Did `Commander in Chief' hurry history for women?

June 12, 2006|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- Remember when we were told that a woman who wanted the top job had to be twice as good as a man? The first woman in any post would be inspected with a microscope and dismissed for the smallest flaw.

Now the first female president of United States of Television has failed to get a second term, excuse me, a second season, because she was too good to be true. Is this progress? Or is it yet another double bind?

This week is the last episode of Commander in Chief. Geena Davis' star turn as the first female president was heralded as a breakthrough last fall. Marie Wilson, the unsinkable cheerleader of The White House Project, said that the television series could "hurry history." The bloggers harrumphed that it could hurry Hillary Rodham Clinton.

There was the hope that Commander in Chief could do for women in the Oval Office what Will and Grace did for gays in your office. "We have to visualize a woman president in office before we can have one," said former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin. See her on TV, see her in real life.

Mackenzie Allen got to the ABC White House virtually untainted by politics. She was a college president and an independent picked to be vice president by a conservative Republican candidate trying to attract female voters. Talk about your fantasy figures.

After the president's death, she overcame opposition, self-doubt, a male chauvinist pig of a politician and a sabotaged teleprompter to win over the hearts of the American people. She also won favor with the real public, garnering 16.9 million viewers in the first two episodes.

Of course, our gal Mac suffered some of the blows familiar to women in politics. Like every female candidate with a hemline and a hairdo, more media attention was paid to her appearance than her position papers.

If there's a woman behind every great man, the men behind this great woman were her undoing.

The creator and first writer, Rod Lurie, was less disciplined than Bill Clinton. He couldn't get the shows done on time.

His replacement, Steven Bochco, never could decide if this series was about the first female leader or the first mom. And the network honchos managed to jerk the most powerful woman from one time slot to another until her approval ratings sank to the level of George W. Bush's.

But the real problem fell into the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category. Mr. Lurie wanted his first female president to be someone of "unimpeachable integrity, very kind, very calm." And, alas, he got it.

She was an accidental rather than ambitious politician. Instead of the crackling wise-guy dialogue of The West Wing, with its flawed staffers, its docudramas, compromises and no-win situations, we got a woman, noble and principled, strong and caring, apolitical and perfectly unbelievable.

As first woman and working mom saving America from terrorists and saving Halloween for the kids, she brought the late, unlamented, superwoman cartoon out of retirement and into the White House. Yes, it's possible that any network executive now shown a script starring a powerful woman will offer the fateful judgment: "We already tried one!" But Commander in Chief truly may have hurried history.

The opening of the TV show was accompanied by a survey that found 79 percent of the American public was comfortable with "a woman" in the White House. We have long assumed that comfort zone would shrink when "a woman" got a name and a face and a flaw. But what if the public is ahead of the punditry again? Am I allowed the optimistic view that the closing of this TV show suggests perversely that the American public may be more ready to see and accept women as both individuals and imperfect?

So here's where we stand as they play taps for Commander in Chief. The first female politician may no longer have to be too good to be true. Thank you, Mackenzie Allen, we already tried that. Maybe she just has to be better than the guys running against her.

That's a reality show I'm ready to see.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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