So far we’ve looked at fictional female politicians who hold office in what is supposed to be our modern reality. Some of the problematic aspects of these characters have included oversexualization, a tendency toward irrationality or emotional response, and being driven by petty politics. We’ve also seen these characters depicted as needing to have enough energy to do the job of governing while fending off sexism in the workplace. Today I’d like to take a look at female politicians who serve in very different worlds than ours, and ask if these limitations persist in those narratives. SPOILERS for The Hunger Games, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica.
Yes, I will look at Laura Roslin, I promise. But first…
George Lucas shows a kind of shallow tour through political models via the guise of Padmé Amidala, who starts out as Queen of Naboo and by the end of the “third” film has become a senator. There are many scenes and moments of dialogue showing Amidala, queen or otherwise, using diplomacy to avoid conflict or to secure democracy. She is, for much of the first three Star Wars episodes, shown as the consummate politician, even putting her duties ahead of her personal life in order to say, free her home planet from a crippling blockade. However, those personal desires are enmeshed in the most traditional ideas around heterosexual romance and procreation, as she essentially becomes a duplicitous character—secretly marrying Anakin Skywalker against Jedi code while negotiating with senators for finding a solution to the malevolent Palpatine’s upswell of power.
Her inability to see Palpatine for what he was (an evil megalomaniac, for those of you who don’t follow things like Star Wars), her increasing focus on her love life instead of her people’s needs, and her willingness to stop living when Anakin/Darth Vader breaks her heart add up to another characterization of the female political leader as fallible vis-à-vis her womanhood. After all Amidala’s decisions serve as the foundation for the situation that her grown offspring, Luke and Leia, receive, who then must rescue the galaxy from the clutches of the terrible Empire.
The Hunger Games
In the Hunger Games trilogy, Alma Coin is President of the rogue and secretive District 13, which in its extended breakup period from the rest of society has become a kind of uber-utilitarian regime reminiscent of the Big Brother-led government in George Orwell’s 1984. Where at first the protagonist of the series, Katniss Everdeen, sees President Coin as a big improvement over the draconian and murderous President Snow (ruler of the rest of the Panem civilization), Alma Coin turns out to be just as vicious and indifferent to the lives of her citizens as he is, if not more. It is Coin, after all, who orders the fire bombing that kills Katniss’s sister Prim, and Coin who orders war crimes charges be brought up unjustly against Katniss and Peeta. And yes, there’s that assassination attempt on Katniss’s life. If the first two books in the Hunger Games series show the ruthlessness of President Snow, Mockingjay, the final book in the series, is testament to how women make no better leaders or people than men.
Laura Roslin ascends to the presidency through the same back door as Geena Davis’s character on Commander-in-Chief, via succession through death of the President and anyone next in line. A Department of Education Secretary who had previously been asked to resign, Roslin’s similarity to Mackenzie Allen ends here. President Roslin, thinking she has one year to live before cancer kills her, manages to maneuver through a constant onslaught from cyborgs to keep her last band of humans alive. While there is endless turmoil, tension, and argument on the ship to which she and her charges live, there is also no narrative about her double-crossing anyone, exercising poor judgment because of her sex or gender, and there is next to no discussion about how she is carelessly putting her personal life ahead of her duties. She’s governing with cancer, people!
One aspect of all of these narratives is the degree to which they feature dystopias, so extended from the structural rifts we see in contemporary politics that I could argue that the personalities in these narratives must also be stretched and pulled until they are something of caricatures of politicians. And perhaps that plays into why there seems to be a tendency to focus on such extreme strength and weakness in depicting these women leaders. But the lens of sexism is large enough to cast over female characters in these narratives, so that every weakness becomes about their womanhood: Amidala is in the last instance, a brokenhearted lover, Coin is overrun by so much masculine ego she loses all sense of her own humanity.
Long live President Roslin.