On the season finale of HBO’s Veep, the lovably misanthropic Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States after the sitting president resigned to care for his mentally ill wife. Meyer may be the first female president in the Veep universe, but she’s far from the first fictional female president to emerge in film, TV, and literature. I’ve got bad, if not totally surprising, news: pop culture has not been kind to commanders-in-chief with two X chromosomes. We took a careful look at history’s fictional female presidents (pro tip: Wikipedia’s lists of fictional presidents are a great way to waste two hours of your life) and found that these women could be divided into five broad, largely unflattering categories.
PURE SCIENCE FICTION
As a genre, sci-fi is a stronghold for female presidents, because what could better represent a distant, disorienting future than flying cars, massive alien invasions, and — a lady in the Oval Office?! Examples include Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter’s Sunstorm and The Light of Other Days, K.A. Applegate’s Remnants, Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues, Robert Anton Wilson’s Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy, Jack McDevitt’s Moonfall, and C.L. Moore’s Greater Than Gods. Way to go, sci-fi.
THE INCUMBENT DIES
Only eight American presidents have died in office, but looking at the stats for fictional female Chief Executives, the fatality rate they face is much more alarming. Only a small minority of these women are elected to the nation’s highest office on their own merit.
This is the case in the novels The Prodigal Daughter and First Hubby, as well as the TV series Commander in Chief, in which Vice President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) becomes the first female president after the incumbent suffers a cerebral aneurysm. On Scandal, the archconservative Vice President Sally Langston (Kate Burton) — who, by the way, totally killed her husband for cheating on her, no big deal — briefly takes office when Fitz is hospitalized following an assassination attempt.
Sometimes, it isn’t enough for just one person to kick the presidential bucket. In Y: The Last Man, a woman president assumes power after a plague kills all men; similarly, Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare-turned-President Josephine Vannebuker-Brown was the only member of the line of succession to survive nuclear war in Alas, Babylon. In Mars Attacks!, the president’s teenage daughter (Natalie Portman) ascends to his post after the entire government is wiped out by aliens.
CORRUPTION AND INCOMPETENCE
Vice President Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig), one of the series’ primary villains, engineers the assassination of the sitting president on Prison Break. In Mafia!, Christina Applegate plays Diane Steen — a parody of Diane Keaton’s character in the Godfather series — who, newly elected to the presidency, nearly achieves world peace before being distracted by her mob boss beau (Jay Mohr). The Eclipse Trilogy and Whoops Apocalypse both feature lady presidents responsible for international crises, and in Allen Steele’s Coyote, President-for-Life Elise Rochelle ultimately commits suicide to avoid prosecution for her massive war crimes.
Personally, I’m not too bothered by the many incompetent and/or corrupt fictional female presidents (at least, I wouldn’t be if there were more shining counterexamples — more on that later). After all, there have been plenty of unfit male presidents, both fictional and real. Warren G. Harding was kind of a cock, you guys. What’s more troubling is when these characters serve only to make a retrograde comment on the girlish silliness of the fairer sex, delicate simpletons that we are.
The short-lived 1985 sitcom Hail to the Chief starred Patty Duke as the first woman president, though it’s unclear how she’d be able to accomplish anything, considering how busy she was with wrangling her philandering husband and rebellious teens. Y’know, lady stuff. In 1964’s Kisses for My President (kill me, just kill me), the first female president (Polly Bergen) sees the error of her selfish, career-having ways, gets pregnant, and resigns to care full-time for her (terribly neglected!) family.
And now for my personal favorite: President Rose Ambrose, a 1980s National Lampooncharacter. This woman is named to the vice presidency because she’s having an affair with the president, then becomes president herself after he succumbs to a heart attack during sex. Eventually, she’s brutally gunned down by multiple shooters, including the former First Lady. The stuff of history books!
LEGITIMATELY GOOD PRESIDENTS
Spoiler: they are few and far between. In fact, the only major mainstream example I was able to find was Cherry Jones’ character on 24, a strong, idealistic cross between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (She’s technically the president of the Twelve Colonies and not the United States, but Laura Roslin, Mary McDonnell’s character on Battlestar Galactica, would certainly fit into this category as well.) More of that, please?