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First Wives Club

Why all Hillary look-alikes don't look the same.

Nathaniel Bell for Netflix

When NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt announced to TV critics, in July 2013, that the network was producing a four-hour miniseries based on the life and political career of Hillary Clinton, the backlash was swift. NBC news anchor Andrea Mitchell worried the series would reflect badly on NBC’s news division. A National Review writer complained that Clinton would be played by the young and graceful Diane Lane. The Republican National Committee voted to boycott NBC during the presidential primary debates. Within two months, NBC had canceled the project.

A similar fate befell two other Hillary Clinton movies that year—a CNN documentary and Rodham, a film chronicling Clinton’s 1970s life, which Lionsgate was producing based on a script that had circulated in Hollywood for years. It seems that outside of “Saturday Night Live,” depicting an actual political candidate onscreen—especially this political candidate—is just too radioactive. Conservatives object that Hillary will be given free publicity; the Clinton camp worries about media they can’t control.

But even if the real Clinton can’t be touched, television keeps offering us characters that beg the comparison. On the same day Clinton announced her presidential campaign, “Veep” began its fourth season, with a newly inaugurated President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss). You could watch it as a preview of a post-2016 future—a president in skirt-suits! and heels! And CBS’s “Madam Secretary,” was transparently inspired by Clinton’s time in the State Department (Fox News, predictably, called it propaganda). But the buffoonish Selina, who stumbled into the job when the sitting president resigned, shares little with Hillary other than gender. And Téa Leoni’s blond-haired secretary of state is the anti-Hillary: idealistic, unambitious, apolitical.

The most interesting and apt Hillary likenesses look not to the secretary’s recent past and hoped-for future, but further back, to her first turn in the White House. After all, Hillary isn’t just the first female candidate with a good shot at winning; she’s the first ex-first lady to run for the job. “What does it say to women that their first path to the presidency is through marriage,” Rebecca Mead asked in The New Yorker shortly after the campaign announcement. “What might it someday say to their daughters?” It’s a question that popular culture, now more accustomed to the idea of a woman president than it was even eight years ago, has begun to ask in earnest. Enter television’s latest archetype: the political wife as anti-heroine.

The most recent season of “House of Cards,” its third, opens with Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), the show’s slimy protagonist, occupying the Oval Office. His schemes worked: He weaseled his way into the vice presidency, then manipulated the sitting president into resigning in shame. Having betrayed and killed everyone who stood in his path, he was left to deal with policy debates and campaign strategies—hardly the high melodrama that propelled the first two seasons. The show had to locate a new source of tension, and it found it by brutally dissecting the marriage of two political vultures, and turning Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) into the show’s stealth protagonist.

In this season’s first episode we learn that Claire Underwood—former nonprofit leader, sexual assault advocate, and flawless helpmate—has political aspirations of her own. “I’m almost 50 years old. I’ve been in the passenger seat for decades,” Claire says, persuading her husband to appoint her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “It’s time for me to get behind the wheel.” It’s a shift from the Claire of season one and, to an extent, season two; back then, she shared his cigarettes and egged him on.

But it seems that the Underwoods had a deal: first his career, then hers. In interviews, Wright has been adamant that her character is not based on Clinton, but this season the parallels floated above subtext. “How am I supposed to run for office at some point if I don’t have a legitimate track record?” Claire asks. In the universe of “House of Cards” everything is transactional, including intimacy. She thought that they were partners, that they had schemed and sacrificed to enter the Oval Office together. (Recall Bill’s campaign promise in 1992: “Two for the price of one.”) Frank naïvely insists that his power is also hers, and that he consults her on all decisions. But the Oval Office only has one desk, and soon the East Wing becomes a cage, where she plays hostess to Putinesque boors and choreographs insipid Easter egg hunts.

Things don’t become easier once her husband sneaks her in as U.N. ambassador with a recess appointment. Rivals worry that Claire has too much influence on her husband’s policy decisions. She’s accused of lack of experience, nepotism, dilettantism. Those accusations are accurate, of course, but they don’t stop her from claiming our sympathies. As the two fly home from Russia, where Claire embarrasses Frank—and burnishes her own reputation—with an impulsive speech criticizing the homophobic regime, the two stand in opposition. “I never should have made you ambassador,” he says. “I never should have made you president,” she fires back. The rapid-fire tit-for-tat exposes the precariousness of an arrangement attempting to accommodate outsized, competing ambitions.

In the second half of the season, their partnership is depicted as a sort of vampirism: She donates blood at a campaign event and passes out; he admits to “feeding off her.” He needs her more than she needs him. In the final episode—no way to avoid spoilers here—we see her sitting regally behind the Oval Office desk, testing out how it feels. Soon after, she walks out on him, right in the middle of his reelection campaign, suggesting the main conflict for next season: What happens when the political wife gets impatient, and doesn’t want to wait her turn?

That same tension is playing out on “Scandal” this season, in its characteristically soapy, colorful style. After surviving a rape by her father-in-law, her husband’s affair, and her son’s death, Mellie Grant, the first lady, declares that she wants to be president and announces a run for Senate. “Scandal” is a bolder (not to mention better) show than the self-serious “House of Cards,” and in many ways, Mellie (Bellamy Young) is Claire Underwood’s opposite—rough, Southern, boozy, and big-haired, she often comes across as hysterical or slightly unhinged. When we first met Mellie she was a buttoned-up perfectionist, pouring all her energies into supporting her husband, a man far weaker than her. When her husband’s affair became public in season two, she played forgiving wife before the cameras. 

“The upsetting thing about being as educated as I am and as intelligent as I am is that being first lady is profoundly boring.” says Mellie from “Scandal.”
Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty Images

But internally, she’s fueled by a long-simmering anger—at her philandering husband, at his mistress, at all the sacrifices she’s made to put him in this house. “The upsetting thing about being as educated as I am and as intelligent as I am is that being first lady is profoundly boring,” she told the president last season. The indignities of first-lady duties come up often, even as Mellie fulfills them with ease. “I tell you something, when a woman is president, they’ll suddenly make first lady an official paid position,” she says. “The minute a man has to do it, it’ll become a real job.” Like Claire, she chafes at the claustrophobia of the “finest prison in the world.”

In some ways, Mellie seems like a holdover from an earlier, prefeminist era, when the best bet for a hyperambitious woman was to hitch her wagon to a charismatic man. She graduated law school top of her class, made partner at a law firm, then spent the next two decades winning elections for her husband. Also like Claire, she doesn’t seem to have any specific policy agenda or rationale beyond the pursuit of power. “I want to be president of the United States,” she confesses with hunger. “I want to run the world.” She’s obviously unqualified, though much savvier than the man who sits in office—one of the ongoing themes of “Scandal” is the way a group of women, people of color, and gay men have schemed, sacrificed, and killed to support the presidency of a white man far less competent and committed than any of them. And so, in the moral world of “Scandal,” Mellie’s pursuit of political office reads as a combination of revenge and justice, a put-upon woman finally getting what’s hers. 

Neither of these women are Hillary doppelgängers, but they still play off of our image of the ambitious, savvy wife who stands by her philandering husband’s side, and is now desperate for it to be her turn. Past incarnations (for example, 2012’s “Political Animals,” which gave us Sigourney Weaver as an explicit Clinton clone) put their Hillary figures in a straightforward heroic mode. These alt-world Hillarys are something much messier, more ruthless and hard.

In fact, Claire and Mellie are every Republican nightmare about Hillary Clinton come to life—the calculating ice bitch, the power-hungry man-eater. They have stolen elections, manipulated rape victims, and lied to the American people. They tried to govern the United States from the East Wing. Claire Underwood orchestrated a threesome with her husband and a secret service agent! Mellie Grant had sex with the vice-president! The most extreme anti-Clinton conspiracy theories of the 1990s—the “Clinton Body Count,” drug rings, trooper-arranged sexual liaisons—would be right at home on either show. If Republicans feared the power of “Madam Secretary” or a glammed-up Diane Lane–starring biopic to swing votes, then the Machiavellian motivations of these first ladies should be conservative catnip.

But watching these political fever dreams can also feel cathartic, at least to this young, liberal viewer. Mellie and Claire are manipulative and unqualified, but we still root for them to succeed, to triumph over sexism, to gain the upper hand against their entitled husbands. Recasting the first lady in the now familiar role of antihero, these shows shed the baggage (and the CV) that Hillary has accrued in the last decade, stripping her down to a cold-blooded tactician sketch, and allowing us to empathize with her anyway. What’s so bad about determination, rigor, drive, and ruthlessness, anyway? Who needs to be “likable enough”? By letting us see these women as underdogs, “House of Cards” and “Scandal” both take these nasty visions of female ambition and turn them into a triumphant story of empowerment, perfect anti-heroines for our current feminist moment.

For the most complex TV vision of the sidelined wife coming into her own, you might need to leave (fictional) Washington for the corrupt Chicago politics of “The Good Wife,” a show that is as suspicious of clichés of empowerment as it is secure in its feminism. When the show first premiered in 2009, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) was an obvious Silda Spitzer analogue, standing by her husband Peter, the state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois, as he was nailed on charges of corruption and frequenting prostitutes. Despite the surface inspiration, the Clintons have always hovered in the margins. In the pilot episode, Alicia’s boss Diane Lockhart—a second-wave feminist standard-bearer in shift-dresses and power necklaces—directs Alicia’s attention to a table by her desk, where a picture of her and Hillary Clinton sits: “Hey, if she can do it, so can you.” 

After quickly rising through the ranks of Lockhart-Gardner, the fictional law firm where Alicia worked, and then breaking off to start her own firm, Alicia spends this season running for her husband’s former office. The show became an examination of what it means to campaign in the shadow of a husband’s record, as an establishment candidate who’s never actually held the office before. She was labeled “Saint Alicia” for standing by her man, and it’s only when she enters politics herself that the public starts to turn on her. (“Very few saints survive oppo research,” an opponent warns.) She has to ride on her husband’s coattails, but then promise to be better than him. In the episode before the election, her opponent attacks Peter, a strategy that lets him avoid going negative against Alicia herself. Alicia’s campaign adviser tells her to “Sister Souljah” her husband, criticizing Peter’s record on race in front of a black crowd. She does it. In the end, Alicia is forced to withdraw from the election, as notorious and scandal-plagued as her husband.

In an interesting move, the show has suggested that Alicia’s opponent is more ethical and qualified than her, and that she was primarily in the race to satisfy her own ego. (After meeting Gloria Steinem earlier this season, she fantasizes about Steinem giving her feminist pep talks: “You could make it all the way to the Supreme Court, Alicia. You’re that amazing.”) The showrunners—Michelle and Robert King, a married couple themselves—have called the show the “education of Alicia Florrick,” and that education has involved becoming less like the long-suffering woman who walked into Lockhart-Gardner six years ago and more like her morally compromised husband. Peter was introduced in the first season as a grade-A sleaze, a politician caught with his pants down and his wallet out. Alicia takes him back for her own well-being more than anyone else’s. And even after she kicks him out of the house and gives him permission to discreetly sleep with other people, they have stayed together out of political prudence. He needed her support to win a campaign for governor; she needed the prestige of being the governor’s wife to succeed professionally, both as a legal partner and a candidate. But they are also fiercely loyal to one another, and proud of each other’s accomplishments. Peter lashes out at those who threaten her; he’s attracted to her success. (The first time we saw the two getting physical, in the second season, he dropped to his knees after watching her win a case.) The Florricks, perhaps, are pop culture’s most subtle, fascinating riff on the Clinton marriage—or what we imagine it to be.

If Claire Underwood and Mellie Grant are vengeful anti-heroines, Alicia Florrick is something knottier: a woman whose campaign is credible but not necessarily righteous, who is uncomfortable admitting the size of her own ambition, and who uses feminism to justify her choices to herself. More than the other two, “The Good Wife” forecasts the large shadow that Bill Clinton—and his relationship with Hillary—will hold over this race. TV drama, of course, is driven by outlandish motives that bear little resemblance to the calculations of real life. And Hillary Clinton has accomplished more in her own right than any of these characters. But what makes for good television is not totally disassociated from what makes for good political theater, and—for better or worse—both critics and collaborators may see shades of these characters onstage, behind podiums, and picking at burrito bowls in the coming months.