Two responses to ABC’s new drama, Commander in Chief.

Part I: Hair, Hemlines and History

Can the media move past the novelty of a female president?

By Marissa Kantor

Too Thelma?

Tuesday night, from nine to ten o’clock, viewers across America were asked to take a leap of faith as Mackenzie Allen, played by Oscar-winner Geena Davis, became President of the United States of America in the premiere of ABC’s new series, Commander in Chief. Only problem is, many didn’t quite buy it.

A quick summary (for those of you who were bold—or smart—enough to skip out on this momentous occasion): Republican President Teddy Bridges (Will Lyman) suffers an aneurism, which later turns into a massive post-op bleed and leaves him dead. (“It finally took God to nail me,” were some of his last words to Davis’s Vice President Mackenzie “Mac” Spenser Allen, as he asks her to resign from his hospital bed).

Only she doesn’t. Instead, Independent-Party-affiliated Allen opts to become that stereotypical superwoman which differentiates the show from NBC’s The West Wing, and leaves its viewers most skeptical: she is a loving wife; an involved mother of three —- two teenage twins and a six-year-old girl; and she has enough equanimity to handle a woman about to be executed in Nigeria and nasty Speaker of the House Nathan Tempelton (Donald Sutherland) who wants her job, all in her first day. (“How many Islamic states do you think would follow the edicts of a woman?” Tempelton asks her.)

Tempelton is not the only one with his doubts. Allesandra Stanley of The New York Times writes: “ABC is stretching its credibility to the outer limits” with Commander, though she does go on to say that the fact that we can watch a depiction of a female president at all is “kind of neat.” Kind of neat? Excuse me?

But Stanley is not alone. Washington Post writer Tom Shales spends the first half of his article — literally — fantasizing about Davis. He begins: “Geena Davis can veto my legislation any time.” It gets worse: He calls her “bountiful, beautiful, believable” and he gives excessive room to the over-application of her bright-red lipstick, comparing it to those lips you can buy for Halloween.

USA Today’s Robert Bianco tells us that Commander will only succeed if we “buy Davis’ transformation from Thelma to leader of the free world.”

That Americans were sitting on their couches, shoving snacks into their mouths and debating whether Geena Davis was too Thelma-like is the main problem with this coverage, and the exact one that organizations like The White House Project, a nonprofit organization working to get more women into positions of leadership, have tried to cut off before it happened.

When asked by a Washington Post reader in an online chat how the media would portray Davis, White House Project President Marie Wilson did agree that first would come the “hair, hemlines and husband” studies. She thinks, though, that once the media exhausts their lipstick-talk and use of inappropriate sexual adjectives, they’ll turn to discussion of her political actions.

Could a show like Commander actually change American cultural thinking about the possibility of an estrogen-driven leader in the Oval Office?

The numbers are not entirely persuasive: While a recent Roper Public Affairs poll commissioned by The White House Project found that 79% of Americans feel comfortable with a woman president of the United States, last night’s post-show ABC poll reveals that 55% of Americans thought that Mackenzie Allen should have stepped down as president, while only 37% supported her actions.

Perhaps only time will tell. The former First Lady, embracing Allen as she prepares for her speech, whispers to her, “If Moses had been a woman, and she’d have stopped to ask for directions, they’d have been in Israel in a week.”

Excellent point, Mrs. Bridges. That said, perhaps the media and Americans will at least hang on for another episode, forget the lipstick, and get down to the heart of the matter: Is America ready for a woman (not Geena Davis, folks, she’s just a character) in the White House?

Marissa Kantor is a graduate student at New York University. Her last essay for The Revealer was “Katrina Coverage Brown-Out.”


Part II: Holy War Lite

Commander in Chief’s real subject isn’t gender, but culture war.

By Rebecca Beyer

Speaker Nathan Templeton

The President of the United States is a woman. She used to be a pitcher for a women’s professional baseball team. Another time, she was the adopted mother to a computer generated mouse. Wait a minute, silly. This isn’t real. This is American media. That distorted liberal beast that twists American culture into something scary, something sinful. If you believe all the conservative right-wing hype, that is.

If the premise of Commander in Chief, ABC’s new Tuesday night drama which aired its pilot episode this week, seems unlikely — it opens with French children singing “American the Beautiful,” and crowds of French people waving American flags as the vice president is escorted to Air Force II — just wait.

This show strikes very close to home. This new American president is Mackenzie Allen, played by Geena Davis, and she is inheriting a very conservative Oval Office, one she wasn’t supposed to inherit. “I will not resign until you do,” her dying President breathes from his hospital bed.

And she may have resigned, ceding to the neo-conservative Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton, played by Donald Sutherland, had Templeton not let fly his scathing tongue. Referring to a Nigerian woman that Vice President Allen was trying to rescue from a penalty of death, Templeton can’t remember her name and calls her an “adulterer.” He ridicules her decision to ask France, a country, Templeton says, where officials “can’t get elected without the Muslim vote,” for help. Here, among other scattered clues, is the foreshadowing of the great holy battle that is to come: conservative religious values versus progressive secular ones.

Earlier, while preparing to write the Vice President’s resignation speech, Allen’s communications directors argue over whether or not it is right for her to resign. The male director is exasperated by the possibility of Templeton assuming office, and the subsequent “return of book burning, creationism in the classroom and invading every terrible country.”

But the holy battle is not just a theological engagement on American soil. No, the holy battle rages all across the world, as we are all well aware. No respite on television. “How many Islamic states do you think would follow the edicts of a woman?” Templeton asks. But Vice President Allen responds, “If some Islamic nations can’t tolerate a female president, then I promise you, it will be more their problem than mine.”

And so she assumes, however liberal her stance, the tough-talking role of the real American politics, even shaking her big stick into Nigeria where U.S. Marines remove the aforementioned sinner from prison. Allen is sworn in—with Templeton’s Bible. Members of cabinet threaten to resign, and Templeton has not abandoned his cause. Next week’s episode will likely bring more religious references and depictions of a benevolent America gifting the world with democracy. Or at least the world of television where fundamental differences in political and religious belief can be reduced to snippy one-liners that fit nicely between commercials advertising birth control and other ABC prime time shows.

Will ABC take a stance in the drama? And if so, will it be that of the President or of her scheming Speaker of the House? Who cares! It’s only television after all. If you don’t like the politics of the moment, vote with your remote. Most likely, Martin Sheen is in the Oval Office on another station. Maybe you can catch the real man somewhere. The real holy wars will go on without your Nielson ratings, and you can read about them in the morning (liberal) papers.

Rebecca Beyer is a graduate student at New York University.