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A complete, kind of depressing history of fictional female presidents

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer on
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer on "Veep."
Lacey Terrell

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On HBO’s "Veep," the lovably misanthropic Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States after the sitting president resigned to care for his mentally ill wife.

In real life, as you may have noticed, American history has produced exactly zero female presidents to date, but the "Veep" universe has already racked up two: both Meyer and her successor, Laura Montez (Andrea Savage). And these women are far from the first fictional lady presidents to be depicted on film and television.

But I’ve got bad, if not totally surprising, news: pop culture has not been kind to female commanders-in-chief. I took a careful look at all the fictional woman presidents I could find and discovered that these make-believe heads of state could be divided into four broad, largely unflattering categories:


Only eight American presidents have died in office, but their fatality rate on TV and film is much more alarming. As a result, only a small number of women have been actually elected to the nation’s highest office on their own merit.

This was the case on the TV series "Commander in Chief," in which Geena Davis became the first female president after the incumbent suffered a cerebral aneurysm. On "Scandal," the archconservative vice president, played by Kate Burton, briefly took office when the president was hospitalized following an assassination attempt.

"Madam Secretary," too, had its, ahem, titular stateswoman, played by Téa Leoni, temporarily assume executive powers when Air Force One was believed lost with the president aboard, and both the vice president and the Senate leader were incapacitated.

And in "Mars Attacks!," the president’s teenage daughter, played by Natalie Portman, ascended to his post after the entire government was wiped out by aliens.


Now, as much as I adore Selina Meyer on "Veep," there’s no denying that she’s as much a train wreck as any of our real-life presidents have ever been. And she’s not alone. On "Prison Break," Patricia Wettig’s vice president engineered the assassination of the sitting president. In "Mafia!," Christina Applegate — newly elected to the presidency — nearly achieves world peace before being distracted by her mob boss boyfriend.


There have been some legit characterizations on screen, though few and far between. The two most notable mainstream examples were Cherry Jones’ character on "24," a strong, idealistic cross between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; and Alfre Woodard’s character on "State of Affairs." This Air Force veteran — the first black woman to be elected president — was smart and effective, if a little too fixated on avenging her son’s death.

This summer’s "Independence Day: Resurgence" saw Sela Ward presiding in the White House, which was fortunately rebuilt since the original film. Depending on your interpretation of the series finale of "Parks & Recreation," you might want to hear Leslie Knope’s name mentioned here, too. And while she was technically the president of the Twelve Colonies and not the United States, Mary McDonnell’s character on "Battlestar Galactica" would certainly fit into this category as well.

Could we have more of that, please?


Personally, I’m not too bothered by the many incompetent and/or corrupt fictional female presidents. What’s more troubling is when these characters serve only to make a retrograde comment on the girlish silliness of the fairer sex, delicate simpletons that we are.

The short-lived 1985 sitcom, "Hail to the Chief," starred Patty Duke as the first woman president — though it’s unclear how she was able to accomplish anything, considering how busy she was with wrangling her unfaithful husband and rebellious teens. Y'know, lady stuff. In 1964’s "Kisses for My President," the first female president, played by Polly Bergen, saw the error of her selfish, career-having ways. So she got pregnant, and resigned to care full-time for her terribly neglected family.

But my personal favorite is a character that was never adapted for film or TV: President Rose Ambrose appeared in a 1980s "National Lampoon" story. She was named vice president because she was having an affair with the president, then became president herself after he succumbed to a heart attack — during sex! Eventually, she was brutally gunned down by multiple shooters, including the former First Lady.

Now that’s the stuff of history books!

Molly Fitzpatrick is senior culture editor for Fusion. Her story about how women presidents have been depicted in TV and film was originally published on the website, Nerve.

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