There’s a scene from the movie “Broadcast News” that plays endlessly in my mind.
Brilliant network news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) knows her best friend and co-worker, veteran reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), is the best person to lead coverage on a special report about a developing geopolitical crisis. But a smarmy executive at the network overrules her, assigning newly hired and deeply inexperienced anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) instead.
Jane urges the network executive to reconsider.
“It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room,” he snarls at her.
“No, it’s awful,” Jane says.
“Broadcast News,” released in 1987, is sharp and prescient in so many ways. It realistically depicts the chase for ratings and the prioritization of style over substance in TV news, as the industry began to transform in the 1980s. And Hunter, whose performance vaunted her to stardom, makes Jane relatable to so many women who have had to deal with mediocre white men failing upward in the workplace.
Movies and television about women being punished for their preparedness and ambition are especially hard to watch after the 2016 election, in which a woman who faced a minefield of sexist double standards lost to a serial misogynist whose unpreparedness and lack of qualifications were seen as assets. I’ve spent much of the last four years looking at culture through the lens of Donald Trump’s presidency, from the ways everything seems to be an episode of a never-ending reality show to the ways filmmakers and creators have tried to depict and respond to this raging dumpster fire while it’s actively burning. It can be clichéd and rote to view everything through this lens. Yet it’s hard not to — and once you see the parallels, they’re impossible to unsee.
Much of my examination of the intersection of politics and culture has involved writing about ambitious women and how they often pay a price for their ambition, both on screen and in real life. It’s demoralizing and exhausting.
Compared to “Broadcast News,” 1999’s “Election” is much more unsettling to revisit today. In the film, high achiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) — the only person deeply invested in her high school’s class president race — seems headed toward a clear victory. But then, the student government’s bored and bitter faculty adviser (Matthew Broderick), desperate for anything exciting, recruits a popular member of the school’s football team to enter the race and shake things up.
“They think they can, all of a sudden, one day, out of the blue, waltz right in with no qualifications whatsoever, and try to take away what other people have worked for very, very hard, their entire lives. No, it didn’t bother me at all,” Tracy says in a sarcastic voiceover.
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott reevaluated the movie last year, writing that he, like many viewers, incorrectly saw Tracy as the villain when “Election” was released. People largely didn’t see the film as an exploration of “the casual misogyny baked into the structures of civic and scholastic life.” Over the years, Tracy has become synonymous with women and girls deemed too power-hungry. Hillary Clinton’s critics often compared her derisively to Tracy. Similarly, a conservative columnist referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Senator Tracy Flick” during her presidential run last year. (With her background in policy and academia, Warren faced a host of gendered criticisms, like articles referring to her as too “wonky” and lacking the charisma to be “electable” as president.)
Though slightly sunnier in tone, the city council race on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” is similarly uncanny in how true to life it is. Highly prepared, highly dedicated Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) faces off against hapless candy company heir Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) and his extremely punchable face. Leslie does narrowly win the election, but Bobby, who has “never had a real job in his life,” initially gains momentum because of his charm and the massively low bar set for him.
While watching this episode pre-2016, I would think about how often this happens to women but still manage to laugh about it. Watching it now, the similarities to real national politics dull the humor. (Bobby’s family fortune also allows him to run wall-to-wall campaign ads; while watching one of them, Leslie retorts: “What is this guy running for? President of being on every channel all the time?”)
As we wrap up another presidential campaign season that has contained much of the same gendered dynamics as 2016 — made even more stomach-turning because, as a woman of color, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has faced both sexism and racism — I wish the attacks hadn’t been so predictable. And I wish these pop culture touchstones, these movies, shows and characters that I love, didn’t mirror real life so much.
Shortly before former Vice President Joe Biden named Harris as his running mate this summer, some Biden supporters and donors reportedly objected because they believed Harris was “too ambitious and that she will be solely focused on becoming president herself,” according to CNBC. One of them, an unnamed businessman, told the outlet that he thought Harris was “not loyal at all and very opportunistic.”
Former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams similarly faced criticisms for supposedly being too ambitious when she put herself forward as a possible running mate. Talking about one’s ambitions is something white men routinely do. But when a Black woman does it, she gets headlines like this one in the Washington Examiner: “Stacey Abrams feels entitled to power, which is why she shouldn’t get it.”
On screen, the last few years have given us a variety of shows portraying women in power in different contexts, including “Homeland,” “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Madam Secretary,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” (In several of them, a woman becomes president, so they might as well be in the fantasy genre.) Such shows illustrate the grim realities of being a woman in power. They feature characters who are generally unapologetic about their ambitions, but that still doesn’t come across as an unequivocally positive feature. Women on these shows often have to be cold and calculating in order to get ahead. Gaining power involves playing a cynical, zero-sum game.
Sometimes these characters end up reinforcing the existing system of misogyny by deploying performative feminism, especially if they’re white women. As the lone adult daughter of the family on HBO’s “Succession,” Shiv Roy tries to have it both ways by presenting herself as more progressive and feminist than her father and her brothers — but still playing the game. It’s tempting to compare her to Ivanka Trump and point out the Roy family’s Trumpian qualities. But one of the many brilliant achievements of “Succession” is its high-wire act of mirroring real life while never quite crossing into the territory of directly reproducing it.
By contrast, it has become common during Trump’s presidency to joke that HBO’s “Veep” is a documentary because the staggering ineptitude it depicts is so similar to our current political reality. Selina Meyer also represents the pitfalls of being a woman with ambition. In order to gain power, she has to work within the system and conform to men’s expectations, which means she ends up reinforcing and perpetuating misogyny instead of dismantling it. As a satire that exaggerates Selina’s brazen ambition, “Veep” was always meant to be cringe-inducing viewing. But since 2016, I’ve found it impossible to revisit. It’s all too much and too uncomfortable. Isn’t real life exhausting enough?
Yet, instead of feeling resigned, maybe it’s worth trying to feel cautiously optimistic. While a woman has still never been elected president, Trump’s election did galvanize many women to run for office at various levels of government. The road for them, while still filled with obstacles, is a little less rocky than it was in past elections. Similarly, in pop culture, there have been a lot more portrayals of women and girls who are celebrated for their ambition, nerdiness and drive, including in “Booksmart,” “Never Have I Ever” and “The Babysitters’ Club.” In “Booksmart,” the protagonists’ preparedness and studious qualities actually work to their advantage in a clever way, and the humor is warm and heartfelt. On “Never Have I Ever” and “The Babysitters’ Club,” two shows that center girls of color, the characters get to be their whole selves on screen.
Perhaps being the smartest person in the room isn’t quite so awful as it once was.