Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing”, 1.01 “Pilot”

I’m not going to lie to you guys; this whole idea started with me wanting to rewatch “The West Wing” for the 473rd time and deciding that doing a blog post about it might make it “productive.”

And I do want to cover the misogyny on “The West Wing”. I know, I know, it’s a great show. One of the greatest ever, really. Didn’t I just say that I wanted to watch it for the 473rd time? But, while Aaron Sorkin has made his basic condescension toward women fairly evident on more recent offerings shows like “Newsroom” and The Social Network, (And I’m sorry, but if you don’t see it, you’re probably guilty of a little of this liberal, elitist “But I love women! Abortions and birth control for all! It’s just, you know, they do like shoes an awful lot” variety of sexism of which Aaron Sorkin is probably the patron saint. It’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You just need a little enlightenment, and I’m willing to provide it, you lucky, lucky thing, you.), The West Wing remains his best creation, with his strongest, most awesome women. But the problems with female characters are still present; they’re just masked by the better writing and the better acting and the more general awesomeness.  And sexism – any -ism, really – is so much more potent when it’s undercover. The greatest trick the devil learned was to convince people he didn’t exist, right?

Also I wanted to rewatch “The West Wing.” I cannot emphasize this point enough – I. Love. This. Show. Whenever I think to myself, “What do I want to watch right now?” 99% of the time, the answer is “The West Wing.” Just like when I say to myself, “What do I want to eat right now?” the answer is either pasta or veggie samosas. Because I like the starch. And conversations that happen while two people march purposefully down hallways.

But this whole thing was nearly torpedo’ed. I started watching and taking notes. Then I went downstairs and watched while doing dishes, so I couldn’t take notes, so I tried to remember after the fact what I’d just watched, and then I started over, and then I took some notes in one notebook and some notes in another and I know a bunch of you are going, “Notes? She’s taking, like, pen and paper notes? For a blog post?” Yes. Hello. I’m a nerd. Welcome to my blog.

And then I was like, there’s no way I’ll be able to fit the series in one blog post. How about I do season by season?

And then I was like, there’s no way I’ll be able to fit a season in one blog post. How about I do episode by episode?

And then I was like, that’s crazy, right?

And then I started reading these. (Which I found, by the way, through links to this. And now I’m burning my way through her entire blog and also reading one of her novels on my Kindle.)

And now I not only had the one other person doing a project like the one I had in mind to prove to myself that I’m not crazy, I also had a format. She keeps a list of trends in Buffy that she wants to point out and then just drops a number in her recap when she sees evidence of that trend. So I’m going to do it, too, with all the ways Aaron Sorkin displays his “Women are awesome except for how female they are!” misogyny.

So here we go. The items will be as follows:

  1. Physical comedy is used to undercut a female character’s competence.
  2. A female character’s sexual appeal or sexual/romantic relationship with a male character is primary.
  3. A female character displays “feistiness”. “Feistiness” is a frequent shorthand in liberal misogyny for “See? She’s strong and independent and we find that adorable! What’s the problem?”
  4. Femininity or feminine concerns are disparaged, by male or female characters.
  5. Any character is rude to his/her female subordinate with no consequences.
  6. A male character is lauded and glorified in an unlikely way by a female character or characters.
  7. A female character screws up at her job.
  8. Anger coming from a female character is unreasonable or mysterious, either to the audience or to another character.
  9. A female character plays the Exposition Fairy. Note: Having Exposition Fairies is not in and of itself a problem. It’s necessary in most fiction. But in The West Wing, the Fairy is almost always a female character, and is almost always asking a male character for explanation, and would almost always certainly know the information she’s asking for, so that the fact that she’s asking indicates that she’s not that good at her job.
  10. An episode goes by that does not pass the Bechdel test.

I’m sure I’ll add more as time goes by.

Now, it’s been pointed out that sometimes, Aaron Sorkin is not misogynist. Sometimes, an episode does pass the Bechdel test. Sometimes, a male character plays Exposition Fairy. And sometimes, a male character screws up at his job. So every counter-example to my list will be marked with a -(that number). Then, at the end of the show, every misogynist item will be weighed against a non-misogynist item and a total score for the episode will be given.

But! Note! A lot of the times the weight is not equal! For instance, male characters do screw up at their jobs, and frequently. HOWEVER! When male characters do it, it’s usually for “noble” reasons, or the screw-up is because the wronged party are stupid strawman jerkfaces and the Aaron Sorkin character remains awesome. When female characters screw up, they just screw up. Now, if a male character genuinely screws up, I will throw in a -7. And if a female character screws up, but for noble reasons, I will also throw in a -7. But neither of those circumstances will happen all that frequently.

Also, just for fun:

!. Any time anything happens that leads me to believe Toby and CJ are totally doing it. Not a relationship, just a little FWB thing to blow off steam. Because you know they are.

Okay, here we go!

Pilot

The first few scenes are quick little vignettes that very tightly characterize our new buddies and set up some of the basic plots of this episode. There’s a lot going on and these scenes are handled quite skillfully. So, first:

First up is Sam Seaborne, Deputy Communications Director. (I mean, we don’t have job titles yet, but I’m telling you now in case I forget later. Also, Rob Lowe for sure has a portrait of himself in his attic that is rapidly aging and grotesque, yes? Yes.) He’s fending off a journalist who is trying to find out if Sam’s colleague Josh, whom we have not yet met, is going to be fired. Sam then realizes a woman across the room is checking him out. First woman in is known for checking out Sam. 2.

Next is Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff, played by the late, lamented John Spencer. We know he is wealthy and grumpy and is annoyed with his crossword puzzle. Then he gets a call about POTUS. It’s worth noting here that, in 1999, when this show premiered, and even in 2003, when I first started watching, not everyone in the world would have known immediately what POTUS stood for, even people with an interest in politics. So at least a portion of the audience is meant to be going, “What’s a Potus?” and the other portion is meant to be smiling condescendingly at that portion of the audience while feeling immensely superior because they already know.

Then it’s C.J. Cregg, my beloved C.J.! She’s the Press Secretary, and she’s played by my also beloved Allison Janney! So her two co-workers have been portrayed a) doing their job well and being hit on by a beautiful woman, and b) knowing more than the New York Times crossword puzzle editor. What’s the only female senior staffer going to be known for?

How about a little set piece straight out of Chick Flick 101 where she is a) at the gym, and b) trying unsuccessfully to flirt with a man until c) her super-important but at the moment just-a-nuisance job interferes by way of her pager going off and d) she flies off the treadmill! 1! And what the hell, let’s throw in a 2, too, because the first thing she’s doing is hitting on a dude. Unsuccessfully. Whereas Rob Lowe is drawing them in across the bar.

Next we get Josh Lyman, the Aaron Sorkin avatar and Deputy Chief of Staff, played by Bradley Whitford. He’s asleep at his desk – you can bet your ass he doesn’t try to find pockets of personal time like C.J. over there. He’s awakened by his pager going off.

Then Toby Ziegler, light of my life, fire of my loins, played by Richard Schiff and Director of Communications, is on a plane. He’s being bothered by the silly (female) flight attendants with their silly rules about computer rules during descent and he’s brilliantly sarcastic with them and showing off his knowledge of the plane they’re flying. As much as I appreciate some Toby being sarcastic and nerdy, I think we’ve got a and a right there. Another female flight attendant tells him they’ve received a message for him – POTUS has been in a bicycle accident.

Sam, offscreen, adorkables to the girl from the bar about her water pressure while the girl inhales deeply from her joint and protests that she’s not a drug person; she just loves pot. Sure, Sparky. The girl reports his pager message – that POTUS has been in a bicycle accident. She broadcasts the B-plot by observing loudly and slowly that their pagers look exactly alike –

It occurs to me that I might need to explain something here. You see, kids, back in 1999, cell phones were not widely in use yet. People with important jobs had beepers, or pagers. If you wanted to reach someone, you’d dial the number of their beeper/pager, then punch your own phone number in, then they’d see it, find the nearest phone, and call you back. You could also use them to type short messages, although I don’t really remember how that worked. I know. Crazy, right? But that’s what they did in the olden days.

Okay, so this chick and Sam have the same pager, which will in no way come up when she, already baked at 5 am, hands him one of them as he’s rushing out the door to respond to the page. Also this chick doesn’t know what POTUS stands for. Now, I know I said POTUS wasn’t common parlance back in the day. But given that we later find out that this girl is a) a Georgetown law student and b) a high-priced escort whose clientele is largely comprised of big-deal politicos, it’s kind of unusual that she wouldn’t know. So 9!

Okay, so now that we’ve established all these characters and their personal lives, it’s off to the White House.

Leo is rude to two female subordinates 5, including our favorite Exposition Fairy, Donnatella “Donna” Moss (Janel Moloney), before talking to Josh about one of our many subplots, that there are Cuban refugees on rafts heading for Miami. Leo and Josh condescend to each other for a little while. Since Josh is Leo’s subordinate, I suppose I ought to be dropping a -5 but since Josh is condescending back, I don’t think one is warranted. Also, after Josh reveals no knowledge of anything to do with the Cuban refugees other than, there are Cuban refugees on rafts heading toward Miami, Leo gets in one of the top five lines of the episode: “True or false: If I were to stand on high ground in Key West with a good pair of binoculars, I’d be as informed as I am right now.” Josh concedes that that’s true.

Then Josh, whose job we know is on the line, asks Leo if he’s going to be fired and we find out why – he mouthed off to a member of the religious right on TV the night before. Now, this could be a place for a -7, except that, as I said above, male characters will only screw up if their intent is noble, right? So Josh admits that “It was stupid,” and Leo calls back, “Damn straight,” and then, as Josh leaves, he says, “I was right, though,” and Leo mutters, “Like I don’t know that.” So nope. No -7 here. This will be a common theme.

Then we meet Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), the president’s secretary, so that she can be condescended to a little bit by Leo  and also have her concerns about proper language in the Oval Office belittled 4 while we catch up on POTUS’s bike accident, in which we determine that Leo’s bike, which he lent the president, is broken, but not any part of the president.

Leo is then somewhat rude to C.J. but he has another great line when he tells C.J. to tell the press that the president, while riding his bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop.

Everyone argues about Cuba. Sam says something stupid so -7 and Toby condescends to him a little so -5. Aaron Sorkin clues us in that we like these people by keeping the discussion of the political ramifications of the Cuban refugees brief and the discussion of what should be done in a moral universe to help them long.

We flip to the journalist who was bugging Sam and is now claiming to have more insider information than he does to a female colleague before C.J. calls them in for a briefing. You know, this has nothing to do with my misogyny tracking, but I just want to note that this show was supposed to go in a very different direction than it did, with the focus being on the staffers and their lives rather than on the president so directly, but then Martin Sheen was awesome and what are you going to do? But while this scene with the two journalists arguing seems pointless in the general scope of the series, I get where it would have fit in the original conception of this series, and I think I would have liked it. Then again, Martin Sheen. Had this show run, say, ten years later, there would have been a possibility of webisodes about the press pool, the assistants, the interns, etc., which could have been really cool. Except that Aaron Sorkin hates the internet so never mind. (I won’t be tracking that because I don’t care that much, but he does.)

So C.J. holds the briefing and is awesome, inviting the press to enjoy themselves with the president’s ridiculous bicycle accident footage, and then keeping the briefing from becoming a speculation party about whether or not Josh is getting fired. I was going to give this a -7 but you know what? It shouldn’t be out of the norm that a female character is good at her job.

Josh watches footage of what he actually says to Mary Marsh, religious right representative, which is, in response to her claiming he doesn’t believe in any God she prays to, “Lady, the god you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud.” So that’s the line that he was “right” about. Okay, guys. Then he belittles Donna, his assistant, for caring about his tie 5 and she talks passionately about how awesome he is and how he shouldn’t be fired. I almost put down a 6 for that, but she is his assistant, so I guess it’s realistic to believe that she’s this invested in his right not to be fired over this monumental screw-up (which is not a screw-up because he’s right and the religious right is awful! And so is religion!).

Donna tells Toby to shut up so I guess -5.

Toby goes in to talk to Josh and tells him that he has a way for Josh not to be fired, although he tells Josh, “I don’t want this gesture to be mistaken for an indication that I like you,” and I swoon a little. (I don’t think this counts as a -5 but I really can’t tell whether Josh is Toby’s subordinate or not.)

Josh protests the nobility of his screw-up some more, which Toby does little to deny, but insists that he come to a meeting with the woman he insulted and two of her religious right friends. Then Toby gives a newsclipping of Josh’s ex-girlfriend Mandy to him. I mean, we don’t know all of that yet, but Mandy is introduced off-screen and in a way that indicates that she and Josh are connected romantically. 2. Josh even indicates that the clipping includes “a good picture of her” in a very tender and appreciative way, so double 2.

Then we get Mandy. Mandy is the absolute embodiment of 3, yelling fiestily to someone on the phone while driving totally recklessly through the streets of D.C. Then she’s feisty at the cop who pulls her over 3. We are supposed to find her adorable. We do not. Part of it is that Aaron Sorkin frequently overestimates the charm inherent in fiestiness, and part of it is that Moira Kelly, the actress who plays Mandy, does not do Aaron Sorkin well. Which is not to say she’s not a good actress; but Aaron Sorkin is a special skill set and she doesn’t have it.

Leo is being condescending to two male economists who are not his direct subordinates, so -5. Sam and Josh report a storm that might affect the Cuban refugees, and then Josh reports, via a roundabout Socratic conversation with Leo, that Mandy’s in town and representing a possible competitor on the Democratic ticket for the president in the next election. Leo goes off to yell at his long-suffering secretary Margaret (NiCole Robinson) 5 while Sam and Josh establish that they are both wearing the same suits from yesterday, Josh because he slept at his desk and Sam because he got some. Snerk.

Two girls giggle at a counter and then approach Josh, who is having lunch with his ex Mandy, and ask for signatures. Because we are supposed to believe that two poli-sci majors – or participants in a poli-sci “group”, as they say – from Florida State recognize Josh across the diner and know he was once dating Mandy and giggle and ask for his autograph like he’s a member of ‘N Sync. Sure. 6. Then Mandy talks about her client, Congressman Lloyd Russell, and Josh surmises that Mandy and Lloyd are dating. So now Mandy’s two primary reasons to be on this show are a past relationship and a current relationship. 2. Also Josh surmises that Lloyd is gay and “effeminate” so 4. I’m considering making homophobia its own entry, but it might all fall under “femininity is gross”, so we’ll see how it goes and add if we need. Then Mandy knows something that Josh doesn’t about poll numbers so I guess -7, although the fact that she’s sharing it with Josh is a total 6. Then Josh talks about her romantic relationship with Lloyd Russell some more which 2. Good scene, guys. Good scene.

Leo registers his complaint with the New York Times crossword puzzle with the New York Times. He’s rude and condescending but we can’t tell if the person on the phone is a woman, nor is s/he a direct subordinate, so we’ll let it slide. We are, as an audience, supposed to find Leo’s curmudgeonly demeanor adorable, and, when I’m not analyzing it for a blog post, I do.

C.J. comes in and they manage to have a polite and business-like conversation, in which we learn that Leo has no idea if the president is going to fire Josh or not.

We’re walking and talking with Sam and two of his staffers; they’re discussing gun stats. This show premiered in 1999. This same rhetoric is still be used about gun stats. Just sayin’.

Sam is pulled away by his assistant, Cathy, who is kind of rude to him. -5. She tells him Leo’s wife was supposed to lead Leo’s daughter’s fourth grade class on a tour of the White House but can’t and wants Sam to do it. We also learn that Leo’s wife hates Sam because Sam hit on her at a party fundraiser, and Cathy thinks it’s reasonable that she’s mad, and also that Leo was mad. 8. Why would she be mad about that? Why would Cathy think it was justified? Nothing we know about Sam so far would indicate that he’d be disrespectful in expressing his interest. Sam tells us he doesn’t know anything about the White House. I’m going to go ahead and give this a 4. You can argue with me that knowledge of the history of the building does not count as “feminine” knowledge, but I think it is.

Then Chekhov’s pager beeps and Sam returns the call and gets “Cashmere Escorts” and figures out right away that his lady from last night is an escort and calls to make contact with her to switch pagers. I do appreciate that Sorkin trusts us to figure this out as quickly as Sam did and not go over-exposition-y on us. I also appreciate that when he calls and asks if he can come see her, we know Sam well enough at this point to know it’s not so that he can pay for it this time.

We see the press gaggle bother C.J. and C.J. report to Toby about it very briefly and just because their interaction is so easy and quick and they don’t need to use a lot of words to communicate with each other, I’m going to give it a Shut up and let me have my fun.

Leo is now walking outside somewhere and talking to the “reasonable” religious right dude, Rev. Al Caldwell, reminding him that the president is very religious, and giving us, the audience, the answer to the only important question in 1999 – Does the president support the right to abort? The answer is that while his religious conviction tells him people oughtn’t have abortions, he also does not believe in the state’s rights to legislate the issue. So now you know.

They’re having a fair and even conversation about their political relationship, and doing a great job of expressing their disagreements while being respectful of each other’s positions, until Leo says that they can keep this from becoming bigger than “a petulant woman being angry about getting her hair a little messed up on TV.” Dude. 4. 8. And also f you. And also further evidence that this screw-up on Josh’s part does not deserve a -10 because here Leo doesn’t even assign him blame; it’s just that Mary Marsh’s “hair” got “messed up.” Force of nature. Then Leo claims that the president does in fact want Josh fired, but it’s unclear whether he’s telling the truth now and has been lying all day to the other staffers, or if he’s lying now to Al Caldwell to placate him. Either way, Al Caldwell is soothed. 

Sam goes over to the escort’s, they exchange pagers, and Sam manages to tell her he can’t really see her while also managing not to slut-shame her. Also we learn that she’s a law student and a part-time bartender AND a high-priced call girl. Lady, when do you sleep?

The camera travels the halls of the White House as we see the religious right trio come in, Cathy greet Leo’s daughter’s fourth grade class, and Donna coax Josh into a new shirt. She tells him that “all the girls think you look really hot in this shirt.” 3 and in just a few lines, Mr. Sorkin. Nice.

Cathy gets Sam into the room with the fourth graders and Cathy can’t point to Leo’s daughter. He greets the teacher, Mallory O’Brian, and Sam spouts off some total nonsense about his job while the fourth graders look bored. Then the teacher says they’re here to hear about the building. He gets everything wrong about everything he says, including which Roosevelt the Roosevelt room is named after, even though there’s an enormous portrait of Teddy behind him. I’m reluctant to give this a -7 because of the 4 I’ve given this whole subject before. Mallory calls him outside the room to ask why he’s so dumb, he explains that he’s having a really bad day and numbers among the bad things about his day that he accidentally slept with a prostitute the night before, as well as further bolstering my “Josh’s screw-up doesn’t get a -7 because everyone thinks he’s right” point and then asks this woman to point out Leo’s daughter to him so he can make a good impression. Mallory reveals that she is Leo’s daughter.

Okay, now I’m ready to give a -7 for revealing to a random stranger that he slept with a prostitute, but hold the phone. At this point we don’t know everyone’s history but we haven’t been given to believe that it’s the senior staff’s first week on the job. How is it humanly possible that Sam could think that Leo’s daughter is a fourth grader and not a grown-ass woman?

C.J., Josh, and Toby head into the meeting with the religious right and C.J. warns Josh that they will try to bait him into saying something arrogant. Josh says, “I don’t need baiting for that,” so that’s one of our lines of the night. Toby opens with cheer, then Reverend Al Caldwell speaks respectfully but forcefully about how disappointed they were with Josh while Josh tries to make eye contact with Mary Marsh and Mary is icy to him which is played totally a 8. Then Josh gives a sincere-sounding apology. Then Mary continues to be rude and use this whole thing as a political football. The conversation is devolving quickly into argument and then Toby interprets one of Mary Marsh’s sentiments as anti-Semitic, which is probably accurate (and also we learn that both Toby and Josh are Jewish). The third and most idiotic member of the religious right says we should talk more about the First Commandment, which says is “Honor thy father.” Which is so typical of Aaron Sorkin, needing to make his enemies such buffoons that they become unrealistic strawmen, not even caricatures, because a caricature of a religious right buffoon would know his commandments. Toby calls him out on it but then declares that “Honor thy father” is the third commandment, which is also not correct. Jews, Protestants, and Catholics get the order of the commandments a little different, because the way it’s worded in the Bible is open to some interpretation, but “Honor thy mother and father” is fifth for Jews and Protestants and fourth for Catholics. Just so you know.

Then the president enters majestically, answering the question, “Then what’s the first commandment?” with “I am the Lord thy God.” It’s a pretty good entrance. He’s got a walking stick so I guess he sprained his ankle. The room’s idiot asks him, “If our children can buy pornography on any street corner for $5, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?” He says, “No. On the other hand, I do think that $5 is too high a price to pay for pornography.” That, friends, is the line of the night. It’s been something of a guiding principle for what I buy for my Kindle, too.

At this point we realize that the president is not at all going to entertain these people or their problems because a fringe religious group sent his grand-daughter Annie a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat when Annie told a magazine she’s pro-choice. You guys, this is my 473rd viewing of this episode and I only just got that the Raggedy Ann doll wasn’t just a childhood toy, it was the kid. Ann = Annie. I know. I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes.

So now instead of being apologetic, our lovable White House staff can be superior and smug, which is their favorite thing to be. Josh gloats and everyone argues as they head into the Oval Office, where the president yells at them a little bit, says something mysterious about a tomato and a rosary that I still don’t get no matter how many times I watch this episode. We learn that of the 1200 Cubans on rowboats, most turned back, many died, and a little more than 100 of them are here, and it’s time to get to work. Also, Josh is forgiven. We sign off with the president’s catchphrase, “Mrs. Landingham, what’s next?”

Man, that’s a good 44 minutes of television. I want to reiterate that, for all that I complain, I love this show.

So what’s our misogyny tally here? Taking all the incidents of misogyny, and then subtracting all the counter-incidents, I get an 21. Plus, the episode didn’t pass the Bechdel test. Many named female characters, only one of them on senior staff, and none of them talk to each other about anything. Donna shouts to Bonnie that Josh is changing his shirt, but a) it’s not a conversation, it’s a line, b) Bonnie isn’t even on-screen for it, and c) they’re still talking about a dude. So that’s a total misogyny score of 22.

I’m also seriously excited to be working on this project. 🙂 See you next time!

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