“Commander-in-Chief” premiered on ABC’s new fall line-up with little fanfare. The White House Project, a non-partisan group dedicated to putting a woman at the helm in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, sponsored viewing parties for the show, while conservative supporters of Condoleezza Rice announced plans to unveil a Condi-for-president ad campaign. Yet in a news landscape dominated by post-Katrina fallout and escalating White House scandals, these efforts generated no buzz beyond tired, half-hearted speculation about a future female leader.
So, few were prepared for the show’s stupendous success.
Within weeks, “Commander” became the only new show to break into Nielsen’s top 10, coming in at number seven across the nation, and number one in Washington, D.C. These impressive numbers were fueled mainly by – surprise! – women, who made it their top-rated TV show from the very first episode in six of the seven biggest markets, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Even after a month of caricaturing Republicans as power-hungry misogynists, the show held steady at number six in “red” cities like Houston. Whatever it may or may not do for the career ambitions of female politicians, the show definitively established the awesome ratings power of ovaries.
The popularity of the show among women is partly a function of its very premise. Even a jaded Gen‑X feminist like me was surprised by the wave of exhilaration that the sight of Geena Davis strolling into the Oval Office evoked. But Davis’ appeal extends far beyond just the vicarious pleasures offered by her role as POTUS. Despite her improbable cheekbones, virulently red lipstick and oddly impassive face, she exudes an ease with power that is virtually non-existent in American public life. Mackenzie (“Mac”) Allen, is not someone who needs to apologize for her authority – especially not as a woman. Yes, she has breasts and she is the president of the United States: So what’s the problem? And that’s the attitude Mac projects as she navigates the near-cartoonish level of sexism that the script-writers send her way.
For example, here’s an exchange between Mac and her arch-nemesis Nathan Templeton, the Republican speaker of the House as played by a scenery-chewing Donald Sutherland:
Templeton: A woman as the leader of the free world…how many Islamic states do you think would follow the edicts of a woman? Very few, I fear.
Allen: Not only that, Nathan, but we have that whole once-a-month ‘Will she or won’t she press the button?’
Templeton: Well, a couple of years … you’re not going to have to worry about that anymore.
Ouch! Mac, however, simply shrugs in amusement, as though she knows that no insult hurled her way can change the incontrovertible fact that she is president and he is not. Besides, Mac doesn’t have time to “manage” unreconstructed chauvinists. She’s too busy saving a Nigerian woman from being stoned to death; preventing another terrorist attack within the United States; handling an environmental disaster off the coast of Florida. Fighting other people’s misogyny is most definitely not on her to-do list.
This is perhaps the most fantastic element of the show, more unlikely than the convoluted and often silly political shenanigans that undermine its appeal. Every woman knows that men cannot be simply ignored, even when you’re the leader of the free world. Most working women, wherever they may be on the career ladder, spend a certain amount of their time “handling” sexism in the workplace, whether through diplomacy, confrontation, or at times even submission. No wonder we can’t get enough of a woman who simply refuses to play. It is what makes “Commander-in-Chief,” to use Naomi Wolf’s words, our version of “political pornography.”
The show’s writers did, however, rudely interrupt this female fantasy, at least on the domestic front in last week’s episode. Mac’s husband, Rod Calloway, increasingly frustrated with his role as First Gentleman, recently accepted a job as baseball commissioner as a first step to restoring his injured masculinity – without consulting her. The move came on the heels of an angry confrontation with his son, who called him a wimp after being teased by schoolmates for his father’s “feminine” role in the White House.
The show quickly stepped back from the precipice of marital disaster in the very next episode by engineering a presidential crisis that puts Mac’s credibility at risk: a book that exposes her refusal to step down from the presidency despite a request to do so by a dying President Bridges. What’s a devoted modern husband to do except cast aside his own ambitions to protect those of his wife?
In casting Calloway as the quintessential political spouse who selflessly puts his wife’s career above and beyond all else in his life, the script writers have taken the first genuine risk of this fledgling season. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. rightly points out that Rod’s role as first spouse is perhaps far more disruptive of traditional gender roles than that of his wife:
In America, we have seen women in positions of authority for years now. But we have seldom seen a man, an intelligent, career-oriented man, asked to content himself with approving the menu for the state dinner or smiling at ribbon cuttings. … We wonder if the nation could handle it that a woman was president. I think it’s more important to ask how we’d handle it that her man was not.
Not very well, if a Christian Science Monitor experiment is any indication. The magazine asked four men and three women to view “Commander-in-Chief” together and offer their reactions. Not surprisingly, the men were inclined to critique the show purely on its entertainment merits, while the women focused more on its tantalizing premise. The men also expressed greater discomfort with Calloway than Allen. Bill Stierle, a therapist, said that while he felt “good about anything that starts challenging limiting beliefs,” he did not “really want to spend much time in the kitchen with him trying to make decisions.” A conservative graphic designer, Scott Miller, admitted that watching Rod suddenly thrust into a traditionally feminine role “freaked me out a little bit. It would be a hard thing for me to confront, because it’s such a new role for a spouse to play in an administration,” he told the Monitor.
Of course, the responses offered up by seven people in a room hardly constitutes evidence, but Pitts is right in guessing that the marital relationship will be the more interesting plotline to watch out for in episodes to come. The show is poised to reimagine not just the gender of the president but also the role of the first spouse. Grateful for his willingness to sacrifice his baseball dream to protect her career, Mac has promised Rod a bigger role in the White House. How will the American people react to a male Hillary Clinton? How well will the first marriage bear up to the pressures of working together in the public spotlight?
If the scriptwriters are willing to risk some real intellectual honesty and courage, the relationship between these two people could strike a real blow for gender equality. To quote Pitts again, “Sometimes, we act as if feminism were about women. It isn’t. It is, inevitably, about women and men. After all, male and female are two halves of a whole. One side cannot change without requiring the other to do the same.”