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The Sneaky Feminism of 'Veep'

Selina Meyer and the problem with female characters in political comedies


As a bureaucratic comedy, HBO’s “Veep” is resolutely conventional. Its Washington is a place where every apparent policy decision is little more than a bit of staging in the endless game of image management and damage control. But the show has always been perceptive about what it means to be a woman in a position of political power. It is peppered with canny details: Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis Dreyfus) is always taking off her heels and putting them on again when someone important walks into the room. Several passing references to Selina's rift with the first lady feel like a winking comment on the sexist assumption that two women in high-ranking White House roles would inevitably be feuding. In one episode, Selina’s handlers realize that encouraging the veep to cry in public is one way to soften her image. But in the first season overall, Selina’s marginalization and irrelevance (“Did the president call?” “No.” was the glum recurring joke) made her into a hapless buffoon, fluffing her hair and running in circles as she struggled to seem more essential than she was. 

Season two is different. The show’s representation of Washington has not gotten any denser or more vivid. But Selina’s role is newly fortified, and the stakes have been accordingly raised. She is finally a player in the administration with concrete involvement in foreign policy, navigating the mostly male landscape with gritted teeth. As she makes Biden-esque small talk at a congressional swearing-in, an aide whispers into her ear that a hostage rescue mission is underway. She immediately strides out of room. “Something’s up,” the staffers around her murmur. It is a rare moment in which we sense Selina’s genuine influence. “You’re not needed in here, Gary, this is man’s work,” she tells an aide.

Armando Iannucci, the creator of “Veep,” told me in a recent interview that he never wanted his comedy to be a show about women in politics. He made the vice president female to avoid the problem of precedent: “We don’t want people to think, oh, well this is Joe Biden or this is Dick Cheney or this is Al Gore,” he said (which, of course, people thought anyway). “We decided, let’s think forward rather than backward—if we made it a woman we are sort of saying, she’s her own person,” he added. “It was a way of forcing us to start afresh.” But in season two, as Selina evolves from a figurehead into a contender, “Veep” is more than ever a show about women in politics. And it has become surprisingly refeshing in the way it defies feminist dogmas about how to represent women in power.

Selina Meyer is not the first female protagonist in a political comedy, but she is probably the least likable. In the 1985 sitcom "Hail to the Chief," Patty Duke played the first female president as the pleasantly dull, competent center around which the kooky antics of government orbited. The most prominent current example, of course, is Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope in “Parks and Recreation,” whose shining likability is key to the charm of the show. Knope is a feminist in the fullest sense of the word; her crusade for personal career advancement is a crusade for women at large. The wall of her office is lined with portraits of Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Pelosi and Condoleeza Rice. “Government isn’t just a boys club anymore,” she says in an early episode. “Women are everywhere. It’s a great time to be a woman in politics.” In one scene Ron receives the Pawnee Woman of the Year Award instead of Leslie, who turns to the judging panel and calls them “sexist jerks.” “Parks and Recreation” is perhaps the best bureaucratic comedy on television because its characters and its setting are so hilariously precise, but as a statement about women in politics it sticks to only the broadest strokes. In most political comedies, women tend to be either blandly unobjectionable or brightly appealing, and feminism plays out as a kind of exceptionalism: Female politicians are free of the negative characteristics—venality, mediocrity, inefficiency—that are so often assigned to men.

Iannucci’s political satire has always been different in this sense. In his film “In the Loop,” about Anglo-American relations during the lead-up to the Iraq War, Downing Street spin doctor Malcolm Tucker tells one female communications staffer: “Where do you think you are, sweetheart, in some Regency costume drama? This is a government department, not a fucking Jane Austen novel.” In his BBC sitcom “The Thick of It,” Iannucci added a female minister in the third season: the daffy Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front). Murray is idealistic but fully ineffectual, a breathless dope who is far out of her depth. Iannucci pulls no punches in his characterization of Murray. “No one knew what the fuck you stood for,” Tucker says after she loses her job. “Political fucking mist. No substance, no weight. You’ve got all the charm of a rotting teddy bear by a gravesite. By the way, women fucking hate you. I can show you the polling. They think you come across like a jittery mother at a wedding.” Being female does not exempt Iannucci's characters from being fools.

But Selina Meyer in season two of “Veep” is singular in that she manages to be clumsy and self-involved while still commanding respect and being fundamentally good at her job. Like Leslie Knope, she is unapologetically feminine, decked out in tailored dresses rather than Clintonian pantsuits. Season two includes a protracted riff on a missing coral lipstick. But unlike Knope, she is trailed by the reputation of unwomanliness that so many high-powered female politicians, from Thatcher to Clinton, have dealt with: She masculinizes herself, and is masculinized by the media, as she strives to fit herself into a very macho world. “He knows I’ve got a bigger role in the White House now, which means I’ve got a bigger D, which means he can suck it,” Selina tells the Secretary of Defense in season two. “I’d rather set fire to my vulva,” she says in another scene. And she is constantly dealing with the knotty gender dynamics of the upper echelons of government, fending off the dumb, casual sexism of her male colleagues. “She was multitasking,” says her director of communications at one point. “It’s a thing women can do, like smelling nice and wrapping gifts.” “I always feel like I should curtsy, and then I remember—that doesn’t make sense!” the speaker of the house tells her in another scene.

So being a woman does not inoculate Selina against the flaws generally associated with bad politicians, but it is not irrelevant either: There are real problems and real challenges, and Iannucci slyly nods to many of them. Overall, though, the show’s refusal to stridently spotlight the fact of Selina’s femaleness or handle her delicately because of it makes the backhanded feminism of “Veep” its best, most specific satire—far more persuasive than its satire of Washington. In the new season, even Selina’s tiresome vanity has begun to dim. “You could chip a veneer!” an aide tells Selina as she prepares to shoot a rifle at a military base. “I don’t care,” she replies. “I’m going in.” 

Follow @lbennett.