by Maria Sulimma and Bettina Soller
Contemporary TV series feature a wealth of narratives concerned with the machinations of U.S. democracy, and many shows prominently feature female protagonists. In the US, women hold 18.5% of the seats in congress and no woman has served as president/vice-president. Our video shows how TV series explore the impact of gender within the political sphere as literally embodied in the characters Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation, NBC), Selina Meyer (Veep, HBO), and Olivia Pope (Scandal, ABC).
With a predominantly sinister and cynical look at democratic institutions, these series diverge from stereotypes in the representation of women. It is their power-hungry, manipulative and at times immoral behavior that critics have celebrated, e.g. at the Emmys, placing these characters on par with Television’s celebrated “Difficult Men” such as Tony Soprano or Walter White.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson established the psychological term Double Bind to describe ambiguous expectations female politicians face: In a strenuous balancing act, they need to attend to female and male role expectations in the gender binary of the political arena and are predestined to failure, because being female remains equated with political incompetence.
The accomplishment of the series lies in their address of the complex situation of women in politics. Here, interestingly, one media text, TV series, also incorporates a critique of other media texts, political journalism, as complicit in the perpetuation of gendered stereotypes.
The female politicians feature in plots surrounding the complicated coordination of their private lives with their professional lives and positions of authority.Yet, a gap remains between the narrative’s awareness of the gendered double bind and the expectations towards televised femininity and beauty. While prominent or hyper-feminized attire would make any politician vulnerable, all female protagonists are conventionally beautiful and wear expensive clothes.
Even though the video ends with Leslie clinking her beer bottle in celebration of her joining the boys’ club, ultimately the TV series do not offer universal solutions to the double bind their protagonists face. In refusing happy conclusions, the shows acknowledge that reframing femininity from “other” to an unmarked, white, upper-class masculinity to politically competent and legitimate is an ongoing struggle.