Creative Sensemaker

A man with a gun in a red room.

The latest instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona    Above image: Project Power (Netflix)    Friday 14 August, 2020    Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. It is often said that culture sits upstream from politics – meaning, among other things, that the world of ideas, creativity and the imagination is usually ahead of the world of power, elections, and the cut and thrust of daily news. Our fictions often precede our reality.

Since Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket (and thus a good bet to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024), it’s been interesting to reflect upon how we’ve been waiting for a US woman president for, well, decades.

Actually, almost a century. In the silent comedy sci-fi film The Last Man On Earth (1924), women have inherited the world, including the Oval Office. Much more recently, counter-factual fiction, in the form of Curtis Sittenfeld’s well-received novel Rodham (2020), has tried to compensate for the real-world defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 by conjuring up an alternative universe in which she and Bill never married, and political history worked out very differently.

In the decades between, woman presidents have become a regular feature of popular and highbrow culture: a sign that the collective unconscious was conducting its own, increasingly impatient dress rehearsal for the election of a female leader of the free world.
A woman about to make a press conference with a large group of women standing behind her.
House Of Cards (Netflix)
In the underrated 2005 to 2006 series, Commander In Chief (iTunes), Geena Davis plays Mackenzie Allen, a vice president propelled to the top job when the president suffers a cerebral aneurysm. In HBO’s long-running comedy Veep (Amazon Prime Video), the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer ascends to the coveted position at the end of season three.

Cherry Jones plays President Allison Taylor in two seasons of 24 (though that doesn’t end well), while Shonda Rhimes’ wonderfully camp series Scandal (VOD) has Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) becoming the 45th president – with the sign-off hint that the show’s main character, super-fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), may succeed her.

No account of fictional female commanders-in-chief, of course, is complete without mention of Robin Wright as Claire Underwood who becomes the 47th president in season five of House Of Cards (Netflix). And then there’s the similarly steely President Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) in seasons six and seven of Homeland – one of the show’s best and most intriguing characters.

The list goes on. It has conspicuous omissions. Why, for instance, did The West Wing never entertain the possibility of a woman president? An unusual miss by Aaron Sorkin and his fellow writers (who pretty much predicted the Obama presidency in the character of Matt Santos).

But here’s the thing: popular culture has been paving the way for a woman in the Oval Office for many years. That archetype is already a fixture in our collective imagination. Now all we need is for it to happen in real life.

P.S. Creative Sensemaker would not usually inflict a political memoir upon its discerning readers, but Kamala Harris’ The Truths We Hold: An American Journey really is worth your time. It’s witty, intellectual and persuasive – possibly the handbook to a future presidency.

Here’s our regular selection of cultural recommendations:
A man in a space suit with a red light shining on him.
A sad girl sitting on her bed.


Sputnik (VOD)
Egor Abramenko’s feature debut is sci-fi with a twist of Soviet-era power games. When cosmonaut Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) survives a space capsule crash in 1983, he is treated by neuropsychologist Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) – and, as soon becomes clear, he has been contaminated in space by something. Think Alien meets Solaris: a superior Russian thriller that doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as its characters’ impassive features suggest.

Thirteen (iPlayer)

Before Jodie Comer was Villanelle in Killing Eve, she was Ivy Moxam in Marnie Dickens’ five-part drama series, now streamable. Thirteen years after her abduction, 26-year-old Ivy escapes from captivity in a cellar – only to be plunged into the drama of the kidnapping of a second girl. Comer is riveting, well supported by a fine cast making the most of Dickens’ great writing.

Project Power (Netflix) 
Fifteen minutes of fame? In the age of superhero franchises, you can bet that plenty of people would prefer to take a pill that gave them superpowers for five minutes. Such is the enjoyably silly premise of this action thriller set in New Orleans, elevated from the routine by the presence of Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Superior hokum for a heat-frazzled evening.
A book cover on a grey background.
Two book covers on a grey background.


Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson
The eagerly awaited follow-up to Wilkerson’s The Warmth Of Other Suns (2010) is a masterly account by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the ways in which social ‘caste’ – deep-rooted systems of human categorisation – trumps even race and class in our hierarchies. (Wilkerson will be joining us at a digital Tortoise ThinkIn on Tuesday 18 August at 6.30pm – do come along).

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Well known for his runaway bestseller, Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig was actually a novelist long before he was a mental-health guru, and The Midnight Library brings together the two strands of his writing life to triumphant effect. When Nora Seed tries to end her life, she finds herself in a library where the shelves are lined with books telling different stories of the alternate lives she might have led. So, in this weird Borgesian limbo between life and death, she gives some of them a try. Powerful without being remotely earnest, this is Haig at his best.

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith
What did you do during lockdown? Zadie Smith wrote a series of reflections on themes ranging from death and privilege, to Mel Gibson and the virus of contempt. The author’s royalties go to the Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.
An album cover.
An album cover with Deep Purple typed on it.


Jaguar by Victoria Monét
‘What it be like dealing with a queen?’ asks Monét on ‘Big Boss’, the second track on her debut album. This is infectious, smooth-as-silk funk for the summer, but it also marks the rise of one of the most exciting singer-songwriters around.

Whoosh! by Deep Purple
Purple have been around for more than half a century, in many configurations: Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord (RIP) are long gone, but Ian Gillan, Ian Paice and Roger Glover survive from the 1960s line-up. Their enduring magic lies in an absolute refusal to care about fad or fashion, and their ridiculously named third album with producer Bob Ezrin does not disappoint. Music for the ages, in every sense.

Omega by Immanuel Wilkins
The alto saxophonist delivers a debut album of confidence, commitment and charm that suggests this 22-year-old Juilliard graduate has a bright and intriguing future ahead. Omega confronts its social context directly in ‘Ferguson – An American Tradition’, inspired by the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. He relates that crime to a deeper history in ‘Mary Turner – An American Tradition’ – a piece commemorating a Black woman who was eight months pregnant when lynched in Georgia in 1918.
A computerised image of a tunnel game with flames.


Recommended by Tortoise Media’s Culture Editor, Peter Hoskin 

Playing the bad guy is not a new thing in gaming. From Wario Land to Grand Theft Auto, we’ve been able to button-press our way to supervillainy for decades now. But playing the amorphous, multi-limbed, many-toothed, carnivorous monster that’s loose in a research facility? That might be new.
This is the experience offered by Carrion, which came out a few weeks ago. It is, to use the lingo, a ‘Metroidvania’-style game: by gaining new abilities and, erm, appendages, your monster can access areas of the facility that were barred to it previously. But, really, it’s more an exercise in spreading fear – just watch those scientists cower when you roar from your dank, hidden location.

Stay safe and have a great week.

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
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