Homeland, Veep, and other programs cast women in politics as vacuous, unprofessional, and overambitious.
I'm probably one of the few people who can't stand the show Homeland. It's one of President Obama's favorite shows, after all. And sure, the central plot is gripping. Brody, the villain, is a U.S. marine and former prisoner-of-war-secretly-turned-terrorist-now-working-for-the-CIA. In the first season, the only person who suspected that Brody was a bad guy was CIA Operative Carrie Mathison. So what does our heroine do? Sleep with Brody, fall in love with him, tell him the CIA is onto him—then have a nervous breakdown. Oh, and she puts her team in danger on a regular basis and makes passes at her boss.
Watching the debacle unfold, I went from enjoying the show to being completely and utterly annoyed with it. I'm a woman who has worked in and around the US national security establishment for some time—from military bases in Community Support Centers to the halls of the Pentagon to the battlefields of Afghanistan. I was therefore appalled that the scriptwriters made such amateur-hour mistakes. Making passes at the boss is a bad idea, no matter what your profession. Taking classified materials home and displaying them on your wall is also surely up there on any "top ten" don't-do list in the intelligence community. And no woman I know (as a matter of fact, no one I know) in the national security community would ever intentionally compromise state secrets. Especially not to someone being investigated for orchestrating a terrorist plot in the United States. Not only is it illegal and immoral, it is fundamentally unprofessional.
What's made worse by these faux pas: the screenwriters made these moves deliberately. Howard Gordon, commenting to Newsweek about how they approached developing their heroine, said, "Who's a character no one believes, like Chicken Little?' And because the CIA has been a boys' club for such a long time, part of that was her gender. We exploited the sexism." Exploited—or exacerbated? She's a Chicken Little that digs herself into deeper holes. I'm not sure anyone who makes the stupid mistakes Carrie does would be a trusted authority.
Further: This is an age where we have extremely powerful women in international politics and national security: Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Condoleezza Rice are but a few examples. Women not being taken seriously? I think anyone who has worked with these women would beg to differ.
All of this makes the critical acclaim for the series that much more interesting. Hank Steuver of the Washington Post notes in his review, "What makes Homeland rise above other post-9/11 dramas is Danes' stellar performance as Carrie—easily this season's strongest female character." But Carrie is an unprofessional lunatic (not, by the way, due to her bipolarity) that puts peoples' lives in danger. If that's the bar for being a strong female character, it's set pretty low.
By contrast, men in similar roles are either superhuman, or their flaws contribute to their overall likeability. Or both. On the one end, we have Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan: Tom Clancy's political version of Superman, who overcomes national security challenges with his beautiful family by his side. Towards the middle of the spectrum we have Bob Russell, the Vice President in The West Wing couldn't be more different than Selena Meyer in Veep. Rather than clawing for any opportunity for notoriety, he proves himself a savvy member of the Executive Branch. On the other end of the spectrum we have Jack Bauer in 24. He tortures people. Yet he's still a likeable character. To my knowledge, none of them hit on the boss.
A cursory survey of political shows in which women are central characters suggests to me that Hollywood has a long way to go in order to develop realistic, compelling female protagonists. Political women in pop-culture are alternately vicious, cartoonish, broken or otherwise unstable. In Homeland, Claire Danes' character is a law-breaking, unprofessional security risk. Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep is an ambitious, power-hungry creep lacking character or moral fiber. These women are generally unable to effectively perform the duties their offices assign them. Hollywood is perpetrating a nasty narrative: When we put women in positions of authority, they are unable to cope with the pressures of power.
An exception that proves the rule: Political Animals. The show retells the Hillary Clinton story—this time featuring Sigourney weaver who is a divorced Secretary of State. It's curious that the best Hollywood can do to create a serious political figure is to turn an existing, successful female power figure and making her more masculine. Early on, while smoking cigarettes, she complains about babies with runny noses being shoved in her face while cynically arguing that politics is an "Olympic sport in hypocrisy."
Later, responding to an inappropriate advance from a foreign counterpart, Weaver's character threatens, "The next time you touch me I will rip of your tiny balls and serve them in cold borscht soup." Certainly a Secretary of State would be able to find a more diplomatic way to express the sentiment—a finer point the screenwriters fail to grasp. And let's not forget: According to Hollywood, being professionally successful makes you a bad mother. One consequence of her career choices is that her family life is a wreck; one of her sons is a drug addict who attempted suicide.
These portrayals are insulting. There are many examples of truly extraordinary women who served—or are serving—in the national security and political communities. To name just a few: Madeline Creedon, Janine Davidson, Kori Schake, Kathleen Hicks, Amanda Dory, Laura Holgate. These women are impressive, accomplished, intelligent—no-kidding path-breakers. What makes these women so inspirational is their ability to overcome any obstacles that come their way. But deep, unconquerable flaws define the fictional women: be it their vacuous character, psychopathy or unbridled ambition.
The insult can have enduring effect. When I was in my teens and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, the prominent women in the national security field were truly inspirational. Madeline Albright, Michele Flournoy, Jeane Kirkpatrick all served as role models whose service I aspired to emulate in some small way. I wonder if these fictional women are tainting younger women's perceptions of what it means to be in a position of national security responsibility. I certainly hope not, but I worry.