Hail to the She

TV's woman President has stature, but can she surmount the double standards?

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What will the first female president of the U.S. be like? Very tall. Thus predicts ABC, which cast six-footer Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, a Vice President who comes to power when the President dies of a stroke, in the drama Commander in Chief, debuting Sept. 27. That's fair enough. Given the prejudice she would face, the nation might feel safer with a female leader possessed of great height, athleticism (Davis nearly represented the U.S. in Olympic archery) and robust, bee-stung lips. I look forward avidly to the Jolie Administration.

But Allen is a first in another way: she's the first President of the U.S. whose party status is independent -- a university chancellor recruited to give media attention to a G.O.P. ticket. Well, that's convenient, right? TV is a numbers game: Why alienate half the audience? But Commander in Chief doesn't seem to be worried about neutrality. Its bad guys are all Republicans, from the vile Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland) to the White House staff members who urge Allen to resign, saying the world is not ready for a painted fingernail on the nuclear button. (Clever move: daring you to prove you're not a sexist by watching the show.)

Obviously, the show is on President Allen's side. The problem is that by giving her no party, no positions, no platform, it ends up defining her--like many strong women on TV--mainly by her gender. Sure, it would be naive to pretend that her sex would never be an issue. But real women pols are defined by their beliefs, not just their chromosomes. We have no idea what Allen stands for; she just stands against the obtuseness of men. In the pilot, she threatens military force to save a Nigerian woman from being stoned for adultery; Templeton sniffs that she's wasting political capital on "a lady who couldn't keep her legs together."

The salient divide in politics, says Commander in Chief, is not blue vs. red. It's blue vs. pink. I suppose you could call this a compliment to women. It's men, the show is saying, who devote themselves to grandiose ideologies, and women who clean up their mess. Then again, one of the favorite arguments against women's suffrage was that the lady folk were too pure to sully themselves with partisan politics.

Of course President Bartlet on The West Wing is free to thus sully himself. Even on a show with a feminist premise, it seems, TV is not quite ready to treat powerful women as it treats powerful men. The show's creator, Rod Lurie, probably just meant to make Allen the enemy of politics as usual. But it's a rough message to send to Hillary--or Condi Rice or any other woman who will have to rely on politics as usual, not a contrived TV plot, to become President. And who faces the sexist paradox: if you get ahead in party politics, you must be a bitch, a lesbian ... a man. If not, then you're too womanly--too weak--to lead the free world. For all its you-go-girlness, what kind of woman President does Commander in Chief say America wants? One who's too good for the job.

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