Political satire takes cue from Clinton

By Paul Harris

US Secretary of State, and former first lady, Hillary Clinton's story provides the inspiration for the main character in TV hit show 'Political Animals'. Photo / AP
US Secretary of State, and former first lady, Hillary Clinton's story provides the inspiration for the main character in TV hit show 'Political Animals'. Photo / AP

It is often said that there are no second acts in American politics. But it seems the former first lady and current secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her many supporters are getting to re-imagine key parts of her political life through a hit television show.

Political Animals is a retelling of the Clinton story so thinly disguised that it is basically translucent.

Its main character is called Elaine Barrish, like Clinton the first lady of a charming and successful, yet philandering, president. Just like Clinton, Barrish is now secretary of state.

Just like Clinton, she has to struggle in a sexist world, puzzled by the hostility directed against her while the public still seems to love her roguish spouse.

But in key respects Political Animals offers up a chance for Clinton's fans to rewrite history so that it is more to their liking. First, Clinton is played by the alien-battling actress Sigourney Weaver - a casting decision that it is hard to imagine anyone complaining about.

And whereas Barrish, just like Clinton, loses her run for the presidency to a male rival, the scriptwriters also give her ample opportunity to dish out revenge against a male-dominated political world. For one, she does not stand by her husband after his affairs are revealed. Barrish accuses her on-screen spouse of "epic narcissism" and then divorces him. That seems to lie behind some of the critical acclaim that has greeted the show.

"One of the pleasures of the show comes from seeing [Barrish] as a version of Hillary Clinton who is tougher on her Bill," wrote Atlantic critic Alyssa Rosenberg.

That is not the only revenge Barrish exacts for being a woman in a man's world. Another character is a journalist who made her career by reporting on the infidelities that rocked Barrish's marriage. She is reported to be based on the real New York Times writer Maureen Dowd, whose caustic wit was amply used to describe the Clintons' woes in the 1990s.

But in Political Animals, Barrish sits down with the Dowd-like character, Susan Berg, and taunts her by saying: "What is it like launching your career by stepping on the throat of someone else's marriage?" In a later scene, Barrish's mother meets Berg and gets in on the act by telling her: "You're just a rotten little thing who makes a living saying really smart, really nasty things about people." Ouch.

But even that putdown is nothing compared to what happens to a Russian ambassador who touches Barrish up while she is giving a speech. "The next time you touch me I'm going to rip off your tiny shrivelled balls and serve them to you in a cold borscht soup," Barrish tells the startled man.

It is doubtful whether in the real world Clinton ever had to put up with that on any of her frequent foreign trips. But, clearly, for many critics it is amusing to imagine this happening through Political Animals. The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum called the show a "mash note to Hillary as international badass" and added: "It's like a crazy dream ... a dream you wake from confused but happy."

Yet the famous glass ceiling preventing women's advancement in the world of politics is proving harder to crack off-screen than it has in the minds of scriptwriters.

"Women still feel they have to run twice as fast to go half as far," said Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at American University.

"What's more important than TV characters are actual real role models. It is far better for young women to meet real women in politics."

Indeed, it has been 20 years since US elections led to what the media declared "Year of the Woman" after a number of high-profile women were elected to the senate.

But two decades on from what was supposed to be a landmark moment in the US, the proportion of women politicians has flatlined and stands at just 17 per cent in the house of representatives.

"We are not where we expected to be 20 years ago," said Lawless.

Some hope that might change this year. The 2012 Project, a campaign based at Rutgers University's Centre for American Women and Politics, aims to promote women candidates.

It says almost 300 women candidates had filed to run for house seats this year - a record number.

- Observer

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