My girlfriend didn’t flinch when a mutated corpse was unearthed on Orphan Black and a baby was murdered on Game of Thrones last week, but when we sat down to watch the season five premiere of Veep, she seemed ready to bolt from the couch at any second. Veep isn’t violent, but it’s one of the most uncomfortable shows on television. Because almost every character is a self-serving narcissist, sure. Because much of the show’s dialogue takes the form of characters insulting each other in shockingly un-PC ways, yes. Because the main characters get perpetually embarrassed in cringe-worthy scenarios, absolutely. And — for women who work in male-dominated industries, like my girlfriend — because watching President Selina Meyer navigate the entrenched sexism of the American political system every minute of every day is almost too real.
With the exception of her executive assistant, Sue, and her roaming senior staffer, Amy, Selina Meyer is surrounded by men. When she’s brainstorming about women’s health initiatives, she’s listening to a group of men. When she’s plotting how her campaign can effectively speak to female voters, she’s talking to a group of men. When she wants to set up a discreet hook-up with someone she met at the banking task force — a meeting she had to fight to attend, because she was scheduled to shake hands at a fundraising brunch instead — she has to do so through her chief of staff, who is a man.
In season three, when Selina is still VP and crafting her presidential campaign platform on abortion, she throws out the slogan, “Get the government out of my snatch!” and quips that if men could get pregnant, Americans would be able to get abortions at ATMs. As a woman (a phrase she cannot use when speaking to the public), her position on abortion will be scrutinized infinitely more than a male candidate’s. If she supports abortion too many weeks into a pregnancy, she’s going to come off as “too female.” If she supports abortion too few weeks into pregnancy, she’s going to lose the women’s vote.
Selina is always the most competent person in the room (unless Sue has stopped by), but it’s not enough. She has to be more competent than her male advisers and adversaries, and she has to be more likable — at least to the American people. Which is where Veep gets wonderfully, deliriously subversive. Selina Meyer isn’t likable. She hurls the most heinous insults at her family, her friends, her staffers, and (off-camera) the “mouth-breathing citizenry of The United States.” She doesn’t do anything that won’t benefit her, and she’ll do almost anything that will benefit her. She’s arrogant and she’s insecure. She can be jealous and vindictive. She’s Leslie Knope’s polar opposite, and it’s a glorious thing to behold.
Compare the average TV viewer’s response to President Selina Meyer with their response to President Jed Bartlet, who withheld crucial information about his health from voters and his most senior staffers for half his presidency on The West Wing. Or Scandal‘s President Fitzgerald Grant, who uses the White House as a playground to work out his daddy issues while stalking his mistress and using the full weight of the American armed forces to target anyone he doesn’t like who comes in contact with her. Or to President Frank Underwood, who secretly sponsored a terrorist attack against his own country so he could showcase his presidential power in retaliation on House of Cards.
Like Don Draper, like Walter White, like Dexter Morgan and Tony Soprano: These fictional men are complicated. Selina Myer is a cunt.
Maybe the hardest thing about watching Veep is that it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the show isn’t really satire at all. As this season intersects with the presidential primary, it almost appears as if Donald Trump has taken the show’s absurdity and built an entire campaign on it. So much of Veep‘s humor relies on embellishing political stereotypes and shining light on unspoken prejudices. Donald Trump embodies all the bluster and incompetence of Veep‘s most ridiculous characters. His popular success has come from making the coded bigotry Veep ridicules overt and promising to legally legitimize it.
And while he pledges to build walls to keep out immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country and stop China from “raping” us, the media spends time wondering why Hillary Clinton’s voice is “loud, flat, harassing to the ear,” why she has a “decidedly grating pitch and punishing tone.” While the American public uses neutral or positive gendered words to describe her opponents, the words “bitch,” “angry,” “rapist,” and “vagina” make up the gendered words the public uses to describe her. When her opponents yell, they’re passionate; when she yells, she’s “yelling at you.” Is Donald Trump likable? Of course not, and it’s not hurting him. Is Hillary Clinton likable? Less so when she’s running for president, apparently, and voters care very much.
Last season on Veep, Selina Meyer told a room full of male advisers, “I can’t identify myself as a woman. People can’t know that. Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that, which, I believe, is most women.”
There are plenty of ways to criticize real and fictional female politicians’ policies and platforms, but on HBO and in the real world, Americans often choose to engage with women in power as nothing more than bitches. Selina Meyer’s worst nightmare is being accused of playing The Woman Card. The ugly truths of Veep’s fifth season shine bright, and it’s more uncomfortable to watch than ever.