Is America ready for a female president? Network television seems to think so. On Tuesday ABC aired the première of "Commander in Chief," a drama in which Geena Davis plays a politician who finds herself leading the country after the sudden death of the president. More than 16 million viewers tuned in.
The Monitor threw a political party to find out how some viewers responded to a show premised on the idea of a woman in the Oval office - especially since a certain New York senator is widely expected to run in the 2008 presidential race. After gathering four men and three women to watch the pilot episode, it was immediately evident that the vote was split along gender lines: The women gave the show the benefit of the doubt, the men did not.
"I loved the writing," says Kristi MacLean, an advertising executive and single mom. "That's how I imagine it would all be," she says. "I wanted to stand and applaud at the end," adds Cindy Wexler, head of a video-equipment firm. "I liked it," says Brooke Barton, a child psychiatrist, who adds that she might even watch the show despite the fact that she rarely watches any TV at all.
The male counterpunch ranged from begrudging to brutal. Graphic designer Scott Miller, whose father was a career naval officer, said he will watch at least once, but he'll be on the lookout for attention to detail.
"I don't like shows that play with the facts," he says, pointing as an example to the main character's meager credentials, namely four years in Congress followed by a career as a university chancellor. "The likelihood of her being nominated in real life is pretty much zero," he says.
All four men used the word "silly," but only one categorically ruled out any possibility of watching the show. "I wouldn't watch it on a bet," says computer consultant Jeff Daniels. Although Mr. Daniels believes the world would benefit from an infusion of feminine values such as patience and compassion, he says the show's treatment of its topic is superficial. "Frankly, I find the whole show insulting to the office of the president," he concludes.
One consensus, however, did emerge. The group agreed that TV shows such as this one can influence public opinion.
"The writing clearly reflects historic biases about women and power," says Tom Drucker, a management consultant. "If it runs any length at all, I'm sure it will provoke conversations," he says. Therapist Bill Stierle says it can be useful. "I feel good about anything that starts challenging limiting beliefs," he says, but adds that he's concerned the writers might spend too much time on the comic aspects of the first husband who, in the first episode, finds himself relegated to the East Wing despite having served as vice-presidential chief of staff. "I don't really want to spend much time in the kitchen with him trying to make decisions."
Scott, the graphic designer who viewed the show with a skeptical eye, found himself the target for some ribbing from the generally liberal group when he admitted that watching the new president's spouse adjust to his marginalized status "freaked me out a little bit. It would be a hard thing for me to confront, because it's such a new role for a spouse to play in an administration," he says.
"For a man, you mean," says Cindy, eyeing him with surprise. "Well, right," says Scott, "I mean it's been cut for a woman for so long, he'd have to do all these things that First Ladies usually do."
This sends a ripple of laughter among the other men. "I'd be willing to try it out," says Jeff, to which Tom adds, "I don't think it would be hard." Soon, the male group is murmuring about how they would tweak and rearrange the role to suit themselves.
A subplot in the show about whether or not the first daughter would support her mother by attending her speech to Congress appealed to the women but not the men. "A woman thinks more about these things, and it's about time that we have a leader with a more balanced set of issues," says Kristi. "I would expect a woman president to be involved with her children."
Cindy nods in agreement and adds that she plans to watch the show with her two children, a seventh-grade boy and a 10th-grade girl. "My son is taking American government this year," she says. "This will be great, because we can talk about the amendment that puts a vice president in office."
Too much story focus on family issues outside of the Oval Office is a turn off to the male viewers, however. "I'm not interested in a '7th Heaven' in the White House," says Scott, referring to the family show about a minister with seven children.
Tom Drucker takes the argument a step further. "Commander in Chief" has the potential to affect how the culture views a female presidency "if it stays on a strong woman with strong values and principles - more about politics and less about a sullen teen," he says. "Otherwise," he adds, "it could actually do damage by trivializing that important step in our democracy."