Is actress Ashley Judd running for Senate? Rumors are spreading across the Beltway that she may challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014. When asked about a potential run, Judd had this to say:
“I cherish Kentucky, heart and soul, and while I’m very honored by the consideration, we have just finished an election, so let’s focus on coming together to keep moving America’s families, and especially our kids, forward.”
Sounds like a politician to me. Judd, known for her roles in Double Jeopardy and Kiss the Girls, has been a strong supporter of Democratic candidates and even attended the convention in Charlotte earlier this year. While her outspoken liberal views may not go over so well in the deep-red areas of Kentucky, she’s got conservative bona fides: she is married to NASCAR driver Dario Franchitti and is the daughter of revered country singer Naomi Judd. Further, she would surely be able to give McConnell a proper run for his money; Hollywood was a key source of fundraising for Obama, and they would surely empty the coffers again for a race pitting one of their own against the despised Senate Minority Leader.
If Judd decides to run, however, her campaign will only be the logical extension of the significant recent gains for women in politics and in Hollywood. November 6, of course, was an historic night for gender equality. Barack Obama rode an 18-point gender gap, the second largest of all time, to re-election. The female vote was decisive, as a majority of men voted for Romney. Every female senator up for re-election won her contest, and states as diverse as North Dakota, Nebraska, Hawaii, and Wisconsin will be sending women to the Senate for the first time. In the House, 17 new Congresswomen were elected, and one state – New Hampshire – now has an entirely female Congressional delegation.
Many pundits have attributed these developments to the GOP’s so-called War on Women: their promise to defund Planned Parenthood, the unfortunate comments about rape made by senatorial candidates, and Romney’s “binders full of women” comment at the second debate. Meanwhile, President Obama sought to take advantage by touting his record on women’s issues, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and provisionsin the Affordable Care Act that guarantee access to birth control. This dynamic had an undeniable impact, but the kind of major shift that took place on Tuesday evening is not simply a response to good or bad policy proposals; it represents a grand shift in values that is represented in these policies but is also reflected and reaffirmed by popular art.
The success of female candidates on the ballot this year was predicted by movies like The Hunger Games, Brave, Prometheus, and Snow White and the Huntsman, each of which featured a female character in the type of role typically reserved for men: action hero. The heroines in these films, which were among the highest-grossing of the year, were stronger, faster, and more popular than usual. They spread messages of female empowerment to wide audiences that transcended age and class, but they were hardly the only films released this year to do so. Strong female characters were also featured in Mirror Mirror, Haywire, Damsels in Distress, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Looper, The Master, and Won’t Back Down. Even the latest James Bond movie featured a more central role for its recurring female character, M (Judi Dench).
Of course, there is also a long history of actors finding success in the political arena. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and Ventura led the way, using their action-star credentials to win over voters frustrated by career politicians. If Judd runs, she will be following this template, especially because she is known in her films for kicking male ass. But even those who have no history in Hollywood have tried to insert themselves into the milieu. Consider erstwhile presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty and his series of campaign videos seemingly inspired by the films of Michael Bay. These examples speak to the similarities between big-budget movies and big-budget campaigns; they both have to sell the American people on a narrative. In appealing to the widest possible audience, they use the most basic narrative available – a rogue hero standing up against a powerful, evil foe.
Even if Judd stays out of the political spotlight, the confluence of success for women in film and in real-life politics must not be ignored or considered an outlier. In all civil rights movements, policy changes lead to a rise in government participation for the affected group, but they also lead to stronger presence in film and television. In the Civil Rights Era, there was a surge in the number of African-Americans who ran for office; meanwhile, an African-American actor, Sidney Poitier, won an Academy Award for Best Actor (Lilies of the Field), Bill Cosby became the first African-American lead in a television drama (I Spy), and an entire genre – blaxploitation – was invented. The films of 2012 are a modern-day equivalent to this kind of shift. The Lily Ledbetter Act and the Affordable Care Act have changed the lives of women in many small but significant ways; the effect of having strong, powerful women to look up to – on Capitol Hill and on the silver screen – will impact women for generations to come.