Photo: Courtesy of CBS.
EDITOR'S NOTE: There are some spoilers ahead.
The new CBS Sunday night drama Madam Secretary drops tonight, and I’m telling you right now to be on high alert. Because, not only is it a feminist show with a conspiracy at its heart, I suspect it might also be part of an actual, real-life feminist conspiracy, with Clintonian overtones.
The pilot sets up the series and its basic premise: Retired CIA agent, professor, and mother of two Elizabeth Faulkner McCord (Téa Leoni) steps into the role of Secretary of State when the sitting Secretary dies in a plane crash. McCord is a no-nonsense maverick who subverts the political status quo by being no-nonsense and also very no-nonsense. Plus, she's sometimes sarcastic. But, mostly no-nonsense.
The first crisis of her tenure comes when two young American men are captured in Syria, with the Syrian government claiming they're either jihadists or American spies, or both, depending on where you are in the episode. McCord, unsurprisingly, has a no-nonsense plan for dealing with the issue. Others in the administration, especially White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (played by brilliant villain Željko Ivanek), prefer a more cautious, nonsense-y route.
(On a non-conspiratorial but worth noting note: The prisoners are white, despite the majority of Westerners who are known to have joined terrorist groups being POC. I say this not to stand up for white people, but to point out that this is how white Madam Secretary is as a show. The Secretary is white, her husband and children are white, everyone in the White House is white, and everyone in the State Department is white, save the press secretary, who has three lines in the first episode. I know the real D.C. has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but seriously?)
Against the drama of the hostages and their fate, seeds are planted for the show’s overarching conspiracy. A former colleague of McCord’s goes around dropping dark hints and then dies suspiciously. And, I’ll just say it, her husband is obviously being a bad guy. REALLY OBVIOUSLY. That isn't even a spoiler. You can just tell.
Now, here’s the feminist conspiracy part: As a feminist, I can tell you the likelihood of a group of feminists all getting together to coordinate a stealth propaganda television show without bitter infighting is slim. Yet, this show could be the outcome of just such a plot. Here’s my evidence.
McCord is a painfully perfect white feminist icon. She is, as I may have said, no-nonsense. She is trying to balance work and family. She makes painful, inappropriate jokes about the King of Swaziland having 15 wives. (I didn’t say she was my kind of feminist.) She’s got a bunch of men getting in her way all the time. She gets angry when the President hires an image consultant for her, because caring about clothes and appearance is beneath her. She has the sexy-sex with her husband despite him obviously being part of the show's evil conspiracy and despite her worries that he will no longer be attracted to her now that she is such a powerful woman. She ignores protocol and makes threats in order to save those two damn kids in Syria, because she is a mother. She even makes a joke about women always having a choice. (CODE FOR ABORTION IN CASE YOU DON’T GET IT.) She is not only Everywoman, she is Everyfeminist.
I don’t know what's more annoying, that old-school idea of what a feminist is, or the show’s obvious pandering to it. Madam Secretary will certainly bring out the Hillary Clinton viewers, but to succeed with anyone else it’s going to have to up its game with the other conspiracy and have less predictable plot lines than well brought-up suburban kids in need of rescue. In my book, the time on The Good Wife when Alicia Florrick’s husband went down on her because he had just seen her being a badass in the courtroom still remains the most feminist moment I’ve ever seen on TV. We’ll see if Elizabeth McCord gets some of that action.