Network TV Still Doesn't Take Women Politicians Seriously, Even if They Are Modeled on Hillary

“We’re teachers, we’re parents, we’re horse owners. Every day we wake up, that’s all we gotta be.” So says Elizabeth McCord, of the life she shares with her husband. Her close personal friend the President of the United States has just asked her to be his next Secretary of State. This is one of the first glimpses that viewers get to see of the protagonist’s inner American on CBS’s new prime-time drama Madam Secretary. If only the network had given Ann Romney a similar average Joe script to squeak out, we as a nation might have gotten over her owning a dancing horse named Rafalca much more quickly.

But Madam Secretary, as the title suggests, isn’t about image management for Ann Romney. It’s about image management for former Secretary of State, presidential hopeful, and the lifeblood that keeps several political columnists in commission: Hillary Clinton. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe. Elizabeth, played by Téa Leoni, is a flaxen-haired wife and mother, knows people in Syria who will do her political bidding, remains tough and cool under pressure, and so far hasn’t announced that she’s running for president. There are some differences of lifestyle and resume. Elizabeth retired years ago from the ‘Company’ (the CIA) to pursue academics alongside her husband who quotes Aquinas to his students, and later, to Elizabeth in bed. I doubt Bill ever did that.

Some critics seem to agree that Elizabeth isn’t Hillary, but certainly some version or draft of her. Alessandra Stanley, writing for the New York Times, called Leoni’s character, “Hillary [Clinton] with a human face.” What Stanley means to say here is, perhaps, that Leoni’s character is no politician. In the pilot episode, Elizabeth is mucking horse stalls when the President makes a house call to pop the question: “will you be my Secretary of State?” Her shock is genuine, humble, as messily pulled-together as her haphazardly tied pigtails. The President goes on to explain his reasoning:  “[Former Secretary of State] Vincent Marsh was always running for office. You have no such ambition. You quit a profession you love for ethical reasons; that makes you the least political person I know. You don’t just think outside the box, you don’t even know there is a box.”

Of course it is for this very reason that Elizabeth is no Hillary. Certainly Hillary knows many things, and one of them is that there are boxes, limits to political imagination that compound the higher you climb. There is the ballot box, the Benghazi box, the box with the glass ceiling and the White House walls. And yet this framing sets up the viewer’s expectation for a traditional plotline that manifests itself in political dramas and beyond, one that Hillary has told and continues to live out. Madam Secretary is yet another show that doubts women in power as a tool to get the audience to believe once more in the transformative power of American politics.

Case in point: in Episode I, Elizabeth solves big problems like how to diffuse a hostage situation in Syria and entertain the Prince of Swaziland as a dinner guest, by using her feminine wiles. She appeals to the parents of the kidnapped Americans as a mother with children. She appeals to the polygamous Prince as a wife. In rooms full of white men, she spits out one-liners like “It doesn’t make them geniuses, but it certainly doesn’t make them jihadist.” 

When the press secretary suggests, with prime-time sexism signaling, that she use his stylist, she originally rebuffs him. Later, in a classic Legally Blonde move, she takes him up on his offer but only to deflect media attention. She goes around the oppressive press secretary to formulate her plans with the President directly. She emerges from her wardrobe update in ravishing red, a figure both maternal and powerful.

Leoni culls together Elizabeth’s persona from the West Wing’s CJ, a brilliant and quirky press secretary who doubts herself at the beginning and ends up winning the bleeding hearts of every liberal she meets. She’s as multi-talented as Mad Men’s Megan Draper only she never smiles. As a character she’s much more flattened out than these women. Her voice is smooth and tensionless. She is stretched thin between two political realities: Needing a man to doubt her and another one to believe.

Clinton herself is no stranger to managing her image around patriarchal expectations. Her pantsuits are a legend, and she’s asked about her wardrobe often. Journalists and politicians confront her nearly every day with that myopic question, “Is America ready for a female president?” Or, just as bad, they question her ability to be a hawkish enough commander in chief. But she polls well, and she’s photographed in the situation room thronged by men, and she responds to a sartorially minded reporter, “Would you ever ask a man that question?” These moments of female power and triumph help formulate a Hillary Clinton who is both more desirable and more manageable because, like Elizabeth, she has proven herself equal to men only after contending with them.

Just last week, at a Center for American Progress event that addressed the challenges facing women in the workplace, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted a selfie of (mostly white) women in positions of political influence, with Hillary front and center. The text accompanying the selfie read, “If too much #girlpower can break the Internet, we might be in trouble. #progress4women #womensucceed.” Clearly this was meant as some kind of feminist statement, an appeal to working women everywhere as working women themselves. The photo seems to say, “We are just like you—blond and brunette, smiley and solution-oriented, home-owners and horse-owners here to save the middle class!” The selfie also casually proclaims that Hillary Clinton—who voted for the war in Iraq, has financial ties to Monsanto, is a soon-to-be grandmother, a presidential hopeful, and infinitely more powerful than you—is also somehow a “girl.”

This is the brand of banal feminism Madam Secretary appears to be endorsing. Elizabeth is pulling the strings and controlling the image, even when she speaks in a creamy monotone about how much she loves her children (part of her charm is you’re able to realize she is powerful and then blissfully forget about it). Everything she does, or is able to do, on the show is informed by some idea of what an American woman should be—wife, mother, blonde and blue-eyed, in a red blazer, in jogging shorts, diffusing terror threats, weeping on her husband’s shoulder, an academic, an agent for the state, sarcastic, discriminating, and soft. In short, everything Elizabeth touches turns to feminism. Everything except for politics itself, since she knows nothing about that.

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