Wonder Women Circa 2014

Yesterday, as is my usual custom when I am driving somewhere, the FM radio dial was set at its usual point, at 89.7 which around these parts, Sarasota, FL, is the Public media station WUSF, I happened to tune in during the broadcast of the Fresh Air show on NPR when the host Terry Gross was interviewing Jill Lepore, a Harvard University professor and a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine. Jill is the author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

Now Wonder Woman, the heroine of the most popular, and most widely read comic featuring a woman was the creation of author William Moulton Marsden more than 70 tears ago. He wrote his first Wonder Woman in 1941. Marsden had quite a story himself.

Marsden had a wife, Sadie Holloway, and a mistress, Olive Byrne who was the niece of Margaret Sanger, who was famous in her own right as the founder of Planned Parenthood as well as a crusader for birth control. He, and the wife and the mistress all lived together discreetly, and Marsden fathered children with both of them. They lived in Rye, New York. The best part of this is that Marsden, who lived this life of lies and secrets, was also the creator of the lie detector.

Now this post is not going to be about Marsden, who had a strong interest in both Suffragists and super heroes, as well as pinups and centerfolds. Nor will it be about comic books, Wonder Woman, or anything directly related. But the radio show that I heard yesterday was actually the trigger to get me started on this post – which I had been circling around, and unable to find an entry point that I liked, for more than a few days.

What I was looking for was a way to write about three different and very current examples of women for whom the term Wonder Woman fits to a degree. The degree I am referencing is the fact that all three of these women do not possess super powers of any kind. They don’t fly, stop bullets, or leap over buildings. Yet by every or any way you can think of – each of these woman are not only empowered; they’re also in a position to put their powers to use.

I’m talking about the new TV Series on CBS called Madam Secretary starring Tea Leoni, the Bollywood film with Rani Mukerji starring as a lady Senior Inspector in the Crime Branch in Mumbai, India – the film is entitled Mardaani, and the last is the 4th season of Homeland, which stars Claire Danes, who as Carrie Mathison, is now the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Let’s start with Madam Secretary.

I’m six episodes in on the new CBS-TV Series Madam Secretary. Anchored by Tea Leoni as the former CIA analyst turned college professor, which was before she was asked by the President to become the Secretary of State. Now that kind of chain of events or career changes is not something that happens every day of the week. How did this happen this time, I’ll circle back to that shortly.

It may not be all that far from the Student Union of the University of Virginia, to a horse farm outside of Charlottesville, Va., to the corridors of power in the State Department of the United States in Washington, D.C. with regular if not daily forays over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the address of The White House..

But those distances are measurable either in miles or in time to get from one to the other.

But the distance from standing in a college classroom teaching a course called Culture, Politics, and the Cold War to becoming the third highest ranking official of the United States Government, just behind the President and the Vice-President, is not so easily measured.

Now a lot of folks will be discussing this show, called Madam Secretary by calling Leoni’s character, Elizabeth McCord, a fictional version of ‘Hillary’. Or by the folks with their minds on matters of politics and or international global politics taking opportunities to either call the show propaganda, or to discredit the show when it steps away from reality.

But on that note, there is a point to be made. Just as we watched with fascination as the Lord of Darkness, one Francis Underwood, plied his trade in those same corridors of power on Netflix’s House of Cards, one must consider that both of these are dramatic TV shows made for entertainment. No one is going to consider and believe that Underwood, or McCord, are on Reality TV.

Having said that, I’ll now say that I like this show. The premise is simple: every episode requires Secretary of State McCord to make a decision. In some cases it might be to exert influence on countries that are in dispute. Like in the Episode Five, called Just Another Normal Day, China and Japan were disputing the rights to a group of small islands in the East China Sea. Add on to that the fact of a young girl, a Chinese national, has requested political asylum in the USA and has refused to board a flight back to China.

China and Japan are each quite worried about ‘face’ and perception, and things like who offers the handshake first suddenly matter.

Episode 2 was called Another Benghazi and involved a situation or using a better term, a crisis, in Yemen. To send in US troops, or to simply pull the ambassador out and close the embassy were the questions at hand. Added on to that was the fact the McCord’s oldest daughter has first protested her university’s policy which made the news, and then she quit college.

Episode Six, called The Call  was about the strife in a fictional country called the Republic of West Africa. McCord’s husband, a professor of theology had a life long friendship with a former professor of his, a priest played by Louis Gossett Jr. This priest came asking for help as his country was undergoing the upheaval of a new government that was doing what could easily be described as ethnic cleansing, or in a more blunt term – genocide.

McCord takes up his cause, and in doing so rocks the boat within her own office, the State Department as a whole, and the resulting tumult goes all the way into the President’s Oval Office. Which brings us back full circle to where I began discussing Madam Secretary. McCord was teaching at UV, the then Secretary of State, one Vincent Marsh suddenly died when his plane went down. McCord had once worked with Conrad Dalton , played by Keith Carradine, when he ran the CIA. Now he’s the President of the United States. He asks her to take the job as Secretary of State. But wait there’s more to it than that.

McCord gets word from an old friend at the CIA, that Marsh’s plane going down was no accident. A few days later, this friend is killed in a one car accident. So we have a strong undercurrent of suspicion about the top players in the USA government. Add to that McCord having three children and would she be able to hold her family together and be a wife, and mother and the Secretary of State. Plus she inherits a personal support staff, anchored by Bebe Neuwirth at the State Department who may or may not like her style, or way of doing things.

Then there’s the President’s Chief of Staff – Russell Jackson who is played by Zeljko Ivanek. Immediately we see that Jackson is not impressed by McCord, and 2) he resents her because she has ties to the President. He may not be able to ‘handle’ her. So whenever the two of them meet, the air is suddenly thick with tension. But McCord is tough, fearless, and unafraid of Jackson  or partisan politics (one of the reasons President Dalton brought her on board). Leoni is great to look at and the show gives her plenty of crises to deal with. I think the show is a hit.

Six weeks in – and I’m hooked. Apparently CBS likes the show too, as it has just been announced that the show has been picked up for a full season. The show is also situated perfectly – it follows 60 Minutes and is the Sunday night lead in for The Good Wife.

—–

Indian actress Rani Mukerji first attracted viewers in the 1998 Bollywood hit film – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Mukerji received third billing behind India’s film superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in the follow-up to Khan and Kajol’s classic hit film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. DDLJ is such a beloved film, that even though it was released in 1995, by 2013 it was still playing in a Mumbai film theater. (a total of more than 900 consecutive weeks)

Anyway, KKHH which was Mukerji’s 3rd film, served as a spring-board and really gave Mukerji’s career a decided boost. Mardaani is Rani’s 47th film. She’s played girl friends, daughters, hookers, dancers, mothers, and housewives. In 2011, she played a tough TV news reporter in No One Killed Jessica. This film was one of the few times, going all the way back to KKHH, that Mukerji played a role that did not call for glamour.

Which brings us to Mardaani. Here Mukerji plays Shivani Shivaji Roy – a tough talking Senior Inspector in Mumbai’s Crime Branch. In short, she’s a no-nonsense detective. She’s rough and tumble, fearless, incorruptible, and she’s earned the respect of her fellow police officers – from those at the very top of the police hierarchy, to the detectives that work with her, and to the uniformed police.

In this film, she’s married to a doctor, and a niece lives with them. She’s also befriended a young teen age girl called Pyaari, who sells flowers at a traffic light, and has gotten her into a nearby orphanage. That is until she goes missing – a victim to the illicit human trafficking trade. We are told that in India, more girls disappear via the snatch-and-grab method, and they simply vanish off the streets in frightening numbers; more than any other country in the world. These girls are then basically sold off into the sex trade business.

After a few days, with no sign of Pyaari, Senior Inspector Roy decides to pursue that matter. By pursuing leads, utilizing state of the art technology as well as direct force on some goons, she is able  to get a name. But no one has seen this man, who is a based in Delhi. When this Karan Rastogi gets wind that he is being pursued by a lady detective, his attention to her rises. He decides to call her via a disposable phone He calls and tries to a) bribe her, b) intimidate her, and c) resort to simply taunting her. By the way, this Rastogi has a poster on the wall in his place. Walter White is his hero – yes that’s Walter White of Breaking Bad.

But Shivani Shivaji Roy can’t be bought off, intimidated, or lose interest in recovering Pyaari as well as taking this cartel leader down. So the cat and mouse game begins.  She heads off to Delhi, and the game continues with the added twist that now she has told this guy who she calls a kid, and Sonny, that she will find him and bring him down within 30 days. In Delhi, the police at first welcome her, but later, no doubt due to some influential politicians throwing their weight around, she’s told to go back to her own jurisdiction, and leave it to them.

Of course, this isn’t what is going to go down.

As I said, this lady cop is tough as nails and she doesn’t back down from anyone. I think Mukerji has done an amazing bit of work in this role. She’s totally believable as a can do, hands on, won’t take no for an answer kind of cop. The fact that she’s a woman, only makes her stronger, as her opponents refuse to take her serious.  As a police drama about sex trafficking tied in with drug smuggling, this is not a new story. What’s missing is the usual romances, as well as the songs and dance scenes. This is all about the police and the case. So if you are thinking that this is a standard Bollywood film filmed with frills, you would be way off base.

With Rani Mukerji running the show, she comes off as heroic and as convincing as any of her Bollywood leading men who have played super cops, and that list includes Ajay Devgn, Salman Khan, and Akshay Kumar. But with no makeup. no exquisite gowns, and no punches that knock down six guys at once, and especially no amped up sound effects, this film comes off as a fairly realistic film about a terrific lady cop. To me, it seems quite likely that a sequel would not be a surprise. By the way – Mardaani translated means something like independent, brave, and courageous.

—–

Our last wonder woman is the one and only Carrie Mathison, portrayed by the Emmy Award winning actress Claire Danes. She’s the CIA’s bad girl who is now the CIA’s station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan. And if nothing else can be said, she’s all business. Niceties don’t enter into her playbook. She rides rough shod over all she encounters whether it be fellow agent Peter Quinn, former boss and mentor Saul Berenson,

Carrie lays it out for CIA Director Lockhart. The result ? She's made Station Chief for Islamabad

Carrie lays it out for CIA Director Lockhart. The result ? She’s made Station Chief for Islamabad

or the current CIA head Andrew Lockhart, or any of the Islamabad staff, including the in-house official staff, as well as her off-line, off the reservation, unofficial staff who she has brought back from Langley. Carrie Mathison yields to no one, and cares for no one. She’s likely trying to overcome, or overcompensate for her loss of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) this season.

Losing a tail on a Islamabad Street

I can’t say that I like either her, or her outlook, or her methods. If there was ever a character on TV or the movies who would fit the mantra of – do it my way because there is no other way – it would be Carrie Mathison. Of course these are not wonder woman qualities that we are looking at. I’d agree to or argue that her portrayal is wonderful but even if we agree to dislike the character, let’s not fault Danes. Let’s lay this at the feet of the show runner and the writers.

SPOILERS AHEAD: Now it is a known fact that Saul Berenson has been under utilized so far this season (five episodes), but in the most recent episode which aired a couple of days ago on Sunday (the 26th) night, Saul caught a glimpse of a known terrorist at the airport and promptly forget all the spycraft he’d ever learned. For a Saul Berenson to have walked into what was so obvious a trap boggles the mind. Carrie’s room at the Embassy is some how NOT under constant electronic surveillance? The disgraced husband of the Ambassador, a clear and open target for blackmail is not kept under close watch. I’d could go on for hours with the problems that seem endemic for Homeland’s 4th season.

 

Homeland has becomes a tedious watch. But that said, we have to admire Claire Danes for the work she’s doing which is to try to pull off the impossible – that being that she becomes the next Jack Bauer (24) I must call the actress Wonder Woman for that reason alone. Think about it – she’s unlikable, she treats her staff like dirt, she’s sleeping with a young student so as to get a lot closer to the terrorist target they thought they had killed. But this target (Haqqani) is oblivious enough that he meets Aayan on the street where of course he is spotted by Farah.

I keep slipping back into a rant – I guess the Wonder Woman we knew as Carrie Mathison is over and done with. She may never again achieve the world-wide adulation that she received for Season’s One and Two. Bottom line is that this is not the actress’s fault.

cd

Maybe it is the Mad Men syndrome. all over again. Carrie Mathison is the new Don Draper. Simply a character who can’t help himself or herself from being bad. Unlikable but still so compelling that walking away and washing your hands of either show, Mad Men or Homeland, is next to impossible. To fill Don Draper’s shoes, then it is inescapable, Carrie Mathison is some kind of wonder woman. Maybe she’s not the same kind as Rani Mukerji as Shivani Shivaji Roy, or Tea Leoni as Elisabeth McCord – but I couldn’t have written this piece without including her.

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