A Woman in Command
A month into her administration as America's first female president, Mackenzie "Mac" Allen of ABC's new hit evening drama "Commander in Chief," has already called out the military twice, out-savvied her male political rivals, and lamented that in contemporary Washington political culture one cannot even trust the backstabbers.
What the show's 16.5 million viewers every week have not seen, however, is a humble leader of the functioning republic this country is supposed to be. So yes, my fellow Americans, we do finally have a female president, and so far she's proved that a woman can be just as ruthless a chief executive as a man.
"Commander in Chief" comes at a time when a disturbing focus on dream tickets in 2008 distracts most Americans from long-neglected issues of civic apathy and accompanying decay of the republic. In the real world, "radical" political discourse centers on female contenders for the 2008 American presidential race. Geena Davis' latest incarnation is surely aimed to seize on the massive public speculation over whether we might actually see a skirt sitting in the real Oval Office.
This has led to some interesting -- if not utterly obtuse -- calls to action. Jane magazine's October edition urged that "more female stars should use their fame as an entre to politics." Jane's top pick for a presidential bid? Oprah Winfrey, "who is beloved by all and meets the requirements (US born and over 35)". Runners up included Angelina Jolie and comediennes Janeane Garafalo and Margaret Cho. "At least you'd get a laugh at their speeches," Jane proposed, "and not because they can't pronounce nuclear."
By and large, the ongoing widespread chatter has displayed a disturbing lack of discussions on issues of ideology and whether a woman might be able to effect real change in a system that has strayed disturbingly far from its representative roots.
"The first female president would likely be just as political as the men. We're living in a very polarized country held hostage by the politics of the pack, where one side fires a salvo and the other retaliates," says Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University. "That translates into a likelihood of more of the same, not drastic differences, at least for the first female in office."
"Commander in Chief," in its premiere episode, set the scene for a season of gender-related issues.
The show's writers chose to begin "Chief's" run with vice president Mackenzie Allen, played by Geena Davis, butting heads with the male political animals around her after the Republican president dies. She then turns her newfound power to the admirable cause of rescuing a Nigerian woman about to be stoned to death for premarital sex. In another swipe at what mainstream America perceives as backward countries, Donald Sutherland's uber-sexist Speaker of the House tells Davis that Islamic countries will not respect a female leader.
The show's writers might have done their homework better. Beside Great Britain's infamous Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher and now new German Chancellor Angela Merkel the self-proclaimed developed democratic nations of the world have done pretty poorly in regards to female leaders over the last century. Meanwhile, Islamic countries like Indonesia and Pakistan have produced their fair share of tough female leaders.
Lack of female representation is a problem across the spectrum of American political offices. Although women now make 51 percent of the American population, they hold only 15 percent of Congressional seats and eight governorships, according to Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics. Those dismal numbers land the U.S. in 63rd place in the world in terms of female representation, well behind Rwanda, Cuba, Uganda, China and Iraq.
Outside of TV land, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the name most tossed around as a potential 2008 female presidential candidate, but there is a certain groundswell of support to draft current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a run at the Oval Office.
Much of the speculation has put style before substance, even beyond the predictable ruminations on hairstyles, instrumental prowess and footwear. Seattle-Post Intelligencer reporter Melanie McFarland wrote of the presidency as an attractive life accessory rather than the duty-charged office it truly is. "In the same way Marlo Thomas and 'Mary Tyler Moore' made having financial freedom and one's own apartment into something stylish and desirable, Davis and 'Commander in Chief' could make political achievement the next must-have among women," McFarland predicted.
During "Chief's" premier a group called Americans for Dr. Rice in New Hampshire spent $8,000 for local advertising spots for a woman who has said she has no intention of contesting the 2008 race. Two books on the subject -- "The Case for Hillary Clinton" and "Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race" -- hit bookshelves this month. In the latter, former Clinton strategist Dick Morris argues that Hillary Clinton is on a "virtually uncontested trajectory" to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency if Rice, the "one, and only one figure in America who can stop" Clinton, fails to run.
"There is, perhaps, an inevitability to the clash: two highly accomplished women, partisans of opposite parties, media superstars and quintessentially 21st-century female leaders, have risen to the top of American politics. Each is an icon to her supporters and admirers," Morris writes.
Not that two women running for president against each other would be a bad thing, but the rampant speculation and starry eyes over the gender issue has utterly obscured the opinions, policies, public record, and ideology of the women in question.
"I think there will be a woman on the ticket. There could be two, there might even be three ... the more women there are, the less likely it is we'll pay attention to their gender, and instead focus on the issues," says Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, a New York-based group with the ultimate goal of seeing a female president.
"Nobody wants gender for gender's sake, we don't want a false choice," Wilson says. "If we go at this from the point of one woman, the first woman, the president, then, of course, she'll have to be 'man enough for the job' and that just misses the entire point. ... The fact is that because we have no history of this, a woman would have to prove that she's a leader and tough enough, without losing her appeal."
As for the American public, people do seem comfortable with the prospect of female candidates. In a poll commissioned by The White House Project, 78 percent of Americans were at least "somewhat comfortable" with the idea and 63 percent said they expected a woman to be elected within the next 10 years. But which woman?
"What's worrying is that when it comes down to it, issues aren't always the primary driving force behind a candidate," argues Boston University's Professor Rivers.
"While a woman might traditionally look to improve social programs because of her life experience, award more spending on family and children, and shift the focus of public policy, politicians now are becoming celebrities ... it's about the personality, the look, the whole pop culture package."
And that say supporters of a woman in office is where "Commander in Chief" may play a vital role. "More people voted on 'American Idol' than for Al Gore in 2000," says The White House Project's Wilson, who equates Senator Clinton's public persona to that of an international rock star.
"Television helps to shape our values and ideas. Over the years, it has shown and told us who can be cops and lawyers and doctors," she says. "And there have been a lot of shows with women as lead characters, but not many with women leaders. You can't be what you can't see."
With "Commander in Chief" what we see is an iron-willed principled female president, but we do not see a person behaving as the executive of a federal government. In "Chief's" second episode, President Allen is consumed by avenging the assassination of 12 Drug Enforcement Agency agents in a fictitious Latin American country. She unilaterally orders American bombers to eradicate coca farms and drug laboratories in that sovereign nation to punish the country's military leader. Hours later the country's citizens overthrow the dictator.
So sure, as the early episodes bludgeoned into our heads, our first female president has the cojones to take charge and call out military strikes (and succeed in getting what she wants out of the deal). What we have not seen is President Allen acting in response to the peoples' will -- a sad reflection of the real world status quo that has seen our male presidents do a poor job in preserving the federal character of the American system.
That's anything but good news for those who subscribe to the idea that individuals have the duty and responsibility to ensure their elected officials act in a way that truly represents the interests of the people. It's called self-governance.
And that, not gender, is the bedrock of the American system.