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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.
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