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'State of Affairs’ stars no shrinking violets

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In last week’s premiere, NBC’s CIA drama State of Affairs gave viewers a healthy dose of drama by introducing us to Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl), the daily security briefer to President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard), shortly after her fiancé — who also happens to be Constance’s son — is assassinated.

And this is before we get to the conspiracies.

State of Affairs is following the path blazed by other shows featuring tough, even unpleasant, women who get things done in Washington, but it has the potential to take some of these ideas further. Rather than showing women as the powers behind the throne, a la Scandal, State of Affairs puts a woman in the White House and makes another woman her most powerful national security aide.

President Payton both served in the first Gulf War herself and grew up in a military family; Heigl has put thought into Charleston Tucker’s background.

“In my mind, she grew up in the South, she grew up in a wealthy family, she had a mother who expected her to be a Southern belle and get married and bear babies,” Heigl explained. Choosing a career and a life that diverges from those expectations “gives her a certain self-confidence that I don’t think she normally would have had if she’d done what her mother wanted her to do. In that, she’s found a certain freedom. But will that freedom be useful to her? Or detrimental to her?”

And Heigl felt that it was important to portray Charlie’s sexual exploits in the wake of her fiancé’s death in a way that reflected that rebellion.

“Someone said to me the other day that they felt that the character was sexually unapologetic. And I went ‘Oh, that’s really interesting.’ Because generally speaking, I have been, and most of my girlfriends have been, very apologetic about it our whole lives. Because that is the stereotype or what we live in,” she said. “This is not the tale of ‘Oh, if you’re sexually promiscuous, bad things are going to happen here.’ That’s not the story here.”

By putting two women at the center of the show, and introducing the audience to them at a moment when they have both suffered a grievous personal and professional loss, State of Affairs is steering straight into stereotypes about women, emotion and leadership. Woodard was quick to argue that men and women are equally emotional, but that women manage their emotions in a way that is leavened by practicality.

“The fact that you have emotion just means that you’re alive. But emotion is fuel. It doesn’t cloud judgment. It means you’ve got the energy and the passion to make that decision,” she insisted. “Constance and Charleston are in the positions that they are in because they had to have the peripheral vision and the canniness and understanding of human nature to hop all of those fences that they needed to do to get across the field to where they are. And so of course these are two women that are at the top of their game.”

Alyssa Rosenberg

Washington Post Service

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