The scripted television lineup is rife with winks and nods to the political drama playing out in real time on the news. Shows like Veep, The Newsroom, and the latest, Political Animals, take advantage of the all-consuming swirl of an election year to entertaining effect.
Aside from sheer entertainment value, however, these shows say something profound about the political landscape: Women politicians are not an anomaly.
A record-setting 295 women have filed nomination papers to run for Congress in 2012, exceeding the record of 262 set in 2010, according to the 2012 Project, a non-partisan campaign of the Center for American Women and Politics with a mission to increase women's representation in Congress to 20 percent this election cycle. When those women win their primary fights, we will break the record of 141 women on the ballot for U.S. House seats, a record set in 2004.
We also cannot ignore women's place in the voting public. Women are a solid piece of the electorate: They made up 53 percent of all voters in 2008, and recent EMILY's List research makes a strong case for independent women voters being a vital voting bloc in this presidential election. Yet women still make up only 17 percent of Congress.
In a subtle but influential way, seeing women politicians portrayed on the small screen may have big impact by normalizing the idea of women political leaders. ABC's Commander in Chief started to do this in 2005 and USA's sexy drama Political Animals continues with a six-episode miniseries this summer (with a storyline remarkably reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's presidential run). It gives new meaning to political theater.
Primetime sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family depict layered, likable, and well-rounded women running for office because they genuinely believe in their ability to make change. Parks and Recreation follows Leslie Knope, a former deputy director of Pawnee, Indiana's Parks Department who wins a seat on the city council. In Modern Family" a stop sign in a family-filled neighborhood is the catalyst that motivates mom Claire Dunphy to run for city council against a smug male incumbent.
The family-friendly sitcoms seem to be the antidote to shows in which women's roles in fictional politics are relegated to first ladies or a mistreated wife on the wrong side of a sex scandal. The jury is still out, however, on which tack Political Animals will ultimately take.
Political Animals was at first cringe-inducing, equal parts salacious drama and evening soap opera -- the word "bitch" gets thrown around among women in the show's pilot without consequence, and there are as many sex scenes as policy discussions.
The more impactful punch of the first episode, however, is its ability to reach beyond stereotypes of female leaders and reveal a multi-faceted, nuanced, intelligent woman with the capacity to be at once a loving mother and a commanding leader. Her presence alone moves the dialogue about women's leadership forward and also begs the question: Will the value of portraying women in leadership outweigh the sex, negativity, and bawdy language it takes to get viewers to tune in? Here's hoping.
These newer fictional political women break the stereotypical "political lady on television" mold characterized by ill-fitting pantsuits and hard-nosed demeanors. They are women with texture, complexities, good humor -- and perhaps most interesting -- real stories to tell.
They exemplify what the Barbara Lee Family Foundation's 2010 research on women's gubernatorial campaigns called 360-degree candidates. They are women who can utilize all aspects of their experiences -- careers, motherhood, relationships, personal experiences -- to connect with voters and boost their candidacies.
By shifting the paradigm on what we see in the media -- factual or fictional -- TV professionals can harness an opportunity to show a captive audience that real women are running and winning elected office. By putting women in prominent elected roles, producers are using the power of television to add value to the conversation about what constitutes a leader.
As the saying goes, "You can't be what you can't see." It's an exciting time to see art imitating life.
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