Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing,” 1.10, “In Excelsis Deo”

There are many things I should be doing right now (like going to bed) but I am choosing this instead.

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.
  13. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! – A display of homophobia

And,

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

Previously, on “The West Wing,” Danny brought C.J. a goldfish; Sam tried to save his escort friend from her degrading lifestyle; and Leo revealed to Josh, after a Congressman named Lillienfield started talking about drugs at the White House, that not only is he addicted to alcohol, he has also gone through addiction to prescription medication.

It’s Thursday, December 23 at 7:30 am. Oh, shit, it’s the Christmas episode. You guys, I have to warn you, I have . . . allergies, okay? Hay fever.

Anyway, we’re in the foyer and there’s Christmas decorations and Mandy is telling C.J. something to do with Christmas media event plans. Dickensian costumes and Santa hats. Yeah, I’m agreeing with C.J. that they will, in fact, clash. But already we passed the Bechdel test! Go episode! -10!

And then Toby grouses about why he has to be there because caring about Christmas stuff is for girls. 4. 

Sam seems significantly less cranky about Christmas planning than Toby. Then Sam and Toby get into a stupid fight about the year 2000 not being the actual start of the new millennium. I didn’t care in 1999 and I’m certainly not going to care now. Toby is adorably grumpy, though.

As they are pede-arguing, one of the assistants – Bonnie, I think? – stops Toby because she’s got the D.C. police on the line. Shit. It is this episode. I have a dust in my eyes, people! Dust!

Toby peels off and Sam tries to get C.J. to care about when the millennium starts. She does a decent job of seeming like she cares, until she informs a Secret Service agent that she’s on her way to the Oval Office and the Secret Service agents says into his wrist-thingie, “Flamingo is on her way.” I’m giving a 1 to this Flamingo-as-C.J.’s-code-name thing. It’s not exactly slapstick but it’s using her body for comedy.

Credits!

Misogyny Points Thus Far: 1 

Park. Park bench. Dude sleeping on park bench. Toby approaches a total “Hey, it’s that Guy!” I know he was the dude in “Fringe,” the, like, head of their department or something? And other stuff but I don’t remember what right now. Anyway, he is the D.C. police guy, and he reveals that it was not a dude sleeping on a park bench. It was a dude dead on a park bench. A dude by the name of Walter Hufnagle. Because Aaron Sorkin loves his names. Toby doesn’t know the guy, but apparently he had Toby’s business card in his jacket pocket. Because Toby gave a coat to Goodwill and the coat had his business card in it.

Toby is sort of horrified that the dead body is still there, and is also disgusted that the guy, despite being a veteran (as evidenced by a tattoo on his forearm), isn’t receiving a whole lot of respect.

We’re back at the White House, in Josh’s section, where Donna has greeted Josh. Donna has apparently prepared a list of things she’d like Josh to buy her, all ski-related, despite the fact that she doesn’t ski. Because girls, right? 8. Then Josh tells Donna he has to meet with Leo to talk about Donna’s Christmas present and Donna goes, “Really?”, all hopeful, like she believes him. 8. Then he promises Donna to think about the skis and, as soon as her back is turned, he throws her list in the trash. 5.

Leo is at Margaret’s desk, signing Christmas cards with Margaret and being irritable with her 5 despite the fact that Margaret is no happier about this activity than he is. Leo sends Margaret out of the room so that he and Josh can talk about Lillienfield having the information about Leo and his pill addiction. Josh speculates that Lillienfield is going to wait until after Christmas, when people are paying attention, to drop the other shoe. So he wants to go on a preemptive strike – using Sam’s escort friend. Ugh, Josh. Just ugh. Let’s give this a 2 and see if there are any other numbers we can use as this plot line progresses.

Leo is against this plan, because “we don’t do these things”. Good for you, Leo.

Josh is about to leave when Leo fills him in on a recent hate crime against a gay teen. I’m assuming this is the fictional version of Matthew Shephard. Although Matthew Shephard’s assailants were not thirteen years old, as these fictional assailants are. So, Leo tells Josh, they are going to have to talk about hate crimes legislation, and C.J. is going to send up a “test balloon” at her briefing to get a feel for where the public is on this.

Josh goes and Leo bitches at Margaret some more. 5.

C.J. is giving the press the president’s holiday schedule, with a cute line about how he’s leaving at 5 a.m., no delays, so that means probably noon. One of the journalists brings up not-Matthew Shephard – whose name is Lowell Lydell – and C.J. confirms his condition and, in response to a question about whether this will bring up hate crimes legislation, C.J. says she supposes it would have been better to bring it up before Lowell Lydell was assaulted.

Toby is on the phone trying to get information about Walter Hufnagle. It’s not going well. Mandy is knocking on his door. Toby tries to explain what’s going on and Mandy doesn’t care because she’s soulless. 8? Apparently she wants to talk about the Dickensian costumes/Santa hats issue. Toby mocks her. 4 & 5. Not because he’s wrong, but because what function does this exchange serve other than to illustrate that Man Toby is dealing with Sensitive, Important Things like Homeless Vets whereas Stupid Girl Mandy is dealing with Stupid Girl Stuff. Toby goes back to his phone call.

MPTF: 10

Josh is walking and Donna joins him for a pedeconference. Only they actually stop walking because Donna does not, as Josh assumes, want to talk about her Christmas list, but instead wants to know what’s going on with Leo. Josh closes the door to his office and gets a little pissy that Donna was talking to Margaret about this but Donna does not feel bad and Josh doesn’t really look that surprised or angry. Donna is disappointed that Josh isn’t doing anything about it. Josh feels bad about that. It’s the first exchange EVER between Donna and Josh that hasn’t set off my Misogyny Meter.

C.J. is leading a group of kids into the foyer with all the Christmas stuff and instructing them on how to talk to the president. The president enters and the kids, as instructed, give a hale and hearty, “Good Morning, Mr. President!” The president makes dad jokes at them and it’s adorable. C.J. smiles and is also adorable. But then Charlie gestures and C.J. escorts him away so that Charlie can inform them that Lowell Lydell has died of his injuries. Everyone is sad. Then the president has to go back and make some more dad jokes at the kids.

In a hallway, C.J. is walking when Sam joins her. He feels she didn’t so much send up a test balloon as a test firework. She doesn’t see why that’s bad, and Sam says they’re not sure where they stand on this. C.J. knows exactly where she stands on people throwing rocks at the heads of gay teenagers. Sam tells her to pull back anyway.

C.J. wants to know what Sam’s new Secret Service nickname is. It’s “Princeton.” C.J.’s is, as you may recall, “Flamingo.” Yeah, I’m keeping the going for this. Sam is trying to extricate himself from this conversation because 8 and they peel away from each other.

MPTF: 12

Another assistant – who is actually maybe Bonnie and the other one from before is Nancy? – asks Sam how he’s doing. Sam claims he is 27 hours from Bermuda and therefore doing fine. I, having watched TV before, am going to bet a whole lot of money that he will not, in fact, be in Bermuda in 27 hours.

Josh approaches Sam and follows him into his office. Josh wants Sam to introduce him to Laurie, his escort friend, so that he can get information from her. Sam initially protests, but then Josh reveals the thing about the pills and that it happened while Leo was Secretary of Labor. Josh reminds Sam that they “owe Leo everything,” and Sam agrees to call her and go see her with them.

In the office that’s right outside the Oval Office, Mrs. Landingham reminds Charlie to remind the president that the president is allergic to eggnog. Charlie agrees, and comments on how festive the White House looks. Mrs. Landingham looks disinterested, which is, of course, why Charlie brought this up. He notes that she seems a little down this week.

You guys. Allergies. Mrs. Landingham reveals that her twin sons chose not to defer when they were drafted for Vietnam, instead joining as medics (as they were in medical school at the time). Then they were killed in battle on Christmas Eve. “It’s hard when that happens so far away, you know, because, with the noises and the shooting, they must have been so scared. It’s hard not to think that, right then, they needed their mother.” ALLERGIES, YOU GUYS. IT IS SO DUSTY IN HERE. I cannot praise Kathryn Joosten (Mrs. Landingham) enough for her work in this scene. She’s so matter-of-fact, so plainspoken in her description. It’s spare and quiet and I’m going to be crying all night now.

Toby is at a memorial – I think the Vietnam one? But then it must be the Korea one because that was where Walter Hufnagle fought? There is a Korean War memorial, right? Toby talks to a vendor about Walter to get more information. The vendor tells Toby that Walter had a community that hangs out at “Capital and P”. Toby asks if the vendor is a veteran and, when he says yes, Toby introduces himself and shakes his hand. God, his puppy eyes in this storyline break my heart.

Mandy is in the Oval Office yelling at the president for not letting her send a couple of (press) guys to photograph him shopping at a rare books store. 3 for her general demeanor and 4 and for the president’s dismissiveness towards her for trying to do her job. Josh comes in and the president asks him to come along. Josh is astounded that the president manages to sneak out for excursions like this every once in a while. The president asks Josh if he knows about the underground tunnels out of the White House. Josh does. The president says he hasn’t found them, even though he looks almost every day. Hee. Josh for some reason is hesitant to go because these people I guess don’t want to write books or have any fun. I’ll go with you to a rare books store, Mr. President. Josh asks if he can be dropped off the Washington Monument instead. The president gets in the line of the night when he says, “It’s Christmas, Josh! No reason we can’t do both!”

C.J. is pulled into a pedeconference by Danny, who knows all about the president’s secret excursions, because of course he does. He’s like the opposite of 9 in that he’s a male character who should actually be kept in the dark about many things but of course knows them anyway. So any time he does that I think I’m going to give it a reverse 9. It’s my system and I can do what I want, that’s why.

MPTF: 16

Anyway, Danny didn’t want to talk to C.J. about work, of course. He wants to talk to C.J. about the list he put together on why they should date. C.J. tells him to give her a few hours to put a list together of why they shouldn’t and complains again about the code name “Flamingo” 1. Danny goes and Sam comes up and C.J. asks what Sam and Josh have going on tonight. Sam assumes she knows about their plans with Laurie but in fact C.J. was inviting them over for dinner. This is stupid. Why wouldn’t she ask Josh separately if that were the case? I mean, why would she assume that Sam would know what Josh’s plans were for dinner? And now, because Sam is acting suspicious, C.J. knows something is, in fact, up. Sam is not super-quick. But Sam insists that it’s nothing, again, and the scene ends.

At the rare book store. The president is very excited about a book he’s found and Leo is not really entertained. Mandy complains to Josh that they couldn’t bring some press, and Josh complains about how boring the selections here are, while describing what sounds to me like a perfectly interesting book.

The president wants Leo to come up to Manchester with him for Christmas, but Leo wants to stay back and work. Then Leo tells the president that after the holidays, they’ll have to deal with his Lillienfield situation, but the president ain’t tryin’ to hear that. Charlie ushers the president out while very politely making fun of the president’s gift of choice for Zoe. Leo reminds Josh not to talk to Sam’s escort friend and they go.

Toby walks down to Capital & 9, where bunch of homeless guys are in line for soup. One of the homeless guys points out Walter Hufnagle’s brother and tells Toby he’s a little slow.

Toby finds the brother under a bridge or overpass or something, where George Hufnagle identifies himself. Toby tells him his brother is dead and George Hufnagle reacts like a slow, sad man in a Frank Capra film. Toby very awkwardly tries to explain what he’s doing while George Hufnagle focuses on the northeasterly winds off the Chesapeake and does not understand at all what it means that his brother was a veteran who got a purple heart. (Purple Heart?) George also reveals that he slept at the shelter to avoid the winds but there weren’t enough beds for Walter.

Toby decides to tell George that Walter deserves a proper funeral and very uncomfortably tells George he is very influential and wants to make sure Walter gets that funeral. One of the other guys – the guy who pointed George out to Toby – assures Toby he’ll make sure George is there to be picked up for the funeral the next day and then refuses to take Toby’s money.

We’re in C.J.’s office with Danny and C.J. is reading her list. Danny, it turns out, only made a mental list. Danny gives C.J. fish food as a Christmas present and tells C.J. that he’s going to ignore her list because he thinks it’s ridiculous (his words!) and because he has a crush on her. Blergh. Argh. Danny, it’s not even remotely within the vicinity of “ridiculous” that the press secretary doesn’t think she should date a White House reporter. 4. And calling her “ridiculous” is rude. 8. Also, you have a crush on her and that’s supposed to make your total disrespect for her professional and personal boundaries okay? 12 and STFU! (I’m using 12 for now but I may need another number for Nice Guy phenomena. We’ll see.)

Leo comes in to C.J.’s office (wouldn’t she normally be called in to his) to tell her to dial down the hate crimes talk. He doesn’t know what side they’re on when it comes to hate crimes. C.J. continues to know what side she’s on. Leo understands her argument – that this was a crime of entertainment, fueled by pathological homophobia – but isn’t sure we should legislate how people think.

You guys, when I first saw this episode, I thought this was a valid argument on both sides. Now I know it’s kindergarten stuff. The issue with hate crime legislation is not “legislating how people think,” it’s about whose jurisdiction the crime is in, since a community with citizens that hold virulent enough homophobia (or racism, or sexism, or anti-Semitism, or what have you) may also have police, judges, lawyers, and jury members that hold virulent homophobia and therefore they may not be able to be trusted to investigate and prosecute the case fairly. And it annoys me when this show, with all its pretensions of high-minded debate and intellectual rigor, goes this immature on important and substantial issues.

But this is not about misogyny. Although now two men who are higher on the totem pole than C.J. have told her to sit down, shut up, and keep her opinions to herself. So maybe I think it’s time for an 8.

MPTF: 21

C.J. is also dismayed that Leo has no plans for Christmas and offers to come cook him something. What? And Leo is dismissive of this. 4.

Oh, good, the boys are at Laurie’s place. She looks suspicious. As well she should be. Sam explains the situation condescendingly and Laurie, who gets more than he thought she would, is fucking pissed, as well she should be. Then Josh gets really rude and threatening and Sam tries to defend him and then Josh tries to pretend he didn’t mean to be rude. Then he actually does apologize and Laurie tells him they’re the good guys and they should act like it.

I don’t even have enough numbers to throw at this scene. A 6 for her calling them the good guys. A 2 for the entire plan and maybe an 8 for how Josh talked to her and a 4 for Sam being surprised that she understood what was going on and an extra for when Josh said he didn’t want to take civics lessons from a hooker. Good God, y’all, that was bad.

C.J. is arguing with Leo some more about hate crimes legislation and it continues to be the junior high debate team version of this issue. Then Sam and Josh come in and Leo sends C.J. out and then hollers at the boys for going to Laurie. Which is great but I’m also giving this a 7 because this should be two guys who screwed up at their jobs by doing something boneheaded and stupid and mean and awful that their boss told them not to do. But of course, they are valiant, noble guys who were only doing it to protect Leo. Josh says they meant well. Leo asks, “Is that supposed to mean something to me?” Josh says, “No,” but then Leo says, “It does.” They proved their loyalty. A screw-up but for a good reason.

Sam leaves but Josh stays to talk more to Leo about how miserable this is all going to be. But Leo knows. And Josh will be working through Christmas.

C.J. says Merry Christmas to the press corps then pulls Danny over. She is looking for him to agree with her on hate crimes, in exchange for which she will go on a date with him. Ugh. 2. He does not agree, even more vehemently than Leo didn’t agree. For some reason, C.J. wants to go on a date with him anyway. 2 again. And then she fixates on the Flamingo thing again and glares at him. Women who have interest in men in Aaron Sorkin scripts behave in the oddest ways towards them. 1. For the Flamingo thing.

Josh is right outside C.J.’s office and asks how Danny is doing. Danny doesn’t know. Because women, they are so confusing. 8. Donna opens her present from Josh, which is a rare book about skiing. He tells Donna he wrote a note inside. He wrote on the inside cover of a rare book?! The fuck, Josh?!

Anyway, Donna starts to read the note and she gets weepy because it’s sweet, even as Josh tells her not to get weepy. 4. “You see? You spend most of your time being, you know, you, 3 and then you right something like this to me.” And she goes in for a big hug and then says, “Skis would have killed you?” 8.

MPTF: 35

The president comes in to some room where there are Christmas decorations and a choir and people clapping.

Mrs. Landingham wishes Toby a good morning and says the president would like to see him. She asks if he used the president’s name to arrange a funeral with a homeless veteran. Yes, in fact, he did. Mrs. Landingham tells him he shouldn’t have done that but I think the looks that pass between them indicate that she’s really glad he did.

As they listen to the choir sing “Little Drummer Boy” (which, incidentally, is Zoe’s favorite Christmas carol. I myself prefer Bruce Springsteen Christmas – although I am also fond of my sister’s fiancé making fun of Bruce Springsteen Christmas – but of the traditional carols, “Little Drummer Boy” is my favorite, too.), Mandy continues to natter on about the rare book shopping excursion and the PR opportunity the president is forcing her to miss and he’s telling her to can it. A 3 and a 5, I should think.

Then the president brings Toby into the Oval. He kind of gives Toby a little shit for arranging things in the president’s name but he’s obviously not really angry. Toby explains what happened. The president says, “You don’t think if we pull strings like this every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?”

“I can only hope, sir,” Toby replies, quietly. I swoon a little.

Mandy comes in to tell the president his absence in the other room is conspicuous. They leave the office, and Mrs. Landingham, already in her winter gear, asks Toby if she might come along. You guys. THERE IS DUST. So much dust.

So now we cut between scenes of the military funeral, and the choir of children singing “Little Drummer Boy,” and also the rest of the senior staff gathering, lined up in profile like a Norman Rockwell painting, listening to the choir. I give it up. It’s not dust or allergies. I’m openly sobbing in front of my computer at midnight. Heartstrings? Effectively pulled.

Total Misogyny Points: 37. A pretty heavily misogynistic episode. But also a great one for Richard Schiff and Kathryn Joosten.

 

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