I don’t know about you, but I get a little thrill out of seeing a woman in power. Put a woman in command in a movie or TV show, and suddenly, I’m interested — the only reason I watched all seven seasons of Star Trek: Voyager when I really don’t like Star Trek is because of Captain Janeway. (Okay, Seven of Nine helped there, too).
In light of the patriotic holiday that is upon us here in the U.S., the recent news that Fox’s 24 is considering having a female president on next season, and of course, the ’08 election, I thought I’d highlight some of the most powerful fictional women (or fictional takes on historical women). So here’s my list, in no particular order, of women in film and TV (and a book) who have served in the highest (or second-highest) office in the land.
Joan Allen as the Vice Presidential Nominee in The Contender (2000)
Allen is excellent in this movie that brilliantly illustrates the double-standards applied to women in power. As a Senator nominated for the vice presidency, she steadfastly refuses to comment on a photo circulated by enemies in the Republican party that purports to show her engaged in group sex while she was in college, insisting "I just can’t respond to these accusations because it’s not okay for them to be made."
Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin in the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica (2004 – today)
With the world as they know it is destroyed, President Roslin and the head of the military (Edward James Olmos) must work together to fight off the evil Cylons, maintain morale, and find a new home. As a former teacher who took over the presidency after everyone else in the line of succession was killed, she rose to the occasion and demonstrated a steely reserve behind the calm and gentle demeanor. Plus, she’s kinda hot.
Geena Davis as President McKenzie in ABC’s Commander in Chief (2005 – 2006)
Davis was brilliant as Mac, America’s first female (and first independent) president who dealt deftly with internal threats from backstabbing politicians, external threats from warring countries, and an annoying teenage daughter. I still don’t know why this show was canceled — I watched it every week! Apparently I was the only one.
Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth 1 in Elizabeth (1998) and The Golden Age (2007)
In the Oscar-winning Elizabeth, Blanchett’s Elizabeth 1 refuses to marry and ascends the throne as a "virgin queen" after much political and bloody maneuvering, and now she faces down treachery at home and abroad in the upcoming sequel due out in October. Through it all, Blanchett imbues Elizabeth with an intelligence and drive that is mesmerizing.
Glenn Close as Vice President Bennett in Air Force One
The Vice President plays a small but pivotal role in this film about what happens when the President’s plane is hijacked while he’s aboard. President Harrison Ford does a lot of running around and shooting on the plane, but the best scene in the movie is on the ground halfway-through when the Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) tries to challenge Vice President Bennett’s authority as acting President, and she quite firmly puts him in his place — as only Glenn Close can do.
Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933)
Garbo’s 17th century Queen of Sweden was both confident and vulnerable as she fell in love with a Spanish emissary, converted to Catholicism, and ultimately abdicated the throne — all while wearing mostly male attire. The fact that Garbo reportedly played for our team makes her even more fun to watch.
Katherine Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland (1936)
I actually haven’t seen this movie about Mary Stuart’s returns to Scotland to rule as queen, but I’m always up for an opportunity to mention Katherine Hepburn.
Here she is facing off with a displeased Queen Elizabeth 1 (Florence Eldridge) in the movie:
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen (2006)
Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth II, who in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, found herself at war with the press, and her own subjects.
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Star Wars, Episode V1: Return of the Jedi (1983)
This one doesn’t really count, because Princess Leia wasn’t highest power in the land (or planet, in her case), but I threw her in because she wasn’t your typical princess — at least, not the Disney kind who waits around for her prince to come. She wasn’t perfect — her character was still subject to sexist scenes like that ridiculous Jabba the Hut one. But as the head of the rebel resistance in a galaxy far, far away, Princess Leia fought the bad guys, rescued the good guys, and had loads of attitude. Just how I like my princesses.
Florentyna Kane in Jeffrey Archer’s The Prodigal Daughter (reprinted in 2004)
The Prodigal Daughter is a great novel that charts the life of Florentyna Rosnovski, the daughter of a hotel baron who walks away from her father’s money to marry the son of her father’s rival, builds up her own business empire, and ultimately becomes the first female President of the United States, helped along the way by an older "spinster" teacher and her best friend from college, a female hockey player. I read this book at least once every year or two, just for the inspiration.
(For a somewhat cheesy and romantic but fun novel about the first lesbian president of the United States, check out Blayne Cooper’s Madame President.)
So there you have it. Inspiring as they are, there’s something wrong with this list of films, shows, and books, most of which were made in the U.S.: the rulers in them are all white women. Women of color apparently aren’t allowed to even be fictional leaders in America. Which is ironic, considering that the list of real-life female presidents is fairly diverse, with women of color leading countries like Chile, The Philippines, Indonesia, Mongolia and Haiti.
It’s not that I don’t love all the movies about the Queens Marys and Elizabeths, but couldn’t we make a movie about one of these real-life leaders sometime, just to mix things up a little? Although come to think of it, though, with the way Hollywood works, they’d probably cast Cate Blanchett as Corazón Aquino, or make it a story about her shoes…
Have some favorite fictional female leaders I left off the list? Leave ’em in the comments!