MISOGYNY & AARON SORKIN, “THE WEST WING”, 1.09, “The Short List”

Another head cold, another turn at recapping “The West Wing”! Here we go!

To remind you, I am using these posts to a) recap a much-beloved (by me and in general) TV show, and b) point out the misogyny in it. Because I like to combine my two favorite activities – watching TV I love, and hate-watching! Here’s 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 (or other emotions/behaviors) 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.
  11. Lip service is paid to female power or agency or simply the existence of females in this world without, oh, say, actually casting one or giving one something cool to do.
  12. A male character or characters act(s) as white knight to a female character or characters.

And,

!. When we see evidence that Toby & C.J. are doin’ it. Not misogynist, just entertaining to me personally.

 

Previously on “The West Wing,” Leo told his wife that being the president’s chief of staff was more important to him than their marriage; Danny the reporter flirted inappropriately with C.J. the press secretary; and the veep wanted to know when Leo had last been to an AA meeting and invited Leo to his.

There is some banging over the episode title and we are told that it’s Monday morning. Josh is on the phone saying “Yes” a number of times. C.J. is leaning over him, on another extension, with her hand over her mouthpiece, evidently listening to the same conversation. They both seem tense with anticipation. They get the answer they’re apparently hoping for and start excitedly – but silently – dancing and pumping their arms and such while Josh’s voice remains calm, telling the person on the other line that s/he should expect a call from the president later. They both hang up and start cheering. “It is done and we did it!” they crow. Then Josh immediately says, in front of his whole staff, “I did it.” Because he is an enormous dick. 5. C.J. insists that Josh made one phone call, and Josh responds that he “masterminded” a series of phone calls and that the important thing to remember is that “it is done and I did it.” C.J. seems unfazed and actually congratulates him. 6. Then he’s gracious enough to say “we did it” to her. Away from his staff. Privately. What a charmer.

Donna scuttles after him as he gets himself over to the Oval Office and asks if he wants to know about the banging coming from the floor above his office. He is not interested. Being interested in the details of the world around you is for icky, stupid girls like Donna. Josh is far too important to notice or care; he was on the phone trying to (and succeeding in) filling a seat on the Supreme Court. So nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. 4. Also for pretending Donna might not understand he’s talking about the United States Supreme Court because he is very, very important.

Sam and Toby meet up with Josh and they bump chests and Josh cries, “We the men!” because Josh has no problem sharing credit with his fellow male colleagues. 5. And lest you say, “Hey, you don’t know what each of the members of the senior staff contributed to this particular problem; for all you know, Josh and Sam and Toby did, in fact, do more than C.J.,” let me say, you’re right. I don’t know. The script never tells us. That’s kind of the point. The default is to assume that the boys have every right and reason to take this credit, and that either the girl did in fact do less than the man, or that she should be pleased to be included even on the outskirts of the group, only acknowledged off to the side.

Anyway, Josh then insists on some more adulation from Mrs. Landingham, which, in an extremely un-Mrs. Landing ham way, she provides. 6. Then Josh and Sam chest-bump again as they chant, “We the men!” Because, again, Josh can share credit generously with his bros. In front of people. 5.

They enter the Oval to a very pleased president and chief of staff. The president wants to know which one of them is “the man.” Because even the terms for having been successful have to be masculine. I don’t know where to put that so I’m going with 4. And you know what? I’m not usually one of those feminists, who needs to change “You’ve got balls!” to “You’ve got ovaries!” and “chairman” to “chairperson” or even “chairpersun” or what have you. I use “guys” as an intersex term with nary a second thought and, try as I might to break myself of the habit, I still refer to God as “he” when using a pronoun. But in this particular case it’s irritating me. C.J. – who evidently had something to do with the whole process – isn’t even in the room! And again, that’s a storytelling choice. They could have not had C.J. in the room, on the phone along with Josh in the first scene. It could have just been him. They chose (and by “they” I mostly mean Aaron Sorkin) to put C.J. in the room, and then have Josh take credit away from her. And to present this all as adorable office comedy and not at all as a jack-ass being a sexist shit-head to his colleague.

Okay, okay, I’m moving on. Plot. The boys move from the Oval to Leo’s office (minus the president, who stays behind to make the phone call). Mandy is already in Leo’s office and she tells them they rock. 6. Leo wants to make some phone calls and realizes belatedly that C.J. isn’t in the room. 5. Then she appears behind him and he tells her she should wear a bell or something. 5. Gross, Leo. Toby issues a bunch of directives – including that the announcement will be made Thursday and not Friday, because, though Josh wants more time, people watch TV on Thursday. I wonder what day of the week this show originally aired?

The senior staff exits Leo’s office with Toby commanding Josh to get him all the information on this Supreme Court future nominee. Josh says they vetted him for two months but Toby wants to use the next four days to do some more vetting. He orders everyone around but only yells at C.J. 5. But then C.J. tells him he’s hot when he’s like this. Which seems a bit 6 to me, and, given the nature of the relationship they have in my head, also a bit 2, and I’m giving it both of those numbers because Josh has already put me in a bad mood, but I’m also throwing in a ! and squeeing a bit.

Toby yells at the room in general and goes into his office. Josh and Sam congratulate themselves some more – the president was so happy! They made Papa proud! – and split. Mandy asks to speak to C.J.

Donna rejoins Josh and tells him that the banging is a maintenance crew working upstairs. Josh continues to give 0 fucks and gives us the Supreme Court nominee’s full name – Peyton Cabot Harrison III – a few times so we can appreciate the extreme Sorkin-ness of it. He loves his WASPy ’50s names, he does. And I kind of do, too. Donna is doing her best to pretend to give a shit about Josh’s roll call of Peyton Cabot Harrison III’s qualifications – Exeter! Yale! Rhodes! – and then points out that Peyton Cabot Harrison III is just another WASPy old man. I’m loving Donna in this scene and giving this a -5 just basically for her calling Josh on his shit. Josh doesn’t care, though, because this means a smooth confirmation process. “There’s many a slip twixt the tongue and the wrist,” Donna reminds Josh, which, truth, because I am, as has been previously established, a HUGE fan of not counting one’s chickens. Josh calls this “fortune cookie wisdom” 5 and Donna begs him not to get his hopes up because when he’s upset he shows up to her apartment drunk in the middle of the night and yells at her roommate’s cats. This is a detail that never goes anywhere and I love it both in itself and BECAUSE it goes nowhere. Donna advises cautious optimism and Josh insists nothing will go wrong this week. Then a piece of ceiling falls on Josh’s desk. It’s both predictable and pretty funny.

Wow, that was a long teaser.

Misogyny Points Thus Far: 14 So a pretty sexist teaser as well.

Swelling music! I am feeling uplifted and inspired!

The president and the retiring Supreme Court Justice sit in a very old-man-lawyer office and share pleasantries. The justice asks if they’re going with Harrison and the president is being cagey, which doesn’t fool the justice. He wishes they’d taken a closer look at Mendoza, who the president insists was on the short list. The justice thinks they put Mendoza on the short list so they could show they had “a Hispanic” on the short list. Burn. The pleasantries quickly sour as the justice tells the president exactly how disappointed he has been in President Bartlett, saying he drove to the middle of the road right after he was sworn in, to a line “painted yellow”, and also that he wanted to retire under a Democrat, “and instead I got you.” BURN. I like this guy. Let’s give him a spin-off.

Outside the Supreme Court building, reporters mill and Danny spots C.J. He walks over to her and they pedeconference – well, he pede-flirts/interrogates; she pede-stonewalls. Danny also knows already it’s going to be Harrison.

Back inside, the president is running out of pleasant and the justice could give a shit. “I took my seat the year you started college,” he tells the president. “I believe I’ve earned the right to say a word.” You sure did, Justice. I am willing to listen to all the words.

Seriously, can’t you see Retired Justice Cranky-Pants and his live-in home health care worker Berta? Maybe Berta ends up having to bring her three children over from Barbados to live with them? The two teenagers drive him nuts, but he forms a bond with the eight-year-old? I want this to be a sit-com. Let’s get on this.

The justice pleads with the president to reconsider Mendoza and points out that he won’t win his reelection without guts. The president whines about his job and the justice continues to give zero fucks. For some reason, when the justice calls him Mr. Bartlett, the president corrects him with “Dr. Bartlett,” not “President Bartlett.” Maybe this is a subtle piece of writing to tell us how Jed is feeling about his job?

Outside, Danny offers C.J. his gloves and then continues to interrogate and inappropriately flirt. Then a nameless black woman strides toward them and declares that it’s time.

We go back to the White House, where Josh and Donna are staring at Josh’s ceiling and Josh is marveling that it could have been his head that was hit with a piece of ceiling. Donna is all, get over it, Drama Queen. And she’s right, and also, a massive head wound could only improve his character, but also . . . I mean, wouldn’t they cordon off sections of the office if this were going on? In case something like this happened and Josh sued the federal government for millions of dollars? Josh thinks it should be Donna in the danger zone. 5.

Mandy comes in and Donna goes out. Mandy wants to know why Lillienfield is holding a press conference? Josh doesn’t care and yells at Donna. A 4 for how he’s treating Mandy’s concerns and a 5 for how he’s talking to Donna.

Sam comes in to Toby’s office and Toby tells him that he’d like Sam to play up that Peyton Cabot Harrison III clerked for a Republican judge back in the day, despite himself being a Democrat, and to play down that Peyton Cabot Harrison III has never given an opinion on abortion. Sam already gets this, and sees Lillienfield on Toby’s TV. Toby and Sam also seem unconcerned about Lillienfield although we are still listening to him as he namechecks “Rumsfeld” as one of the members of the halcyon days of White House staff and I ask you all to marvel with me about the difference a decade and a half makes. Lillienfield then claims that one in three White House staffers use drugs on a regular basis. Now Toby is interested. He picks up his phone and barks, “Get her.” 5.

Carol, C.J.’s assistant, knocks on C.J.’s door and C.J., without turning or needing further explanation, says, “Tell him I’m watching.”

Now everyone is gathering in Leo’s office, and they’re all upset. Sam wants to know, if Lillienfield tried a little harder, could he be a bigger horse’s ass? And it’s delivered in such a Sam-like fashion. I really do love Rob Lowe’s portrayal of Sam Seaborne.

Josh comes in and makes light, demanding that the 1.6 staffers in the room who are stoned right now stop bogarting the good stuff. (Really, WordPress spellcheck? Bogarting is a word? Okay.) Mandy is not amused. Josh continues to make light and I’m giving his attitude toward Mandy a 8. God, lighten up. Girls just don’t have a sense of humor.

Toby comes in and yells about nobody having seen this coming. C.J. returns that she’s shocked her psychic didn’t tell her. Josh thinks they should ignore it; Mandy and C.J. think that’s impossible, because if she denies it, and then it turns out some guys in the photo room shared a joint over the weekend, “which is not, like, out of the realm of possibility” then she has to account for that, and the closet junkie in the catering department, etc., and C.J. and Mandy spit out scenarios along this line for a little bit. Toby doesn’t appreciate it. 5.

Misogyny Points Thus Far: 20

Leo cuts this off with a “We’re looking into it” line for C.J. Josh asks if they’re actually looking into it and Leo says yes and Josh is upset. Then Margaret comes to call Leo out of the room.

As the gang leaves Leo’s office, Toby goes over talking points with C.J. and orders Sam back to work. The gang splits but Josh doubles back and Toby asks him, “What do they know? What do we know?” Josh does not like the idea of becoming in the know as regards drug use among White House staffers. Toby says he’s tired of being “the field captain for the gang that couldn’t shoot straight!” I love Richard Schiff. And I wanna bang Toby. In case I haven’t made that clear.

Sam looks like he’s taking a nap in his darkened office when the phone rings. He takes the call, looks stunned, then asks for the caller’s name, assuring the caller that he’s not a cop. I am confused. Wouldn’t this call come through a call center of some kind? Wouldn’t Sam’s assistant have found out who the caller was? Wouldn’t the caller know s/he wasn’t speaking to a cop? So many questions. But I will suspend my disbelief for the sake of drama. And brevity. (“To make a long story short-” “Too late!”) Oh, then Sam says he’s alone in the office, so that’s why no secretary to field the call. He decides to go meet the caller and then trips adorably over a carton on his way out.

Leo and the president are pede-conferencing through that outdoor hallway that I never know how to describe. They are optimistic about the smooth confirmation process that nominating Peyton Cabot Harrington III assures them. In the office, the president sends Charlie out for gifts for the nominee and his wife (cigars for him, perfume for her, and maybe I should add a number for just good, old-fashioned gender stereotypes? But I think I’ll give Sorkin a break on that. For one, it’s believable that Jed and Leo hold those stereotypes; for another, it’s not exactly misogyny to have the stereotypes unless one values them differently. That’s why I have number four on my list. It’s not for when things are coded as feminine, but for when things that are coded as feminine are disparaged. It’s a fine line but I’m accepting it for now.)

Jed wants to know what’s going on with Lillienfield but Leo advises Jed to stay out of it. Leo and Jed are called in different directions but then the president if they gave Mendoza a good look. He dismisses it a second later and then strolls over to Toby’s office. He asks Toby to put together information on Mendoza so that Jed doesn’t have to feel like he just had a Hispanic on the short list for appearances. Even though he totally did. Jed also asks Toby about Lillienfield and Toby also tells Jed to stay out of it.

Sam busts in in his winter coat with bad information from his phone call with regard to Harrison. Toby asks him to close the door.

After the commercial break that would have existed had I been watching this on regular tv, Sam is telling Toby that what he’s got is an unsigned note that every member of a law review is required to prepare. (Harrison had been the editor of the Yale Law Review.) Toby says he knows what an unsigned note is even as Sam goes on to explain that it’s “like an article,” 40-50 pages of well-researched, footnoted, revised by advisors, etc., and then published with no name.

And here I have to break in and explain another element of my numbering system. Sam’s explanation of the law review unsigned note is exposition, sure. But Toby insists he knows what it is even as Sam is explaining it, so Toby is not functioning as an exposition fairy here even though something he should already know is being explained to him. Because we must go out of our way to show that male characters already know everything they ever need to know. Keep that in mind when Donna’s all, “Explain to me what taxes are, Josh?”

Anyway, Toby is agitated and wants to know how they know Harrison wrote it; Sam says he’s spent the last three months reading everything Harrison has ever written and this is definitely something Harrison wrote. Toby calls for his assistant Bonnie to get him the next five minutes the president got.

Ah, here’s our favorite Exposition Fairy now. Donna wants to know where Lillienfield gets his information and Josh informs us that he’s on the House Government Oversight Committee, the committee that “literally decide(s) if we get heat and electricity in the White House.” Now, I don’t know what the House Government Oversight Committee is, nor could I name who’s on it. But do we really think that Donna, the assistant to the Deal-With-Congressmen senior staffer, who herself works in the White House, doesn’t know which committee controls her paycheck and who its members are? No. No, we do not. So 9. And again, let us keep in mind that, if the point of exposition is to catch the viewer up on stuff they wouldn’t know, which it is, they could choose, as they did one scene before with Toby and Sam, to have Josh blather on about it to Donna while Donna says, “Yes, I know this already.” I’m not saying that they sat in the writer’s room going, “Well, but Toby is a boy and therefore smart and Donna is a girl and therefore dumb.” I’m saying that, consciously or not, they made storytelling choices. This is how I, one viewer, am experiencing and interpreting those choices.

Donna assures Josh that he needn’t feel bad about interviewing her. “You know anyone around here who uses drugs?” he asks. She does. “You gonna tell me who they are?” She will not. He says to consider herself interviewed and Donna thinks he’s a “good boy.” Also, apparently Donna gets a lot of parking tickets. Once in college my dad called me up and demanded to know how I’d wracked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 parking tickets in one semester. I went down to the campus police station and talked them down to two. I was very proud of myself at the time. Now I am wondering if they actually gave a shit about any of the twenty.

Mandy is in Josh’s office and they are arguing. Mandy thinks everyone should take a drug test and that anyone who can’t pass will just resign. Josh thinks people would be more comforted to know that they will never be asked to turn over evidence against themselves. I don’t know how seriously I’m supposed to take all of this, btw. My husband is an employee of the federal government. He has to take drug tests. It’s not uncommon in the working world in general and it’s pretty standard for government employees. Right?

Josh says Mandy only wants to preserve the spotlight for the Supreme Court thing, which he says like it’s a bad thing but which is actually the job for which she was hired. 5. Finally Josh settles down enough to ask Mandy what she thinks Lillienfield is really after. Mandy tells him to go talk to whoever it is he talks to. Not like a shrink, though. Like an informant.

C.J. is briefing the press. They apparently are not satisfied by the “We’re looking into it” line. One reporter has the audacity to ask C.J. if she uses drugs. She says she does not. Another reporter says it’s been 24 hours; how long do they need? C.J. says they need more time and then says that since no one has been subpoenaed and Lillienfield has not offered up his evidence, they’re not in a big hurry to get it done. Apparently being the first person to say “subpoena” is a very bad thing, which Danny follows her out of the press room to point out. Then he asks her out and offers to explain basketball patronizingly and slowly in a way a girl would appreciate. Yes, those are his actual words. Mr. Sorkin, self-awareness does not always lead to self-correction. Or, even if you know and acknowledge that you’re being an asshole, that doesn’t mean you’re not being an asshole. You know?

C.J. agrees with me and leaves him alone in the press room. Josh appears and asks to speak to Danny. They take a walk together. Because all conversations on this show must be had while people are in motion. Danny is offended that Josh is asking him for intel, but says that Lillienfield wouldn’t be talking like this if he wasn’t trying to hit something big. So basically Danny just helped Josh solidify what he already knew. In exchange, Josh tells Danny that C.J. likes goldfish. 2. Because come on, why would Josh be helping his press secretary get with a reporter? It’s an obviously bad idea if you think of C.J. as primarily a press secretary. But if you think about her as this chick you know from work, and Danny is your bro, then this is the kind of thing you would tell him.

The president is looking at the unsigned note. It’s apparently an argument that privacy is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. The president is perturbed, both by the paper and the fact that they didn’t know about Harrison’s position on privacy. Toby thinks it’s NBD; maybe he didn’t write the paper, maybe he doesn’t feel this way any more. Sam thinks that “maybe” is not good enough for someone they’re putting on the Supreme Court. The president wants to see Harrison ASAP and tells Toby and Sam to get ready.

Leo is talking numbers with some folks when the president interrupts. Leo orders his folks out and the president tells Leo he wants to meet Mendoza. Leo says yes, sir.

It’s Wednesday morning. Toby, Sam and Mandy are all tensely in the assistant’s area outside the Oval. Inside the Oval, the president asks Peyton Cabot Harrison III if he’s the author of the unsigned note. He is. The president mentions some paper about trade barriers he wrote at 26 years old – the age Harrison was when he wrote the unsigned note – that he says was the result of youth and stupidity, apparently hoping that Harrison will go, “Yeah, these young and stupid things supernerds like us do!” Harrison does not say that. The president calls Toby and Sam in.

But apparently before they do, Josh speaks to Toby about the privacy thing. Josh is pissed. “When did we get the idea that Harrison was our guy? When we used to talk, it was never Harrison,” Josh says. Charlie comes for Toby.

Leo’s alone in his office when Margaret comes in and asks if he has a minute for Josh. He does. Leo sympathizes with Josh about how much it sucks to be interviewing people about their drug habits this week. Josh tells Leo that he thinks Lillienfield is after Leo for Leo’s alcoholism. Leo is not entirely surprised to learn that Josh – and everyone in D.C. – pretty much knows about it. But Josh knows there must be more than alcohol. Leo confesses to a pill addiction, for which he went to a facility six years ago. Leo says the records are confidential but Josh is convinced Lillienfield has them. Then Josh claps Leo on the shoulder and says, “You’re Leo McGarry. You’re not going to be taken down by this small fraction of a man. I won’t permit it.” Music swells. If anyone ever says to you, “What is the heart, the essence, the sum total of Aaron Sorkin’s psyche?” just show them this clip.

Harrison, the president, Toby, and Sam are in the Oval having an incredibly amateur conversation about interpretations of the Constitution. I’m not going to recap it. It’s way too American Government 101.

C.J. is in her office with a pile of papers. Danny walks in and C.J. tells him he was right about the subpoena thing, but notes that he did not make it a big point in his. Danny has a goldfish in a bowl for C.J. He reveals that Josh told him she liked them. But Josh meant the crackers, not the fish. C.J. thinks this is adorable and hilarious. It’s a little hilarious. She wants to keep the goldfish – the goldfish named Gail – anyway. C.J. kisses his cheek and thanks him. Danny advises her to keep her head in the game. Which is a little patronizing. I don’t know what number to give it so I’ll go with 7.

More Constitutional conversation on the level of your tenth grade debate club carries on in the Oval Office. I’m still not recapping it. Harrison is insulted that he even has to be in this conversation. The president excuses Harrison. Toby and Sam continue to argue about whether or not Harrison should still be their guy. Sam believes that privacy debates are going to define the next twenty years. He’s not wrong. Toby agrees to meet with Mendoza.

This is a meeting Mandy has apparently heard about, and she comes in to whine at Josh. Josh continues to be rude about Mandy doing her actual job. This whole scene is 3 and 5. And exposition about Mendoza. Who’s the little guy. Went to law school while recovering from an injury sustained doing police work. Public schools. Hispanic. Blah blah blah. And Mandy’s worried that the senior staff isn’t up to fight for him, especially not if they get bogged down in the Lillienfield thing. They resolve their fight only to have Mandy 3 a little more.

Edward James Olmos is paraded down the hall looking badass. Margaret informs some dude that he’s Roberto Mendoza.

Harrison is climbing the walls in the room they’ve put him in. Charlie’s in there with him. Charlie, as it turns out, caddied at the golf club Harrison belonged to.

Now we’re in the Oval with Mendoza, Sam, Toby, and the president. Mendoza is just as arrogant and condescending as the rest of them; he’ll fit right in.

Leo calls the president out of the room and we discover that the president already knows about the pills. Leo wants to resign in order to save the president the trouble but the president is going to stand by Leo’s side, because this storyline is Aaron Sorkin’s mission statement.

The president comes back and they ask Mendoza what he thinks of firing someone for failing a drug test. Mendoza would order that the employee be reinstated. Everyone likes him and the president tells him he’s being nominated for the Supreme Court. Mendoza accepts. Everyone is up for a “good fight.” Huzzah!

A whole bunch of people outside the office applaud as the president announces, “Mr. Justice Mendoza!” to the crowd.

I swear, somewhere in the back of my mind is a memory of Harrison arguing with Charlie about that golf club. I guess it’ll come up next episode?

Anyway, in misogyny terms, the beginning of this episode was completely dreadful. It evened out by the end but it still totaled 27 points on the misogyny scale, which is definitely on the high end.

If I still feel like utter crap, I’ll do another of these tomorrow!

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