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Commander in Chief – A Review

By Brian | September 30, 2005 | Share on Facebook

Two years ago, my wife and I became so inundated with the number of primetime TV shows we were taping & watching later, that we instituted a “no new shows” policy. We would only watch the ones we were currently hooked on, and avoid all others, despite any rave reviews. This is how we escaped shows like CSI and Desparate Housewives. Last year, a couple of our shows went off the air, and we got a digital video recorder, which allowed us to watch while taping (so we didn’t have to wait until 10pm to watch The West Wing if the kids went to bed at 9:05). So, this year, we added a show to our repertoire – ABC’s Commander in Chief.

I was impressed when I watched it, and have grown more impressed the more I think about it. Obviously, a show about the first female President of the United States is going to deal head-on with the issues of feminism and sexism. That’s to be expected. What impressed me was the unique way the writers went about it in this case.

Only one character on the show (the Speaker of the House, played by Donald Sutherland) is a blatantly sexist man (in the traditional “male chauvinist pig” fashion), and his character comes off as a cruel, ignorant, assinine sonofabitch. He tells the new president (Gena Davis), who has assumed office after the death of the president, that her nomination as vice-president was just “theater,” and that we couldn’t possibly expect the world to accept a female president. When Davis mentions the whole “might invade another country once a month” problem, he misses the sarcasm entirely, and invokes menopause as the saving grace, insulting her age as well as her gender with “it’s OK – in a couple of years, that won’t be a problem for you anyway.” We all think the same thing: What a jerk!

So we’ve established that MCP’s are jerks. No shock there. What is fascinating is the inherent struggle the rest of the cast has as they trip over themselves to redefine gender roles, pronoun usage, and stereotypes. One of her aides calls her “Madame President” and “Sir” in the same conversation. Her husband, who was her chief of staff when she was vice-president, is referred to as “FLOTUS” (taking the POTUS acronym, made famous on The West Wing, and extending it into something right out of a Japanese garden), is asked to set the dinner menu for the White House, and is warned against participating in speech writing or spending too much time in the west wing. His chief of staff keeps warning him that Hillary Clinton did those things and they “didn’t go over well.”

In addition to the many levels of irony here, I was impressed by the writers’ willingness to define two kinds of sexism – the mean, ugly kind that is generally driven by ignorance or stupidity (or both), and the structural kind, committed by well-meaning folks who are being asked to adapt to a situation that goes against their long-reinforced instincts. This second kind of sexism affects both the men and women on the show, and takes the form of over-compensation almost as often as it takes the form of pure prejudice. We feel for these people; we don’t hate them the way we hate the Speaker of the House (who, by the way, should be the SOTH, no?)

This approach gives the writers a huge advantage. They are in a position to make the politically correct Hollywood point (men who treat women badly are evil), without allowing that message to hijack the show. They can simultaneously make a second point – that we all have preconceptions about how the world works, and when these preconceptions are shattered, well meaning people may act insensitively without actually being evil. More importantly, being able to explore both paths will allow them to keep the show interesting for a much longer time, which will keep me watching. And that, after all, is the point.

Topics: ISBS Reviews, Primetime TV | No Comments »

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