We’ve had a lot of conversations recently about how men are represented in pop culture these days, so I’ve been spending some of my time at the Television Critics Association asking some questions about new male characters that will form a series of posts over the next couple of days.
Shonda Rhimes’ new show Scandal stars a women: Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a fictional version of Washington, DC fixer Judy Smith (she represented Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy’s family), who is an executive producer on the show. But it’s also about that woman’s relationship with a powerful man, in fact, the powerful man. Olivia’s former boss is the president of the United States, and apparently he’s a single man, who isn’t quite ready to let her go even though she’s returned to private practice. In real life, it’s impossible to imagine a president of the United States who isn’t married. It’s difficult to believe that a man who had never been married or a single divorced man would be able to get over questions around his personal life, though a widower might manage it. But I asked Rhimes if she thought that despite that conception, Americans long for a sexier vision of the president.
“ I don’t know if America wants a sexier president” in the real world, she said. “I know when I was working on the show, it was delightful to have a sexier president, to imagine the president as a man as well as a leader of the free world.” She noted later that she hoped the show wouldn’t be pigeon-holed, noting, “I don’t think this is a show about relationships.”
It’s a dichotomy that raises some interesting issues. I don’t know that we’re always very good at letting men express yearning or desire in popular culture, even though we’re at a place where we’re getting more comfortable watching women objectify men on-screen, and presenting men to be objectified by women in the audience. I wonder if it has something to do with a dynamic we see play out repeatedly in American politics, where we constantly downgrade a politician’s power (particularly the president) any time he compromises or doesn’t get everything he wants. Of course, we accept the inevitability of compromise and disappointment in ordinary people’s lives. But it’s hard to imagine someone being both a forceful chief executive and not getting the girl, or getting the girl and then getting dumped. It’s why action stars never have interesting romances: the only outcomes are success, the hero leaving the girl, or the girl dying through the machinations of the villain.