Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing,” Episode 1.12, “He Shall, From Time to Time…”

Okay, people. I’m having a super-shitty night. I’m chasing it with some bourbon & Dr. Brown’s cream soda and I’m going to take my anger out on Aaron Sorkin’s characters. I think it’ll make me feel better.

As always, 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

Previously on “The West Wing”: Josh is ready to go to bat for Leo; C.J. for some reason felt romantic attachment to a guy who was being pretty shitty and oblivious to her (or, “Any Aaron Sorkin script ever”); Sam and Leo’s daughter Mallory had a similar obnoxious-off as related to dating (or, “Any other Aaron Sorkin script ever”); and we should all be very grateful that a rude, drunken British lord is on hand because brown people have weapons and that’s a disaster.

A chyron tells us it’s Monday night. The president is orating grandly to a room of senior staffers and presumably non-senior staffers. It becomes clear pretty quickly (in case the title wasn’t enough of a clue) that he’s practicing the State of the Union, which, it seems, is pretty good. The state of the union, I mean, not the speech. Although I’m sure the speech is fine. The president gets hung up on a fairly minor mistake that Toby points out, but he’s uncharacteristically non-combatative about it. Jed is actually looking kind of shitty and then he coughs a few times and the staffers look worried.

Josh and C.J. are watching him on a screen in another room – presumably to see how the speech looks on TV – and they agree that he looks kind of shitty. Josh wonders if the president’s glands are swollen. “Damn,” says C.J.

“What?” says Josh.

“You know what I forgot to do today?” C.J. answers.

“What?”

“I forgot to feel the president’s glands,” C.J. answers, with A+ perfect deadpan delivery. I love you, Allison Janney. I want to drink bourbon with you.

Then Josh asks if her sarcasm makes it difficult for her to keep a man. A giant 2 and I think a 5, too, even though it’s still not clear to me that C.J. is Josh’s underling. I mean, she has to be, right? She’s Toby’s underling and Josh and Toby are at the same level. Right?

Anyway, they’re both concerned that the State of the Union is 44 hours away and the president doesn’t look so hot.

Isn’t the State of the Union usually on a Tuesday night? How is it Monday night and 44 hours away?

Back in the room with the president, who is back to his old self and being snotty about a couple of typos. Leo calls a break. Josh and C.J. approach and ask how the president feels. He wonders why everyone is bothering him about this and he’s fine and taking the pills that his wife gives him. Well, not so much taking them as carrying them around, which C.J. points out is less effective. I gotta be honest; I’m with the president here. Do you know how many times I’ve assumed that wondering really hard where my Advil bottle was located would in fact fix my headache?

The president continues to correct what I think is a typo but it turns out it’s, like, a policy thing – moderation has spoken, and we’re only supporting the American Dream for those “who work for it”. This being back in the ’90s when getting a job was possible! Not that Republican rhetoric has moved anywhere on these issues.

Josh also announces that the era of big government is over. When did this happen, Toby wants to know. Josh tells him it was this morning; they had a meeting. Okay, fine, Josh. Hah. I still hate you, but hah.

Toby wants to know why they’re offending poor people and Josh offends them some more by saying that poor people don’t watch “The West Wing.” I mean the State of the Union! They don’t watch the State of the Union! Silly me.

Toby says, “Alright, but when you get visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, don’t come running to me.”

“Damn, Toby, because you were exactly who I was going to come running to.” You guys. You’re killing me. I’m trying to stay in my pissy mood and you’re making it really hard.

Toby also feels the president doesn’t look so hot. Everyone is nudging him. This is a lot like going to one of my family’s gatherings when I’ve got a bit of a head cold. Truth: As much as it used to annoy me, I would now give almost anything to hear my grandmother say to me, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, I don’t like the sound of that cough!” Though her husband and sons are filling in for her on that front.

Great. Now I’m getting maudlin. Moving on.

The president agrees to take his pills, with water from a pitcher given to him by some Christian association because he’s so not Scrooge, Toby, and goes into his office.

When he turns, Sam points out that they haven’t technically be invited to give the State of the Union, and that it’s protocol that they be invited by the Speaker of the House. Sam agrees to take care of it and they’re all giggling over the typos until they hear a loud crash from the Oval and rush in to find the president lying on the rug, passed out, with the broken pitcher of water next to him.

Very inspirational music! Damn, bourbon does make me kind of weepy. This is not working out really well for me.

In the Oval, a uniformed doctor is telling the senior staff the president has the flu but wants to take the president to the hospital anyway for some tests. The president doesn’t want to go and anyway, he has to go to the Sit Room.

Fitzwallace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is exchanging some military info I don’t understand with other uniformed dudes. He doesn’t have the jacket of his uniform on, which I think in military culture is like being in yoga pants and a stained sweatshirt in the regular world. The president comes in and asks whether the Celtics won that night, because showing yourself to be cavalier in the face of the world going to hell in a hand basket is adorable and charming.

I cannot tell what is going on but as far as I can tell, the ceasefire is not going well. Fitz has a plan that I’m sure is a very good one and the president is going to bed. But not before he learns that the Celtics lost in over time.

Mandy and Danny are in C.J.’s office, flirting. C.J. comes in and she’s not amused. She sends Danny off. Mandy thinks it wouldn’t kill C.J. to be friendly to Danny and C.J. says it doesn’t seem to be killing Mandy. Rowr! Oh, you girls with your jealousy. C.J. claims to be kidding but I’m still giving this an 8. 

Mandy informs C.J. that the Leo thing – that he was once addicted to pills – is going to break tomorrow. Does this pass the Bechdel test? They’re talking about Leo. But to them, that’s work, not “a man.” But Leo is a man. And it’s kind of more about his personal shit and less about his professional shit. But it does affect both of them professionally. But the point is, their work lives revolve around men, right? Like, Leo can (and does) have any number of conversations with Josh or the president in which a woman’s name never comes up at all, whether in a professional or a romantic or familial capacity. Right. So no -10 here.

Margaret is asking Leo about the whole being-invited-to-give-the-State-of-the-Union thing and he’s being characteristically rude to her. 5. Then he tells Margaret to remind Josh about “picking a guy” and Margaret is uncomfortable about not knowing what that means and Leo is rude to her again. 5. He shoos Margaret out and the C.J. comes in. C.J. asks about the president and then says, “Leo,” and he concludes that the story is going to break. They say a few things to each other that basically indicate that they don’t need full sentences to understand each other, which was nice.

The president is in bed being treated by his military doctor. He’s on the phone about the speech and then Charlie is fussing over him. The president says, “This isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is coming up the stairs right now.” He’s of course referring to his wife, because wives, they are the fucking worst, aren’t they? 4. The first lady takes the president’s charts from the military doctor and asks a bunch of questions and orders some treatments. The president looks utterly entranced by his take-charge wife. The first lady asks to be left alone with her husband and her husband flirts with her. Abby is worried and fussing, albeit in a has-an-actual-medical-degree way. She asks if it was like the time in Nantucket, in a way that makes us think the time in Nantucket is more significant than just the flu. I mean, I already know it’s more significant because I’ve seen this show before, but there’s definitely musical foreshadowing notes and, like, acting cues, so I’m not just reading what I already know into the scene. The president, after telling his wife about all the things that are happening and insisting that he could jump her right now, finally drops off to sleep, whereupon the first lady sinks into the chair that’s been placed next to her bed and looks sad and worried. It’s a nice scene of married people being realistic and loving to each other. But my practical mind is on her uncomfortable stilettos and her uncomfortable suit and that uncomfortable chair. The president is asleep now, Dr. Bartlett. Go get on your pjs and worry about him from the comfort of your bed.

A chyron informs me it’s now Tuesday morning. Josh is on the phone about the non-invitation-thing, which I thought Sam was taking care of. Donna comes in to tell Josh that Margaret asked Donna to remind Josh about needing to pick a guy. Donna is similarly annoyed that she doesn’t know what that means. Josh actually deigns to answer her. He says he needs to pick someone in the line of succession to not be in the building when the president delivers the State of the Union. Donna asks why. 9. Even Josh is shocked by this level of Exposition Fairy-ing and just says, “Donna.” Donna catches up and says, “In case someone blows up the building?” which is, yes, of course the reason. Donna wants to know who he’s going to pick. Josh asks who she thinks he should pick and she suggests herself. Josh asks where she thinks she falls in the line of succession and she says, “If someone blows up the Capitol Building during the State of the Union, I imagine I’d move up a few slots.” Line of the night. Also, for once, the interaction between Josh and Donna is coming off as genuinely friendly banter rather than Josh being rude and Donna being whiny, so A+ to both of them here.

Anyway, it’s not going to be Donna, it’s going to be Roger Tribby, the Secretary of Agriculture. Then Josh reminds Donna to be nice to Margaret and Leo since today is going to suck for them and Donna agrees and this conversation continues to be fine with me. Huh. Weird.

Josh goes in to Leo’s office, where he’s practicing his mea culpa with C.J. and Sam. They give him some practice questions and are surprised to hear that Leo still attends A.A. meetings. It’s going pretty well until Leo gets pissy and says he’ll be fine. Then Sam tells Leo that Sam wrote a draft of the president’s statement of support, which pisses Leo off because Sorkin Men are Too Noble For This Shit. Also Sam is Too Noble For This Shit. Leo sends them back to work with an order not to defend him.

Okay, now Abby is in bed with her husband although she’s still in uncomfortable clothing. She’s checking on him and he’s insulting her medical knowledge although it is really just cute marital banter so I’m letting it go. He wants to go back to the office and she says he can, knowing full well that he can’t even get out of bed successfully. He discovers this himself and lies back down while Abby smirks. Kindly.

We’ve got an overhead shot of Leo in a vestibule, which is interesting. Then Carol comes to call him in to the press conference. Leo makes his mea culpa statement and tells the press corps what we already know about his stint in rehab and his addiction issues. We fade away to a shot of the White House.

Donna and Josh are pedeconferencing about why the Secretary of Agriculture? Josh says because the other Secretaries (or some other Secretaries) are famous enough that they want the camera to find them. Donna is concerned. Josh is not, because if the Capitol Building blows up, he’ll be dead, too, and he won’t have to have Roger Tribby, Secretary of Agriculture, as his president. Their bickering is getting a little closer to their usual rudeness but not quite there.

Donna peels off and Josh finds Sam. They agree that Leo did well at the press conference and then Josh says he thought Sam’s statement for the president is great and it’s too bad no one’s going to read it. Sam says the president is, in fact, reading it right now. Josh observes that Leo is going to kill them and Sam does not care. And neither does Josh. Because they are TNFTS. That’s going on the list, not with the misogyny things, but with the exclamation point for C.J. and Toby. TNFTS!

We move into a meeting room with portraits of who I think are both Roosevelts. So I don’t think this is the Roosevelt Room but it seems to be Roosevelt Room of some kind. In the room are Toby and some people who are some sort of Democratic caucus but maybe moderate? Because they don’t like big government? Toby, as usual, looks like he’s playing Anywhere But Here in his head. There are two men and a woman as part of this group, by the way, and the woman just keeps smirking at Toby but not saying anything. 11. Toby wants very much to be done with these people and move on to the next group of people who want to complain at him, so he says, “Just pick a section.” They pick the NEA, which Toby informs the audience is the National Endowment for the Arts. He does not look pleased, but he does look resigned.

Leo’s working in a dark room with a TV behind him (a ginormous TV – ah, the year 2000). The TV is showing his press conference. Uncomfortable! Margaret comes in to announce Mallory. Mallory is very concerned and they share a moment. Then Mallory mentions that she’s seen the president’s statement of support, that it’s floating around the press room, and that it’s very moving. Leo is pissed. He leaves his supportive daughter to go yell at his supportive surrogate sons.

Sam and Josh are whining about Toby going to bat over the NEA when Leo comes in to yell at them. Josh is trying to be conciliatory but Sam is not. Because TNFTS!

Then an assistant – Bonnie? – tells Leo that the first lady is in his office.

Abby is indeed in Leo’s office bothering Mallory about her “itch” for Sam. Ew, that is a bad fucking choice of words, Sorkin. Leo comes in, Mallory leaves, and Abby talks to Leo about postponing the State of the Union. Leo asks what he should know that he doesn’t know. Leo points out that grown men don’t need their wives to cancel trips because of a fever, nor are doctor wives supposed to prescribe drugs or give shots to their husbands, as Abby is doing. Abby finally reveals that the president has MS, and tells Leo with tears in her eyes that a fever could be life-threatening. I forgot that this was revealed this early in the series; I thought we had a few episodes yet.

A soap opera is playing on a TV. The president asks Charlie if any of these characters have jobs. Charlie answers the phone and tells the president Leo’s outside. The president asks Charlie to step out, and Leo steps in. The president knows Leo knows and starts telling Leo about his MS stuff. Leo is pretty pissed about being kept in the dark about this, even going so far as calling Jed “Jed” and not “Mr. President.” See, Leo is upset that he couldn’t be there to support the president the way the president had been there to support him when he was going through his addiction stuff. The way Josh and Sam want to be there for Leo now. See how that all works? Character development, it’s a beautiful thing!

Toby is still talking about the NEA with the two men and the silent lady. One of the men becomes the idiot straw man who confuses Hart with Hammerstein and Arthur Miller with Arthur Murray, the former of which did in fact need the NEA – which was then the WPA – to write Death of a Salesman. He trails off and still they can’t even give that woman the line, “Toby?” What are they, depriving her of her SAG card? Toby announces that the meeting is over; apparently, he has a Plan.

Lord John Marbury is recommending Exotic Remedies from his Imperialist Travels in Asia to the president while pouring tea. Most of these Exotic Remedies are to be taken with a strong shot of whiskey. Hey, that’s my cold remedy of choice, too! Actually, my very favorite is a combination of what he recommends – my Aveda tea (which has licorice root, from his first remedy) or a ginger tea (ginger is his second remedy) with lemon, honey, and a strong shot of whiskey. Lord John Marbury, getting down to business, thinks you should just buy them off. Then he goes on about some bullshit colonialist imperialist shit that Britain used to do to keep those pesky brown people in line. I mean, for real. The president complains that the Indian ambassador paints him with the same imperialist colonialist brush as their mutual former colonial overlords, the British, and then takes advice from this Kipling parody of a British lord. I don’t even know what the fuck because I don’t know enough about these issues to speak intelligently about them but I do know enough to say BLERGH!

Anyway, Leo thinks Lord Marbury is a dumbass and Lord Marbury condescends to him and I think we’re supposed to be a little on Lord Marbury’s side here, but you know what? Getting a Cambridge education when you’ve got a British title impresses me about as much as the fact that George W. Bush graduated from Yale. And for the same reasons. Basically, he thinks we should pay for an infrastructure that would allow India a computer industry. Leo stupidly asks why they should pay to avoid war halfway around the world, which I have to give a -9, because come the fuck on, Leo knows this. They were all wringing their hands last episode about how nuclear war would affect everyone. But Leo is not a girl, so that’s why it gets the negative number. Lord John Marbury’s answer is that it’s the price you pay for being rich, free, and alive at the same time, and also for allowing the proliferation of nuclear devices to go on. Yeah, when Britain had an empire, they ran it right, damn it. I hate this dude and this plotline SO HARD.

Charlie ushers Lord John Marbury and Leo out and lets Toby in. The president describes an episode of Jerry Springer in as snotty a way as possible – because poor people are gross! – and then Josh comes in, apparently at Toby’s request. Toby wants to talk about the era of big government being not at all over, that they should be celebrating big government instead. Have I mentioned lately that Toby is my boyfriend?

A chyron brings us to Wednesday night. Josh, Sam and C.J. are in some room where drinks are being served and Josh is sing-songing, “You’re jealous ’cause Danny was flirting with Mandy!” The fuck? 2. C.J. is denying it and Sam takes this opportunity to complain about how unclear Mallory is being about her feelings for him. Because this is TV, at that moment Mallory walks up and asks Sam if he wrote the statement defending her father. He says yes and she gives him a big kiss. Right on the lips! Because if you do something good, women will offer you sexual favors! That’s how life works! 2. Then she leans in for a much sexier kiss and damn, I think Rob Lowe is a pretty good kisser. I mean, from how it looks on TV. C.J. peels away from this conversation to ask Carol to bring Danny to her office. I’m giving that a 2, too.

Abby and Jed are in the residence. Abby wants to take Jed’s temperature one more time and, as she fixes his cufflinks, he offers to let her take it recreationally. I’m pretty sure the president just suggested his wife peg him. Hey, you two get on with your bad selves; you won’t hear a word of judgement from me.

Oh, my God, Gail’s got her own little press secretary podium. (Gail is the goldfish Danny got for C.J.) That’s freaking adorable. Danny is playing with Gail’s little American flags when C.J. knocks. On her own office door. That is weird and deserves a number and I’m not sure which one so I’m going with 1. Danny is confused, too. C.J. calls her attraction to Danny “girlish” 4 and Danny tries to rush her along which is crazy rude and I guess I’ll give it a because even though C.J. is certainly not Danny’s underling, they kind of set up that vibe with her knocking on her own office door and waiting for Danny to give her permission to come in. Then C.J. informs Danny that she’s decided to kiss him to get him out of her system. I am an aspiring romance professional and avid TV watcher, so I know that’s a little bit of dramatic irony right there. They kiss, and it’s awkward because he’s a lot shorter than her and not a very good kisser, but she tries to sell it. Then she gets all flustered afterwards, still holding her fish bowl and then knocking into a door, and he’s condescending about it, so a 1 and a 5 and a general, “Hey, Aaron, most women don’t actually like it when guys are dickheads to them.”

Lord John Marbury and Abby are talking about cold remedies that involve shots of whiskey, and then the president and Leo present him with photos showing that his plans worked and Lord John Marbury actually remembers Leo’s name and then says he’s off. Bye, Lord John Marbury. Don’t let the White House door hit you on the ass on the way out.

The president and Abby walk into a room with a  bunch of staffers, where the president expresses gratitude for their hard work on his speech. “I say thee yea, Toby Ziegler, and I say thee yea, Sam Seaborn!” I love it when he goes all old-fashioned like that. Everyone claps. Charlie tells the president the motorcade is ready and the president goes to greet Roger Tribby, who is in the Oval. OMFG, it’s the Mayor! I mean, listen, I already knew it was the Mayor, because I’ve seen this episode 197 times, but the first time I saw it, I went, “OMFG, it’s the Mayor!”, and I wanted to recreate that experience for you. You’re welcome.

He has brought the president a copy of the Constitution in Latin, which is the perfect present for President Bartlett. IIRC, The Mayor was also pretty good at picking out presents for Faith. The president, at The Mayor’s request, translates the passage about the State of the Union, and they shake hands manfully. The president instructs Roger Tribby on what to do in the case of an actual emergency, and we see that Leo can hear him from the other room. After a bunch of stuff about national security, the president asks if Roger Tribby has a best friend, who is smarter than him, and with whom Roger would trust his life. To all of these, Roger answers, “Yes, sir.” The president says, “That’s your chief of staff,” and from the other room, Leo has feels. Then the president goes into toilets that need handle-jiggling and Charlie pulls him out. Inspirational music swells and Roger Tribby looks around the Oval Office, clearly feeling the power of those strings. (I don’t even know if what I think is strings is, in fact, strings. Musical theory is not my strong suit.)

Despite my bad mood and my harshness, the misogyny in this episode was pretty light, wasn’t it? At least, I didn’t feel the need to do mid-episode tallies.

Total Misogyny Points: 15

Yup, pretty low! Good job, show!

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