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‘Political Animals’ and Women’s Power Fantasies

“For the first time in my life, when confronted with a horrible, insensitive person, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and I said it,” bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly exults in You’ve Got Mail, when she finally delivers the perfect zinger to Joe Fox, the chain store mogul who is putting her out of business. In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Evelyn, the unhappy housewife who’s kept silent her entire life, finally finds her words after an obnoxious teenager steals her parking space and tells her “Let’s face it, lady, I’m younger and faster than you are,” totaling the younger woman’s car, and declaring “Let’s face it, honey, I’m older than you are and have more insurance than you do.” It’s a very specifically female dream, I think, to be able to deliver an cutting line, to express yourself and your anger perfectly, without censoring yourself in the name of politeness, or fear. And it’s a dream that Political Animals, the USA Network’s new miniseries, which started last night running against Breaking Bad, expresses perfectly.

As I explained in The Atlantic, Elaine Barrish, the show’s stand-in for Hillary Clinton as a former First Lady turned Secretary of State:

Is brilliant and competent, and one of the pleasures of the show comes from seeing her as a version of Hillary Clinton who is tougher on her Bill (here called Bud, and played with a thick coat of oil by Ciaran Hinds) than in real life. “I know, given your epic levels of narcissism, that it’s impossible for you to fathom this loss has nothing to do with you, but imagine for a moment that it doesn’t,” Elaine tells the husband she’s about to kick to the curb in the pilot episode, after she concedes her run for the presidency. “The country loves you, Bud. They will always love you. It’s me they have mixed feelings about.”

Greg Berlanti, who created the series, gives Weaver lots of juicy lines with which to zing the powerful, entitled men who make her life more difficult — it’s a terrific fantasy of having exactly the right words precisely in the moment that you need them. After Victor, the Russian ambassador, cops a feel while she’s giving a speech, Elaine remains composed. But in the hallway afterwards, she confronts him. “Did you enjoy the ass-grab, Victor? Good, because the next time you touch me, I’m going to rip off your tiny shriveled balls and serve them to you in a cold borscht soup,” she tells him, before switching into Russian to inform him “I will fuck your shit up. Do you hear me?”

A lot of the time, fantasies about strong women turn strong into invulnerable. As much as it can be fun to see Angelina Jolie kick ass, her lipstick perfect even as she rappels down a building, that requirement that female heroes have no flaws or weaknesses except those that can provide a few brooding, Bond-like shots per movie or television season, creates problems for how we talk about strong women on television. On The Newsroom, MacKenzie McHale isn’t grating because she has vulnerabilities, but because she seems to lack capabilities: we see only hysteria, not her ability to work through it, to procure a source, to effectively fire Will up. By contrast, Elaine has a deep attachment to the man she was married to for thirty years, but she works through those feelings as opposed to being ruled by them.

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The requirement to be perfect, impregnably principled, unswayed by those who’ve done you wrong, is exhausting. And it’s narratively uninteresting. As I wrote in Slate:

In the second episode, there’s a flashback to Elaine and Bud’s time in the White House that acts as the corrollary to the questions Susan asks of Elain. Bud says to his wife, “You should leave me. I’ll cheat again. And I’ll lie again. And I’ll break your heart again. Retain Stacy Phillips. You have to come out of this looking good. You get no flack from me, Elaine.” But she stays until the moment, impossible to explain or justify to anyone, where she’s finally had enough.

As much as I wish I could save myself some heartache, there is no clear answer as to how Hillary and Elaine ended up with Bill and Bud, why Hillary stayed, and why in Political Animals, Elaine left. Hillary and Elaine are reminders that strength and brilliance won’t save us from complexity, confusion, error and pain. Instead, they’re tools to use to work through the most difficult decisions of our lives.

I don’t want to pretend it’s easy or clear to walk away from a man you were married to for thirty years no matter how he hurt you, or that work-life balance is simple. I don’t want my heroines, my strong women, to be without weakness and vulnerabilities. I want to see them possessed of the self-awareness to recognize those points in themselves, and the capacities to grapple with them. If men are allowed to fall into error around power and violence and remain fascinating anti-heroes, women should have room to do the same about love and family as well. It’s not the site of your weakness that makes you a rich and serious character. It’s how you deal with the dark places in your heart.