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Davis to Shake Up Role of 'Mr.' President

The number of women who have played the president of the United States on TV or in the movies is nearly as slim as the number of women who have been president in real life: zero.

But at a time when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are being mentioned as presidential candidates in 2008, television has finally seen fit to thrust a female character into the White House.

ABC's new series, "Commander in Chief," (search), starring Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis (search) as a female vice president who takes the reins after the sitting president dies, premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT.

How will Davis, as President Mackenzie Allen, handle the role of commander in chief differently than other actors who came before her, such as Martin Sheen (search) on "The West Wing," Michael Douglas (search) in "The American President," Dennis Haysbert (search) on FOX's "24" and Michael Keaton (search) in "First Daughter"?

"The vast majority of these characters are portrayed as stolid, stalwart men who face various crises with a great deal of fortitude and courage," said Christopher Sharrett, professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University. "I think that will play a role: Can the woman do it, or is she compensating for some kind of emotional or sexual drive?"

Other famous depictions of non-historical presidents have also painted a picture of the president as a stiff-backed, confident leader, but with a bit of a dark side, such as Donald Moffat in "Clear and Present Danger," Gene Hackman in "Absolute Power" and Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove."

In taking on her role, will Davis need to be mindful of the work of other actors, or is the whole notion of the show to scrap all previous concepts of what the American leader should be?

"In Martin Sheen, you have a president who is a regular guy, who can sit down with you and have a drink," Sharrett said. "I think the show will carry some of the influence of 'The West Wing,' or try to rebut it — insisting the female can make it."

The precedent of an actress tackling the role of president is very slim indeed. In the goofy 1985 ABC sitcom "Hail to the Chief," Patty Duke (search), as president, helped avert World War III, and on "Battlestar Galactica," Mary McDonnell (search), who played the first lady in "Independence Day," becomes the president of 12 colonies of humans.

Experts say that since there have been so few portrayals of female presidents, Davis will look more to past depictions of powerful women in politics.

Prominent examples are Allison Janney as the presidential press secretary on "The West Wing" and Glenn Close as the vice president in "Air Force One" and as an ornery police captain on FX's "The Shield."

"The Glenn Close model makes the most sense — a hard-assed, hard-nosed leader for a male-oriented group," said William Luhr, professor of English and film at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. "It used to be that if a woman played a tough leader role, it was seen that she was not a woman, but asexual or gay."

Luhr added that it would be ridiculous for an actress to try to emulate the numerous super-macho representations of male presidents in movies and on TV.

"She can't be the warrior-leader — who presents himself as not only a leader but someone who can also go out and kick butt," he said. "Davis will have to project herself as mentally tough but not necessarily physically tough, like Harrison Ford in 'Air Force One,' who literally beats his opponent down with his bare hands."

Then, of course, there are farcical portrayals of the president so wacky that Davis could never look to them while preparing for her role in a dramatic series — such as the bumbling Jack Nicholson in "Mars Attacks," weasely womanizer Kevin Kline in "Dave" or opportunistic Jeff Bridges in "The Contender."

The latter was written and directed by Rod Lurie (search), creator of "Commander in Chief," and starred Joan Allen (search) as a female vice-presidential nominee beset by allegations of a sex scandal.

But whenever audiences are offered the more sturdy, resolute, fatherly type of president, critics warn that they should be very aware that they're being sold nothing but an ideal.

"They give us a fantasy president," said New York Post entertainment writer Linda Stasi. "We were given Martin Sheen, the most moral president you could imagine, right when we had Clinton, who had extramarital affairs. Now, it will be a liberal president at a time when we have a very conservative leader — we'll be offered a president that's too perfect for words."

One of the biggest struggles facing the new show may be portraying President Allen as a dominant, powerful leader while still holding on to the uniqueness of her character as one of TV's first female presidents.

"A large part of the show's selling point is: Is she ready? Can she do it?" Sharrett said. "It's time; there are people like Hillary Clinton and others making this necessary. It seems that's the hook for the show, it's a tried and true concept — trying to prove that she's as tough as anybody with a stern look on her face."

The show will likely fight stereotypes that define the very presence of femininity as a sign of passivity and weakness.

"The show will no doubt go into one side that is, 'I'm a girl, the White House will be more of a home, with a personalized side to it,'" Luhr said. "Then again, the show can't present her as too womanly, which is often taken as too weak."

Others, however, argue that the character's gender will not impact upon her ability to appear powerful and commanding at all.

"There have been female leaders in real life, really not so different, it gives you an opportunity to play against type, to play against the strong male," said journalist and author of "Operation Hollywood," David Robb.

"You've got the Margaret Thatcher model, Golda Meir — they were tough. I don't think toughness is just a male quality," he said. "This could be a nice lesson for Americans with a woman maybe running [in the next election], to soften the people up, to see that it's not that different. It's not that hard to believe."

Rumors have swirled that the show will concentrate too much on President Allen's family life, a focus that would never be given to a similar male character. Some rumors have even suggested that another male character on the show will draw Allen's attention away from her husband.

"Traditionally, whether presidents are portrayed as tough warriors or not, you'll see his soft side, but largely manifested through the largely different role of the president's wife," Luhr said. "She'll have to have a husband, and chances are they can't present her as an emasculating wife."

Many critics think that the struggle between a female president dividing herself between her country and her family will carry one of the most powerful social messages of the show.

"Can the female juggle the family and the job at the same time?" Sharrett said. "The male president can do the job because the woman is watching things domestically, but can she balance a job like this and the family? Why does she have to have the onus of having to take care of the family and the country too? Or maybe the theme will be that the family is the country."

Another unique aspect of the show is that Davis' character will be an independent, another first in the history of American politics. Many critics think that this decision will be one of the key aspects of the show's success, as it will bypass political pitfalls and allow the show to focus more on Davis' character.

"Rod Lurie is a brilliant guy," Robb said. "This gives him the best of both parties. He doesn't have to be tied down to any dogma, any doctrine."

However, some critics view it as cowardly.

"They're afraid if the character was a Democrat that they'd lose the Christian right, and if she was a Republican that they'd lose the liberal left," Stasi said. "The chances of having an indie candidate in the White House are the same as me growing three more noses in the next five minutes."

On the bright side, Stasi thinks the show is reflecting the changing political climate in the country, where the once-unthinkable notion of a woman in charge in the White House now seems more and more likely.

"Since there's never been a female president, in this backward country we've never even had a female vice president when many Third World countries have had female leaders, it seems like it's time to at least explore the idea on television."