For Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), feminist progress ranks somewhere between pardoning a turkey and opening her own water bottle in terms of priorities. On the way to her accidental presidency, which ended up lasting less than a year, Veep’s title character has been groped, called a “cunt,” prodded to cry on camera, pitted against the first lady in a media-manufactured rivalry, and told that her awfulness will make it impossible for any other woman to occupy the Oval Office.
Needless to say, none of those things would have happened to a male politician. And yet for most of its run, HBO’s political farce has treated Selina’s womanhood the way she herself views it, like an end table; it’s there when it’s needed but generally ignored. Veep creator Armando Iannucci summed up the largely sidelined role of Selina’s gender on the series thusly: “Let’s make her a woman, but let’s not have the show be about being a woman in D.C.” The abortion-centric Season 3 episode “The Choice” was a rare exception for its direct and sustained engagement with systemic misogyny. In one of the most cynical speeches Selina’s ever given (which is saying something), she panicks when she’s asked about her stance on reproductive rights as a woman: “I can’t identify as a woman! ... Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that—which, I believe, is most women.”
But since crowning Selina America’s first female president—and now its first female ex-president—Veep has been exploring a more sophisticated feminist point of view than the assertion that powerful women can be just as terrible their male counterparts. (The series also switched showrunners after Season 4, with David Mandel stepping in for the departing Iannucci, which may account for some of the change in tone.) This year, the show’s sixth, Veep’s has finally found a new target worthy of its focused contempt: Lean In feminism. Sunday night’s episode, “Qatar”—in which Selina flirts with global sisterhood for the cameras, then asks, “Who are we to judge?” about female genital mutilation at a human-rights conference—is the best example yet of this season’s sharp, bracing, and timely satire of the kind of female empowerment that only empowers one kind of female.
“Qatar” is remarkable for how many tropes of self-serving feminism—most readily embraced by women who are straight, white, wealthy, and conventionally attractive—it lampoons in just half an hour. After being caught in a photo with a Sudanese warlord at a who’s-who party full of gajillionaires, post-POTUS Selina arranges to meet with a women’s rights activist, “a female hero that we can wash away this warlord crap with.” Veep derides not only Selina’s exploitation of an activist under house arrest as a moral shield against bad PR but also the politician’s vanity, her casual racism, and the media apparatus that would romanticize her simply for surrounding herself with black people. Having already rejected a less photogenic Cambodian feminist born without legs and an Uzbek free-speech advocate scarred by an acid attack, America’s first female president leads a pack of TV cameras through a Sudanese village, earning adoring gasps from her body man Gary (Tony Hale). Calling Selina a “beautiful Western woman helping out world sufferers in a stunning Gucci scarf,“ he imagines her in a Vogue spread, perhaps entitled “Princess Di but With a Better Nose.” Even in a TV landscape full of feminist characters and insights, “Qatar” feels different and noteworthy for its meaty contribution to the necessary examination of the hierarchies within womanhood and what we sometimes celebrate too readily as “feminist” accomplishments.
Inside activist Nyaring’s (Nicki Micheaux) hut, Selina babbles about “toppl[ing] the patriarchy”; outside, she refers to her successor, America’s first elected female president, Laura Montez, as “Titty Gonzalez.” (Montez isn’t actually Latina; she took her Mexican-born husband’s name, learned Spanish, and passed herself off as a woman of color to increase her appeal among her New Mexican constituents. Naturally, Selina seethes against the woman who so rapidly reduced her from a trailblazer to a historical footnote.)
By the time Selina arrives at the human rights conference, she has been convinced by her jet-setting Qatari fling (Usman Ally) to soft-pedal her anti-FGM speech, lest it endanger one of his upcoming business deals. And it turns out that playing nice with the very warlord it was previously toxic to be seen with can help Selina advance one of her most cherished objectives: stealing credit away from her beloved Oval Office successor, who has already won a Nobel Prize for helping to resolve the crisis in Tibet. And so Selina stands at the podium, thinking not of the plight of women in the developing world but of her reputation and the other yachts her lover can buy. “Women’s rights are human rights,” she parrots, as she improvises that male circumcision has benefits, and so “female circumcision” must too. In true Veep fashion, the warlord still deems her speech too critical, leaving her with no boyfriend, no standing, and no integrity. In other words, right back where she started.
Season 6 is packed with hints that the writers intended Selina’s post-presidency to be in an oblique “conversation” (to borrow Willa Paskin’s term) with what they assumed would be Hillary Clinton’s White House. Given 2016’s cruel curveball, it’s especially cringe-inducing to watch Selina’s philandering husband ruin what’s left of her good name by soliciting donations from questionable sources to her philanthropic foundation. Selina’s sole female offspring, her outer-borough office, her women’s-college alma mater, and her reputation for being “cold and unrelatable” early in her career solidify the parallel. Okay, so HRC probably wouldn’t drunkenly declare, “I had no choice but to go into politics and be extraordinary and a sex symbol,” even in the deepest heart of the Chappaqua woods, but “Qatar” and the rest of Season 6 demonstrate that the show is not as nonreferential as its writers like to claim. Reality keeps catching up to Veep.
Ivanka Trump’s only claim to a “first female” anything is “Trump daughter.” But by deconstructing elite women’s opportunistic feminism so precisely and thoroughly, Veep helps clarify a significant and dangerous gendered dynamic in the real White House. Fashionable, reasonable-seeming Ivanka can wrap herself in the language of women’s equality with (hollow) books like Women Who Work and (insulting) child care policy proposals. But Ivanka’s most substantial role so far in the Trump White House has been providing feminist, or at least female, cover by implicitly and explicitly vouching for her father’s decency, especially to the Republican women voters who were disgusted by Trump but voted for him anyway. Both Selina and Ivanka prove that empty feminist rhetoric, calculated for maximum self-aggrandizement, can be complicit in the subjugation of women around the world.
Note to Malala: If Ivanka calls to propose a Vogue photo shoot, don’t pick up the phone.