Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing,” Episode 1.17, “The White House Pro-Am”

OMG I started this forever ago. I have come back to finish it now. Sorry.

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 (or, sometimes, maternal qualities) 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 a ! for every piece of evidence that Toby and C.J. are FwB, and a TNFTS for every time the boys are Too Noble For This Shit.

Previously, on “The West Wing,” Stockard Channing, the first lady, could have married a lot of other people besides Jed Bartlett; Charlie condescendingly tells Zoey he’s trying to be a better boyfriend; Zoey’s got a new Secret Service agent who’s looking out for white supremacists.

In this episode, the first lady is getting ready to go on TV with a black teenage boy named Jeffrey. The first lady is joking with the young man about going on national television in a manner that, in a Sorkin script, is jocular and friendly and leads to camaraderie, but in real life just makes you an asshole. 3 And listen, people, I know. I think I was raised in a sort of Sorkin-esque environment, and am therefore sometimes unwittingly an asshole myself. I’m sorry.

The kid is unruffled, because he’s a Sorkin character. With ten seconds to air, the First Lady calls out to Lily, whom I believe is her Leo, that she should have worn the gray suit. 4. Then we’re live, and it turns out that Jeffrey has come to the first lady’s attention because he’s started an organization called The Children’s Crusade, regarding child labor. He had a pen pal in India who basically got sold into slavery to a loan shark.

This is all being explained while Sam, watching the TV in the Sam-and-Toby area, is sniffing, “When did Jeffrey happen?” at Lily. Lily wants Sam to give them the news cycle that day. See, the plan currently is for the president to bring the trade bill or something, physically, to Congress, in a gesture indicating compromise and bipartisanship and blah blah blah. But Lily wants the Congressional leaders to just come to the White House as usual, so that the press will be more interested in the Jeffrey story. Sam does not want to. Since Lily’s “guy” is married to Sam’s “guy” and Sam’s “guy” won an election, nyah nyah. 4. Lily points out that her “guy” has a way higher approval rating than Sam’s “guy”, “and bite me.” 3. “Ah, point well argued,” sarcastics Sam. 5. That’s not quite the right number because she’s not his subordinate. But he seems to think she is.

Back on screen, the interviewer asks Abby Bartlett if the companies know they’re using child slave labor. “If they don’t,” Abby says, “then they’re criminally negligent. If they do, they’re simply criminal.” Lily is very proud of this line, as, I feel, she should be. Even Sam thinks it’s good.

But then Toby comes out of his office and tells them to turn to channel 5. “Bernie Dahl died,” he announces ominously. Sam and Lily watch the news, shocked, as the death of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve is announced. Sam has to get in the snide remark about Lily losing her news cycle. 5.

Credits!

MPTF: 6 We are off to a great start!

I wish I had better language to describe shots and camerawork. This show does a lovely job of that; I just don’t know how to talk about it. We’re with the president in the Oval, and the first shot is lovely, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. He’s asking a guy in military uniform and another guy in a suit if there’s going to be a coup. The military suit guy thinks not. Then he says a bunch of words I don’t understand.

Leo comes in to call the president out of the room, to tell him about Bernie Dahl. And also to tell him that everyone already knows, which, the president surmises, means the market will open 300 points down. Is it me, or sixteen years later, does a 300 point dip sound laughably adorable?

Leo wants Jed to announce Ron Ehrlich as successor right away, to prevent market panic. Jed is stubbornly reluctant. He’s not sure it’s going to be Ron Ehrlich and wants a day to think about it. Leo thinks this is stupid. I mean, he doesn’t say it like that but he does. Jed thinks Leo could be nicer to him during this conversation. He didn’t tell you you were being stupid, Jed. That’s pretty nice. Leo holds his ground about this being bad for the economy, claiming he’s going to go dump his portfolio now. Then Jed reveals that there’s some sort of family tension around Ron Ehrlich. “I’m not ready to jump into bed with Ron Ehrlich yet,” he says, “making me one of the few people in my family who can say that.” Had I not seen the previouslies, I would assume that he meant that Ron Ehrlich tried to sleep with more than one Bartlett woman, and that any number of them seemed amenable to that. As I did see the previouslies, I think we can all safely assume that Ron Ehrlich is one of the people Abby Bartlett could have married.

Also 2.

Donna wants to tell Josh about a book she’s reading, about what life was like 100 years ago. He’s not interested, because 4. Also he expresses his disinterest with rudeness, as ought to be expected. 5 Also he suggests strongly that she only has time to read these books because she’s not doing her job. 5. She leads with a few things Josh is not at all interested in – how women used to wash their hair, popular female baby names 4, but then mentions that drive-by shootings were a problem, which seems slightly more interesting to him. In case you haven’t watched enough TV, this books is going to be a Thing for the rest of the episode.

MPTF: 11

Toby wants Sam to come up with a way for C.J. to say they’re not naming Dahl’s successor without making it look like they’re backing away from Ron Ehrlich. Sam says he already gave her one – respect. You know, cause the dude just died. Sam is also highly concerned about Dahl’s heart attack and claims he will go to the gym later. Toby points out that this was Dahl’s fifth heart attack and the man was 138 years old, so maybe young, fit Sam doesn’t need to be so nutsy.

Josh comes to take Toby to a meeting that Toby doesn’t want to go to. It’s to get three left-wing Congresspeople on their side for something that’s already going to pass without them, but Josh wants to look like their liberal base still loves them. Toby thinks this is beneath him, and that they won and they don’t have to grovel for more votes. Josh says they’re doing good cop, bad cop. Toby wants to be the cop that’s not at the meeting. Josh says they’ll start out insulted if he doesn’t show. Toby suggests that if he does show, they’re going to end up insulted. But they go anyway, even though they’re still fighting.

Josh greets the people in the meeting warmly, while Toby sits and appears prepared to keep his mouth shut, as he promised Josh he would.

C.J. is briefing on Bernie Dahl’s death, but before she can finish her statement of respectful grief, the corps starts shouting, “C.J.!” The first question is, of course, if Ron Ehrlich is going to be Dahl’s replacement. C.J. dodges until Danny Concannon says that Abby Bartlett’s declared a preference for Ehrlich, and will that sway the president? C.J. is not aware of any such declaration. Danny says it’s a wire piece, with unnamed sources claiming that the first lady had previously said she hoped the president would appoint Ehrlich after Dahl’s term expired. C.J. gives Danny a line about “maybe on a social occasion.” Someone else asks when they can expect an announcement, C.J. says tomorrow, someone else asks why the delay, and C.J. says, “Respect.” Which does sound stupid in context, though it’s not actually a stupid reason. I think. Having little idea what the Fed Chair does.

Outside the press room, C.J. asks Carol to get her the wire report to which Danny referred, and also, could she have sounded any stupider, saying, “Respect”? Okay, so that’s the Bechdel test passed. -10.

C.J. approaches Sam and tells him about the wire piece, which causes Sam to cancel his plans to head to the gym. He heads to Lily’s office instead, where he bullies and insults her 5 and in the end is no closer to discovering who leaked the quote, nor is he any closer to working more productively with the first lady’s staff.

In the Oval, Jed is spouting stuff about the economy that Leo, C.J., and I don’t fully understand, but only C.J. gets called out for not understanding. 5. The upshot is, Jed’s not sure Ehrlich’s the guy. But also he doesn’t want anyone talking to his wife about it, because when his wife gets handled, he, Jed, gets a little “punishment” on the other side of the building. Damn, Jed. Maybe TMI. Also 8 and 2. But, while not talking to Abby, Jed would like C.J. to find out who the sources for the wire piece were, and then lists a bunch of friends and neighbors, almost entirely women, who don’t like him. 8. C.J. leaves and the president prattles on about the economy, and Leo admits to not knowing what the president is talking about. Then Jed claims sometimes he’s just making it up. For admitting this once C.J. leaves, I give this another 5.

MPTF: 15

Zoey’s been called in to the Oval, and Jed greets her by being sad she’s not five anymore. Leo goes, pretending to be confused by the term “keeping it real”. Jed settles into giving Zoey shit about her courses. But, seriously, he called Zoey in to tell her about the death threats they’ve been getting regarding her relationship with Charlie. He wants her not to go to the club opening she was planning on going to with Charlie, because the white supremacists are having some sort of convention in Virginia that weekend and it seems like too good an opportunity. Zoey notes that Charlie will not like it, but that she will tell him at lunch that day that they can’t go together.

As Zoey leaves, she says she’s sorry about Bernie Dahl and asks about Ron Ehrlich. Jed uses this opportunity to give her more shit about not taking math.

In the Toby-Josh meeting, a Congressperson points out that, as Democrats, they don’t like a thing because it lowers taxes. Apparently we do like lower tariffs, though. Yeah, I don’t know. Toby looks utterly bored. He plays with his tea and insists this is going to pass. Josh speaks condescendingly and the only woman in the room calls him on it. I love her. The first congressperson then says they’re concerned about the effects of cheaper, foreign-made products on American labor. Toby asks what kind of car he drives. He says he drives a Toyota. Toby tells him to shut up.

This is all about to devolve into a very kindergarten discussion of what global trade regulations do and I don’t care enough to parse it out. Except to point out that, at least with car manufacturing, the nationality of the company is almost never indicative of the location of factories. Our Hondas were built in Kentucky. Your Ford was built in Mexico. And so on.

There’s a knock, and Josh leaves cordially, and Toby leaves pissily. On the other side of the door, Josh says that this sort of behavior is why Toby has the reputation for being a pain in the ass. Toby says he cultivated that reputation. I love Toby. C.J., on the other hand, is waiting, less than patiently, to say what she came to say. She’s telling them about the wire piece. They all believe the source was Lily, who told Sam she didn’t know anything about it. Just like C.J. had suggested to Leo and Jed, Toby and Josh think this is an easy fix; if the first lady just says something like, “Old family friend, support my husband’s decisions, blah blah blah,” it’ll be fine. But C.J. tells them that Jed said he didn’t want Abby being handled. Josh feels this is all C.J.’s fault for not being able to tell the difference between Jed’s “Don’t handle my wife,” and Jed’s “Handle my wife, but I’m not the one telling you to do it.” 7. Toby tells her to go get Sam to go back to Lily.

Before they go back in, Josh observes that Toby likes winning, and Toby says, “Saves you from having to say the word ‘please’.” I’m only reporting this because it’s another good line.

Sam is bench pressing when his pager goes off. He puts the weight down and then bangs his head on it. A congressperson approaches him and says, basically, that she’s offering an amendment on the trade bill about child labor, which will change that sure win Josh and Toby thought they had. She’s got to do it because the first lady is talking about this but it’s HER thing so she has to do something about it now.

Leo goes to see Danny. They pedeconference. Danny brings up the market opening 320 points down. Leo wants Danny to come see the president at the end of the day, during a reception for the Michigan Women’s Democratic Caucus. Danny is suspicious.

C.J. blows Danny off and finds Sam, who ignored her page. Sam also wants C.J. to parse whether or not the president actually wants them to handle his wife. 7. Everyone seems to think this is somehow C.J.’s fault for not reading the president’s signals. Instead of the president’s fault for expecting his staff to manage his marriage. 8 C.J. asks Sam to go talk to Lily.

In the Josh-Toby meeting, the loudest congressperson is insisting that the fact that you can buy a British-made Range Rover has hurt Ford. Toby can, in fact, deny it, because, as a result of competition with the Range Rover, Ford made the Explorer, which is the best-selling model in its class.

Sam knocks, and the congressperson asks if they’re keeping them from more important things. “Many, many things,” Toby responds, which, duh. Did he think that the meeting to convince three Congresspeople to vote for a bill that was already going to pass was the most important thing on the Deputy Chief of Staff’s and the Communication Director’s schedules?

But of course, it’s about to become a way more important meeting. Sam tells them about the congresswoman’s amendment. They want to get Lily to get Abby to get the congresswoman to back off.

Charlie and Zoey are at a diner. Zoey is showing Charlie her notes on the 100 years ago book. They’re enjoying themselves. Well, Charlie is pretending to enjoy himself, in order to get some of Zoey’s egg salad. 4. Then Zoey drops the bomb on him about the club opening on Friday. Gina drops in to support her – the club itself, the physical building, is too hard to secure. Charlie doesn’t give a damn. Because he bought a new suit. For a club opening? What kind of club is this? Were there clubs in D.C. in the year 2000 to which 20-year-old guys would wear suits? Anyway, Charlie consults the book. He observes that 100 years ago, a black man couldn’t go to a club with a white woman for fear of being killed. Charlie, stop being a dick about this. 4.

Zoey excuses herself for the bathroom, which Gina signals, to another agent. Charlie thinks he is the one with the right to be pissed. Gina points out that it’s actually her job to take a bullet for Zoey, and that she prefers it when Zoey stays home and watches movies. This seems both true and unprofessional to say. Charlie leaves without waiting for Zoey to say goodbye.

Sam goes to Lily’s office but oh, look at that! It’s not Lily, it’s Abby! Back from the commercial break, Abby is complaining about the war the two staffs wage. Sam tells the president that, in fact, the first lady does not behave professionally. Sam says she has to vet stuff like Jeffrey through his office, because he’s the one who knows what he’s doing. And also she’s got to tell the congresswoman to back off. She says she will. 5 for this whole thing.

Danny is waiting in the outer office of the Oval, annoying Mrs. Landingham. Then Abby walks in and he annoys her by getting the name of the event wrong. (“The Many Women of Michigan?”) Because it’s about girls, and girls are stupid. 4. Abby walks out.

MPTF: 21

Danny tries to engage Charlie in conversation but Charlie is not really interested. He says he can’t date Zoey because he can’t be constrained by the Secret Service. Danny thinks he’s being stupid. Danny says, “If it was me, just for now, I’d make sure I was the one guy in her life that was totally hassle-free.” Which is not exactly really good advice? He does point out that the guys who are sending the death threats may be heavily armed, but they’re not necessarily good marksmen – “One day they’re going to be aiming for her and hit me.” That’s the better point. Charlie can be cavalier about his own safety, but he’s not the only one at risk. And, black or white, when you’re dating the president’s daughter and the Secret Service says, we cannot make you or her sufficiently safe here, you don’t go. That’s kind of it. There’s no use getting pissed at them, or at her, about it. But also, it’s probably not great for your relationship, whether you are the boy or the girl, to make it a goal to be “hassle-free.”

I guess it does make Danny the one guy who didn’t act as if a woman in this episode was irrationally angry when in fact she was quite justified. So, go Danny? I’ll give this a -8.

The president calls Danny in to the Oval Office. Leo’s in there, too. He thinks the president should not be having this conversation with Danny. I have to agree, because what the president is doing is, he’s trying to use the “closeness” he claims he and Danny have cultivated, over late-night talks on the campaign trail, and also Danny’s having written a biography of the first lady, to get Danny to spill who his source was on the quote about Ron Ehlrich. Because he doesn’t want to just ask Abby. So he’s trying to get his staff and now a reporter to intervene in his marriage because he’s too chicken-shit to do it himself. 8.

Danny, appropriately, refuses, though he cites not wanting to get in trouble with the first lady as one of his reasons. 8, Danny, and for shame. Then he says the president should forgive him because he just gave “very sage” dating advice to Charlie. The president is not pleased that Danny is helping Charlie “score with my daughter.” Ew. 2. The president sends Danny away.

At the party for the Michigan Women’s Democratic Caucus, Donna is continuing to talk to a very bored Josh about the book. One hundred years ago, it seemed, people were worried about seamstresses become aroused by the steady rhythm of the foot pedals used to operate sewing machines. The recommendation was to drug the seamstresses with bromide, to reduce their sexual desire. Josh asks why anyone would want to reduce a woman’s sexual desire. Donna says, flirtatiously, that “we can get out of hand.” This is a super-appropriate conversation for them to be having, and because I’m in the mood, I’m giving it a 2.

Josh turns to watch as the first lady walks in. She pulls aside the congresswoman who has the amendment and does what Sam wanted her to do – promises political support to the congresswoman while also commanding her to drop the amendment.

Back in the Oval, Leo and the president also marvel at the dangers of the rhythm of the sewing machine pedals. And Leo mentions that morphine, heroin, and marijuana were all over-the-counter drugs.

Mrs. Landingham pops in to tell the president that his wife is here to see him, and Leo peaces out, much to Jed’s chagrin. It is evident that Abby is pissed. She mentions Sam coming to see Lily and Jed tries to pass it off as flirtation between them 2 but Abby’s not having it. Jed admits that he wanted C.J. to handle her. And he doesn’t even thank Abby when she tells him she killed the amendment. Then he gets self-righteous about trying to get his staff to manage their marriage. And he reveals that this is all because he was pissed about her saying nice things about Ron Ehrlich. And then Abby reveals that she did, in fact, used to date Ron Ehrlich. I’m giving this a 2. Because he nitpicks on how long they dated and calls him “Skippy.” Also a 4 for not wanting to look like he’s “taking orders from his wife” by choosing Ron Ehrlich now. Abby concedes she was wrong to say that to the press, and Jed demands that she just “stand there in her wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.” Ugh. Jed. For real. 4. Because I don’t know what other number to give this.

But Abby is still impassioned about the plight of child laborers and Jed kind of agrees with her. He says this was their first Oval Office fight, which I find hard to believe. He’s been in office almost two years. Then they settle in to parent talk about Zoey and Charlie. Abby reveals that Charlie headed over to Zoey’s dorm a few minutes ago. They leave for the party with their arms around each other.

We cut to the hall of Zoey’s dorm. Charlie, in his suit, has flowers. He knocks, and nods at Gina, across the hall. Zoey is pissed but for some reason accepts Charlie’s apology, even though he says that he’s apologizing for “anything I’ve done to upset you, even if it only exists in your kind of confused little mind.” That’s just so awful. 8. And 4. And fuck you, Charlie. I like you most of the time, but in this moment I really hate you.

Charlie brought popcorn and videos (Hi, 2000!), and the door closes, as Gina radios, “Bookbag is in for the night.”

TMP: 30. It’s a pretty high episode, folks.

By the by, I feel like I remember the existence in the real world of this book, published at around this time (meaning early 2000). I don’t feel like Googling at the moment but if anyone knows about this, hit me up in the comments.

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Zoe and I discuss Government

A while back, Zoe was going over some terms with me. A mayor is in charge of a town, a governor is in charge of a state, etc.

“So it’s mayor, then governor, then president, then king or queen?” she said.

“Well, no,” I said. “King or queen and president are equivalent. They’re both in charge of a country.” We discussed monarchy vs democracy for a bit. Then I added, “Actually, a lot of countries with kings or queens also have democratic leaders. Like England has a queen, but it also has a Prime Minister.” (For purposes of a discussion with a seven-year-old, I didn’t bother making the distinction between England, Great Britain, the UK, etc. Sue me.)

“If they have a Prime Minister, then what do they need a queen for?”

I laughed. I said, “Many people in England wonder the same thing!”

But then I thought about it, because I like to give her more than one perspective on these things, so I said, “Many people feel they should not bother having a royal family any more. But some people really like it. And I guess they do two different things. Like, the Prime Minister, he (this convo was pre-Brexit) represents England when they’re talking to other countries, and he guides the laws that get made, and stuff like that. But the queen and the royal family members – like Prince William and Princess Kate – they do things that are more symbolic. Host national holiday stuff, go to funerals and weddings of foreign leaders or other important people. Their babies’ pictures are in magazines. And they are sort of representatives of British identity. It’s like they’re team mascots.”

And then I started thinking, you know, that’s not such a bad idea. To separate the role of “Person who Actually Makes Decisions about How to Rule a Country” and “Country’s Mascot.” We’ve combined them into one person, the president. For the last eight years, that sort of worked out. Obama wasn’t a bad mascot, with his charisma, and his bad-ass wife and two adorable kids, and he was a pretty good Grown-Up in Charge. But the eight years before that, we elected Guy You’d Have a Beer With over two Insufferably Boring Grown-Ups. That wasn’t great. And the eight years before that, we had a guy who was good at convincing everyone he was Guy You’d Have a Beer With while being secretly a mostly pretty good Grown-Up.

And right now we’ve got a Really Very Good Grown-Up who can’t convince anyone you’d enjoy having a beer with her, vs. Mascot EXTREME (for better or worse). Imagine if we just separated the roles. Imagine if we’d let someone who’s good at being a grown-up actually make decisions, and someone who’s very good at entertaining us (or terrifying us) just keep doing that in some fashion. That wouldn’t really be terrible, would it?