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Women in Power Onscreen: Madam Secretary and State of Affairs

Two shows premiering this fall on US television put women in positions of power: CBS’ Madam Secretary and NBC’s State of Affairs. Both do so with varying degrees of success, exploring not just the way television handles powerful women, but the way viewers interact with them. While Madam Secretary which just received a full series order after a strong debut in September, has had a chance to establish itself in the television landscape, State of Affairs isn’t doing so well after its premiere earlier this week.

In Madam Secretary, Elizabeth Faulker McCord (Téa Leoni) stars as a former CIA analyst tapped to become Secretary of State by a president who seems largely ineffectual and bound by the whims of his advisors. Meanwhile, State of Affairs revolves around Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigel) a CIA analyst responsible for briefing President Constant Peyton (Alfre Woodard). Across both shows, we have a female president, a female Secretary of State, and a female high-ranking CIA officer — and then a whole lot of sausage for padding, with male staffers and other personnel surrounding the women of the show, and sometimes outright dictating their lives.

The Secretary of State is constantly facing down presidential advisors attempting to interfere with her work, fighting her male staff members, and arguing with her husband, who is less than pleased about her role in the White House — while the show has been described as being about a ‘working mother,’ her husband, too, is working, and still seems to expect her to bear the lion’s share of parenting (especially once he’s sucked back into work at the CIA). Meanwhile, Charleston Tucker is a mess, and one who seems to need to be fixed by everyone around her, with President Peyton being perhaps the most interesting of the three women, occupying a role of considerable power and force in the US landscape.

It’s quite obvious that Secretary McCord is a transparent Hillary Clinton clone, right down to her blonde hair and practical suits, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s also, of course, a reflection of the fact that we have almost no models to base her character upon, since we’ve had only three women in the role. Notably, though, her character is based not upon Condoleeza Rice, who broke the colour barrier in her role in the Bush Administration, but upon a generally popular neoliberal secretary whom many believe is a serious contender in the 2016 Presidential Election. The decision to focus on the role of a white woman in power cuts away a large slice of the racialised complexities of US politics, making the show a somewhat boring iteration of the real world.

Likewise, Heigel plays a blonde, conventionally attractive, but rather dull character in State of Affairs, which is a completely bizarre mashup of a multitude of US shows that seems to be trying too hard to be Scandal, Homeland, Madam Secretary, The West Wing, and who knows what else, all at the same time. The result is almost painful to watch, and it’s definitely unpleasant. Heigel is also completely unbelievable in the role, which suggests that it’s possible for women with severe mental health conditions, substance abuse problems, and other personal issues to be allowed into the White House, and even into the Oval Office. While such discrimination shouldn’t be the case, it is, and pretending like it’s not is a revealing tell about the producer’s view of conditions for women in power — it’s notable too that a woman of colour playing the role would be viewed very differently. For a conventionally attractive, blonde, white woman, such behaviours and issues provoke only pity and sympathy, rather than distaste and disgust. Were her character to be played by a Black or Latina actress, viewers would definitely be relating to her very differently.

Meanwhile, President Peyton seems almost defined by her relationship to her son, a character whom we see only in flashbacks and shady memory because the show is based on the premise that he died in a terrorist attack the year before, so Peyton and Tucker have vowed revenge. The habit of defining women by the roles they play in the lives of the men around them is nothing new, but especially repugnant here, with a woman in power being reduced to a bit player in life; the fact that Peyton is Black is also an important element of how her character is constructed, and it’s notable that producers seem to think she should be defined in an exceptionalist way as the first Black woman in office, yet also a reductionist one, as a woman obsessed solely with getting vengeance for her son.

Contrast both shows with Scandal, in which a Black woman works outside the systems of the White House, but is still intimately entangled with it as a powerbroker and fixer — and as the mistress of a white President who seems determined to never leave his wife, as he doesn’t want the dive in Presidential approval ratings. Part of the dynamic of the series depends on her role as a ‘gladiator,’ along with the rest of her team, something that could not be constructed from within the White House, but it’s disheartening that a show from one of the most progressive and aggressively boundary-breaking showrunners working in US television still can’t put a confident, assertive Black woman in the highest office in the land.

It’s too early to tell where State of Affairs is going, though it seems highly likely that it will end up in the trashcan, since the pilot wasn’t exactly a stellar example of modern film and television. Viewers in a landscape of traditional broadcast and online programming have a lot more to choose from, which means that networks need to be more choosy about what they invest in, and they also need to be willing to invest in craft. The same network that produces Hannibal can’t afford to waste airtime on a Katharine Heigel star vehicle that no one really wants to watch.

Madam Secretary may hum along for a bit, but it, too, seems likely to hit the dust sooner rather than later, as there just isn’t much to recommend it. While Scandal has built a loyal fandom (one need only look to the explosion on Twitter that happens every Thursday night), the show did so on sharp, snappy storytelling and plotting, along with Shonda’s classic healthy injection of soap — and a raw sexuality that was boundary-breaking when she introduced it, although (in part because of her willingness to go there) such frank, intense, and steamy sex scenes are becoming much more common. Madam Secretary just doesn’t have that bite.

If US viewers aren’t ready to see a woman in power on the small screen, are they really ready to see one in the White House?