With Veep, a Relief From (And Reflection of) Reality

VeepFeatureNew

Satire has long provided relief from the turbulent waters of politics (at least in countries where satire is legal). This is why The Onion has dominated print humor for almost three decades, and why Jon Stewart achieved so much success during those eight long years of President George W. Bush. On HBO’s Veep, Selina Meyer serves as an especially welcome ambassador of this brand of comedy, now that Stewart is in New Jersey rescuing dogs, and the American presidential election fills newsfeeds with satire-ready fodder on the daily.

For four full seasons now, Meyer—the veep-turned-POTUS portrayed brilliantly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus—has thrilled audiences with her brand of ill-informed and ill-advised vulgarity (all in the name of the country’s best interests, of course). She’s pretty much despicable, and that’s exactly what’s so great about her. She’s as raunchy and rotten as one of the boys.

There’s a perfect example of this in the current season. The election between Meyer and her opponent has just ended in a tie, sending the vote to the House. According to the Constitution, if the House then becomes deadlocked, the vote goes to the Senate. This prompts Meyer to wonder, characteristically, “Didn’t those founding fuckers ever hear of an odd number?”

Her confidence and willingness to dismiss anyone and everyone—from the Founding Fathers to the American people (“Because I’ve met some people, okay? Real people, and I gotta tell you, a lot of them are fucking idiots”)—assure that she fits in with the rest of the population on Capitol Hill. The extremity of these tendencies, perhaps, is what sets her apart.

Veep2
Julia Louis-Dreyfus with Vice President Joe Biden.

Personally, I find Meyer and her crew’s brand of extreme candidness weirdly refreshing, especially—no, specifically—when it comes from the women in the group (Sue Wilson, played by Sufe Bradshaw, and Amy Brookheimer, played by Anna Chlumsky, are obvious standouts). Meyer is both the only kind of woman who could possibly make it to the top in American politics and also the very product of American politics, the result of a life spent in this cutthroat arena surrounded by these cutthroat people. And that’s just one of the similarities between the show and the political reality we’re in now.

It’s well-known that female protagonists, and their real-life counterparts, generally find it more difficult to be “likable” than do men. Think of Walter White vs. Nancy Botwin, Don vs. Betty Draper or even—dare I bring it up?—Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders. Let’s forget about policy for a moment (if Meyer is right, you weren’t thinking about it much anyway)—from a strictly image standpoint, I find Sanders’s grumpy persona and sloppy appearance huge turnoffs. Clinton, however, strikes me as poised and professional, whether or not she’s in a good mood. But as my Facebook feed and the news reports confirm, not everyone sees it that way. Clinton is undeniably ambitious (anyone who runs for president is!) and, as a woman, that makes her immediately suspect.

That Meyer would understand Clinton’s conundrum is apparent from the sexualized language she and her colleagues consistently use to talk to one another. In one season three episode, Meyer compares her professional status to an underling’s: “[It] means I’ve got a bigger dick, which means he can suck it.” The line is met with admiration from her staff, as Meyer knows it will be. For the most part, she would prefer if everyone would just forget she’s a woman (with the exception of Charlie Baird, the president’s new, to put it in very un-Veep-like terms, “special friend,” played by John Slattery); she’s a politician first and foremost, and as such, she’ll cop to being female only when it might serve her interests.

Should Meyer cry during a speech to make herself appear more feminine? Will it help if she does a photo-op with a gun to achieve the opposite effect? There’s no clear answer for Selina (or for Hillary, for that matter).

Figuring out when to play the woman card, though, is complex. Most of the time, being a woman does not provide Meyer any benefits. When encouraged by staffers to begin a pro-choice speech with the phrase “As a woman,” she responds, “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.” The “people can’t know that” line is particularly telling. Meyers’s femininity is hardly in question: She wears tight dresses, high heels, makeup and dangly earrings. And, yet, she is still unsure whether or not to distance herself from “womanhood” in the minds of the voters. Should Meyer cry during a speech to make herself appear more feminine? Will it help if she does a photo-op with a gun to achieve the opposite effect? There’s no clear answer for Selina (or for Hillary, for that matter).

Luckily for the people of the United States, Armando Iannucci, the creator of the show, has placed the majority of the action of Veep firmly behind the scenes so that, most of the time, the first female president of the United States gets to be just one of the acidly foulmouthed guys. What a relief.

Feature photo: Lacey Terrell/HBO