A Closer Look at Female Presidents in Movies, TV

7:15 AM 12/7/2016

by Lorena O'Neil

Geena Davis tells THR that Hollywood is "missing a tremendous creative opportunity" by not depicting more strong women as leaders of the U.S. onscreen. "I think we have a moral imperative now, after this election, to step it up."

Commander In Chief - 24 - Veep - Split - H - 2016

In the real world a woman has still not broken that "highest, hardest glass ceiling" and become president of the United States, much to the disappointment of Hillary Clinton supporters. On TV shows and in films, the state of female U.S. presidents is a little better, but far from ideal.

While more men than women have occupied the fictional Oval Office, there are several notable exceptions, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep, Cherry Jones on 24:Redemption and Geena Davis on Commander-in-Chief. However, onscreen female presidents often ascend to the presidency via the vice presidency, not necessarily by being directly elected to lead the free world, even when that world is fictional.

For example, Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer, Davis' Mackenzie Allen, and Patricia Wettig's Caroline Reynolds (Prison Break) all rose to the Oval Office after their respective presidents died or resigned. The same goes for new TV president Claire Haas (Marcia Cross) on Quantico, who just recently assumed the role after that show's fictional POTUS stepped down.

"We are talking a lot about how the female president on our show was not elected, she only got that position when the president stepped down," said Quantico showrunner Josh Safran. "And there’s discussion about how she never would have been elected if she had run herself."

Selina Meyer's replacement on Veep was similarly not elected by the American public. Laura Montez (Andrea Savage) was chosen by the Senate and was sworn-in during the season 5 finale. Veep showrunner David Mandel said that while neither Meyer or Montez were elected into the office, the show's fictional America is still "somewhat more progressive." He added, "In Veep world, we’re up to our second female president of the United States."

Allison Taylor successfully won an American election in 24:Redemption, and was regarded as a positive, strong leader. However, in some other films where women are elected into the presidency, the women are depicted as having to struggle with "work-life balance" more than men. These projects focus on whether it's possible for fictional female leaders to take care of their family and achieve success in their careers. In 1964 film Kisses for My President, President Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) steps down to dedicate herself to her family and in the 1998 comedy Mafia! President Diane Steen (Christina Applegate) stops focusing on her goal of world peace so she can concentrate on getting married.

And while strong representations of female presidents are few and far between, even more rare is the representation of women of color in the Oval Office.

Geena Davis told The Hollywood Reporter that she's not surprised to hear women are not well-represented as presidents onscreen. She was, however, "stunned," she says, by Hillary Clinton's loss in November. "I could not believe it, I was crying," says Davis. 

The actor, who played POTUS in Commander-in-Chief, adds that Hollywood is "missing a tremendous creative opportunity" by not depicting more strong women presidents onscreen. "I think we have a moral imperative now, after this election, to step it up."

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media conducted a study on gender bias, looking at 120 global films that premiered between 2010-2013. The study found that women were underrepresented in the film workforce compared to the real-life workforce. In the U.S., women were only depicted as 23.2 percent of the workforce on film, compared to being 46.3 percent of the American workforce. 

Of the 120 films and 5,799 speaking characters studied, only 12 women were depicted as political authorities in comparison to 115 men. Three of these 12 women were depictions of Margaret Thatcher.

"It's profoundly important," explains Davis. "We can say, 'We don't want to have to put messages in our stuff, it's entertainment' but we are sending a message that women are second-class citizens when we're not showing them taking up space and doing half of the important things. That's a message right there."

Davis wrote an essay calling for stronger roles for women in THR's Women in Entertainment issue.

"I am very much available and open to reprising my role as Mackenzie Allen if somebody would like to bring back Commander-in-Chief," adds Davis. "I think it's the perfect time."

Read on for more about memorable female presidents in film and on TV.

  • Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) on '24'

    Allison Taylor became president of the United States in the TV film 24: Redemption, continuing to hold office in seasons 7 and 8 of 24

    Actress Cherry Jones, who played Taylor, said the character was not at all modeled after Hillary Clinton. "She’s a combination of Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meier and John Wayne," said Jones.

  • Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen) in 'Kisses for My President'

    This 1964 film depicts a woman named Leslie McCloud becoming POTUS, only to have her husband throw temper tantrums at having to be First Gentleman. McCloud, played by Polly Bergen, eventually gets pregnant and decides to step down from her position so she can dedicate herself to her family.

    A New York Times critic accused director Curtis Bernhardt of taking a "dim view of the prospect of a woman as president."

  • Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in 'Commander-in-Chief'

    Geena Davis took a turn as POTUS while playing Mackenzie Allen on Commander-in-Chief. Allen is a vice president who becomes the leader of the U.S. when the president dies. Davis tells THR that playing such an iconic role "meant a great deal" to her and she would be happy to reprise it. She feels it is important for both girls and boys to see powerful women onscreen.

  • Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in 'Veep'

    Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is another fictional woman who ascends to the presidency from the vice presidency. In Veep's season 5 finale, Meyer is crushed when her bid for re-election doesn't go her way. But she's replaced by another female POTUS: Laura Montez (Andrea Savage), who was chosen by the Senate to succeed Meyer. 

  • Diane Steen (Christina Applegate) in 'Mafia'

    Diane Steen becomes POTUS in the 1998 Godfather spoof Mafia! Christina Applegate plays a president who is focused on achieving world peace. However, her plans get put on hold, because she is convinced to get married, instead.

  • Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in 'House of Cards'

    Claire Underwood first served as both vice president and acting president of the U.S. in House of Cards land. When Frank resigned at the end of season 5, Claire took over for her husband as leader of the free world.

    In the fictional series, Claire is the first woman to take on the role of POTUS.

  • Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig) in 'Prison Break'

    Caroline Reynolds takes ambition to an evil level. Reynolds, played by Patricia Wettig, is vice president of the United States on Prison Break until the president is assassinated. She will do anything it takes to become POTUS, even if that means committing murder.

  • Claire Haas (Marcia Cross) in 'Quantico'

    On Quantico, Vice President Claire Haas becomes president when the current POTUS resigns after his wife is killed. The announcement that she has replaced him is made on a television broadcast during the series.

    Showrunner Josh Safran said he can't comment on whether Cross will return to play Haas but that if she does return, he plans to have her discuss the fact that she wasn't elected to the role and the challenges she will have as a female POTUS.

  • Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) in 'Independence Day: Resurgence'

    Independence Day: Resurgence features Sela Ward as Elizabeth Lanford, a POTUS who has lost her entire family in the first alien attack.

    “It was awesome getting to play the first female President of the United States," said Ward when the sequel came out. “She's strong, decisive and not afraid to kick ass!”

  • Olivia Marsdin (Lynda Carter) — 'Supergirl'

    Lynda Carter plays President Olivia Marsdin in Supergirl. This POTUS is very intelligent and tactical and is guarding an out-of-this-world secret.

  • Amanda Waller (Penny Johnson Jerald) in 'Justice League: Gods and Monsters'

    Penny Johnson Jerald voices Amanda Waller's character in the direct-to-video animated film Justice League: Gods and Monsters. Waller is often depicted as a politician or political operative and in this film she is POTUS of an alternate universe where the Justice League maintains order.

  • Taffy Dale (Natalie Portman) in 'Mars Attacks'

    Taffy Dale is the First Daughter in Mars Attacks, but when her family and the government are slaughtered in an alien attack, Taffy is left as POTUS

  • Acting Presidents

    Tea Leoni's Elizabeth McCord, Kate Burton's Sally Langston and Sharon Stone's Natalie Maccabee all served as acting presidents at some point in their respective shows (Madam Secretary, Scandal, Agent X), when the male leaders ahead of them in the chain of command were indisposed.

    Additional reporting by Jackie Strause