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Madam President: These women played POTUS and broke the glass ceiling on-screen

Ahead of the US elections which may see Hillary Clinton make history as the first female American president, we take a look at the short history of women playing the POTUS on screen.

world Updated: Nov 08, 2016 20:22 IST
Zehra Kazmi
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer on the HBO comedy, Veep.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer on the HBO comedy, Veep.

Come tomorrow, Hillary Clinton could make history by becoming the president of United States of America – a position no woman has occupied before. Well, at least not in real life.

If reality plays catch-up with fiction, Clinton can look for predecessors in popular culture, which has already imagined several scenarios with a woman in the White House.

The 1953 movie Project Moonbase was one of the first to place a woman in the Oval Office. While science fiction embraced the idea of a woman POTUS early, it was used merely as a plot device, almost as if to say, hey, look how different the future will be, we’ll have talking robots and women presidents!

In the following decades, the idea of a woman President was played for laughs. In Kisses for My President, a truly cringeworthy 1964 comedy, Polly Bergen essays the role of Leslie McCloud, the first woman to be elected as POTUS. But movie is hardly a feminist flag bearer – it focuses on how McCloud’s presidency affects her husband, played by Fred McMurray, who finds it tough to romance a wife attending to matters of state. The film ends with McCloud resigning from her presidency after she gets pregnant – because you cannot bring up a child and manage a country at the same time.

In ABC’s failed 1985 sitcom Hail to the Chief, Patty Duke plays the first female POTUS, an extreme workaholic. And 1998’s silly comedy Jane Austen’s Mafia, a parody of the Godfather, has Christina Applegate suddenly finding herself the leader of the American people.

So, have there been any serious female presidents on-screen?

The answer is yes, but only a handful. In Battlestar Galactica, Laura Roslin, portrayed by Mary McDonnell, is a major character and the President of the Twelve Colonies. State of Affairs, the 2014 espionage thriller, puts an African-American woman in the White House, played by the steely-eyed Alfre Woodard. And before these two, Cherry Jones won an Emmy for her role as the fair-and-square first female POTUS on the popular series, 24.

In 2005, the short-lived drama series Commander-in-Chief stars Geena Davis as the first female US president Mackenzie Allen, who becomes sitting president after her predecessors suffers a sudden cerebral aneurysm.

Clinton’s presidential bid seems to have encouraged more reel-life Madam Presidents. In this year’s epic alien invasion saga, Independence Day: Resurgence, Sela Ward plays the decisive, strong Elizabeth Lanford, the 45th President of the United States and the first woman in the country’s history to hold the Oval Office. The original 1996 film featured Bill Pullman as the Commander-in-Chief, who also stars in this film, but a woman at the helm is a nice touch.

2015’s TV series Supergirl not only features a female superhero, but also puts a woman in charge of America. Lynda Carter, who modeled her performance on Hilary Clinton, makes a short appearance as President Oliva Marsdin in Season 2. There’s an additional touch of awesome: Carter played the role of Wonder Woman from 1975 to 1979, so the casting is kind of meta.

In fact, American cable television can boast of a female President on air right now, in the form of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as acting president Selina Meyer on the HBO comedy, Veep. Meyer starts out as the vice president, relegated to the sidelines, as she and her team try to navigate Washington’s Machiavellian day-to-day politics. But in Season 3, she finally ascends to the presidency after the incumbent steps down.

The show follows the unconventional Selina blundering through her presidency and making questionable decisions. And while Selina is no poster-child for a good President, let alone a feminist one, Veep is unusual in showing that a single mother can reach the Oval Office. In fact, Veep presents viewers with the possibility of two consecutive female presidencies -- in the latest season, when Selina ties with her opponent, the various political machinations leave the presidential seat vacant, which is then occupied by Latin American senator Laura Montez.

But the trope of a woman Veep becoming accidental president is used in other reel depictions as well – a woman winning a fair-and-square election still seems far-fetched for the American imagination.

Whether it’s Commander-in-Chief’s Geena Davis or Patricia Wettig as the murderous VP-turned-President Caroline Reynolds in ‘Prison Break’ or Kate Burton as the power-hungry, husband-murdering Sally Langston in Scandal, woman attain television presidenthood via the accidental route. Hopefully, a Hillary Clinton presidency may change that.

via GIPHY