American politics may be subject to a glass ceiling, but the TV screen’s glass has decidedly been cracked. A cadre of intelligent, powerful actresses are playing intelligent, powerful women, and a bunch of them are Emmy-nominated this year.
One such, “Good Wife” star Julianna Margulies, says, “There’s this tremendous surge of power and energy from women in television. It’s a gift to all of us. I think, what a wonderful time it is.”
This season, Margulies’ brilliant Chicago attorney renounced her blue-chip firm, while elsewhere in the Midwest, Amy Poehler’s mid-level bureaucrat finally rose to head the Parks Service in “Parks and Recreation.”
A political crisis manager (Kerry Washington) in “Scandal” weathered her own crisis to renounce her lover, the president of these United States. POTUS is the office to which “Veep” Julia Louis-Dreyfus ascended, while a different POTUS brought in a new, Machiavellian first lady (Robin Wright) on “House of Cards.”
Emmy-nominated helmer Jodie Foster is delighted by this trend, though not surprised. “TV is a great place for strong women and strong actresses,” she says. “What’s nice about television is that it usually has to do with a group of characters. There are some family members. There’s the intricate tapestry between all those people. And that’s usually the world of women.”
A feature film, Foster notes, can focus on one performer: “Tom Cruise saving the world.” But “television always has more than one person. … It’s about a team, a bunch of people gathering together and how their lives influence and change each other, whether it’s a sci-fi thriller, a comedy, or ‘House of Cards.’ It’s about group dynamics. And of course, that’s the world of women.”
Actresses charged with organizing that world point to a variety of challenges in making that happen.
“Possibility and change,” Margulies says, were in the air at “The Good Wife”’s inception. Originally Alicia Florrick “had the wind kicked out of her” when husband Peter, a state’s attorney, went to prison.
“When you start at rock bottom, you have to dig your way out,” the thesp says, foreseeing “the potential for her to become a powerful person, not just in her own real life but by learning from the mistakes of her political husband.”
Hillary Clinton hasn’t had a rougher roller coaster than Olivia Pope on “Scandal.” After a “fierce” (Kerry Washington’s word) second season, season 3 saw the character at her lowest ebb, with shocking revelations about her parents. Now, instead of taking up her fixer role again, she’s opting out — for the time being, anyway.
“It’s almost as if having to face her past she doesn’t need to continue old patterns of pain. She wants to start over … I had to become a different kind of Olivia.”
Women like Olivia, Washington says, “are incredibly powerful in some ways and also vulnerable in others. That complexity is really exciting to play as an actress,” not to mention subversing gender roles. “People are used to seeing women in a more vulnerable position, so getting to be in a powerful position you get to be fully human.”
“House of Cards” is downright Shakespearean in its sense of power, and Foster, who helmed an episode, says, “I love what’s going on with Robin Wright in that. The power of (Claire and Frank Underwood), the unsaid business between the two of them, and the subtextual pain between the two of them. And also their love. It’s so deep.”
Self-love is more the modus operandi of “Veep” Selina Meyer, says Louis-Dreyfus. “I’d say her relationship with power has been fraught. She desires it. She feels that it’s her right to have it. And yet when she gets it, it doesn’t seem powerful enough, somehow.”
After a radically short haircut this season Selina exulted, “I feel so powerful!” “Yeah, that’s right,” the thesp wryly notes, “she looks like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man,’ but she feels so powerful. … But comedically, you need to see that high, don’t you — the pride before the fall. It’s a very good place to settle in, so that the fall can be funny.”
Some pundits doubt whether the climate is as congenial for real-life political women. But at season’s end, Alicia Florrick was considering running for Peter’s old job, which excites Margulies for its larger message.
“Look, women are multitaskers, that’s what we do. While you’re cooking dinner you have the baby on your hip, and putting out fires and making plans for the school teacher the next day. We know how to do it. We just need to get the chance to.”
Louis-Dreyfus is equally sanguine.
“Speaking of our show, I think we’re definitely ahead of the curve, because at the end of season 3 she’s president. But when President (Hillary) Clinton and Vice President (Elizabeth) Warren step into office in 2016, we’ll be well behind the curve, then, won’t we?”