On two occasions, fictitious Veep-turned-President Selina Meyer of the HBO series Veep has been told that she stands at the end of an era of female presidents. “There are no more Adolfs, and there will be no more Selinas,” one of her staffers tells her in a mock-debate, before ending resolutely, “You are looking at the last Selina. The Selina that killed America.” In the canon of Veep, ‘Selina’ is synonymous with ‘ma’am’ which is a stand-in for ‘Madame Vice President,’ which is of course what she is. The accusation, then, is that there would be no more ma’ams or madames, no more women in her position – the Selina that killed women presidencies before she even took over the Oval Office. This becomes more pronounced when her trusted confidante declares, in a fit of frustration, that “You have achieved nothing apart from one thing. The fact that you are a woman means we will have no more women presidents because we tried one and she f****** sucked.” The subtext of the show, of course, is less about a women in power being ineffective and more the general inefficacies of the office of the Vice President, but it still begs a valid question: even in the realm of fiction, what does simultaneously elevating and comedically clawing at a female president mean for real women seeking to take the West Wing by storm?
Quoth Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the actress portraying the President, “I play not a good politician and not a good person.” The question then becomes the relevancy of portraying a woman in politics – is it more feminist to portray all politicians in general as comically flawed and self-possessed, and thus level the playing field regardless of gender, or is it imperative to elevate women above the perception of male politicians into a morally higher category of “other,” as if to persuade viewers that there would be significant benefits to women in power? A clue, perhaps, comes from the description of Selina as “not a good person,” rather than “not a good woman.” At one point in the series she is concerned with not being perceived as a “traitor to her sex,” and her position as a single mother is one she defends against pollsters. If fiction can often pave the way for reality by making it palatable to a wider audience, then is the case of Selina Meyer a way of preparing the voters for a more benign female president by presenting them with a divorced mother with an occasionally indiscreet personal life?
If fiction is about dramatizing possibility, and feminism is about equality of the sexes, then it is arguable that Veep is taking the best possible tack by presenting a president of questionable ethics, like everyone around her, who just happens to be a woman. She floats seamlessly within her feminine identity, wearing skin-tight skirts and Louboutin stilettos in the West Wing, and yet whens he opens her mouth, she is virtually indistinguishable from any of the other politicians she encounters, aside from the decidedly soprano timbre to her voice. The show has been described as more about politicking than politics, and in this role it excels, presenting capable women dealing with the pratfalls of being in positions of power, pratfalls that don’t solely exist owing to their gender, but largely due to bureaucracy as a whole. She does face criticism for being a woman, presenting the tender and difficult line of being a well-known woman in power under the glare of the media, and yet Selina brushes this off by firing off criticism of the male-centric Washington machine.
If Veep is making a statement about feminism, then it makes a decidedly cavalier one: that women in power in American politics are just as ineffective as men in power in American politics, which, given our current political climate, is perhaps the best we can realistically hope for. Selina is not an idealized female politician, but one we can immediately identify with: frustrated by her lack of power and the roles she is relegated to, she fights back with the same verve, panache, and sophisticated swearing that any man in her position would, and she certainly looks better than them doing it.