The new season of Veep will show Selina Meyer as a former president. It’s an awkward role at the best of times; George Washington’s model, Cincinnatus, has long since become Davos Man. For a woman, it’s likely to offer particular challenges — and a key element of the show’s genius has always been its consideration of the realities of female leadership.
Veep was created by Armando Iannucci as a spin-off from his successful UK comedy, The Thick of It. Veep quickly came into its own, offering a view of the idiosyncrasies of American politics through a thick fog of obscenity and insults. Veep’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is not like the hapless, hopeless MPs satirized in The Thick of It. When we see her in front of the public, she is shown to be an effective politician. She is plausible as a presidential candidate, too, at least to those who haven’t seen the chaos behind the scenes.
Meyer also faces other challenges familiar to female politicians, including a husband who can’t keep it in his pants. When he isn’t cheating on her, he’s trading on her political position for his shady investment schemes, like a cross between Anthony Weiner and Bernie Madoff. Not at all like Bill Clinton, though.
Each episode opens with a montage of headlines of a presidential campaign that peaks and falls, until she is selected as a running mate by a male candidate. Which, when Veep started, was as far as any woman had got in a presidential election. In those long-ago days of 2012, some thought Selina Meyer was a kind of satire on Sarah Palin, despite the producers’ protest that the character is not based on anyone in particular.
Shrewdly, Meyer’s party is never named. It’s possible to see her as Republican or Democrat. She could be a Rorschach test of viewers’ assumptions. In one acute scene, her staff try to craft responses to pro-choice and pro-life lobby groups that avoid making any stand on abortion. Privately, however, Selina comments, ‘If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.’
The realities of women’s lives — sexuality, reproduction, aging — are all pitfalls for women in politics. Veep’s darkest jokes don’t shy away from this. When Selina, recently divorced, might be pregnant, her press officer suggests that ‘the best thing for her legacy is if she’s assassinated before she starts showing.’
By the time Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign brought a woman president closer to reality, Selina Meyer was already president on Veep. Meyer was a funhouse mirror version of a female Commander-in-Chief, and acknowledged the fact that women may only get one token shot. As Meyer’s chief of staff Amy says it: ‘You have achieved nothing apart from one thing. The fact that you are a woman means we will have no more women presidents because we tried one and she fucking sucked.’
Meyer’s abuse of her staff — limited to verbal tirades rather than physical attacks — highlights assumptions about how women in power should behave. Women are expected to be nice, in a way men are not. Selina Meyer is not nice. Just how not-nice a woman can be remains open for debate. The stories about how presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar has treated her underlings sound like Mommy Dearest in an office. But as Caitlin Flanagan argues, we respond to these stories with amusement because women’s anger is seen as a joke.
When a man throws things at his staff, it’s assault. When a woman does it, it’s a punchline. And that is part of the joke in Veep. Nobody is really scared of Selina, even as she becomes leader of the free world. One episode revolved around which of Meyer’s staffers had called her a ‘cunt’. The correct answer, like Expletive On The Orient Express, was: all of them.
Since the show began, Beltway types have cracked that while Washington likes to think of itself as House of Cards, Veep is closer to the reality. It’s certainly closer to the truth in terms of the snares women in power face.
Veep’s seventh and final season starts March 31.