If you were an alien studying life on Earth by watching our TV shows, you might imagine that women over 50 focus all of their pent-up passion on kvetching over their teenager daughter’s short skirts and trying to get their tubby husbands to lay off the potato chips. That illusion disappeared with a bang on Sunday night — a hasty Oval Office bang. Granted, Selina Meyer, president-almost-elect at the center of the HBO comedy Veep, has always subverted dominant assumptions about 50-something women’s sexuality (and wholesomeness and matronly self-sacrifice) by fucking whomever, wherever, and whenever she wants. In past seasons, she impulsively slept with her ex-husband and had phone sex with another paramour, telling him, “I want you to put your finger on the button and come into my oval office.” And this season she’s been getting down with banker Charlie Baird Jr. (John Slattery), without any pretense of romantic interest. “I’m human,” she explains. “I just sometimes need a little banking task force.”
But last night’s episode featured the biggest, grabbiest move of all: Selina yells at her running mate, VP-almost-elect Tom James (Hugh Laurie), for fucking her (undermining her election efforts) while obviously wanting to fuck her. Apparently this is Meyer’s version of verbal foreplay, because in the next scene, we discover Selina straddling Tom in her very presidential blue dress.
This wouldn’t seem so brazen if we’d seen it before. Instead, for decades now, TV development executives have led us to believe that female characters over 50 don’t have sex drives. They also rarely have personalities, and can’t behave questionably without being treated as villains. While male characters of all ages are allowed the full range of human emotion and behavior, when female characters have acted bossy or imperious or ravenously horny in the past, they were labeled Difficult Women or Predators, and ethical questions about their behavior became the focus of the whole show: Nurse Jackie and Weeds are prime examples of this; every reckless sexual act has consequences. Even poor Samantha from Sex and the City, who spent six seasons fucking douche bros and taking names, was painted as some kind of broken, emotionally arrested robot lady in the show’s final few episodes.
While Selina Meyer is also clearly a broken robot lady in many respects, her extreme, unapologetic nastiness has always been a big part of what has made Veep such a transfixing show. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has created a character who dares to be sexy over 50 while also being just as unlikable as a self-involved, narcissistic Jack Black type or a hapless, lazy Seth Rogen character. Meyer is a shit-talking woman with zero empathy and zero interest in anything outside of herself. When her daughter talks, she rolls her eyes and walks off. When her crush asks her polite questions, she wants to skip the talk and get straight to the sex part.
But Meyer’s extremely taxing nature is treated as a feature, not a bug. Her handlers rarely try to change her or even scold her for obvious misbehavior. The overarching moral of the show is not “This woman needs to fix herself” so much as “Remember, we’ve had male presidents who behaved this way and no one batted an eye.” Veep tackled this issue at the end of the third season, when Selina, Gary, and Amy were discussing a plan to visit a factory that makes protective gear for firefighters:
Gary: I think that’s great, ma’am. Everybody loves firefighters. Everybody wants to keep them safe.
Selina: Yeah, everybody wants to fuck ‘em, too. God, I would love to fuck a firefighter. Hey, I’m the president. I can fuck anybody I want now, right?
Amy: All the other ones have.
Meyer follows her whims without consequences. She wants sex with firefighters. (She is not alone in that desire.) The idea that she might act on that fantasy leaves her giddy with power, and her handlers just shrug and accept that she’ll do whatever she chooses. Considering what a crass, snarky show Veep is, it’s surprising that one of the joys of watching it is simply witnessing a woman in power who’s not afraid to use that power. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is great at conveying the thrill that Meyer gets from doing whatever she wants, whenever she wants it, whether it involves telling sick jokes in private, swearing up a storm, or screwing her own VP.
Surely the show wouldn’t feel quite as exciting if our culture at large didn’t tend to treat women over 50 like passionless fossils who happily traded in their sex drives for crocheting needles, or if we didn’t tend to compare older women who seek out sex to predatory animals, desperate and pathetic and always on the prowl for younger prey. It’s refreshing to see a slightly older woman getting some without either begging for it or being scolded for it after the fact.
That said, the bigger picture of female characters on TV has shifted rapidly over the past few years, too. Women on TV can take what they want without apology lately, and they’re not always branded as villains or sluts for doing so, the way they were just a few years ago. Girls, Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Scandal, Transparent, and Orange Is the New Black have embraced the female sex drive without making every single action a referendum on good behavior and/or sexual ethics. The message is clear: Women screw (and also screw up) just like men do, and that doesn’t make them sluts or cunts or divas (though those are words Veep certainly isn’t afraid of).
Veep never really tries to make Meyer seem all that good or all that lovable. The show’s writers don’t make her pay for doing what she likes when she likes it, either. In some strange way, that feels like a step forward. She can make blunders as big and clumsy as any male president would, all without giggling or covering her face in shame or crying into her hands the way a ‘90s or ‘00s version of the same character might have. Meyer can be just as arrogant and sharp and brash as a man and she still might get elected president. Let’s hope the real world will some day be half as progressive as the one on our TV screens.