Editorial: Mommy, Where do Presidents Come From?

Commander in Chief

Commander in Chief

ABC promised that this fall, a woman would be President — if, that is, we would be so kind as to tune in on Tuesday nights. Commander in Chief has been alternately praised for and accused of being a dry-run for Clinton: Part Deux, but the series pointedly takes several stabs at Hillary with as much force as its self-congratulatory feminist framework can sustain. Sure, C in C‘s concept allows for the pleasurable mobilization of a lot of “what ifs?” (What if an Independent were to take office? What if the First Lady were a he? What if the President’s children happen to be unusually good looking?), but few of these map convincingly onto Hillary ’08.

All of which is not to say that Commander in Chief suffers from any lack of self-awareness or self-importance; the first few episodes should dare not operate heavy machinery under such heady intoxication of “making History” — the first Independent President! the first female President! maybe the first black Vice President! (whoa, too much history, back up!). But the show isn’t as interesting for the questions it answers as the questions it poses — intentionally or not. Scrape off the generous slathering of Velveeta and Commander in Chief reveals itself to be less about who we want the president to be than what we want them to be.

In The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese identify numerous competing and conflicting demands and expectations that are placed on the office of the president. The book questions what kind of Commander-in-Chief Americans want: “strong and innovative leader or someone who primarily listens to the will of the people? A programmatic party leader or a pragmatic bipartisan coalition-builder? A president who exercises power forcefully or someone who establishes consensus before doing anything?” Not surprisingly, the answer is, rather problematically, C) All of the above.

The navigation of such binary demands structures both Commander in Chief and The West Wing, that other “I wish this was my President” show, but the relative nuance of the latter often obscures these tensions at work. For TWW‘s President Bartlett, this conflict is embodied and resolved in a continuous internal moral struggle. Where Bartlett simply is his Presidency, C in C‘s Mackenzie Allen must craft one from scratch, and the show doesn’t hide (or is less capable of hiding) the scaffolding of this construction from us.

Allen’s bumpy presidential journey finds no mirrored internal existence, but rather is externally grafted directly onto her navigation of the travails of motherhood. It is in the show’s collision of west wing and east wing that the two jobs are brought into mutual relief; the conflicting demands on the presidency are positioned as comparable to those on mothers. Both require the unending oscillation between soothing and stern, lenient and restrictive, active and reactive, and most importantly, the instinctive knowledge of when to be which. While surveying hurricane damage in Florida, President Allen is interrupted with news of a major national threat while reading a book to a group of children; she ends story time immediately, her transition decisive and innate (hmmm, and the non-partisan gloves come off…NOW).

In a veiled summation of Commander in Chief‘s “Rules for Parenting/Presidenting,” a Secret Service agent is reprimanded for allowing the Allen’s eldest daughter to sneak off with a boy: “Do you have kids? They’re always asking for things you can’t give them. Not because you can’t or you don’t want to, but because you know better!” According to C in C‘s internal logic, the president, like your mother, should be that person who just knows better — when the country should be allowed stay up past its bedtime, and when we should be sent to our room without dessert.

Comments welcome!

Image Credits:

1. Commander in Chief

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4 comments

  • progressive?

    Commander in Chief is a very orginial show. A women is finally president- a 1st for TV. But how really progressive is this show? The show closely follows the storyline of the parental relationship of the president and her daughter. The presidency is grafted onto motherhood. So, for a women to take on a new role, we must first allow her to also have a conventional one. How innovative is this?

  • Intersectionality of Race and Gender

    I think that this show displays how we are still governed the rules of a male patriarchal society that is closely associated with white privilege. First of all, the idea that a show about a woman as president being innovative is evidence of our mindset that men are automatically presidents and anything else that deviates from this norm is an intriguing fantasy audience members entertain, which is then cloaked with the term innovative. Second, the show is not focused on her presidency but focused on men view the traits of women and how those traits would respond to collision of her duties as a mother, wife, emotional/sexual being, and role as the leader of the “free world.” Again, this shows how this show is written from the birds-eye view of a man and how they envision a female presidency would run. Third, her race is never highlighted and they only defined characteristic given to her is female. This is another example of how this is from a male perspective but also from the white race. White male characters are not seen as abnormalities to be pointed out by the viewer to be gawked at the marvel of its “innovation.” Innovation is a covert word for “wow, you never see these people in these positions.” That’s what makes the show “innovative” – it’s a phenomenon to see. Although she is a woman, she is also a white woman who may be seen as weaker because of her gender, but she also a member of the dominant race in America – White European/ Caucasian. This undoubtedly is an example of intersectionality in terms of the effects her gender and race have on her – she’s a woman, but she is still acceptable to the dominant group because she is white. The social hierarchy wins again because of the stigmas and stereotypes of race that privilege some and deny others. Fourth, the Vice President is African-American; however his character is viewed as adequate representation based on the sole idea that he is black. Whoa…a black Vice President. This show represents how much our country is still hiding in terms of what we think about race. We are still so focused on race that we ignore all the other real components of an individual that matter. It doesn’t matter that the Vice President is of color because the patriarchal system is still in tact by the default that he is a man. The truth is that this show can’t be taken seriously because it was designed as a spectacle for the minds of the audience who have bought into the societal belief that the facts of life are that white males are presidents. I find it canny that America can decipher between the qualities of 2 white – rich men running against each other, but a white woman and a black man as president and vice president are something so different that we can’t take our eyes off of it. The point of this show is to entertain viewers, ergo the ideas of these historically disenfranchised groups is a different idea that viewers like, but what is this doing to help encourage the idea rather than hurt it by making it entertainment? And what about the groups left out? Why is it that you have men of different ethnicities and races being represented, but there are no women of color? Because White men have made White women the status of beauty, the presence of women of color is often ignored, however there is racism in only identifying white women in a world where there are Latino, Asian and African women who do amazing things and contribute just as much to America. This show is so stuck in breaking the usual binaries of men and women, black and white that they defeat any idea of doing something that is contributing to helping society progress because they focus on only 2 groups that have face discrimination rather than the larger group that is left out of this account such as women of color, asian men, latino men, and other men of color. This is circulatory power of stereotypes that self defeats what is being presented. White women and Black Men are the only two contenders of white men in the minds of what society has constructed as acceptable; they are close, but not thought to be equal to White men. So while the writers and producers want to present this as breaking the norm, it in fact is not because this is what they came up with as abnormal and the audience knows this. So the audience and the producers know that this is not the norm, therefore it reinforces the fact that this is fantasy and not a valid picture of what the world is or what it could be. Amazingly though, the white woman is still seen as subordinate and needing the assistance of a white man, as is evidence of the majority of her staff. Sure she has got another woman and a black man, but what do their roles really express. Could it be that the strong, tough black man is her back up? Could it be that the white woman is sign of the progress that a white woman as president would bring more — white women? So basically as long as the people in power are not white-males, the show is “innovative.” Not for the characters, but for the physical dynamics that still cause onlookers to stare. That’s what is holding this audience — look at what the world is like with white men out of power.

  • Jackie McCardell Jr.

    Impeachment of the Woman President

    Though I agree that Commander-In-Chief is groundbreaking for television, I find that it does more to damage the idea of a Woman President.Shows, such as C in C, as asserted in the essay, offers “what we want to be president.” These shows require drama, be it external or internal. Because of this, and the fact that America is not exactly a super power for “gender equality”, key voters may use this as a reason not to vote for a Woman President. They can dispell the inadequacies and problematic administration of President Bartlett from TWW by magnifying the successes of other Presidents be it television or real. However, because of the lack of television Women President, voters would only fall back to the turmoil President Allen endures. Those who haven’t caught up to modern “gender equality,” or even racial equality, WILL use this show to base their decision whenever comes time a Woman will be prime candidate for President.

  • From what I can tell

    To be completely honest I have never seen Commander in Chief, but from this article it sounds like a brand new version of West Wing (A show I did enjoy). It sounds like this show is creating the dream President that we can’t actually have. In this case the President is a female independent and her Vice President is African American, this is an unheard of scenario considering the the conservative world that we live in. Like West Wing it seems that Commander in Chief tries to mirror real events that have occured in our society, and replay them the way we would have actually wanted to see them. The article mentions how Allen is interuppted while reading to children at a school and is told of a national threat. This is similar to how George Bush was interuppted while reading to kids to be told about the twin towers. My guess is that Allen’s children’s book wasn’t being read upside down. Shows like West Wing and Commander in Chief create a political dream world that is full of all our dreams of a government that will never come true.

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