When Kevin Spacey was let go from House of Cards due to misconduct, Netflix promptly announced that his costar Robin Wright would replace him as No. 1 on the call sheet for the final chapter of the political drama series.
The move was not creatively out of left field. At the end of season 5, Claire had taken over as president of the United States after her husband’s resignation, the final episode ending on Claire breaking the fourth wall for the first time and announcing confidently, “My turn.”
What is notable about House of Cards is the decision to continue the series, period.
“There’s great meaning in continuing this for a sixth season,” says Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “It would have been horribly ironic if a woman finally gets to be president of the United States on House of Cards, and the world that she’s president in ceases to exist. Now, the show is not only getting rid of Kevin Spacey, somebody who’s been charged with misconduct, but it’s letting a female character continue on as president of the United States. That’s got some pretty powerful symbolic value to it.“
"When you can see yourself represented in a narrative, you can be anything.”
It’s about time that television screens offer a reflection of what is happening in society, according to fellow TV president, Scandal’s Bellamy Young. “The tsunami of female power is building momentum, and it isn’t about to crest anytime soon,” says the actress. “And it’s right on time.”
Having multiple female presidents on television—all reaching a different demographic—will normalize the idea of not just a woman in the highest office, but women being capable of any job. “I know how much it meant to me to watch Dennis Haysbert be president when he was on 24, and our country hadn’t done that yet. What we are experiencing intellectually, we need to actually become accustomed to visually,” says Young. “When you can see yourself represented in a narrative, you can be anything.”
But does having multiple female presidents on television in the current political climate pave the way for a real-life female candidate to fill the position in 2020? Martha Lauzen, executive director for the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, is hardly optimistic.
“Typically, portrayals of female characters in powerful roles such as president normalize the idea that women can occupy these positions,” she says. “However, the current political climate is so polarized and upended, I suspect that such portrayals may serve to reinforce the attitudes of those already open to the idea of a female president, and to further alienate those who are not.”
Historically, the impact is slow-reaching of pop-culture representations of women leading this country.
Claire Underwood joins a long line of women who have served as president on U.S. television. Patty Duke ran the nation for seven episodes in 1985 on Hail to the Chief. Geena Davis ascended to the position in 2005 on Commander in Chief, though the show was canceled after one season. Julia Louis-Dreyfus enjoyed a brief stint as president on Veep, until a technicality caused her to lose the race for a full term. Patricia Wettig played the VP on Prison Break, who rose to the highest position after the assassination of the president.
Lynda Carter currently plays a president on Supergirl, presiding over matters both terrestrial and intergalactic. Then there was Cherry Jones on 24, Alfre Woodard on State of Affairs, Marcia Cross on Quantico. The list goes on–and virtually none of these fictitious politicians have been elected by the American people, instead inheriting the position from a man who can no longer serve.
The idea of a female president is going up against an incredibly powerful, deeply rooted set of ideas about gender, says Thompson. “That old order of thinking is taking a long time to unseat,” he says. “I think sometimes even people who think they are enlightened, people who would never in a million years call themselves sexist, have got some of it bouncing around in their head. I think [seeing it represented on TV] does move the needle politically. It’s just that there’s so many things pushing that needle in both directions.”
Where there is potential for more rapid change is within the entertainment industry itself, where women still continue to be less likely than males to be seen actually working in a work setting, instead being resigned to personal life-oriented roles, such as wife and mother. “If those in the behind-the-scenes community, including executives, see that a series with powerful female characters can be a critical and commercial hit, more writers and producers are likely to see such programs as viable,” says Lauzen.
Thompson adds that it seems unlikely that the creative industry wouldn’t evolve in the #mtoo era, which already has comedians examining the level of acceptibility of certain attitudes and behavior aimed toward women. “Since October, with the Harvey Weinstein [scandal], and the daily update of new people added to the list, people who are writing pilots and creating shows can’t possibly be writing them without being aware of this environment,” he says.
For Young, whose character started out as a romantic foil for the series’ lead, the symbolism of portraying one of few elected female presidents of the United States is not lost on her. “For so long, it’s been a white, male, patriarchal narrative, and women are the mistresses or the wives or the hoes, or they die first and donate their livers so that the lead guy can save the world,” says the actress, whose stint on Scandal was supposed to last three lines.
“I hope that all the girls that are growing up at this time in our culture will see women do everything, and so they’ll know that they can do everything,” she adds. “When this generation will be used to seeing women as humans, then all things are possible, and that’s what true equality is.”