These assumptions, combined, have led to a series of fictional women who are generally powerful but not, you know, awkwardly powerful—women who, by way of the writers who created them, know their place. Women who, despite their occupation of the White House, end up exemplifying more regressive notions of what feminine leadership is all about: soft power, cheerful submission to the social order, the strident desire not to strive too far.
The exceptions tend to prove the rule. Commander in Chief’s Mac Allen, having obtained the presidency by default, decides to run—actively run—for a second presidential term. Selina Meyer, in Veep, does the same thing. Alicia Florrick, in The Good Wife, runs for State’s Attorney. Claire Underwood puts herself forward for U.N. Ambassador, in a way that is typically and shamelessly Underwoodian. And the women are each, in various ways, punished for it. Claire is humiliated for her hubris. So is Alicia. Campaigning brings out the worst in Selina, highlighting, even more than office-holding does, her moral vacuities and her political ineptitudes. That other Reese Witherspoon political vehicle, the decidedly non-dark comedy Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, suggested that the high-powered Congresswoman Victoria Rudd was corrupt not because of who she was, but rather because of the many compromises, personal and ethical and otherwise, demanded by the permanent campaign. Commander in Chief, in the end—the show was cancelled after a single season—prevented Mac from engaging in a campaign that would be fully her own.
That narrative (non-)turn of events was the stuff of external coincidence, but it also neatly highlights the problem: Even a series that wanted to show a woman running for president, and to do so earnestly, devoid of judgment and exoticism … could not. With the overall result that, despite all the depictions of female leaders on TV and in film, pop culture has yet to grapple, in a deep and realistic way, with the women who defy cultural conventions in order to star in political ones. It hasn’t yet considered the political implications of the discrepancy between notions of female ambition (which is often pathologized and mistrusted and feared) and its masculine counterpart (celebrated, rewarded, normalized). As The Huffington Post summed things up, elegantly, in 2014: “Ask a woman if she’s ambitious and she’ll look at you as if you just asked whether she sticks pins in puppies for fun.”
That’s true, in its way, for even the most powerful women in the country. Rebecca Traister, in her recent (and excellent) profile of Hillary Clinton, also ended up profiling, basically, all women:
It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it? Though those on both the right and the left moan about “woman cards,” it would be impossible, and dishonest, to not recognize gender as a central, defining, complicated, and often invisible force in this election. It is one of the factors that shaped Hillary Clinton, and it is one of the factors that shapes how we respond to her. Whatever your feelings about Clinton herself, this election raises important questions about how we define leadership in this country, how we feel about women who try to claim it, flawed though they may be.
It does. It will keep doing so. And some of those questions will come back to one Tracy Flick—who’s remembered as a villain, cold and calculating, but who is also, you have to admit, probably a pretty good leader. She does her homework. She prepares. She gets things done. She cares, about her own interests and those of everybody else, so insistently, and so aggressively—indeed, so ambitiously—as to blur the line between the two. She strives and she wants and she works so, so hard. That is the source of her villainy. It is also the source of her particular charisma.