Robin Wright
Courtesy: Netflix

Television

Why a Female President on 'House of Cards' Is so Important

When Kevin Spacey was let go from House of Cards due to misconduct, Netflix promptly announced that 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 five, Claire had taken over as president of the United States after her husband’s resignation, the final episode ending on her 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," Robert J. Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, tells Playboy. “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."
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.
It’s fitting that television screens offer a reflection of what is happening in society, according to a 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 who plays Mellie Grant. "And it's right on time."

The presence of multiple female presidents on television—all reaching a different demographic—normalizes the idea of not just a woman in the highest office, but of women as 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,” says Young. “What we are experiencing intellectually, we need to actually become accustomed to visually. When you can see yourself represented in a narrative, you can be anything.”

But do multiple female commanders in chief on fictional series in the current political climate pave the way for a real-life woman 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 for pop-culture representations of women leading this country. Claire Underwood joins a long line of women to call the shots in the Oval Office 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 Prison Break VP, 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 explains. “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.”
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.
Potential for more rapid change exists within the entertainment industry itself, where women still continue to be less likely than males to be seen in an actual work setting, and instead are 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 likely for the creative industry to evolve in the #MeToo era, with comedians already examining the level of acceptability 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. “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 says. “When this generation will be used to seeing women as humans, then all things are possible, and that’s what true equality is.”

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Carita Rizzo
Carita Rizzo
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