Last year, during the battle for the Democratic Party nomination, the rivals tried to keep both race and gender out of the campaign. After the conventions, with the entrance of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin into the mix, the conversation was bound to change. At this writing in early fall, we couldn’t know how American voters would feel about an African American president, but we had a little more information about their response to a woman candidate for the executive branch. Palin touched a chord across the country. She’s a “hockey Mom,” a pit bull with lipstick, a “regular gal,” and a woman with a family scene familiar to many Americans. A lot of voters identified with her: her political brashness and success, her right-wing views, and her domestic story. But how do Americans feel about a woman in the top job? Barack Obama’s contest with Hillary Clinton was a battle for the presidential nomination in one party, and the more liberal one at that. And even in that party there was plenty of anti-feminism during the primary contest. Maybe Americans can only make an exception for a female candidate who stands on the reactionary edge of our politics. But we still may not know what America thinks about a woman as president.
Perhaps popular culture can tell us something about what people really think. Most of us would deny that Hollywood or television represents what we think or say we think or what’s in our imaginations. But popular culture often reveals the spirit of the times and gives broad hints about the most graceless parts of our collective unconscious. If we don’t like what television or films say, we vote with our hands and feet—turning off the remote control on the television set or staying away from the movies—or we watch and laugh dismissively. But in the space between what we say we think and what movies and television show us of American life lie some unpleasant truths. There are at least two examples of popular films and a television show that play with the possibility of a woman as president: Kisses for My President (1964), a comedy; The Contender (2000), a serious film about a woman who is a potential appointee to the vice presidency; and Commander in Chief (2005/2006), a television series about a female president. Each in its own way reveals what the American people may not admit they are thinking as they follow presidential politics.
The 1964 example, Kisses for My President, seems to have been made in the dark ages of American political culture. Its approach is to show that the ridiculous consequences of electing a woman president make the whole notion impossible. The project is so untenable that it is really not the subject of the film; this woman’s term ends very quickly—is it in weeks? months? Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) a wife and mother of two “got herself elected,” as her husband says, to the...
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