on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom. Staffers commend her skills and her experience but question whether she has the temperament to lead the paper.”

Maybe Meyer can speak for me here.

And here.

And here.

Obviously, the profanity-laden tantrum is not a mark of maturity; we can love it freely in Veep because it’s fiction, and it’s hilarious that she is so often, and so blatantly, bad at her job and horrible to her underlings.

But in a world where we are expected to meet ridiculously outdated notions of gender with even-handed analysis, and just trying harder, and leaning in, I wish more women would take a page from Selina and embrace the art of the well-placed expletive. There is nothing less ladylike than a good curse-filled rant, and we’re rapidly getting to the point where the whole archaic idea of being ladylike needs to go. Swearing is downright aggressive. It may not accomplish anything, but damn, it feels good. It also makes other people think twice about steamrolling you.

Unsurprisingly, it is often the tool of alpha males.

Of course, Meyer’s armor of profanity isn’t always enough: when visiting Helsinki, she’s groped by the prime minister’s husband and decides she can’t go public with it because “it’s a man’s world,” she drunkenly tells Amy. Because of “the axis of dick.”

She’s not wrong. Actually, Axis of Dick is a pretty appropriate term for most of our industries, politics and journalism chief among them.

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