Few people would have predicted that a loquacious drama about a woman foreign service professional would have been Netflix’s next big hit. But everyone is talking about “The Diplomat” – for good reason.
The series, starring Keri Russell as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, debuted at No. 1 on the streaming charts. Critics commend the stellar performances, twisty plot and “wryly funny” writing that comprise this “gripping and propulsive drama.” Even the official Twitter account of the U.S. Embassy in London tweeted a playful and mostly laudatory video fact-checking the first episode.
With so many eyes on the latest TV iteration of a woman in a high-profile political position, its depiction of women’s leadership is significant. As a communication scholar who researches media framing of real and fictional women politicians, I am interested in how television and film shape our views of women politicians in the real world.
Although “The Diplomat” initially perpetuates a popular stereotype that the only women who can be trusted in high office are those who don’t want to be there, it thoughtfully portrays the ubiquity of everyday sexism in political culture.
Women and political ambition
“The Diplomat” follows Russell’s character, Kate Wyler, the newly appointed ambassador to the U.K., and her husband, Hal, a former ambassador and the duo’s more politically ambitious half, played by Rufus Sewell.
The president needs to replace his vice president due to an impending scandal, and Hal has maneuvered Kate onto the VP short list – without her knowledge – by convincing the president’s chief of staff, Billie Appia, played by Nana Mensah, that Kate’s supreme competence and lack of political ambition is what qualifies her for the job.
Hal insists that “no one with the temperament to win a campaign should be in charge of anything.”
The assumption at the center of “The Diplomat” is that politicians make lousy leaders. There’s no doubt that for many viewers, that’s part of its appeal.
Like “The West Wing,” – the series on which the showrunner of the “The Diplomat,” Debora Cahn, got her start – the show is part political fairy tale, envisioning a world in which people who can solve problems are actually empowered to do so. As she tries to convince Kate to consider the VP gig, Billie asks, “Can you imagine hiring someone for a key governing position just because you think they’d be good at it?”
This is tricky terrain to negotiate, however, and “The Diplomat” initially reinforces one of the most pernicious stereotypes about women politicians on screen and in real life: Women who have political ambition can’t be trusted. In series like “Veep,” “24” and “Borgen: Power and Glory,” ambitious women politicians turn out to be incompetent or corrupt.
Conversely, ethical and successful women politicians such as those in “Commander in Chief,” “Madam Secretary” and, now, “The Diplomat” are public servants who have to be cajoled into participating in campaigning and partisan politics.
After Kate discovers that people have been scheming behind her back to install her as the vice president during a foreign policy crisis, she cements her status as a nonpolitical straight shooter by marching up to the president and announcing, “I am not cut out for this. I’m stepping down. The good news is, that makes me the one person in the world who isn’t trying to kiss your ass, but still knows a lot about Iran.”
Then, after schooling the commander in chief on the finer points of foreign policy, Kate asserts that his willingness to cooperate with the British prime minister’s request for a show of force is because “you’re scared your enemies think you’re too old and frail to put Americans in the line of fire.”
Because this is a political fairy tale, the president, played by Michael McKean, shakes her hand, tells her she’s doing great, and says, “Just knock off that ‘I resign’ shit. It really pisses me off. I don’t have that kind of time.”
The vision of a candid, nonpolitical woman who wins powerful men’s respect by exposing flaws in their logic and highlighting their weaknesses makes good TV.
But it complicates things when viewers become voters and are asked to support real women candidates who put themselves forward for public office and get punished for speaking their minds and asserting authority. Women politicians who express ambition are often evaluated more negatively by voters than their men counterparts, from whom political ambition is not just tolerated, but expected.
Gender and power
“The Diplomat” recognizes that likable women protagonists, like their political counterparts, can’t appear to be be power hungry. But it also resists the notion that the vice presidency is a powerless office.
As Billie and the U.S. embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Stuart Heyford, played by Ato Essandoh, try to persuade Kate to agree to be vice president, Billie emphasizes that the position would come with substantial influence.
“The VP spends more time in the Oval Office than anyone who doesn’t have a desk there,” she says, then promising, “We’d put you in the lead on foreign policy.” Stuart appeals to Kate’s sense of mission with a line that also reminds viewers that Kate isn’t inappropriately ambitious: “You’d be doing it for the country, not the power.”
The elaborate, and preposterous, chain of events that produces this conversation – in which the president’s chief of staff tries to persuade a rank-and-file foreign service officer to agree to be the vice president in the middle of a term – allows the show to remark on the absurd corrosiveness of political campaigns. After reminding Kate that she wouldn’t “have to survive a campaign,” there is the following exchange between Billie and Stuart:
Billie: “I mean, it’s bad for the guys, but for the women – f–k me. Is she pretty, but not too pretty? Appealing, but not hot? Confident, but not bitchy? Decisive, but not bitchy?”
Stuart: “Cute bitchy, but not bitchy bitchy.”
Dressing the part
Cahn explores this double standard visually as well. Although Kate prefers black suits, minimal makeup, undisciplined hair and shoes that allow her to power walk through her day, her impeccably coiffed staff urges her to adopt a more appealing, feminine and camera-friendly look.
Rather than presenting Kate as dowdy or oblivious and giving her a midseason glow-up, however, the show demonstrates that she is well aware of the image she is creating. During a photo shoot for British Vogue, Kate tells the photographer, “I don’t want to make your job any harder than it already is, but it would be great if there weren’t any shots of me looking wistfully into the distance as I caress my own neck.”
“The Diplomat” wraps insights about sexism in politics in the packaging of a political thriller. Its popularity is a good thing. As the 2024 campaign season ramps up, voters need compelling reminders of the effect sexism can have on democracy – because patriarchal political culture is something we all have to negotiate.