A Few Thoughts on “Political Animals”
I’m going to do my best to not spoil the show for you, if you haven’t seen it (but if you haven’t seen it, the episodes are on Hulu and they are well worth watching).
There are a couple of reasons why I really like “Political Animals”. The show is pretty obvious about who the main characters, Elaine Barrish and Susan Berg, are based on, but let’s face it: if you had to pick a female politician to base your work on, Hillary Clinton is not a bad choice. What I really like, though, is that because the writers chose to use Clinton as their foundation, they gave themselves the grounding needed to build complicated characters, instead of shying away from the intricacies that make up personalities, relationships, careers, and that’s something we don’t see nearly enough of.
Unlike other shows which have women leaders as their central characters (eg, Veep), Elaine Barrish Hammond is hardly a mess. The show is comical largely in that the burns the characters throw at each other are smart and on-point, and flawlessly delivered. Political Animals thrives on good writing and good acting, not cheap jokes that get old too fast. Unlike Bones, which used to be great until all the characters had babies and decided to go insane, there is nothing about Elaine’s character that speaks to any loss of ambition. The one thing pointed out in the show by the other female lead, journalist Susan Berg, is that it appears that Elaine put her dreams on a back burner and sat it out for several years to cater to her marriage and her family.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. One of the complicated issues addressed in the show is the fact that Elaine’s husband, former president Bud Hammond, cheated on her several times, and yet Elaine never left him. She says, at the end of episode one, that she stayed because she loved him. The stark comparison between her and Susan Berg helps highlight that every woman is different, that every choice is very personal, that this is no one right answer.
Another thing I like about the show is that Elaine Barrish’s character generally refuses to back down. In the context of the show, Elaine is the Secretary of State (like I said, based on Hillary Clinton). She has divorced her husband, she has a complicated family life, and she is forever dealing with the complexities of Washington DC. As she says in the second episode, “I am sick of it all. I am sick to death of the bullshit, and the egos, and all the men. I am sick of the men. Just one time, just once, I would like to actually accomplish something in this city without having to spend all my energy navigating the short-sighted, selfish, self-involved and oh-so-fragile male egos that suck up all the oxygen in this town. It makes me so sick, it makes me so sick I could puke for days.”
I’m not going to say everything about the show is perfect. Obviously nothing can really capture the true complexities of DC, and on top of that, reality has of course been reshaped within the show to fit the ideals that the viewers are going to have. But in terms of the show’s portrayal of successful female characters, I genuinely feel it deserves two thumbs up-~-for its willingness to display the difficulties that come with having a family as well as a high-profile career (this comes out a lot more in the second episode as you start to see those interests conflict), for having female characters with real dreams and goals and ambitions in career fields that are male-dominated, for not shying away from the gender issues as they come up, and for not bothering to over-sexualize their female characters in an attempt to make them “more appealing” (Susan Berg’s hair is frequently a disaster and there is nothing sexy about how Elaine Barrish dresses).
It’s a shame the show is going to be so short-lived. We could do with a lot more of this positive rendering of women in Hollywood, and I can only hope that more shows will follow in its wake.