Does the pop culture version of Hillary Clinton have to be sexy? That’s one question left in the taillights of last week’s Political Animals pilot, the second episode of which airs Sunday night on USA. The miniseries stars Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish Hammond, a Clintonesque Secretary of State who basically tours around Washington kicking ass and taking names. And looking hot. Why? Because the producers want to prove there’s no arena in which their superwoman doesn’t excel? Or because, without physical appeal, she couldn’t qualify as a superwoman at all?
The distinction makes a difference. At stake here is whether we know how to admire a powerful woman who isn’t also a 10. Viewers may no longer regard a lovely face as sufficient grounds for respect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a prerequisite.
To be fair, most of the cast of Political Animals is frighteningly attractive. Former first sons Douglas (James Wolk) and T.J. (Sebastian Stan) are gorgeous. Ditto journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), even though she’s actually supposed to be a little washed up compared to her young blogger frenemy. The president is a hunk. Doug’s uptight fiancée is hot (and bulimic). Even the secret service officers standing guard outside the motel room where our heroine parleys with her ex-husband Bud are hot. Perhaps significantly, the only character who does not seem to have won the genetic lottery is Bud—sorry Ciaran Hinds. (Those who read the show as extended Hillary Clinton fanfic may see this as a sign of lingering antipathy towards the cheating Bill.) But the fairest of them all, clad in a flame-colored pantsuit, feathery orange hair framing her high cheekbones, is of course Elaine, whose inner “political animal,” judging by all those coppery tones, is a fox.
The show’s pretty insistent on this point. (In one scene, Bud even calls Elaine a fox.) Unlike the other characters, who just happen to be exquisite physical specimens, Madame Secretary’s sex appeal is not incidental. Her ex-husband (dating an exotic younger actress) dubs her the most attractive woman he’s ever seen. A diplomat can’t keep his hands off her ass. A crowd at a fundraiser goes wild when she shares a provocative shimmy with her former presidential primary foe, the Obama stand-in. And her wardrobe: shimmery gold dresses that would be at home in a Disney cel, body-hugging suits, saucy little jackets.
Maybe Political Animals is just in love with its protagonist and wants to give her every advantage. If the show’s an exercise in wish fulfillment for Hillary fans, why not lavish some extra bodaciousness on Elaine? Why not give her brains, courage, tact, heart, eloquence—oh, and killer hair? Here’s why not: Because power derived from fuckability is not real power. It’s power predicated on a system in which men are in charge. It’s sham girl power. But until pop culture adjusts to the fact that women no longer need a man in order to be successful, TV’s heroines will remain strong and hot, principled and hot, clever and hot.