The Diplomat, a new show on Netflix, tells the fictional story of Kate Wyler — an American career diplomat posted as ambassador to the United Kingdom, an assignment she reluctantly accepted. The show follows Kate’s attempts to save the world and salvage her marriage to Hal Wyler, an ambitious and shrewd former ambassador and foreign policy genius.
Kate’s trials and tribulations echo many of the daily challenges that diplomats face, especially women, regardless of country, rank, or post. Of these and other career-related entanglements Kate and Hal Wyler find themselves thrown into, three aspects kept cropping up.
The diplomatic spouse
Kate is constantly concerned about her husband having little to do as she takes up a prestigious posting. While Hal is happy to take a back seat (at least on the surface) and let Kate shine, his uneasiness at being unemployed while leaving the spotlight to his wife comes through. Diplomatic spouse is a role historically attributed to women, not men. But as more married women rise in the career ladder, the role of the “diplomatic husband” is one that both women and men are uncomfortable defining and practising in real life and on TV. Hal’s constant manoeuvring and relentless ambition to make something of himself prove that he is not OK to be relegated, while his wife attempts to negotiate breakthrough deals and save the world from a potential World War III.
In a world where women ambassadors are grossly under-represented, those who make it to the top constantly try to prove that they deserve a seat at the (uncomfortable) table.
This reality is true for many women diplomats. “What will my husband do all day in a foreign country if I’m posted abroad?”, “What if he cannot find a good job abroad?”, “How will we split the kids if he stays behind?” are common questions I have heard several times. The struggle is even more severe for women married to other diplomats. Often, if serving in the same mission or country as their spouse is not allowed or possible, splitting the family is inevitable. The other option is that one of the spouses has to leave diplomacy behind to support the partner’s career. Juggling between career and personal life and marriage in a career punctuated by travel is not easy, and it is one of the main reasons why women diplomats leave the service.
Fashion is a recurring theme. Kate’s personal style is at odds with her staff’s, who continuously insist on dressing her in more feminine ways — in colourful dresses, suits, and heels — all of which she abhors. Desperate for a change, her deputy finally convinces her to wear a grey suit, a fashion choice she reluctantly accepts and then comes to regret. Kate’s fashion choices are simple, professional, and devoid of pomp. Her attempt to assert herself as an independent and strong-willed diplomat is portrayed through her refusal to give in to other people’s ideas of what she should look like, repeatedly opting for her signature style: a style that is as classic as it is practical.
Fashion choices for many women in leading government positions, including diplomacy, could be tricky: dress up too much, and they will be seen as superficial. Dress down and they will be judged as dishevelled and lacking in elegance. If they wear expensive clothing and shoes, they will be criticised for being out of touch with the people they represent. If they wear basic and practical clothing, they will be judged like Kate. As a young woman ambassador, Kate chose to secure her position in the eyes of the world, and her boss, through a Vogue fashion spread where she dressed and waved like a fashion-savvy modern-day princess.
The inconsistency and double standards are obvious: no one bats an eye over Hal Wyler’s dull, dark, and repetitive fashion choices. No one expects men to engage in long conversations about dress codes, colour schemes, or patterns. But Kate’s sense of style is always in need of saving and a source of tension between her and her staff. While she does cave in during two important occasions (think Oval Office and Paris), both are met with hardship and disaster. Much like in reality, we seem to give men a fashion pass while desperately watching women’s fashion faux pas.
Imposter syndrome in diplomacy
Kate’s feeling of being inadequate for the job, despite her experience, courage, astuteness, and intelligence, comes through continuously. At various points, she doubts her ability to be a good ambassador, especially compared to her husband’s illustrious career. That feeling does not stem from her not being brilliant at what she does. It’s because, more often, she is the only woman in a room or around a table full of egotistical men. She has to sit on uncomfortable chairs ill-suited to women’s bodies, wear uncomfortable shoes to prove her femininity and elegance, is often interrupted or spoken for without being asked, and is constantly being compared to her husband, all while trying to do her job.
For women, these not-so-little nuisances add a layer of complexity to a career that is structurally engineered for men. In a world where women ambassadors are grossly under-represented, those who make it to the top constantly try to prove that they deserve a seat at the (uncomfortable) table.
Kate’s acumen and savviness made the world a safer place. While it may not have saved her marriage, her image as a fashion icon, or the structural inequalities that permeate the world of diplomacy, we can still draw one important lesson: women are just as capable, if not more, of being great stateswomen. We should be doing more to promote, empower and promote them.
— Dr Sara Chehab is a Senior Research Fellow at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy