Women in Politics Week: The Roundup

A Lady Lonely at the Top: High School Politics Take an Ugly Turn in ‘Election’ by Carleen Tibbets

Election, the 1999 film directed by Alexander Payne and based on the novel by Tom Perotta, chronicles type A personality Tracy Flick’s (Reese Witherspoon) quest to become student body president and the unraveling of her social sciences teacher, Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) as he attempts to thwart her campaign. Released on the heels of the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-scandal, Election explores power, corruption, and moral gray area in the “wholesome” Midwest — seemingly representative of all that is safe, suburban, and pure.

“The Women of Qumar” originally aired on November 28th, 2001, approximately two months after the first American airstrikes in Afghanistan. That timing is crucial to consider when looking at how this episode presents an imagined Middle East. Though The West Wing is often billed as optimistic counter-history and as an antidote for the policies and politics of the Bush administration, the show’s Qumari plot line is much more of a fictional transcription of current events than it is a progressive alternative. Most importantly, in creating Qumar as a fictional country meant to evoke the worst American fears and prejudices about life in the Middle East, Aaron Sorkin effectively packages and sells many of the motivations behind the current war in Afghanistan in the guise of progressive entertainment.

Why We Need Leslie Knope and What Her Election on ‘Parks and Rec’ Means for Women and Girls by Megan Kearns

When I grow up, I want to be Leslie Knope. It’s no secret I love Parks and Rec. A female-fronted series with a hilarious ensemble cast that’s the most feminist show on TV? C’mon, how could I not? It’s easy to write off Parks and Rec as a quirky and brilliant comedy. Yet it’s so much more than that. It broke ground revealing the highs and lows of political office and showing an intelligent, upbeat, passionate woman can not only run for office but win.
Inspired by The Wire’s portrayal of politics (another reason to love it even more!), it depicts local government in the small town Pawnee, revolving around the indomitable Leslie Knope. Amy Poehler (who happens to be one of my fave feminist celebs) anchors the show with her fantastic portrayal of the waffles-loving leader.
In addition to my hobbies of watching films and cartoons, I like reading comics. Sometimes I read the highbrow stuff like Maus or Persepolis, and sometimes I read trash. Complete and utter bullshit. One of the longstanding traditions of the Something Awful Forums is its Political Cartoon Thread, which is an ongoing discussion of how the mainstream media interprets political debate through metaphor and imagery. And by that, I mean they find the worst cartoonists possible and make fun of them. Somehow all the really bad cartoonists are conservative! I couldn’t imagine why that could be, could you?
And if there’s one thing conservatives have made themselves known for lately, it’s just how well they understand the issues of women. It’s like there’s a War on Women or something. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that white dudes seem to have a particularly nuanced understanding of what it is to be a modern woman facing such issues as birth control, abortion, and sexual harassment.

Quote of the Day: Rebecca Traister by Amber Leab

Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry looks at the 2008 election through a feminist lens and, (no surprise), focuses most on primary candidate Hillary Clinton, and later Sarah Palin. The book is, however, much more than just an analysis of the sexism these two women endured. Big Girls Don’t Cry looks at the ways in which the media itself was forced to adapt, particularly to Clinton’s historic run at the presidency. This book is an excellent, smartly written look back at gender politics in 2008. For me, it reopened wounds and ignited anger I felt during the election cycle, when I heard, time and again, painful misogynist commentary coming from our so-called liberal media. However, the book provides a kind of catharsis: if we can look back through Traister’s clear eye, maybe we — individuals and the collective — will change.

Seeing My Reflection In Film: ‘Night Catches Us’ Struck a Chord With Me by Arielle Loren

Based in Philadelphia, Night Catches Us tells the story of two former black panthers trying to re-establish life after leaving The Party and the death of a fellow panther years ago. While the central plot revolves around these two characters’ lives, Hamilton integrates into the film historic footage of the Black Panther Party. As this era of black history often is pigeonholed to radicalism, Hamilton truly humanizes The Party through several scenes of police brutality, corruption, and community gatherings. For instance, Washington’s character, Patricia, would raise money to pay the legal fees for her less fortunate clients and feed every child on the block even when she couldn’t pay her light bill.
Foul-mouthed and frazzled, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (eternally known as Elaine from Seinfeld), stars as United States Vice-President, Selina Meyer, in the Emmy Award-winning HBO political satire, VEEP. The show focuses on Dreyfus’ character, a woman who wants power, but resides in a fairly weak place, politically, having to hide in the shadows of the President and worry about her approval ratings.
There are two Hollywood versions of Washington, D.C.; the one where the president is Morgan Freeman and he’s strong, but compassionate and you feel good about being an American. The other version is something out of a John Grisham novel in which the city is one giant ‘60 Minutes’ expose of cynicism and conspiracy (the latter version just makes you sad to be alive). VEEP is the second, minus the conspiracy and snipers and with the addition of obsessive blackberry use.
While a few men duke it out to take control at the White House later this year, let’s take a look at two films that followed the life of female politicians. On our right we have The Iron Lady (previously reviewed here), the Oscar-winning biopic on U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep), and on our left is The Lady, a film on the life of Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame).
Both films offer an account of women both lauded and defamed in their own countries, and who defied gender stereotypes to become relatively successful leaders. But only one did it successfully — The Lady.

‘The Young Victoria’: Family Values as Land Grab by Erin Blackwell

I wanted to watch The Young Victoria (2009) because Miranda Richardson’s in it and I’m going through a watch-everything-she’s-in phase. Richardson talked up the film in an interview with the Daily Mail online. And I quote:

“I spent my time cross stitching,” she revealed. “But I made it fun by stitching naughty words into handkerchiefs.” Miranda, 51 [in 2009], wouldn’t be drawn on the exact words, but added, “There were long gaps between filming and I was bored, so it kept me occupied.”

If you have any plans to watch this film, you can’t do better than to follow her lead.

‘Persepolis’ by Amber Leab

In Persepolis, we meet Marjane, a young girl living in Iran at the time of the Islamic revolution of 1979. The society changed drastically under Islamic law, as evidenced by Marjane’s teacher’s evolving lessons. After the revolution, in 1982, she tells the young girls, who are now required by law to cover their heads, “The veil stands for freedom. A decent woman shelters herself from men’s eyes. A woman who shows herself will burn in hell.” In typical fashion, the students escape her ideological droning through imported pop culture: the music of ABBA, The Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, and Iron Maiden.

If I were to ask you to name a famous feminist, who would you say? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of you would probably say Gloria Steinem. And with good reason. A pioneering feminist icon, she’s been the face of feminism for nearly 50 years. Many people have admired and judged her, putting their own perceptions on who she is. In the documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, Steinem tells her own story.
Directed by Peter Kunhardt and produced by Kunhardt and Sheila Nevins, the HBO documentary which also aired at this year’s Athena Film Fest, “recounts her transformation from reporter to feminist icon.” It explores Steinem’s life through intimate interviews and impressive historical footage, focusing on the tumultuous 60s and 70s, the core of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking introduction to feminism and insight of a feminist activist.
Politics in films made in the ’40s and ’50s was strictly a man’s world, with the men taking charge as both the heroes and the villains, the bosses of the corrupt political machines and the up-and-comers either succumbing to them or fighting back against them. But these films were not devoid of women, but those women had their own roles to play.
Female characters in these political films found a niche into which they could be fit, a trope on which sufficient variations could be introduced that it ended up showing up multiple times over the decades. When considering this type of character the phrase “Behind every great man is a great woman” comes to mind. That is where the women in these movies stood: behind the man, attempting to push him toward greatness, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. These Great Women did not achieve anything on their own, or draw attention to themselves, but were behind-the-scenes players using the power they had over the protagonist in pursuit of their goals.
The 1999 film Election features Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a power-hungry young woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants and Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), an emasculated male high school teacher who loses everything trying to keep Flick out of power.
She wins. He loses. But he doesn’t realize it.
Election–which was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film–is a film that has been immortalized for its depiction of Tracy Flick, a high school junior who, after building a flourishing “career” in academics and extra-curricular activities, is running for Student Government President of George Washington Carver High School.
Margaret Thatcher became the first (and so far, only) female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of the most controversial politicians of the twentieth century, she was loathed by much of the country when she was eventually ousted from her position by her own party. She is now 86 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s.
Marilyn Monroe remains the greatest female film icon 50 years since her death at the age of 36. During her career she walked out on her contract with the most powerful studio in Hollywood to form her own production company in a bid to be taken seriously as an actress in an unprecedented move that foreshadowed the downfall of the studio system.

What’s so interesting (and fucking sad) is that Scandal is the only prime-time TV show on right now centering around an African American woman. And it’s the first network show with a black female lead in 30 years (that is horrifying). I’ve often heard Washington is a fantastic actor and she was great in the heartbreaking For Colored Girls. Here she commands the screen with confidence and poise. Olivia is an intelligent, successful and empowered woman. Others look up to her, revere her and even fear her shrewd insights and relentlessness to finish a job. She’s demanding, requiring her staff to pull all-nighters and enforcing rules like no crying in the office and not answering “I don’t know” to a question she asks. Powerful politicians turn to her for advice. She negotiates deals on her terms. While new employee Quinn (Katie Lowes) idolizes her, Olivia is far from a paragon of perfection. She’s vulnerable with a messy and complicated love life. She’s flawed, not always likeable (although I personally love her!) and uses Machiavellian tactics to complete a job. But this mélange makes her all the more interesting.

“I Don’t Take Orders from You:” Female Military Authority as Represented by Admiral Helena Cain in ‘Battlestar Galactica by Amanda Rodriguez

First off, the TV series Battlestar Galactica just plain rules. It’s exciting, dramatic, beautifully shot, has a racially diverse cast, and places many women in positions of power. Let’s take a minute to consider the fact that the benevolent commander of the military protecting the human race from extinction is portrayed by a Mexican American (Commander William Adama/Edward James Olmos), and the President of the Colonies is a woman (Laura Roslin). Bravo! My favorite aspect of the show, though, is the way it tackles complex ethical dilemmas. Issues of race (the Cylons as stand-ins for racial Others), women’s issues (rape, abortion, breast cancer), philosophical/scientific issues (religious extremism, mysticism, whether or not some species “deserve to survive,” what makes one “human,” evolution), and post-colonial issues (the Cylons as stand-ins for an oppressed race that genocidally revolts against its oppressors).
The film’s “heroine,” Diana Christensen, played by Faye Dunaway, is very much a product of the 70s. She has directly benefitted from the second wave feminism movement, breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the sole female television executive at UBS, the fictional network depicted in this film. But…she is not a feminist character. Yes, she is strongly written, sexually confident, and an obvious success in her field, but she is also obsessive, emotionless, cynical and dangerous. In short, a ball-breaking career woman. She has achieved much based on the sheer power of her ambitions, but it is clear that her single-minded ambitions are meant to contrast negatively to the more idealistic and grounded outlooks of the male “heroes,” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and Max Schumacher (William Holden).
Diana is the Vice President of UBS’s programming division, but eventually worms her way into taking Max Schumacher’s job, which was to be in charge of the news division. The news division gets lousy ratings and haemorrhages money, so they make the decision to fire their news anchor, Howard Beale. This instead causes Beale’s mind to snap, and he begins ranting about planning to commit suicide on air (which was based on a real-life event) and how he has “run out of bullshit.” The ratings spike, prompting the obsessive Diana to seize on the newscast and turn it into a combination variety show and talk show. The integrity of the news and the political system that it influences mean nothing to Diana – she is singularly obsessed with getting ratings and making money for UBS.

‘The Lady’ Makes the Personal Political by Jarrah Hodge

That’s where I thought the focus did the subject an injustice. Interestingly, The Lady could be said to suffer from some of the same issues as The Iron Lady, which was also a movie about a woman politician that was criticized for being more concerned with sentimentality than political substance.
In some ways, though, The Lady has less excuse for this. Thatcher is elderly and ailing now but Suu Kyi is still fighting a crucial fight. It’s clear from the rallying cry at the end of the movie that one of the film’s goals is to get Westerners more involved in aiding the continuing fight for true democracy in Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi will finally take the oath of office to sit in the parliament this year, though the current structure still ensures the military maintains majority control and human rights violations continue). However, this could have been further advanced by giving voices to the Burmese non-military characters other than Suu Kyi: the students being massacred in the streets, the villagers in rural areas, and the monks who joined the protest.

Over the course of the past two months, Megan Kearns of The Opinioness of the World reviewed all five parts of the PBS series Women, War & Peace. We’ve rounded them up here, with excerpts from each review. Be sure to check them out if you missed any! (You can also watch the full episodes online here.)


In the pilot episode of Homeland, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), hurries back to her Washington D.C. apartment after a night out, and the audience sees a photo of jazz musicians and pieces of artwork emblazoned with the word “Jazz.” Jazz–the nebulous, wholly American musical genre–is improvisation. It is individualism and collaboration. It is color-outside-the-lines, boundary-pushing rhythm. It is Carrie, a CIA analyst who must push and navigate her way around the patriarchal CIA and her brilliant and bipolar mind.

The Depiction of Women in Films About Irish Politics by  Alisande Fitzsimons

For as long as there have been film-makers, they’ve seemingly been attempting to depict the Irish struggle for independence. Apart from the fact that a country in the midst of political strife always makes interesting viewing (see also: Israel, Palestine, the rest of the Middle East and the plethora of films produced each year about life in communist East Berlin), this may be down to timing.
The Easter Rising, when Ireland declared its intention of ending British rule over the country, took place in April 1916. The first commercial films, including DW Griffith’s seminal and hugely racist The Birth of a Nation (1914), were made in the same decade, meaning that the medium of film as a way to depict and interpret historical events through fictitious re-renderings of them, was created just in time to record the political strife that characterised Ireland in the twentieth century.

Many assume Hollywood is a liberal nirvana (or I guess a hellhole if you’re a Republican). But that’s not exactly true. Not only do films lack gender equality, they often purport sexist tropes. While many participate in fundraisers or ads for natural disasters or childhood illnesses or breast cancer, most celebrities remain silent when it comes to supposedly controversial human rights issues like abortion and contraception. But not this year! Because of the GOP’s rampant attacks on reproductive rights (gee thanks, GOP!), more celebs are adding their voices to the pro-choice symphony dissenting against these oppressive laws.

Carrie Mathison burst onto our television screens in October of 2011 as the central narrator to Showtime’s superbly riveting political thriller, Homeland. Based on Israel’s Prisoners of War and driven by the question what homecoming means to the lives of those formerly held captive, Homeland centers on Carrie Mathison, Nicholas Brody, and the cell of people who weave throughout their personal and political spheres. In “Homeland’s Roots,” a short extra via Showtime’s On Demand, series creator Gideon Raff says, “We had really interesting conversations about the differences between American and Israeli societies in terms of their approach to prisoners of war.” Series developer and producer Alex Gansa adds, “We had to find another avenue to tell the story and what we really found was this idea that Brody may have been turned in captivity.”

Many chastised Sofia Coppola’s re-imagining of Marie Antoinette. Some critics complained about the addition of modern music while others thought it looked too slick, like an MTV music video (remember those??). But I think most people missed the point. Beyond the confectionery colors, gorgeous shots of lavish costumes and a teen queen munching on decadent treats and sipping champagne is a compelling and heartbreaking film that transcends eye candy. Underneath the exquisite atmosphere exists a very powerful and feminist commentary on gender and women.