It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since the day that will live in infamy: the election of Donald J. Trump. On one hand, it feels like yesterday; on the other, it seems like 200 exhausting years have passed, full of Twitter rants and never-ending embarrassing moments by our ridiculous and dangerous commander in chief. The good news is, it’s one year later, and we’ve survived, and with any luck (and voter determination), future Election Days will bring more progress into politics, not less.
In the meantime, 365 days ago we seemed mere hours away from the first female president, but that particular brand of leader remains available only in fictional form. Unable to land (so far) in reality, a female leader of the free world has shown up everywhere from sitcoms to dystopian YA landscapes. Yet some of these earlier efforts could be generously described as less than feminist, as the commander in chief easily gets distracted from national affairs by family squabbles with her spouse or kids. (Would any of this had happened to Madison or Eisenhower?) More recent female presidents have fortunately proved to be much more formidable. Below we offer a list of our favorite or most memorable female presidents in pop culture; even though some of them have some serious flaws, we’d still take them over our current president.
This silent science-fiction comedy hasn’t exactly been lost to the ages, given that preserved prints exist in multiple world-cinema archives, but it hasn’t been in circulation since the ’20s, leading us to rely on 90-year-old firsthand reports about the movie’s satirical vision of a world in which every adult male has died in a plague, save one. This last dude—a shaggy, smelly hermit—becomes an unlikely object of desire, earning a trip to a White House that has fallen into disrepair because none of the surviving ladies know how to mow a lawn or hammer a nail. There he meets the Presidentress: a kooky cat lady who coos shamelessly over the first real guy she’s seen in a while. [Noel Murray]
Alma Coin was supposed to change things. The president of rebel District 13, she stood in direct opposition to Panem’s President Snow, a terrible and ruthless leader played excellently by Donald Sutherland. Coin seemed good and virtuous, and like Hillary Clinton, could really rock a pantsuit. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and once Coin stepped in to rule all of Panem, it became clear that Coin was more interested in brutal revenge than peaceful justice, much to the dismay of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and a number of other Panem residents. Coin ultimately meets her demise at the end of an arrow delivered by Katniss, but not before killing her beloved little sister, Prim, and threatening to launch another Hunger Games. [Marah Eakin]
For Veep’s first three seasons, the gaffes, deficiencies, and grudges of Vice President Selina Meyer and staff served as a reminder that elected officials were just as fallible and petty as the rest of us. But they also fed into an unspoken joke: These “stupid little fuckers” (to borrow one of the show’s less-colorful insults) were only a heartbeat away from the White House. But it turns out cardiac arrest wasn’t their only sure path to the Oval Office: The show’s unseen, phone-averse president abdicates his office to Selina in season three in order to take care of his ailing wife. It’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but given the circumstances—and the fact that she finds out during a primary-campaign stop at a community center—she can’t really celebrate. And there will be no cause for celebration during her short spell at the top either, as her footnote of a presidency gains an electoral asterisk that her administration, for once, had no part in bungling. [Erik Adams]
Laura Roslin ascended to the presidency through a numerical fluke, surviving the Cylon attack on the Twelve Colonies by attending the Galactica decommissioning ceremony in her role as secretary of education. But even though she was 43rd in line of succession, she proved to be the steely leader the surviving humans needed, keeping the civil liberties of the last remnants of humanity intact through an uneasy alliance with Commander Adama. Roslin’s cancer storyline led her further and further into the weeds as Battlestar Galactica went on, but she never lost her iron will to protect the survivors under her charge, even if it meant throwing a Cylon out of an airlock. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
Soap creator Susan Harris tried and quickly failed with this seven-episode sitcom, which depicted Patty Duke as the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, Madam President is saddled with a philandering, hawkish husband; three kids; a quarreling Cabinet; and a mother who’s hooking up with Congress. It’s fairly maddening to see President Mansfield apologize to her husband for all the time she’s taking to do her job—y’know, running the country—so maybe this series’ early death was a blessing. Harris’ other sitcom foray into the world of politics was much more successful: Soap spin-off Benson. [Gwen Ihnat]
Tim Burton’s alien-invasion movie ends with the president’s daughter, Taffy Dale, taking over his position. President of the United States isn’t a hereditary position, but circumstances didn’t allow for a lot of alternatives. With her mother (Glenn Close) crushed underneath Nancy Reagan’s chandelier, her father (Jack Nicholson) impaled by a Martian flag, and the rest of the nation’s politicians reduced to smoldering skeletons, the kind, thoughtful, and—importantly—still-breathing Taffy seems as good a choice as any. [Nick Wanserski]
In 1964, the idea of a female president was pitched as an outlandish comedy, with Polly Bergen as Madam President and Fred MacMurray as a testy and whiny “first man” who seems unreasonably surprised by the considerable ambitions of his wife. Her two children also don’t enjoy life at the White House and begin to run wild. When President McCloud gets pregnant with the couple’s third child, she decides to give up grappling with the Soviets, a Latin dictator, and a bullying senator to stay home with her family, setting women’s liberation back at least five extra years. From The New York Times’ review: “We hope the first woman to become president brings along a more amusing husband than Mr. MacMurray.” [Gwen Ihnat]
8. Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), The Giver (2014)
It took 20 years and numerous knockoffs for Lois Lowry’s classic YA novel The Giver to be adapted for film, by which time even the monochromatic palette could do little to distinguish it from your Hunger Games and Divergents. Just as in those works, there’s a woman leader, played here by Meryl Streep. The Chief Elder’s gender is no cause for controversy in a world in which emotions are controlled and everyone’s future predetermined. Phillip Noyce’s film departs sharply in her characterization, giving Streep the chance to play a totalitarian. But in giving viewers a single antagonist to pit against Jeff Bridges’ irascible old coot (the titular Giver), Noyce takes some of the sting out of Lowry’s original commentary on society’s complacency. [Danette Chavez]
When Geena Davis accepted the Best Actress Golden Globe for her turn in the sadly short-lived Commander In Chief, she told a lovely story about getting out of the limo that night and having a little 8-year-old girl tug at her dress and tell her that, because of the role, she now wanted to be president someday, eliciting a round of “awww”s from the crowd. She paused: “Okay, that didn’t actually happen. But it could have!” It was a great reminder of the wit and charisma she brought to the role of President Allen, a VP who ascends to the position after the sitting prez dies from a cerebral aneurysm. Unfortunately, even bringing in wunderkind Steven Bochco as replacement showrunner couldn’t stop the ratings slide, and it was canceled after one season. [Alex McLevy]
President Allison Taylor has no idea what she’ll be in for when she says, “Getting through this day will be hard enough,” in the first episode of 24 season seven. She kicks off her 24 tenure by fearlessly facing down all the joint chiefs and giving a hand-wringing secretary of state a smackdown. Over the next 24 hours, she stands off against a genocidal madman, a rogue ex-counter terrorist agent, and as it turns out, her own daughter: Olivia Taylor orchestrated the death of the man who killed her brother. Instead of covering it up, President Taylor ends the season by turning her own daughter in, losing her entire family in the process. Undaunted, she kicked off season eight by trying to broker a nuclear agreement with Iran. Jones won a well-deserved Emmy for portraying one of the strongest onscreen female presidents ever. [Gwen Ihnat]
Roland Emmerich’s 2013 action film White House Down was basically a piece of Die Hard-Barack Obama crossover fan fiction, in which a divorced, knockoff John McClane (bizarrely named “John Cale”) joined forces with a black president who just happens to like Air Jordans and is having a hard time quitting smoking. No surprise, then, that in his most recent go at obliterating the White House, Emmerich introduced the hawkish, ambiguously Clinton-esque Elizabeth Lanford as the successor to Thomas Whitmore, the platonic ideal of fictional presidents played by Bill Pullman in the original Independence Day. Women in Roland Emmerich movies are either boring or expendable, and Lanford—the least likable of the many commanders in chief who’ve popped up in the disaster specialist’s films over the years—is both. And given that she ignores the advice of returning hero David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) by blowing up an alien spacecraft that turns out to be an ally, the destruction unleashed in the movie is partly her fault. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Nobody ever said that Scandal’s Sally Langston didn’t take advantage of an opportunity. She weaseled her way onto Fitzgerald Grant’s ticket, switching from being his fiercest competitor to his running mate. Then after Fitz got shot during an assassination attempt, she wasted no time trying to get him declared unable to lead so that she herself could be sworn in. President Langston ruled for about five hot minutes until Fitz’s handlers like Cyrus and Olivia pulled a Weekend At Bernie’s to make it seem like comatose Fitz was still among the conscious. Then Fitz recovered, giving Sally her walking papers himself. Sally went on to running her own talk show wherein she opined on the Scandal presidential race that resulted in Mellie Grant becoming president. Even as Mellie now rules the country with Olivia Pope by her side, she’s not the first female president—as Sally would love to remind us—because she got there already. [Gwen Ihnat]
Part alternate-history goof, part snide social commentary, this contemporary cult favorite features a devastating depiction of a ditzy, image-obsessed, Sarah Palin-esque American president who authorizes a reelection-boosting moon mission that ends up revealing the existence of a secret Nazi colony in the sky. In one of Iron Sky’s cleverest political attacks, the president enlists her new Aryan allies to goose her campaign with Goebbels-worthy propaganda—proving that the U.S. can easily be swayed by the kind of rhetoric we once defined as a threat to civilization. But because our leader in this movie was picked for her looks, not her wits, she’s easily manipulated into doing the Germans’ bidding. [Noel Murray]