Political Animals: What Went Wrong with Elaine Barrish
After I realized Political Animals wasn't a pet-themed reality show and was actually about an empowered female politician, I was beyond thrilled. Any miniseries — forgive me, "television event" — that could lure Oscar-nominee Sigourney Weaver to the small screen has to be great, right? Well, yes and no. Only about 20 minutes into the premiere and I began to realize how misguided I'd been. Political Animals isn't about a strong female in government. It's just another prime-time soap featuring a woman whose power is her sexuality and whose weakness is men (yawn).
Weaver stars as Secretary of State and former First Lady Elaine Barrish who was previously married to chronic philanderer Bud Hammond (Ciarán Hinds).
Weaver's acting is impeccable, and in the first few scenes the writing lived up to her talent. Elaine established herself as every bit the feminist bada-- Political Animals purported her to be when, after the Russian ambassador cops a feel during a speech, Elaine gracefully ignores the incident until she gets the scoundrel backstage.
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"Did you enjoy the a---grab, Victor? Good, because the next time you touch me, I'm going to rip off your tiny shriveled balls and serve them to you in a cold borscht soup," Elaine threatened before adding, in Russian, I might add, "I will f—- your sh-- up."
On snap! In that moment, Elaine embodied the fantasy of every person — man or woman — who had ever been harassed, but had never found the right words or courage to speak their mind. In short: she was my idol.
But this isn't the only incident of inappropriate conduct between Elaine and a male politician. In fact, it appears as though every diplomat has the hots for the sitting Secretary of State. During an impromptu negotiation at a bath house, the Turkish ambassador even goes so far as to offer Elaine a deal: one date with him in exchange for what would effectively be the lives of three innocent American journalists. When asked if he would pull the same stunt had she been a man, the ambassador cheekily responds, "No. I'm not attracted to men."
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While this is a great comedic high in the series, it's also quite the moral low for Elaine, who soon accepts the deal and praises the ambassador for at least being "an honest scoundrel." But are we really supposed to believe that had the Secretary of State been a man, he wouldn't have found another way to finalize the deal without pimping out a person? No, of course not. It's apparently just that hard for television writers to fathom that a female politician would be successful based on her intelligence and character alone. If Elaine had only attacked the Turkish negotiations with the same ferocity she did the Russian ambassador, she probably could have avoided trading herself like a Pokémon card and received more than begrudging respect from her male colleague.
And while it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine the harassment a woman would receive in the boys club that is the U.S. government, it is hard to imagine that the same woman who was prepared to castrate the Putin-wannabe over an a---grab, would so easily pimp herself out to another ambassador without even the slightest fight.
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This back-and-forth between respecting its characters and demeaning them is part of what makes Political Animals so frustrating. Elaine's flip-flopping doesn't make her any more complex or multi-dimensional, but instead portrays her as inconsistent and, frankly, a little weak. But that's not to say female heroines, including Elaine, should be perfect, by any means.
Flaws and the attempt to overcome them often reveal a character's biggest strengths — and Elaine has plenty of flaws to overcome. She can be selfish, she can be cold, she can be insecure. But her most dominant flaw is her inability to stop loving her ex-husband. Their troubled relationship had the potential to be one of the most promising aspects of the series, adding a layer of contest between Elaine's irrational heart and her political ambition. It's unfortunate Political Animals got too distracted by haphazardly throwing soap opera drama at the Hammond family like it was Dynasty reincarnated to actually develop Elaine and Bud's relationship.
Though even without much development, it's easy to relate to Elaine's infatuation with an unworthy partner. But the series forgot to explain one crucial thing: why Bud? What is it about her duplicitous ex that Elaine is so enamored with? He lacks the charm and earnestness of The Good Wife's Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), and his slicked-back sleazy style (cigar and all) is far from the down-home charisma of Bill Clinton. Without reason to empathize with Elaine's emotional struggles, how are we supposed to invest in them? Lacking this key information, I couldn't help but roll my eyes in the pilot when Elaine realized all too late that Bud had manipulated her for political gain (and sex) once again.
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Weaver is famous for playing feminist a---kicker, Ripley in the Alien series and it's hard to see her get her a-- kicked and grabbed by a bunch of skeezy politicians (including her ex). At least Elaine is able to brush off the actions of these pigs with a laugh (and maybe a few tears here and there), but she wasn't always like that.
Through flashbacks, Political Animals has allowed us glimpses into Elaine's First Lady past and what we see isn't a strong woman, but a mousy creature, ready to break at the slightest flutter of the wind. Elaine pre-divorce is a troubling sight, even for those of us who identify with her marriage dilemma. And while her evolution from passive housewife to sassy Secretary of State might be inspiring to many, I can't help but think Elaine's power isn't innate, but a mere reaction to — you guessed it — a man. While it's realistic that a husband's infidelity could inspire newfound strength in a woman, I'd find it much more refreshing and inspiring for a female protagonist to be strong all on her own.
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All this being said, I'm happy Political Animals exists. Few basic cable series deal with gender issues so directly, but for every step forward the series seems to take two three four steps back. Yes, Elaine can be a bada--. Yes, it's great to see a series about a female politician. And yes, it's amazing for a television protagonist to vocalize feminist ideals. But instead of being about a woman working towards equality and understanding between genders, Political Animals is a battle between women and men, with Elaine Barrish as the matriarchal leader. By setting the two genders in opposition, Political Animals — and Elaine — are missing the whole point of it all.
The moments when women in media are actually portrayed as complex, ambitious and likeable are rare, but as Elaine once oh-so-eloquently explained, "you'll never get to the next great moment if you don't keep going." So that's what I'll do. I'll keep watching Political Animals and waiting for that next great moment when Elaine decides to show us that she's still the woman who will "f—- your sh-- up" if you disrespect her, because that is a heroine I can be proud of. Plus, I always have my Good Wife reruns to fall back on.
Political Animals airs Sundays at 10/9c on USA.