Veep’s Unlikable Feminist Hero Shines Bright In The Year of The Woman Card

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.

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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.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1060 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. I tried watching this season, but like most US comedies just can’t get into it and find it painful to watch.

    The show made it into the news here in Australia recently because Prime Minister Turnbull used “continuity and change” as a slogan in a radio interview and was mocked by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and others from the show for it’s similarity to the slogan Selina uses in season 4 “continuity with change”.

  2. This is is such a great coincidence. I’m reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and I’ve just read the chapter on unlikable female characters, and how Don Draper and Dexter are okay, but heaven forbid we get a female character who’s in it for herself and doesn’t give a shit about other people’s feelings !

    Brb re-reading that chapter
    (Ps I love Roxane Gay now and I wanna be her BFF and hang out with her)

  3. I couldn’t get into Veep, I’m very bad with cringe comedy and if I tried to stick with it I would spend most of the time getting up, letting off some steam and trying to find the courage to press the play button. But there are a few video compilations of the best insults on Youtube and I find them delightful.

    About the audience reaction to Selina: it really says a lot that audiences are willing to root for actual criminals, as long as they’re white men, but that female characters aren’t allowed to be morally ambiguous. They’re not allowed to be too good, either, because that would make them Mary Sues. I wonder if that means that the only kind of female character people like is the doormat whose only purpose is to serve a male character’s storyline. I’m not sure how their judgment works and what makes a fictional woman worthy of their love.

  4. I completely forgot this season already started until my Amy/Selina fic started getting a bunch of random kudos and hits.

    I have such a mostly love/kinda hate relationship with this show. I hate a number of the terms they use but I also find myself laughing at the asshole rather than the group/person they mention.

  5. To be honest this is one of the reasons I’m so behind Hillary. I mean, I support her for lots of reasons, but a tiny bit is because I identify so much with how it feels to get all these insults and labels and judgments thrown at you by people both on the opposing side (in this case, Republicans) but also by people who are supposed to be better (in this case, Democrats)…all heavily influenced by the fact that she (and I) is a woman whether they’ll admit it or not.
    It reminds me of that Amy Poehler quote that I love so much: “I just love bossy women. I could be around them all day. To me, bossy is not a pejorative term at all. It means somebody’s passionate and engaged and ambitious and doesn’t mind leading.”

    • In regards to Hillary, one of the things that worries me so much about this election is that if a male president screws up, everyone blames the individual himself. If Hillary happens to make a mistake, misogynists all over the US will use it as an example of why “women shouldn’t be president.” It’s so frustrating how minorities have to deal with the burden of being “good examples.”

  6. Unrelated but related: my dad and I argue constantly because he won’t watch Mad Men because “that Don guy is an alcoholic asshole, why would I want to watch a show about an asshole?” … and yet he insists that Breaking Bad is one of the best shows of all time, alongside Orphan Black and Smallville.

    I love Veep. The parents were turned off by the language, but I think my mom got back into it because JLD is just so damn good.

  7. I adore Veep. It makes me hoot with laughter – the first five minutes of the first episode had me hooked – I love the dialogue, and I love the use of the F word.

    Having said that, I am Australian, and we had our first female Prime Minister a few years ago now – if Hillary wins (and truly, the Australians I know are only ever invested in your Democrats winning – the Republican party is absurd) you will have to put up with years of this bullshit. Years. Even Germaine Greer criticized our Prime Ministers fashion and the size of her behind (and has said some other unforgivable twaddle besides). The entrenched sexism seems inescapable, and if a woman is going to lead, she’s just going to have to ignore all of that bullshit and get on with the job, because it would be a full time job to address it. No, it’s not fair, and no, it shouldn’t happen, but it does, and it will. Very sadly, we have to share this world with complete assholes.

    • I don’t even watch that show and I’m Team Skylar 4eva.

      Husband becomes poison peddler, personally kills like 2 people and is now the lord king bossman of everything in his head and expects you to be grateful and not question his ways while he raises your blood pressure in addition to all the other stuff on your plate?
      Fuck no, it is your team I am on gurl.
      Not his.

  8. Ugh Heather this is amazing (as usual) and it’s part of the reason I love Veep so much.
    Also does anyone remember the storyline in the last season of Veep, where Selina considered choosing a female running mate? (seems awfully similar to the media’s frenzy about Hillary choosing Elizabeth Warren)

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