Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing,” 1.11, “Lord John Marbury”

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


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

Previously, on “The West Wing,” Josh was riding to Leo’s defense about a pill addiction; Charlie and Zoe met cute; C.J. obnoxiously asked Danny on date and he obnoxiously accepted.

A chyron tells us that we’re at the National Reconnaissance Office in Washington Navy Yard. A nerdy due sits in front of many computers which looked old-fashioned to me. Then I remember that this aired in 2000 and probably didn’t then. Then I realize that a) technology is moving super-fast, like, for realz, and b) I am super-old. He calls another nerdy man over to look at a map on one of his screens. They zoom in on something and the first man claims that what they are looking is “two CVEs and four destroyers.” They look like dark smudges on the screen to me, but I am not a nerdy man at the Washington Navy Yard. The second man seems to think this means they need help.

Next we are at the Pentagon in Arlington, VA. A uniformed man says some military things to another uniformed man and a sweater-vested man. I am having trouble keeping up. I do recognize the word “Pakistan.” The second uniformed man says he’s going to call the C.O.s and the sweater-vested man is going to call the White House.

You can see the Washington Monument from his office.

Now we’re in the West Wing. Josh is trying to convince Donna to caddy for him. Donna, is he going to pay you? Because that’s totes not in your job description.

A schlumpy man in the foyer (?) is there to serve Joshua with a subpoena. Josh is predictably dickish to him. Then, without even asking, he signs the subpoena on Donna’s back. The fuck? I think it’s a moment that’s supposed to illustrate how seamless their work style is, but I’m reading this as, he’s literally using her body as an object of convenience. 1. It may not be comedy but it’s physical.

They walk away and Josh says he’s become a professional hostile witness.  Oh, you’ve been professionally hostile for a long time now, Josh. Donna wants to know if she gets to drive the cart. No. No carts. And no being paid. And he wants her to start practicing with the bags right away. 5. Seriously, Aaron, are we supposed to find Josh charming?

Josh walks in to the outer office of the Oval – the Mrs. Landingham area. She expresses sympathy about his latest subpoena and offers him a cookie. I want to give this some sort of number but I kind of find it adorable. Still, in the interest of fairness, I’m going to go with 2. Because Mrs. Landingham is being put in a primarily feminine role that has little to do with her job. (Usually two is for sexual/romantic roles being at the fore, but I think the cookies in this case serve a similar function.) Josh thinks he’s coming to see the president, but the president and Leo have gone to the Situation Room.

And now so have we! The president asks Fitzwallace what’s up, and Fitzwallace tells him that the Indian army has launched an invasion of Pakistan-held Kashmir territory. The president wants to know what “army” means – “Five guys and a Humvee?” Fitzwallace invites “Mitch,” the uniformed dude next to him, to tell the president what “army” means. He uses many words I don’t understand but the take-away is, no, not five guys and a Humvee. The president is pissed that the Indian army could have moved so many people/things without them noticing that India was preparing to do so. “All I’m trying to do right now, I’m trying to avoid making eye contact with the CIA director.” The CIA director concedes that they “dropped the ball.” “Pick it up again, would you, please?” the president replies, all restrained politeness. I’m pretty much loving Martin Sheen’s delivery in this sequence.

More words I don’t understand happen, the gist of which is, the ball is being picked up.

Credits! Moving music to remind me that this is a Very Important T.V. show!

Misogyny Points Thus Far: 3

Sam and Toby pedeconference in the outdoor-hallway-thing. Sam wants to know what the Pakistani ambassador has to say. Toby asks the legit question, “Our guy there or their guy here?” question, but I do have to note that there’s no question that it’s a guy. That’s probably accurate. But I’m in a mood so I think I’ll give it a 5. Because it’s rude to your female employees not to promote them. (Yes, I know that’s not how ambassadorship appointments work, but I don’t care.)

Turns out we don’t have one there.

Sam and Toby enter the Mrs. Landingham area as Sam notes it’s been over a year of not having an ambassador in Pakistan. Maybe that’s why they got invaded, Sam suggests. Toby infuses his “Yeah” with all the sarcasm I love him for.

Leo is explaining things to the president, Josh, Toby, and Sam. Not C.J., I’m noting. Josh is pissed about the CIA. The president informs them that the U.N. Security Council is having an emergency session to get a ceasefire. Toby seems to have little faith in the U.N. Security Council. Since I understand little about foreign relations and less about military stuff, I am focusing on grammar. Why is it CIA but U.N.? What determines whether a set of initials gets periods or not? Is this something I learned in 10th grade and forgot?

Anyway, the U.N. Security Council sucks, the CIA sucks, and a war between India and Pakistan would probably, eventually, go nuclear, which would suck.

C.J. enters. In a pink coat. Yeah, gonna give that a 2, too. Maybe I need a new number for “stereotypical femininity” but I’ll think about that later. They all turn and look at her like she caught them watching porn. Leo says she can tell the room there’s a full lid, and when she leaves, he promises to brief her in the morning.

And before you go all, “What do you have against pink?” let’s note that, obviously, in real life, a woman may or may not be wearing a pink coat at any given moment, and it would not say anything about her or her performance at her job or the perception of her performance at her job. But this is a television show, and they can control for all these details, and they do. This isn’t just the first clean coat C.J. found this morning, this is a decision made by the show runner, Aaron Sorkin, the costume designer, and possibly a bunch of other people. The decision to put her in pink at a moment when she’s very obviously not being trusted at her job – when she is the girl standing on the outside of a group of guys – was deliberate.

Zoe enters the outer office and smiles flirtatiously at Charlie. Then she totally asks him out and he is adorably awkward about it. Even I am not in a bad enough mood to give this exchange a 2.

The boys leave the Oval, and Josh tells Sam he’s been subpoenaed for the paperwork related to his non-investigation of drug use at the White House. Sam thinks he should bring a lawyer. Josh says he is a lawyer. Sam thinks he should bring a real lawyer. Teehee.

Mandy comes up behind them and asks to speak to Sam in his office. She wants to take on a “moderate-to-liberal” Republican as a client. So cute! The year 2000 – when our computers were enormously bulky and there was such a thing as a “moderate” Republican! She thinks Sam can help smooth this idea over with Josh and Toby because she feels Sam is the one of them that is more focused on getting the job done than beating the other guys. Hey, now. I think that’s way more true of Josh than it is of Toby. It’s a little true of Toby, but with Toby, it’s because of his lefty idealism. With Josh, it really is just because he wants to clobber them. Anyway, Sam says he admires her “pluck” 3 and she’d owe him one. She scoffs and he says, fine, they’ll be even. She still scoffs and he says that he’ll do this and many more favors until they are even. This was a fairly light scene in terms of 3s when it comes to Mandy, but I still have to give this last exchange a and an 8. The 8 especially because it is never explained what Mandy did for Sam that he would have this huge backlog of favors. So I’m just chalking it up to, “She’s a woman and women are irrational like that!”


Rob Lowe is crazy good-looking, btw.

C.J. is trying to send the press home but a journalist named Bruce says his source at the Pentagon told him about India. C.J., who doesn’t know about this, laughs it off. Toby, off to the side, looks guilty. As well he should.

Fitzwallace stands in front of a screen in the Sit Room, explaining things I don’t understand. Another guy reports on India’s prime minister’s speech about Pakistan’s thuggery and how they’re not going to take it. And a third guy says Pakistan basically feels the same way. They’ll get the nuclear briefings at 1500, or 3:00 pm.

Donna and Toby are pedeconferencing about Josh’s deposition. Toby also thinks Josh should bring a lawyer. He breaks from Donna and is escorted into Leo’s office by Margaret. C.J. is already there. In a pink shirt. Just saying. 2. C.J. asks if he knows what this is about. He says he does and tells her he stopped by her office. I guess he’s trying to set up that he was totes *going* to tell her. Because he’s her secret lover. ! Leo comes in and tells C.J. what’s going on. He’s very casual about it but C.J. looks crushed. She reminds him that he told her the lid was on just when this was all happening. Leo is unapologetic, even when C.J. tells him she got the question. He tells her to just tell the press she didn’t know and seems oblivious to, or at least uncaring about, the fact that the press thinking she didn’t know about is precisely the problem. Toby is not oblivious, though.

I am going to assign a 5 to this whole thing, but I also want to point out that, while the show seems to be supporting the idea that sometimes the press secretary has to not be told things and hey, bitches just shouldn’t get mad about that, it is also very much acknowledging the gendered imbalance here and the way C.J. has to swallow what is obviously a bullshit situation. So just one 5 instead of the barrage of numbers this storyline would be getting if they were not, in fact, trying to point out how fucked up it is.

A shot of city streets with the Washington Monument in the background indicates that we’re not at the White House. We are, in fact, at the deposition. Josh is being smug and unpleasant. So, you know, same old, same old. He insists his investigation was not serious and that there are no records. The guy questioning Josh asks if he told anyone he was coming to this deposition today and acts like it’s weird that Josh did. Wouldn’t he . . . have to? Because they’d ordinarily expect him to be at work? Also, isn’t it a deposition a matter of public record? Anyway, Josh is mad about this whole thing.

Two communications guys who I think we’ve seen before are giving C.J., Toby, and Sam the least helpful briefing possible, in that it contains information from a 5th grader’s report on India. C.J. is pissed and storms out.

Sam pedeconferences out of the room with Toby and brings up the Mandy thing. Toby is not pleased. They enter the Oval, where what I assume is the nuclear briefing is happening. A dude is talking about whatever systems India and Pakistan have. He says he’s getting to the truly terrible part, and Toby says, “Good. ‘Cause we were waiting for the truly terrible part.” That might be the line of the night. I also want to note that there has been this woman in the Sit Room both times and now here, wearing a truly hideous blazer, and she has yet to say a word. 11.

The people who are not senior staffers leave the room and the president says he wants to bring in an India expert. Leo asks who, the president doesn’t answer, and Leo, drawing the correct conclusion about who the president means, is not at all pleased, calling him a certifiable lunatic. He is, as you may have gathered, our titular character, Lord John Marbury, former British ambassador to India. “You’re really going to let him loose in the White House, where there’s liquor and women?” Leo asks. Ugh, Leo. 1 for women-as-objects. “We can hide the women, Leo, but the man deserves a drink,” answers the president. WTF? What on earth am I watching? How did this bit of dialogue get into a show written at the turn of the millennium? It’s something Spencer Tracy should be saying to a fuming Katherine Hepburn. 1 and and 5 and a giant Blech.

MPTF: 15

Then there is a kind of absurdly long and awkward shot of Toby and Sam leaving the Oval. I don’t usually notice things like that, but it’s pretty weird in a show that’s renowned for its on-point camerawork and pacing.

Sam still wants to talk to Toby about Mandy representing a moderate Republican. Toby is not interested. Toby wants to apologize to C.J. but Sam thinks that would be patronizing, and that not saying anything would show C.J. that Toby thinks of her as a professional. Oh, Sam. Toby ignores him. Rightly. But also because Toby isn’t (only) trying to mend their professional relationship. !

C.J. calls Carol in to her office to complain about a typo. I’m pretty sure this episode has just passed the Bechdel test. -10. Toby comes in and says, “I was warned that coming to talk to you might be insulting to your professionalism.” C.J. sarcastics, “Well, you wouldn’t want to do that.” Toby says it wasn’t ready for the press and C.J. rightly points out that they still should have told her because it undermines her credibility with the press when they know that she is not told important information. Toby says there’s a concern that she’s too friendly with the press. You know what? 2. Because they showed us in the previouslies about her asking Danny out. And they’ve showed us Danny scoffing at her reservations about dating him specifically because of their jobs, AND Josh gave Danny advice on how to get with C.J., EVEN THOUGH JOSH IS APPARENTLY CONCERNED ABOUT C.J. BEING TOO FRIENDLY WITH THE PRESS. Let’s give this another 2. What the hell, one more. 2. That’s one for the previouslies, one for Danny scoffing righteously, and another for the Josh thing. Blergh!

C.J. is pissed. “You sent me in there uninformed so that I would lie to the press.” Toby corrects her. “We sent you in there uninformed because we thought there was a chance you couldn’t.” BLERGH! I don’t have enough numbers. 11. And 7. And 5. And another 2 for implying that her flirtation with Danny would interfere with her ability to do her job.

MPTF: 21

C.J. is silent for a long, and really well-done moment, and she pretty much dismisses Toby.

Toby runs into Josh and advises Josh to take Sam with him the next time. Josh wants to know if C.J. is pissed and Toby confirms that she is. I’m giving this an 8. Of course she’s pissed, Josh. You guys don’t trust her to do her job.

Charlie announces to the president that the Chinese ambassador will be in the Mural Room in a few moments. Then Charlie asks the president if he can go out with his daughter. The president does not want to talk about it. I know that it might be considered incredibly sexist to ask a girl’s father if you can date her, but he’s also asking his boss if he can date his daughter, so I’m giving it a pass. Charlie leaves and the president mutters to Leo, “He wants to date my daughter.” Leo says nothing, but says it loudly. The president tells him to shut up. It’s kind of cute, even if I do hate the trope of fathers not wanting their daughters to date.

On further thought, I do in fact have to give this a 2 for that very dynamic.

The president and Leo enter the Mural Room and greet the Chinese ambassador. The president says they’ve got to work out a ceasefire and a pullback. The Chinese ambassador is like, yeah, totes, except we’re not letting India get away with this. The president and Leo make “Oh, shit” faces.

Monument. White House. Sam and Toby section. Mandy asks Sam if he talked to Toby and Sam is like, yeah, there’s no way. Josh comes to get Sam and Mandy asks Sam to talk to Josh. Josh is similarly not having this shit.

A Hey! It’s That Guy! is greeted by Leo and the president as Mr. Ambassador. They’re not in the Mural Room. It might be Leo’s outer office. This guy is the Pakistani ambassador. He’s got the coolest accent. Also, he’s pissed. He wanted the president to condemn India’s action more strongly. Other things are said that I’m not sure I’m totally following. I know that the president wants there to be peace, and this dude ain’t trying hear that.

The ambassador and his people leave, and the president tells Charlie he’ll take the Indian ambassador in the Oval Office. Is this seriously how foreign relations are conducted? The president going from room to room, exchanging a few unhelpful words with various diplomats? Charlie Yes, sirs at the president, and then the president says, “Then, if you could, ask the Secret Service to step in and kill me, please.” I know it’s kind of trite, but I love it when Jed complains about his job. Also, Martin Sheen continues to kill it.

The president complains again to Leo about his daughter asking Charlie out, and accuses Leo of “trying to cover up the fact that you’re enjoying this.” Leo says, “I’m not trying to cover it up at all.” Again, I hate the trope, but I love these actors and this banter is kind of fun. I gave it a number before; I’m going to leave it alone now. Leo asks if this is a racial thing and the president is offended. He claims he’s Spencer Tracy at the end of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. You all appear to be Spencer Tracy in this episode, Jed.

The Indian ambassador comes in. My first response is that he’s another Hey! It’s That Guy! and then I realize he is, in fact, Principal Figgins of “Glee”! “Kee-dollar-sign-ha!” Hi, Principal Figgins!

Anyway, the president tells the ambassador he’s a little pissed about them trying to invade Kashmir.

Then we’re with Josh and Sam at the deposition. There continue to be no records of Josh’s non-investigation. The guy doing the questioning brings it around to Leo, and Josh refuses to answer. Sam backs him up. The guy brings out a document about Leo that Josh insists was obtained illegally. Sam gets them out of there, saying they’re postponing the deposition. The guy insults Leo and Josh almost punches him. Sam stops him but calls the guy a cheap hack and threatens to “bust you like a piñata.” Okay, Sam. That is convincing. You are very tough and scary.

The Indian ambassador is kind of taunting the president, saying that India can’t be controlled by economic sanctions anymore. The president says India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and “a tendency to get cranky.” Whoa, talk about patronizing. The Indian guy is basically, “We are determined to remain POST-colonial.” Then he leaves.

Seriously, two sentences with each ambassador, full of posturing and bullshit, and then that’s it. For real now, is this the way we conduct foreign relations?

The president tells Leo that he feels like telling the Indian prime minister that America is also a former colony of Britain that “threw off its colonial masters”. Yeah, dude. Totes the same circumstances.

Charlie announces Lord John Marbury, another Hey! It’s That Guy! But not the guy who was in Showgirls and played Charlotte’s first husband on Sex and the City, like I always think he is. Lord John Marbury is soused, as we had been prepared to expect, and doesn’t remember who Leo is, despite having met him several times. This seems to be sticking in Leo’s craw. Lord Marbury calls Leo the butler and asks for a light, then gets shirty when Leo tells him he can’t smoke.

Lord Marbury promises that if he can help, he will. The president says “the world is coming apart at the seams,” and Lord Marbury says, “Well, then. Thank God you sent for me.” Leo and I fail to find this charming.

We switch to C.J.’s office, where she is for some reason sitting on the wrong side of her desk (with her back to the door), explaining to someone on the phone who Lord John Marbury is. She is no longer wearing pink, btw. She says it all sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. A) True, b) Sorkin loves him some Gilbert and Sullivan, and c) personal anecdote blathering time! When my dad and I went to London back in 2003, with the purpose of being either in a theater or an art museum at any given moment (a purpose we fulfilled with vigor), one of the shows we saw was H.M.S. Pinafore, which we chose because neither of us had ever seen a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. We enjoyed it thoroughly. I especially enjoyed the chorus guys in sailor suits. I keep trying to get Jason to bring a sailor suit home with him from work, but apparently stealing a uniform is, like, a federal offense, and they might hang him.

So Carol comes by with Toby. C.J. is not particularly thrilled to see him. Toby wants to apologize without apologizing, but C.J. says, “Either I’m a trusted member of the communications staff or I’m not. Which is it?” You go, girl. Hold him to the sticking plate. (What in the hell is a sticking plate?) C.J. crosses her arms and waits for the actual apology and Toby does, badly. C.J. asks whose idea it was to leave her out and Toby confesses that it was his.

Josh comes back and is greeted by a sympathetic Donna, who takes his coat. Then Josh ushers Toby and C.J. into his office and closes the door. I forgot until this moment that they hadn’t been informed yet what documents Lillienfield has that could get Leo into trouble.

Hey, is this supposed to be some sort of, “See? There’s stuff we don’t tell Toby, too! It’s not just ’cause you’re a girl!” moment? Because if so, 😛 and also nope.

A weird shot of one of those TVs that hangs from a ceiling of war footage, and then Sam sighing heavily, although whether it’s about the war or about Leo is unclear. Mandy stops by and asks Sam if he talked to Josh. Sam isn’t trying to hear her, because of the Leo stuff. “You’re a political consultant,” he tells her. “You’re job isn’t to stop the fight; it’s to win it.” I’m pretty sure this should get a 7, even though the screw-up hasn’t actually been made yet.

Josh comes by and calls Sam away.

Leo tells Lord Marbury that whatever Lord Marbury says is ridiculous. Lord Marbury patronizes at Leo some more, and patronizes the U.S., and also patronizes India and Pakistan. “It is about religion,” he claims and also, “They do not share your fear of the bomb.” If I were dealing with race/ethnicity/nationality, this would get numbers. But I’m not.

Lord Marbury gets a telegram and goes somewhere else to answer it. I am reminded of a joke about prestige, but I fear that to tell it here would strain your patience. If you want to hear it, message me or ask in the comments. While he’s gone, the president informs Leo that Lord Marbury will be staying a while. Leo complains that Lord Marbury thinks Leo is the butler. “For the first few weeks, so did I,” says the president. Rude, Mr. President. Rude enough to get a -5, as it’s a man being rude to his male subordinate.

Margaret comes in and whispers in Leo’s ear, and Leo excuses himself. Turns out Toby, Sam, C.J., and Josh Anyway, Josh is basically warning Leo that this is all about to become public, like, now, and also vows his ongoing loyalty.

The president and Charlie are chatting. The president is trying to think of a quote from Revelations about horses. Charlie doesn’t know it. The president assures Charlie that his hesitation about Charlie and Zoe dating is not because Charlie is black. But Charlie already understood that it was just about Charlie being a male human being. The president gives his blessing to the relationship, which is nice, but still 2, but not another 2, just the same old 2 as above. The president also warns him that, although he’s fine with Charlie being black and dating Zoe, other people will not be. “You know what to do with the mail, right?” he says. “Yes, sir,” says Charlie. But I don’t! Mr. President, what should he do with the mail?!

The president asks Charlie to look for that Revelations quote and sends him off. The senior staff enter from Leo’s office and Leo tells the president what all is going on with him and drugs and the shit that’s about to hit the fan. (I never think about that expression without thinking about 10 Things I Hate About You, by the way, and adding Shakespearean “-eth”s to the ends of the words.) The president also pledges his loyalty to Leo. Lord Marbury enters and reports that a two-week ceasefire has been worked out at the U.N. Which is not a lot, but it’s two weeks more than zero. The president asks Lord Marbury to stick around, and he agrees to stay as long as they need him. Then Lord Marbury pontificates to the room about the backwards, medieval, psychotic attitudes towards religion that these stupid brown people have half a world away. The music swells so I guess I’m supposed to think this is intelligent or inspiring. Lord Marbury also already knows the Revelations quote, about horses and death and the end of the world. He says he thinks they can stop this war but he’s going to need a light (for his cigarette) and the president smiles.

I’m going to be straight with you all. A) I don’t know enough about anything to know why what Lord Marbury says about India and Pakistan is so offensive and wrong. I only know it makes my skin crawl. B) The first time I watched this episode, I went to sleep immediately afterward, and I woke up in a dead panic. India and Pakistan were on the brink of nuclear war! It took me a little while to remember that this was fiction.

Total Misogyny Points: 23