The Hillary Clinton TV fictions: women and power – Madam Secretary

22 Feb

As I wrote in the first part of this series of posts,

Women who have political power are to some extent undermined by dominant attitudes about characteristics and values associated with male and female behaviour.  There is a fine balance that needs to be negotiated by women in, or seeking, the highest and most powerful political roles and leadership….

TV dramas inspired by Hillary Clinton’s public life have been achieving some renewed significance at a time when many are expecting her to make a second run for the US presidency.

The last post focused on The Good Wife, which was partly inspired by Hillary and Bill Clinton’s relationship, and is now looking to veer towards Hillary’s more political activities. Another such Hillary Clinton inspired dramas is Madam Secretary.


This week NZ’s Prime TV aired season 1 episode 10 of Madam Secretary.  In contrast with the quality production of the well-scripted The Good Wife, Madam Secretary is a light weight, lighter-toned, run-of-the mill, populist drama. Elizabeth McCord is a former CIA intelligence analyst, who has been parachuted into the tole of US Secretary of State by the US president. Like Alicia Florrick, the impetus for her to go into politics came from a man/men already involved in politics, to serve their interests, within a masculine context.

In this characterisation she performs a fictional version of Clinton’s former role, while also portraying a version of a female character now accepted in popular espionage thrillers. Elizabeth has an unorthodox approach to the job, often using strategies that upset the masculine hierarchy.

Elizabeth strides purposefully and somewhat athletically around Washington’s halls of power. Curiously, she seems to spend way more time there than actual US Secretaries of State, who spend more time in foreign places and international trouble spots.However, this fictional base location associates/ her strongly within the political power structure in the US.


Elizabeth’s daughter, Stevie, is at odds with her mother’s politics, with outspoken youthful and democratic ideals. In episode 10, two parallel plot lines converge. At home, Elizabeth expresses dissatisfaction with her daughter’s “too informal” choice of clothing for her waitress job.

At work Elizabeth needs to negotiate with two rival political delegates from Iraq: one a Sunni and the other a Shia Muslim.  These two middle-aged men are represented as over-excitable, slightly out of control, adolescent-like guys, without a lot of political savvy.  ISIL is a spectre hovering over the negotiations, but it provides a pretty one-sided, US government friendly version of their significance. They don’t mention, for instance that more beheadings are done by the US allay, Saudi Arabia than by ISIL, nor the collateral damage from US drone strikes (see Gordon Campbell on the selective outrage against ISIL).

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State’s offices go into lock-down, just as Elizabeth’s daughter turns up looking for a better shirt, to please her employer.  A gunman is posing a threat just outside the offices.

Elizabeth is outed by an Iraqi interpreter as having been on a secret mission to Iraq in her past CIA role.  In softly filtered light of flash-backs, we see her neatly laundered in fashionable fatigues, interrogating a Muslim bomber who had killed some fellow Iraqi women and children. He chants stereotypical kinds of, (so-called) “jihadist”, type rhetoric, in keeping with mainstream media reporting (from episode screencaps).

Madam Secretary Iraqi interrogation seo1e10

Elizabeth then knowingly throws him to the US water boarders and torturers. These activities are understated and glossed over, in contrast with the emotive characterisations of ISIL and Iraqi bombing incidents.

Elizabeth comes clean to her daughter, who is pretty outraged (quotes from this episode recap).

Elizabeth: We were at war. Changes the landscape. It forces you to face things you didn’t even want to know.
Stevie: Yeah, like the fact that your mother is not the person you thought she was at all.

In the course of the episode Stevie had turned up at her mothers office looking for clothes better suited to her job – she tries on her mother’s shirt – and really looks a lot like a younger version of her mother.

Madam Secretarys daughter in her shirt s01e10

Meanwhile, The Secretary of State successfully negotiates with the Iraqi delegation, and the outside threat turns out to be an angry “deranged” lone gunman, an ex-serviceman who had served in Iraq. He is captured without having done any harm to others.

The culmination of the episode is a lecture delivered by Elizabeth.  Her mother expresses regret at being involved with the US torturing, but then excuses it by saying things are more complicated than her daughter understands. She ends by saying that part of growing up is learning about such complexities.

Elizabeth: If you never listen to anything I say again for the rest of your life, please hear this: Everything is more complicated than you think it is right now. And the only way you come to know that is through experience. And that’s what this whole process of growing up is all about.
Stevie: Yeah. I know. I gotta go do that now.

The old – being grown-up is supporting the masculine power status quo.

This empowered female character represents both a challenge to the masculine-dominated status quo, while also being increasingly shown as incorporated within the wider framework of the powerful US military-industrial political machinery. Thus the apparent democratic and feminist challenge is neutralised and contained within this longer standing network of power.


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