The four travelers — visitors from another universe — have just ordered a pretzel from a newsstand. As they split it among themselves, squabbling about whether its quality means they’re finally back home, the newsstand’s owner hushes them.
“The president’s about to speak!” he says.
“You mean ... President Clinton?” one of them asks, thrilled at the thought of finally being back in her reality (and our own).
“Of course I mean Clinton! Who else?” the newsstand owner scoffs. “I feel sorry for the Prez. Being married to that loudmouth. It’s no wonder the Republicans are taking control.”
And then, on the screen of his little TV, out comes President Clinton — President Hillary Clinton. For it’s May 1995, and you are watching Sliders, and the show really hopes it just blew your mind.
“Evidently we’ve landed on a world where women are in authority and men are relegated to a second-class status”
Those are words spoken by Professor Maximillian Arturo (played by John Rhys-Davies) shortly after the reveal of the alternate President Clinton in “The Weaker Sex,” the seventh episode of Sliders, which aired May 3, 1995. He’s trying to make the point that gender discrimination is bad, no matter whom it benefits, but his fellow travelers don’t buy it. Arturo is too much of a pompous windbag.
In every episode of Sliders, Arturo and his friends land on a different alternate Earth, where it’s still the ’90s but something in history has changed. One might feature the British having suppressed the American Revolution; another showed a world where the Summer of Love never ended. (This wasn’t meant literally, Game of Thrones style. There were just a lot of hippies still around.)
The series rode the mid-’90s boom in TV sci-fi, driven by the massive success of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files, and the more minor but still potent success of Babylon 5, which showed that with solid scripts, lackluster visual effects didn’t have to be an impediment to good storytelling.
Sliders was sometimes charming and occasionally inventive, but it was frequently held back by network interference — Fox was never happy the show couldn’t replicate the success of The X-Files — and issues in execution. Too often, the show was content to change one big thing about society and then never really dig into what would be different about a world where that were true. (Most likely, this was a side effect of trying to introduce an entirely new cosmos in every new episode. Forty-plus minutes isn’t a lot of time to build a new universe, though modern Doctor Who manages.)
“The Weaker Sex” is a good example of how the show struggled to follow through on its potential. After taking a cursory stroll through a world where men are mocked if they try to hold leadership positions and are frequently relegated to roles involving child care or teaching young children, Arturo is roped into running for mayor of San Francisco against incumbent Mayor Anita Ross. The two spar, with even numerous men telling Arturo he’s exceeded his station.
As you can likely see, “The Weaker Sex” invents a matriarchy, then simply flips the gender roles of 1995 America. The thought of what anti-male sexism in a world dominated by women would look like is an intriguing concept with which Sliders doesn’t really do anything surprising. The Sports Monthly swimsuit issue is all men in Speedos. Women treat men like pieces of meat. Etc.
But, say Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, who wrote the script as a freelance assignment early in their careers, going down such an obvious path wasn’t their intention. They did a lot of research on what a world where women were in power might look like — right down to the idea that lines for the bathroom would probably be shorter — but once they turned in their draft, they didn’t hear back from the show for some time.
“When they got back to us, what it turned out what they really wanted was bitch world,” Prestwich says. “They wanted a world where it was terrible because women are in charge.”
The final version of “The Weaker Sex” occasionally attempts to ask the show’s viewers — who were most likely presumed to be heavily male — what it would be like to live in a world where institutional sexism was directed at them. But it mostly comes across as presenting women as really mean.
“We were trying to write a different show. And maybe that’s why we never wrote another episode of Sliders,” Yorkin says with a laugh.
“My fellow Americans, I speak to you tonight from the White House”
If “The Weaker Sex” is remembered for anything, it’s the brief glimpse it offers of Hillary Clinton as president. It’s even mentioned in the episode’s Wikipedia summary, though the entirety of Clinton’s “appearance” is in the clip embedded above. (Remarkably, the episode is not available on Netflix or Hulu, even though the rest of Sliders’ run is otherwise streaming on those platforms. The brief scene featuring Clinton as president is likely the reason, thanks to equal time rules.)
“We made a choice that since [Bill] Clinton was president at the time that we’ll just flip it around and make it his wife,” says Yorkin. “It must have seemed quite unlikely. What a big laugh this would be!”
The moment simultaneously keys into the mid-’90s fascination with the Clintons as a power couple and gently satirizes the period’s horror over the thought of Hillary Clinton as a political force in her own right.
“She was also very intelligent and so involved and engaged,” says Prestwich. “I have that memory of it being so threatening that the president would have this voice in his ear.”
It’s easy to forget now, with the rise of Clinton critics on the left as well as the right, but Republican commentators vilified Hillary Clinton almost from the first, as a woman who dared to talk with her husband on policy and advise him on what to do. The newsstand owner’s speech about the “loudmouth” is perhaps the episode’s best gag, since either Clinton could be seen as exceeding what was then considered to be the “traditional” role of the first spouse.
And as I talk to Prestwich and Yorkin in the year 2016 — with the country possibly on the verge of electing its first woman to the presidency and the two chatting with me during break from working on their new Amazon series about Zelda Fitzgerald, Z: The Beginning of Everything — both can remember how, in the mid-’90s, they were often the only women in TV writers’ rooms, the only ones trying to force their male colleagues to think about how women might really react to the things that happened on TV shows.
Yorkin recalls an argument in the room when the two worked on Melrose Place about whether women really call their underwear “panties” when men aren’t around. And Prestwich recalls knowing men who’ve said there are “too many women’s voices in the room.”
“Whoever worries about too many male voices in the room? No one!” she says.
I don’t want to make too much out of a goofy episode of a TV show that was, even at its worst (and, oh, it would get so much worse in the four additional seasons to come), sort of goofily enjoyable. But just looking back at this mid-’90s idea of a world run by women — and one woman in particular — is instructive, due to both how much has changed and how little is different.