Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing”, 1.03 “A Proportional Response”

The name “Aaron” is starting to look like a nonsense word to me.

Anyway. Remember, this is what we’re looking for:

  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.

And,

!. When we see evidence that Toby & C.J. are doin’ it.

So last week you may remember that the Syrian Defense Ministry shot down the plane containing Morris Tolliver, the president’s doctor, and others, on their way to a teaching hospital in Jordan. The president got over his “I’m uncomfortable with violence” thing BUT QUICK, telling Leo he was going to “blow them off the face of the Earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.” Which is a good line, but Leo seemed to be more perturbed by the sentiment and less impressed with the wording.

Also Sam accidentally slept with a call girl and wants to be buds with her so he can save her from the degradation and despair that is her life, and Mandy was being hired as a media consultant over her ex-boyfriend Josh’s objections.

Josh is coming in to work and Donna closes in behind him. She tells him “C.J.’s looking for you” about eight times before he gets that C.J.’s not looking to tell him what a god among men he is. Donna won’t tell him why he might be in trouble because he doesn’t let her make “substantive contributions.” I’m giving this whole thing a 8 because it’s playing as if Donna is just whinging about not feeling her value is being appreciated as if that’s a stupid thing to be whinging about. And then it turns out she just wants $$$. Finally, she tells Josh that she’s cobbled together, from gossip around the Danish cart (not making that up 4) is that it has something to do with C.J. not knowing something about Sam and a woman. And then she doesn’t even know that C.J. is waiting in Josh’s office, thus undermining the whole speech about why she deserves to make substantive contributions/get a raise. 7.

So hey, there’s C.J.’s gams 2 in Josh’s office, and when he comes in the door, she says, “Wow, are you stupid.” 3. And then credits.

I’m not giving an 8 for this because, while C.J. is a female who is angry and Josh and Sam will protest that her anger is unwarranted, I don’t think the show is trying to make us think it is.

Misogyny Points Thus Far: 5

After the credits we are back on C.J.’s legs. Donna and Josh bicker for a second about the fact that Donna didn’t know C.J. was in Josh’s office. C.J. starts yelling at Josh and Josh pretends like this isn’t a big deal because Sam didn’t technically do anything wrong, since, as you might recall, he neither knew she was a prostitute when he slept with her, nor did he pay her. C.J. points out that that doesn’t matter on “Hard Copy” and Josh accuses her of overreacting, and then C.J. does my job for me, saying, “Oh, am I? As women are prone to do?” Go, C.J.! But also a 4 for you, Josh. Then Josh calls her a “paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista” 4 and I’d love to know what her not being Jewish has to do with all of this. To his credit, he does realize he went to far, and C.J. responds by calling him an “elitist, Harvard, fascist, missed-the-dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass.” I also don’t know what his being north of the Mason-Dixon has to do with anything, but okay. Josh tries to apologize by telling her she looks “like a million bucks” because he’s your Great-Uncle Harvey who thinks it’s 1957 (and by “he”, I mean Aaron Sorkin) 2 and C.J. is not trying to hear that as they head into their senior staff meeting.

MPTF: 8

Toby joins them on their rounds, complaining about what a crazy mood is the president is in, what with Morris Tolliver and dozens of other Americans being dead and all. It is determined that C.J. has learned about Sam and Laurie (the call girl), and C.J. promises to visit him later. Toby asks, “How the hell did I get in trouble?” Josh says, “Today? All you had to do was get out of bed,” like, no, jackass, all you had to do was keep C.J. out of your boys’ club, thus making it harder to do her job of protecting you all to the press. 8. Also that invalidates your earlier non-apology. (Also we all know C.J. is just going to visit Toby later to do it. !)

MPTF: 9

On the way to the Oval on that outer walkway, in the rain, the president is yelling at Leo for how long it’s taking to come up with a response scenario. Leo is trying to calm him down. It’s not working. President Bartlett tells Mrs. Landingham he can’t find his glasses, giving us our Chekhov’s Pager for the episode.

The president wants to get on this today, three days after they blew “him” out of the sky, and Leo points out that saying “him” rather than “it” or “the plane” is maybe indicative of – but the president is not trying to hear that. He yells at Mrs. Landingham again about his glasses and this is getting close to 5 territory but it’s not quite there. Leo leaves the president to go to the senior staff meeting.

In his office, Leo encourages the gang not to worry about the president’s mood and asks Sam what he knows. What Sam knows is that Bertram Coles, who is a congressman from a district with a military base, and who is upset with the president because the president has recommended cutting funding for something related to that military base, got on a radio show, in front of a bunch of military officers, and said, “Folks down here are patriotic – fiercely patriotic. The president better not be planning on making any visits to this base. If he does, he may not get out alive.”

No. Nope. That’s not a thing that happened. Even Sarah Palin, she of the “second amendment remedies” wouldn’t go quite that far. Even in 2013, a year in which the partisan bickering of this show’s airing year, 1999, looks noble and mature, this is not a thing that would happen.

Anyway, Toby is infuriated, and Leo is clearly enjoying riling Toby up, muttering, “There ought to be a law against it,” with a sly smirk toward Toby. Toby notes the several laws that are against it, such as threatening the life of a president, conspiracy to threaten the life of a president, and treason. As silly as the set-up is, I cannot at all fault Leo for the pleasure he’s taking in making Toby mad, as it is totes adorbs and I would make a habit of riling Toby up on the regular if I were in his (fictional) life.

Also, apparently Bertram Cole is a member of their own party. Yeah, no. Did not happen. Would not happen. Don’t care. Toby wants to do something about it and everyone else just wants to watch Toby. With you guys all the way.

Leo asks about when the networks would need to be told about the president announcing an attack on Syria and C.J. tells him they need 90 minutes. Networks, y’all get 90 minutes warning and I STILL miss key sections of the SYTYCD finale, so that the president can announce we’re NOT bombing Syria? I call shenanigans, FOX. Shenanigans!!

On the way out of the meeting, Josh and C.J. pedeconference, with Toby and Sam behind them. Before they split up, C.J. asks Sam to stop by her office later. Sam agrees, then, once C.J. is out of earshot, asks Toby if he thinks she knows, which of course he knows she does. Toby sees a knot of reporters and takes this opportunity to look very busy but come toward them, seemingly not deliberately. A reporter asks for a comment about Bertram Coles and Toby says “The Secret Service investigates all threats made against the president. It is White House policy not to comment on those investigations.” When the reporter follows up by asking if he’s saying there’s going to be a criminal investigation, Toby looks like he’s been caught talking out of school and says, “I really can’t comment on that right now” and then scurries away. So! Adorable! Love! Him!

Also loving that it’s been several paragraphs and I haven’t had my misogyny meter tick!

C.J. is in her office with two female assistants talking business. Hey, it’s not about a man! This episode passes the Bechdel test! -10! Sam comes in and C.J. kicks the assistants out. C.J. is pretty pissed and points out that this is a public relations problem and Sam continues to protest his innocence, ignoring C.J.’s concern about publicity, so 4. Also doesn’t C.J. understand that Sam is going to save her? Ugh, I need a number for his attitude about Laurie’s life. Let’s go with 4. It’s not perfect but it’ll have to do. C.J. reminds him that it’s her job to care what it looks like, not what it is, and Sam continues to be rude to her. More 4. (Not 5 because it’s not clear to me that C.J. is his underling but what do I know?) C.J. tells him that regardless of looking good vs. being good, he should come to her first, not Toby or Josh, because this is her job. She doesn’t say it, but it’s clear that he didn’t go to her because she’s a woman, and I kind of wish this part of C.J.’s arc had been teased out more throughout this season. Sam totally dismisses that idea, saying this should be about her standing up to the press instead of kowtowing to their morals. 4. Sam is being such an ass. C.J. is clearly hurt and dismisses him. Sam feels bad but, despite a half-hearted attempt, isn’t going to be able to make it up right now. Sam walks out of her office and punches a wall.

MPTF: 12

Now we’re in the situation room with a bunch of dudes in uniform. The Joint Chiefs, I guess. The president comes in, everyone stands, he tells them to sit. Because he’s a regular guy, all about business and not the nonsense of protocol. Admiral Fitzwallace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presents the president with three possible response scenarios, all of which require no prep time, meet the standards of “proportional response” (episode title check!), and pose minimum risk to civilians. The president demand to know, what is the “virtue” of a proportional response. This totally flummoxes the room. Fitzwallace tries to redirect the conversation, as does Leo, but the president is pissed and not having it. He says Syria knows they’re going to do what they’re going to do, that they’ve even prepared for it. Finally Fitzwallace admits that a proportional response is not virtuous; it’s just what there is. The president insists that it’s not all there is; they could be disproportionate, instead, and insists that the Chiefs come up with a plan that “doesn’t make me think we are just docking somebody’s damn allowance.” He storms from the room. Leo looks terrified.

Charlie! Charlie! It’s Charlie! Okay, pretending I don’t know for a second who this is, a young man with a terrified and confused face is hanging out in a conference room. Josh comes in while giving his lunch order to Donna, then introduces himself to Charlie. He tells Charlie he’s going to vet him, and then calls to Donna to change his lunch order, canceling the salad because he’s not going to eat it anyway. Dude, I feel you. I have been known to virtuously order the side salad instead of the fries and then absolutely ignoring that salad. But back to my misogyny count, in the episode in which we have had Donna insist that she’s capable of doing more, we are now having her take lunch orders. Which, I get that as an assistant, it’s her job, but it’s either a conscious decision or an unconscious assumption and either way I’m going with 5, not so much because Josh is being rude to her – he is being no more rude than is his standard demeanor – but because the show is.

Anyway, Josh encourages Charlie to sit and Charlie stares at him, while Josh describes a job for which Charlie did not apply. Charlie wanted to be a messenger. Josh – and the woman who sent Charlie to Josh – wants Charlie to be personal aide to the president instead. Charlie continues to be terrified and confused while Josh continues to be madly casual and dismissive. Charlie keeps calling Josh “sir” and Josh insists that only the president is “sir”; everyone else is “Hey, when am I going to get that thing I asked for?” Um, maybe to you, Rudey Mc RudePants. Donna brings him his water bottle and he makes a big fucking stink about a typo 5. Charlie continues to protest that this is not the job for which he applied and Josh observes that Charlie’s grades and SAT scores are such that he ought to be in a good college by now. Charlie reveals that he has to take care of his sister because his mom, a police officer, was shot and killed on duty five months ago. Aw, Charlie. I want to hug him so very much.

MPTF: 14

The president reenters the situation room, apparently a little calmer. He tells the dudes that there’s a group of cardiologists having their pictures taken in the Blue Room, whatever that is, and “You wouldn’t think you could find a group of people more arrogant than the fifteen of us, but there they are, right upstairs in the Blue Room.” Good line, Mr. President. Are we ready to stop being crazypants now?

Fitzwallace presents an apparently much worse response scenario, an attack on an airport, which would kill civilians, cripple the area’s abilities to receive water and medical supplies, and ruin the United States’s foreign relations with friends and enemies alike. But he also says, “You’ll have doled out $5,000 worth of punishment for a 50-buck crime,” which is a shockingly insensitive thing for any person to say, but particularly the person who is playing the role of Sensible and Practical Military Advisor, and really just sets up a Straw-Line for the president to be self-righteous about in a few minutes, and it’s annoying. Fitzwallace goes back to being sensible for a minute, but the president waves him off. He agrees to one of their proportionate response scenarios, has to be coached through giving the go order by Leo and Fitzwallace, gets predictably self-righteous about the 50-buck crime comment, and leaves.

We’re back with Charlie and Josh. Josh is trying to ask Charlie questions and Charlie is still trying to figure out what in the ever-living fuck he is doing there when Sam comes in. When Josh says he has to ask Charlie about his personal life, Sam makes it All About Me and My Call Girl. Josh takes Sam out of the room and  Sam complains some more about not being allowed to rescue Laurie when Toby calls them in to Leo’s office, because “it’s all happening.”

Wow, that’s inappropriate. I was referencing Almost Famous, but in that movie, the “it” is sex, drugs, and/or rock & roll, and here, it’s bombing Syria. Sorry. Anyway, that’s why the big rush to Leo’s office.

Leo gives them their marching orders and that’s basically all that happens. C.J. tells Leo she needs to talk to the president before briefing the press, and Leo is like, “You and me both, sister.”

Josh hangs back and tells Leo about Charlie, asking if Leo thinks it’s a problem that Charlie, who, if he became personal aide to the president, would be holding doors and carrying bags, and Charlie’s black, and does that make a bad visual? Leo dismisses this concern, then says he’s “fairly sure” he’s right about this. At some point Leo shouts Margaret’s name in that way he has so 5 but we can kind of assume that happens once per episode.

Fitzwallace comes in to talk to Leo and Josh leaves. Leo and Fitzwallace talk about the president being crazypants. Fitzwallace  continues to be sensitive and practical and not at all the kind of guy who would equate the deaths of a few dozen Americans with “a 50-buck crime”. Leo then asks Fitzwallace, who is also black, about the Charlie question, and Fitzwallace dismisses the concern. And I have to say, this feels very much like Aaron Sorkin just realized that the one black guy who is a series regular is in a kind of servant-ish role, and he wanted to assure us, the audience, that this was okay by using the “But my black friend says it’s fine!” Which, look, I don’t think that anyone here is wrong about the Charlie character – it is better to give Charlie a great job than to not give him this kind of opportunity because it might look sorta racist – but Aaron, if you’re feeling so insecure about it, cast more black people. Don’t get fictional black friends to give you the thumbs up.

People bustle about one of the fancy conference rooms and Josh stands in the middle, sighing that he has nothing to do.

More bustling in the Sam-and-Toby area. Cathy (Sam’s assistant) wants to know why no one can come to the phone. C.J. speculates that they are planning her surprise party and then goes in to see Toby, who is working with Sam on the address that the president will give later that night. C.J. and Toby say words at each other that I don’t understand, possibly about weaponry?, and then C.J. leaves. Sam runs after her and makes a genuine apology about his earlier assholishness. C.J. is cool. I’m glad everyone is friends again, but I really wish they’d made the storyline about C.J. trying to get into the boys’ club more prominent in Season One, instead of letting it simmer in the background so quietly you could be excused for not noticing it.

The press surrounds C.J. and C.J. is awesomely cool and admits to nothing.

Then she’s greeted at her office door by Danny Concannon. We haven’t met him yet but C.J. has. He’s a journalist who makes sure to tell us he’s been in the White House Press Room for seven years. She says she’ll tell him about Syria when she tells everyone else about Syria, but Danny doesn’t want to talk about that. He wants to talk about the $3,000-a-night call girl and asks to come into her office.

(Sam wants to save Laurie from her degrading life of getting $3,000 a night? Damn, girl, and you still have to bartend? How much is rent in D.C.?)

Josh continues to wander around busy people and annoy them. He specifically annoys Donna for a while, then Mandy pokes her head out of his office and says, “Josh, your office sucks!” 3! Mandy already knows everything about what’s going on with Syria so I guess -9. She tells him she has a present for him and after they talk a bit about the plane being shot down, Mandy gives Josh a picture of the two of them, with his face all magic-markered up. 3. She tells him she did the marketing during her period of hating him. 3. She claims it was taken the night they met, and he couldn’t stop staring at her. 3. He says she was wearing “quite the ensemble” that day 2 and she says she doesn’t think it was the ensemble he was looking at which 3 and also that doesn’t really make much sense. Josh gets a call and has to go do something. Mandy assures him on her way out that there is “not a chance” she will be nice to him when she starts working there 3.

MPTF: 21

Danny is telling C.J. that he doesn’t have enough for a story but he’s going to be asking around. C.J. is sticking up for Sam in exactly the way he asked her to, basically, telling Danny that Sam is doing nothing wrong and he should keep his nose out of other people’s perfectly legitimate and legal business. It’s unclear to me if the show wants me to believe that, had Sam not said the things he said, C.J. would be more under-the-bus-throw-y, or if C.J. would always have stuck up for Sam and was just angry that he didn’t tell her she’d have to. The C.J. that we’ve been presented with thus far would absolutely stick up for Sam in just this way but sometimes this show forgets the strengths of its female characters for the sake of plot so I don’t know. Danny warns C.J. that even if Danny drops this, other people might use it when they want to make trouble. C.J. gets a call and then gives Danny a head start on the Syria story in exchange for him not pursuing the Sam story.

Josh is giving Charlie the tour. Charlie probably thinks that they’re walking and talking because they’re on a tour. He doesn’t realize that it is the policy of this particular administration to conduct all conversations while perambulating. Josh says the only thing left is to meet the president and Charlie stops walking. It takes Josh several minutes to notice.

We’re entering the Oval with Charlie and Josh. The president is blustering around all pissed and ornery, yelling at Sam and Toby and shouting to Mrs. Landingham about his glasses and just generally screaming at everyone. While he’s yelling at C.J. he mentions reading something in his private study last night and Charlie gets a light bulb over his head. Josh encourages him to tell the president. The president is pretty rude to Charlie, just demanding to know who he is several times, but Mrs. Landingham catches Charlie’s drift and sends an assistant to the private study for the missing glasses. Chekhov’s Pager has beeped. Josh starts to introduce Charlie but the president rudely says, “I don’t have any time for new people right now.” Leo calls the president out of the room.

Leo yells at the president a little and the president ducks his head, a gesture we will come to recognize as his “I am almost ready to admit you’re right” gesture. He tells Leo that Roman citizens were protected by virtue of simply being citizens of Rome, because Rome would destroy your ass for the sake of one citizen. The president wants the USA to be Rome. Leo doesn’t. They bloviate about politics some, and Leo irrelevants, “Then you are just as stupid as these guys who think capital punishment is going to be a deterrent for drug kingpins, as if drug kingpins didn’t live their day-to-day lives under the possibility of execution. And their executions are a lot less dainty than ours, and tend to take place without the bother and expense of due process.” I mean, it’s a good argument, but it’s also a ham-handed way of shoving this point in to a scene on which it has no bearing. Couldn’t you just write an episode about capital punishment, Aaron? Leo tells the president that if the president wants the US to be Rome, then, fine, but Leo is going to raise an army against him. They argue some more about the proportional response thing and finally the president calms down. Leo says it’s what their fathers taught them. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but I know I’m supposed to find it deep.

The president gets the line of the night. “When I think of all the work you did to get me to run, when I think of all the work you did to get me elected, (beat) I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat.” Leo likes the line, too. He laughs and John Spencer laughing is wholly delightful. Leo tells the president about Bertram Coles and how Leo messed with Toby earlier. They both have a good laugh. The president asks Leo about Charlie, but we don’t hear his answer, probably because we already know and it’s time to wrap this mother up.

Everyone’s waiting around the Oval. C.J. sidles over to Toby and asks what he thinks the president and Leo are doing, and Toby doesn’t know. But of course they’re the ones making casual, irrelevant conversation with each other because they’re doing it ! Then C.J. asks if Toby knows about a story going around about the Secret Service investigating Bertram Coles. Toby says he doesn’t. C.J. says they’re quoting Toby from earlier, about not commenting about investigations, and did he say that? Toby says, all false innocence, “Yeah. Hey, you don’t suppose that’s how the story got started, do you?” Then he tells C.J. to tell Bertram Coles there’s a new sheriff in town, and they share an incredibly intimate smirk, probably thinking about the amazingly hot sex they’re going to have later. Because they are.

Josh is explaining to Charlie that the president is not usually such a major dickhead. The camera is swirling around their heads in an effort to make me vomit. Then the president, now his usual genial self, comes out to charm Charlie a little and talk to him about the gun legislation they’re going to push in honor of his mother, and does he want to join their team, and Charlie says, with enormous eyes and earnest tones, “Yes, sir, I do,” and I just melt into a little puddle because I LOVE Charlie. Leo and the president joke a little. Charlie tells Josh, “I never felt like this before,” and Josh assures him it doesn’t go away, and the president starts his address with the orchestra swelling inspirationally behind him.

You guys, I LOVE Charlie.

Misongyny score: 21 and largely due to Mandy! This episode was not so bad!

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4 thoughts on “Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing”, 1.03 “A Proportional Response”

  1. mjd says:

    Charlie is America’s dream Negro. He bootstrapped his way up through hard work, mom was a cop, he takes care of his sister, and he calls everyone Sir or Ma’am.

    The overly respectful thing is kind of adorable because he is only 21 and surprised to find himself in this position and all, but a senior staff member who was as obnoxious as the other guys would seem uppity, and this is way for the show to avoid having to write the tightrope such a character would have to walk. Yes we have some black characters in other episodes taking the regular characters to task, but as they only appear for the purpose of making their one point, it’s easier to take no guff without being threatening.

    But, like Janney, Dule Hill does such a good job of selling it that we do not even notice that we are loving a subservient Black guy. Besides, Kunta Kinte/James Evans told us it was ok.

    • perica1981 says:

      You are too right about Charlie. I still love him, and I really love when he gets more comfortable with the president and can still be outwardly respectful while absolutely getting across what he really thinks.

  2. Aussiesmurf says:

    Firstly – have just discovered these, and am loving them.

    And the Bertram Coles thing totally happened IRL. Jesse Helms in 1994 said “Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.”

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