HBO's Veep, Postfeminism, and Political Humor

Curator's Note


Veep is not the first fictional program featuring a woman in the White House. It is, however, the first comedic one. The satirical show stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Vice President of the United States, and derives much of its humor from disempowering its egotistical and power-hungry title character. A running joke involves Selina Meyer’s largely unmet desire for recognition, encapsulated in her daily query to her secretary: “did the President call?” The answer is always no. In a symbolic moment, Meyer is humiliated when, at a fundraiser for her doomed Clean Jobs Commission bill, a cornstarch spoon melts in her coffee, and slumps, flaccid, against the cup. Laughing at Selina’s failures is permissible because she is so personally flawed--an individualistic focus conducive to postfeminist ideology. In the season finale, Meyer cries during an interview, ostensibly frustrated that her “24/7” career interferes with her parenting. This missed opportunity to address the recently discussed impossibility of women in top political positions to find balance instead only reveals Meyer’s cynical ambition: she forgets her daughter, obsessed with playing the moment for political gain.

Veep reassures viewers that a woman can hold power if she is rendered nonthreatening by ineffectuality and a hyper-feminine aesthetic. Although Louis-Dreyfus distanced herself from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, political women noted for their professional failings, personal foibles and conventionally feminine attractiveness, they nonetheless inform Veep’s intelligibility. Expecting robust social commentary from a television comedy is unrealistic, but Veep calls attention to how its satire of the political machine lampoons-without any attention to gender and power- a woman who has broken what Hillary Clinton has called the “highest, hardest glass ceiling." When threats to womens' rights are a cornerstone of the upcoming election, women hold only 17% of U.S. Congressional seats, and woman has yet to win the White House, perhaps entertainment at the expense of a character who has power warrants a critical look.


  This is a very interesting post. I suppose we do get a single, concrete piece of evidence towards Selina's competence and a view of her as a threatening figure: her scene with Amy at the end of the seventh episode. It seems notable that this primary example of her competence comes from a moment in which she is convincing her female staffer--one of the more competent members of her staff--to (at least slightly) tarnish her reputation claiming Selina's miscarriage as her own. Obviously it makes the most sense from a narrative standpoint to have Amy be the chosen person to take the fall for the collective staff screw-up, but I certainly think it's worth analyzing through a feminist/post-feminist lens. What do you make of this scene in particular? How do you see Amy fitting into this analysis in general?

Hi Carrie,

I am glad that you mentioned Amy, and her relationship to Selina. I would say that, although Amy and Selina have something resembling a collegial/supportive relationship with each other in the context of a highly masculinized workplace, any sense of a collective feminist politic is absent from their interactions with either each other or their colleages. Although they sometimes support each other-at times explicitly as women (the miscarriage episode) the show fails to address how issues of gender and power could be informing the professional struggles that they face. The fact that an unplanned, out of wedlock pregnancy could be more damaging to a female politican was glossed over in E07, but not attended to with any kind of nuance, let alone  commentary or critique. In episode 7, it also seems telling that much of the humor derived from the pregnancy debacle is explicitly gendered, with Amy and Selina being uncritically situated as the butts of the jokes. For example, the audience is enjoined to laugh when Jonah exclaims that Amy will go "apeshit menstrual" over the incident. I think that the show's attention to gender difference without any critical attention to the power dynamics involved in the production of this difference (Amy and Selina are reaping what they sow by playing the boys' game), or concept of a collective politic are components of the postfeminism at work here.

It's interesting to consider this post in light of the push against women's rights in American politics, exemplified most recently by Arizona's enactment of perhaps the most draconian anti-abortion law in the country (authored by a female legislator and signed into law by a female governor, for what it's worth). While I haven't seen the show this post interrogates, it clearly evinces efforts to re-narrate and sanitize gender and sexuality in the United States. Here, I think it is important to keep in mind that class, race, gender, and other discourses are co-constituted, such that becoming-minoritarian, as Paul Patton states, "refers to the potential of every element to deviate from the standard or norm that defines the majority." Minorities (including women, with respect to American legislative processes) and becoming-minor are related, in that both presuppose alienation from modes of power articulated by the state machine, with the latter being catalyzed within discourses of the former because of the claustrophobic spatiality - material and discursive - within which most putative minorities exist. Becoming-minor is not, however, a striving toward representation of identity status, and it is here that the utility of the concept for gender and sexual claims is made visible. For in deterritorializing gender beyond social construction, material becoming arrests the fundamental domination of patriarchal politics and gives lie to the teleological assumptions about gender formation upon which suppressive social cartographies rest, including the militaristic and warlike landscape of elections and congressional affairs built, as they often appear to be, upon predatory essentilaizations of gender, sexuality, and class that, in turn, promote masculinized notions of power as effective leadership. 

Thank You for the response, Kris. I have not yet read Patton, but I am interested in Deleuzian notions of becoming vis-a-vis affect and difference, so it sounds like I should. I think that the notion of territorialization is very important here, especially insofar as essentialized notions of gender are re-inscribed onto particular bodies as a crucial element of state-based initiatives. I am glad that you brought up Jan Brewer, and the ways in which essentialized notions of gender and difference inform reactions to the abortion bill and her legislative practices overall. Notably, reactions to Brewer frequently follow 2 trajectories. The first entials a Lacanian type of hysterical questioning-"how could a woman do this?" while the second rejects and denies her as a gendered subject (she's ugly, not a real woman). The discursive function of Brewer sheds light on the anxiety and profound sense of ill-at-ease inspired by how "othered" subjects are folded into the workings of the state in ways that simultaneosuly essentialize difference and evacuate it of its potential for any kind of resistive politic. I recently completed an article on the Showtime program "Homeland," and how it intersects with contemporary counter-terrorism discourse to re-inscribe affective labor as a form of security work particularly suited to territorialization in female bodies. Brewer seems implicated in a similar type of process, as her policies to control and limit the freedom of material female bodies are enacted by one. Becoming-other, in this post-feminist, neoliberal milieu, is a key component in the continued functioning of the center. I agree that this process is inextricably linked to race (particularly whiteness), which is something I continue to interrogate. 

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