Thursday, October 4, 2012

Political Women on TV

(this post talks about Scandal through 2x1, The Good Wife through Season 3, and Borgen through the end of Season 2)

I watched the Scandal premiere over the weekend (and thought it went in a really ridiculous direction. But that's not all together surprising considering that the show constantly raised the stakes episode to episode.) As I was watching, I was thinking about how I find Mellie to be one of the more interesting side characters, and the Olivia/Fitz/Mellie dynamic to be downright fascinating from the perspective of the ways people in power operate. I guess what I find somewhat compelling about this and the way things went down last season and continue to unfold is that while Fitz is technically the president, a role TV shows like to call the most powerful person in the world, he is many ways completely powerless. In fact, Fitz and Mellie are kind of trapped in their roles--roles assigned to them largely by their gender. Mellie's struggle to keep her husband in his place and exert some authority in his life is probably what she has felt is the most she could do. It's still a lot for a woman to aspire to be president, but First Lady is much more within sight, especially if you know you're hitching your wagon to a worthy candidate. And being First Lady positions her to have influence over things, in ways that have been illustrated pretty clearly on the show. Her affection won him the presidency, her fake miscarriage garnered sympathy with voters when they needed it most, her real pregnancy helps the country put the scandal behind them. As a woman filling all the traditional roles of her gender, she has been instrumental in many of his most important victories. She knows how to use them to greatest advantage, like in the premiere when she brought up why Fitz might consider invading Sudan and tying it to the child they are expecting.

Fitz, meanwhile, longs for nothing but the domesticated simple life. He wants to run away with the woman of his dreams and leave his position of power and influence behind. But neither Mellie or Olivia will allow him to do it. They conspire together to keep him in office, against his wishes, and they both continue to exert their own influence over him when they can. I adore Olivia, but Cyrus was right when he said whatever Fitz was planning to do wasn't his idea, but Olivia's. (although Cyrus is another who has tried to influence the president for his own gain) Like any good mistress, she also continued to influence him in office, until she was forced to back off in compromise with Mellie.

When I was thinking about this, I realized that I really like these kinds of stories, of the different ways women are involved in politics on TV. It's kind of silly that it took me to long to realize this since Borgen is my favorite show, but I also watched Political Animals over the summer (and it was awful) and The Good Wife recently and so I've been thinking about it a lot. And it's kind of fun to explore the different ways these stories are told, the different ways these women act, the differences in how the shows deal with their gender and society's expectations.

I think Alicia Florrick is potentially the most like Mellie in that she married a politician and sees her role as his wife as one of importance. She's unlike Mellie in that she doesn't try to influence Peter's actions in office, but I think she takes her role as his wife quite seriously and is, in some ways, proud of the influence she can have over voters. Like Mellie, it's through conforming to a very traditional expectation of what a woman should be like that she finds her greatest influence. The forgiving, supportive wife endears her and Peter to voters and helps them forget all the baggage he comes with. If his wife can forgive him, then he must be a great guy, right? We are told again and again on the show that voters love Alicia and that Peter can't win without her. This gives her a kind of power, and its one she seems to consistently use in Peter's favor. And that makes sense, because the second she fully cuts him off, she's also cut off from having that influence. I think Alicia, interestingly enough, ends up actually being the most traditionally feminine of all the women I'm writing about--she's important to her husband's campaign but only so long as she's fulfilling the role of a good wife ;), she takes the added benefits of being a Florrick, but the show makes sure to illustrate she is reluctant to do so and feels guilt over it, AND on top of that she's an amazing mom (something the show doesn't really allow you to question).

On Borgen, Katrine F√łnsmark is a reporter who sort of comes into greater understanding of her own power within the political system throughout the course of the show. It is an absolute delight to watch. When the show begins, she's a sort of brash young reporter looking for a good interview, but also in love with a married man and distracted by that. Due to a series of events, that quickly ends and when she lets him go, she is faced with a series of challenges within her professional life that build her character. I see Katrine as the "witness to the truth" on the show, and it's a role she fulfills beautifully. She quits more than one job when she thinks the free press is being tampered with, and she relentlessly seeks the truth. Not just a scoop, not just a story, but the truth. She's a challenge to the people around her, but valuable to them for the same reasons she also causes them stress. The importance of the press in their society crystallizes for her throughout the first season and she takes it all dead seriously. (which is why I love her!) She truly sees the press as playing a valuable role in shaping government and for that reason, she seeks truth above all else, even when it might come at a cost. That doesn't mean ego doesn't play a role in her drive, but I don't think it ever commands her. She also finds plenty of challenges along the way with regards to traditional expectations for where she should be at, for example she doesn't want to go home for her 31st birthday because she doesn't want to deal with the fact that she isn't settled down with a family yet. And she's faced with situations where she has to decide if she thinks the public's right to know is really the most important thing. Her greatest professional ally is Hanne Holm, and their relationship is pure joy to watch unfold, as Katrine is witness to Hanne's most painful secrets and Hanne in turn acts as a surrogate mother and mentor to Katrine. At one point, their boss tries to dismiss them as two angry blondes, but they are formidable in their mission. I'm really curious about the direction of Katrine's storyline for the third season considering where things left off in season 2, but up to this point she's been a great example of a career minded woman using all her own smarts and resources to be influential in her society. (It really pained me that Susan Berg on Political Animals wasn't even a tenth as interesting or carefully crafted a character as Katrine)

Which brings me to Birgitte Nyborg. Of all of these characters, she is perhaps the most fascinating because she is the actual politician (the fictional prime minister of Denmark). But when we first meet her, she's also a wife and a mother. And the show doesn't shy away from really laying out that it's hard to be all of those things at once. Birgitte is an idealist and in some ways a naive one when the show starts. She's also driven and truly believes that government can work and make life better in Denmark. The first season of Borgen is a study in how a woman can become a workaholic and withdraw from home life and watch it fall apart as a result. What's so interesting about it, though, is to watch her husband's reaction. In contrast to Alicia Florrick, who finds herself most influential when linked to Peter (even if she is a great lawyer in her own right), Philip has absolutely no reason to stay with Birgitte. He actually faces many instances in which he must make personal sacrifices as a result of her job. And it's interesting to me, that the show draws a parallel between the previous prime minister, Hesselboe, and his wife and Philip and Birgitte. Hesselboe and his wife also have a strained, broken relationship but they stay together for the purposes of his job. And that's almost...what is more expected. It is more expected that women would be willing to make that sacrifice for their husbands. (I think that women, like Alicia, would not be blamed for leaving their husbands, but staying with them makes them seem more virtuous and self-sacrificing and traditionally feminine) But Philip doesn't have any of the expectation on him as a man, he doesn't derive any sense of importance from being the prime minister's husband and he can go off and get a great job as a CEO on his own. When Birgitte delivers her closing speech of the season and says, "we've grown accustomed to the idea that we can have it all", it's both an admonishment to Philip, who still wanted his wife the way he had grown accustomed to alongside his own career, and an acknowledgement to herself.

Part of what makes Borgen such a great show, though, is that it doesn't end there. If season 1 was about the lonely path of Birgitte growing into the office of prime minister, season 2 is about how she begins to reclaim her life. And it doesn't happen all at once, but she slowly learns to find balance between the political life and the home life when a family crisis forces her to reevaluate. Birgitte is such a wonderful character because she is driven, ambitious, idealistic, surprising, compassionate, open minded, and like she calls so many others, a skilled politician. Watching her trying to navigate work life and home life, seeing her break down and confess that she sometimes she is so committed to her work to avoid her home life is honest and real. The expectations on her are immense, the pressure she faces intense--she is expected to be both a wonderful and present mother as a woman, and as the first female prime minister, she is expected to be a successful politician. You could even throw in the idea that there is added pressure on her as a feminist to figure out how to balance it all. She makes a lot of mistakes but she is always committed to trying to figure out how to make it work. So even while there are times her pride gets in the way, she never allows herself to be defeated but instead learns from her mistakes. Birgitte faces challenges for being a woman, the final episode of season 2 brings into sharp focus the question of women as politicians when they are also expected to be good mothers. Can they really be both? But she stands firm refusing to be judged for her gender and only for her politics. As she says in her closing speech of the second season, "you're years too late to be asking this question." If you can find a way to watch Borgen I highly recommend it, I know I keep saying this but it's the kind of show that just...rewards thinking about it. And also great characters, etc.

I was trying to decide if I had anything to say about Political Animals. But...I didn't really like the show that much and I don't remember many details, I just sort of have a vague feeling of disgust and disappointment when I think about it. One thing I can say I think is fairly interesting about Elaine and Alicia in contrast is that on Political Animals voters found Elaine weak for being associated with Bud. Being associated with her philandering ex-husband made the voters perceive her as weak as a leader in her own right. I don't know if this is how it would go in real life--I know a lot of people wished Hillary Clinton would leave Bill, but it's kind of interesting to note that in these fictional worlds it appears that having a forgiving wife can boost a man's political career, but being a forgiving wife can damage a woman's.

Stories of women endlessly fascinate me and I guess politics do, too. Really though I wish there was a strong female candidate for presidency in the next few years! I'd like to watch it all play out in real life.


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