Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Pop Culture Failed to Imagine Kamala Harris

Her candidacy meets a culture that, too often, still doesn’t know what to make of women who seek to lead.

“There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be.”

That was Kamala Harris, earlier this month, speaking at the Black Girls Lead conference. She was talking about the American status quo. But she was also acknowledging a more particular set of circumstances: the stories that had been published and aired about her over the previous months, as Harris was discussed as a potential running mate for Joe Biden. The stories commented breezily on Harris’s loyalty, her authenticity, her palatability. They quoted Senator Chris Dodd griping that after Harris trounced Joe Biden during a primary-season debate, she had been insufficiently apologetic about the victory. They quoted Ed Rendell, a friend of Biden’s, complaining without evidence of Harris’s tendency to “rub people the wrong way.” They treated Harris’s intelligence not as an asset, but as a kind of condescension. They treated her career successes as evidence of opportunism. They whispered, basically, “You are out of your lane.”

They were wrong, it turns out, in several senses. Yesterday evening, the Biden campaign announced that Harris will serve as his running mate in the 2020 presidential contest. The news—particularly because Harris could be, if elected, the most powerful vice president in U.S. history—is a big and important step forward for American politics: Harris will be only the third woman in U.S. history to serve as a running mate on a major-party presidential ticket. She will be the first woman of color to do so.

But it is possible for the progress and the backlash to arrive at the same time. Harris, as she campaigns, will be supporting a straight, white, septuagenarian man as he campaigns against another straight, white, septuagenarian man. She will be discussed, in the media, in terms of the American public’s ability to “tolerate” her, to “be comfortable” with her. She will be advised to smile more. She will be advised to smile less. Her ambitions will be understood as encroachments. Her talents will be taken as betrayals. She will want the job she campaigns for; she will be punished for the wanting. She will contend with media that still don’t know what to make of a woman who aspires to power and refuses to apologize for the aspiration. She will navigate a culture that even in its moments of wildest creativity—even when it uses the freedoms of fiction to imagine new and different worlds—too often fails to see beyond the world that has already been.

I want to talk more about the ways that women are punished for seeking power in American politics. But first I want to talk about Air Force One. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1997 action film, featuring Harrison Ford as President James Marshall, is the story of what happens after a group of terrorists hijacks the presidential airplane—and of what happens when Marshall fights back. Air Force One is Die Hard gone airborne, basically: a giant testosterone molecule with a 124-minute run time. But its plot depends on its primary female character. Kathryn Bennett, Marshall’s vice president, spends the film trusting him and supporting him and defending him against would-be usurpers on the ground. Her loyalty does not waver. She is his Manic Pixie Dream Veep. It is because of Bennett, played with steely-jawed swagger by Glenn Close, that Marshall is able to deliver, to a terrorist who has failed to appreciate the gravities of American exceptionalism, the movie’s most enduring line: “Get off my plane.”

Columbia Pictures / Everett Collection

You can read Bennett, more than 20 years later, as a kind of feminist feint. Created during a time that found many Americans grappling with the legacies and limitations of the women’s movement, she is a Strong Female Lead who whiffs, finally, of appeasement. She is given a seat at the table; she chooses, again and again, not to stand. Her aggressive passivity suggests a quiet assurance: that the women claiming space in American politics would not threaten the men who were already there. Her femininity meant that she deviated from the status quo. Her femininity also meant, however, that she would never really disrupt it.

Harris, as she campaigns to become vice president, will live in the shadow of Kathryn Bennett. American culture has changed in some ways since the premiere of Air Force One; in many others, though, it remains caught in an ongoing ambivalence about what it means for a woman to claim power. Take a much more recent depiction of a woman in the White House: the ABC drama Commander in Chief, which ran for a single season 2005–06. The series, starring Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, the United States’ first female president, often seems confused about how seriously viewers should take its premise. A little bit drama, a little bit melodrama, it blends soaring scores with dialogue that sometimes plods and plots that sometimes twist. It offers West Wing–style treatments of White House minutiae through episodes with titles like “No Nukes Is Good Nukes” and (for an episode concerning a threat to an American vessel off the waters of North Korea) “Sub Enchanted Evening.”

At its worst, Commander in Chief traffics in easy absolutes. Allen, a vice president elevated to the Oval Office after the death of her predecessor, is fiercely intelligent and determinedly principled. She is kind and witty and a great mom and a loving wife. She also excels at the elements of the American presidency that are typically coded as masculine. Just a few episodes in, she is organizing military strikes in South America and later, yes, saving the lives of American sailors who are trapped in a submarine. Among all the names the show could have taken as its title, it opted for Commander in Chief; that choice is revealing. Early in the show, a woman senator questions Allen’s decision to take a military action. “Some might say a new president—our first female president—was sending a signal,” the senator says. Allen’s reply is curt: “What I’m sending, Alison, is Strike Force Alpha.”

So Mackenzie Allen offers a version of what Kathryn Bennett did 10 years earlier: difference, but not disruption. Commander in Chief, though, at its most interesting, is less about Mac Allen and more about the world that reacted to her presence in the Oval Office. The show ran for 18 episodes; what animates the best of them is a recognition that for many people, despite what the Constitution had to say about it, Allen would never be a legitimate president. The series, which begins with the death of President Theodore Roosevelt Bridges, finds Allen’s new colleagues trying to persuade her to resign from her office, so that a more fitting new president might be installed in the White House. She refuses. Their suspicion of her remains. Late in the series, a Bob Woodward–esque journalist publishes a book about the transition between Bridges’s administration and Allen’s. It is titled Stolen Presidency.

This is apt. Americans are accustomed, still, to discussing the notion of a woman in power in terms of toleration and palatability. (“Half the Men in the U.S. Are Uncomfortable With Female Political Leaders,” a HuffPost headline from late last year read.) The language reflects reality: American culture has been, and remains, deeply misogynistic. But that language also endorses the idea that women, when they try to attain higher office, are engaged in an act of violation. It treats female leadership not as a fact, but instead as a still-open question. In her new book, Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, the philosopher Kate Manne describes how commonly women’s ambition is perceived as an encroachment on the assorted entitlements of men. She cites study after study that describes the way people of all genders tend to perceive women who seek power in places that have been scripted, and coded, as male.

That includes, of course, the White House. Male entitlement, as a cudgel used against women, helps explain why Hillary Clinton had much higher polling as secretary of state—serving at the pleasure of a male president—than she had as a candidate for her own presidency. And why some have expressed more excitement about the idea of Elizabeth Warren as an adviser to a President Biden than about a President Warren in her own right. And why a recent op-ed about the political aspirations of Stacey Abrams saw fit to offer the following headline: “Stacey Abrams Feels Entitled to Power, Which Is Why She Shouldn’t Get It.” And why pundits praised Karen Bass as a potential running mate for Biden on the grounds of her “muted ambitions.” And why Bass, on the basis of those abashed ambitions, was dubbed “the anti–Kamala Harris.”

Power, in these treatments, works as a zero-sum phenomenon: One person’s rise is, necessarily, another person’s fall. That assumption informs pop culture as readily as it informs political journalism. In the 1924 silent comedy film The Last Man on Earth, a woman became president of the U.S.; she got the job because all but one of the country’s adult men had perished of disease. The film’s mordant joke lives on in the fact of Commander in Chief’s accidental presidency. It lives on in the fact that Claire Underwood, in House of Cards, essentially inherits the White House from her husband. It lives on in the fact that Natalie Maccabee, in Agent X, pretty much does the same. Their power is a matter of last resort. The women are elevated, but they also effectively remain where they were, orbiting in fixed paths around the men who order the universe.

Everett Collection

This is the template set by Kathryn Bennett, that icon of flimsy feminism. Political drama can do the work of science fiction; it might imagine—model—a world that is fairer and better than the one we have. In practice, often, it rejects that opportunity. Many of pop culture’s female presidents and vice presidents have instead lived within works that are functionally soap operas—shows that are able to play fast and loose with their plotlines and, thus, with their relationship to reality. In worlds where anything might happen, it’s relatively easy to imagine that one of those things might be a woman ascending to the White House. Sue Sylvester ended her arc in Glee as the American vice president. Scandal’s Washington is home not only to Olivia Pope, but also to several female presidents and vice presidents: Mellie Grant, Luna Vargas, Susan Ross. Compare Scandal, though, to one of its more staid counterparts. In The West Wing, a show whose realisms are credited with inspiring many viewers to careers in public service, President Jed Bartlet’s vice president resigns. The show’s camera pans past a news program that is apparently discussing Bartlet’s choice of replacement. The graphic depicted features a picture of the outgoing vice president, and an outline of the mystery nominee—an outline that is distinctly male. Even in the layered fictions of an NBC drama, apparently, a woman vice president is outside the realm of possibility.

And when she is possible? She’s still stuck in the world that was. In Madam Secretary, which is focused on a female secretary of state but is otherwise similar in its dynamics to Commander in Chief, the president informs Elizabeth McCord that he has chosen her to lead his State Department precisely because she isn’t politically ambitious. “You don’t just think outside the box,” he says admiringly. “You don’t even know there is a box.”

Progress, backlash. It is no coincidence that so many of pop culture’s representations of women in the White House are representations of women who are white. Nor is it a coincidence that so many of those women go out of their way to conform to politics as usual, deviating from the status quo without meaningfully changing it. Hollywood, for all its alleged progressivism, is in this way notably regressive. Its imagination is notably narrow. “We misunderstand the nature of patriarchy,” Manne notes in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, “if we think that merely having power and influence are verboten for women. Women are allowed to have power, so long as that power is deployed in ways that are not threatening to a patriarchal order—in the service of a male president, for example.”

Political power, when women wield it, can still look a lot like servitude. That is one of the running jokes—and insights—of Veep. Selina Meyer, the vice president and eventual president of the United States, is deeply misogynistic; she is also profoundly opportunistic. Selina is constantly insulting other women. She is constantly praising her own ability to conform. (“I shaved my muff in the sink of the old boys’ club!” she informs a staffer proudly.) She vacillates between attempting to capitalize on her gender—her memoir is titled A Woman First: First Woman—and resenting her own need to do so. When she runs for president late in the series, the slogan she settles on is “Man up.”

Her ambivalence is shared by her colleagues. A flashback episode tells the story of Selina’s first days as vice president; it finds her in conversation with a presidential adviser, who informs her that her office will not be in the West Wing. “Ma’am, you need to understand, the president doesn’t actually want you to do anything other than continue to be a woman,” he tells her. “Which you’re doing a pretty okay job at. So.”

Another of Veep’s dark jokes is that Selina, in the tradition of so many of her fellow female leaders, spends most of her series unable to be elected, directly, to power. President Stuart Hughes resigns; Selina, his vice president, assumes the presidency. Not long after that, she runs for president herself. She fails. At the inauguration of the woman who follows her in the presidency, Selina tells her staff, “Well, I’m not good with goodbyes—or winning presidential elections.”

“Well, that’s not true!” Gary, her loyal aide, says. “Yeah, it is,” she replies.

She is correct. Early on, Veep often seemed less interested in the consequences of gender than in the consequences of generalized incompetence; as it progressed into seven seasons, though, the show offered sharper examinations of the limits of ambition when a woman is the person exerting it. Veep’s flashback episode also makes viewers privy to the concession speech Selina delivered before she was chosen as Hughes’s running mate. “And from the heady days of our third-place finish in Iowa, we fought together for the dream of becoming the first woman president,” she says, her voice booming. “But tonight the voters of Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Texas, and the territory of Guam have said otherwise.”

Everett Collection

The list is so awkward. It is so painfully long. Veep understood, as so many of its fellow fictions have, that a woman in power is a very different proposition from a woman who seeks power. The show understood how insistently Kathryn Bennett, that vestige of the 20th century, lives on in the 21st. It understood, too, that any woman who runs for high office will be contending with a culture whose own slogan might as well be “Man up.” Some things have changed. Many more have not. Geraldine Ferraro, when she campaigned to be Walter Mondale’s vice president in 1984, was asked about her ability to bake muffins. In 2008, just after John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, images purporting to be “Sarah Palin bikini pictures” hit the web. And in 2020, even before her vice-presidential candidacy was official, Kamala Harris saw her long career reduced to the question of how readily she would revolve around Joe Biden. Harris, speaking earlier this month to a new generation of leaders, prefaced her comments about ambition with another remark about the plodding progress of American politics. “People will be fine when you take what they give you,” she said. “But, oh, don’t take more.”