Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing,” Episode 1.18, “Six Meetings Before Lunch”

I’m feeling blocked so I thought I’d write this instead. I don’t know if it helps get the juices flowing or just redirects them and further sinks me into a block but I guess we’ll find out.

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”: Charlie brought Zoey flowers, which somehow excused him for being a dick; Zoey objected to her protection being increased; that protection was Gina, who got nervous about some white-pride-looking boys in a crowd; Leo’s daughter Mallory did or did not ask Sam out on a date, much to the delight of the First Lady; Roberto Mendoza is the president’s choice for the Supreme Court, and Noble, Brave Sir Toby is going to make sure he’s confirmed.

It’s Thursday at 9:45 and in the White House, a black female assistant gets a line AND gets to have her face fully lit at the same time. She’s in front of two TVs showing the floor of the Senate, pouring wine and offering congratulations until Toby stops her. Toby is against celebrating the confirmation of Roberto Mendoza before there are fifty-one’yea’ votes on that screen. He will not have his Day of Jubilee ruined by the tempting of fate. As much as he’s being a dick to Bonnie here (Doing these recaps is really helping me learn which assistant goes with which name) 5, I can’t fault him too much. I am also strongly against the tempting of fate. He extends his not-exactly-wrong dickishness to Ginger (the redheaded one, whom I believe might also be a Sheen) 5 before wondering where Josh is.

Donna is calling for Josh; they’re already, since the scene break, at nineteen yea votes. (They were at five before.) Josh wants to know why there’s a message about talking to Mandy about a panda bear. Well, actually, there’s a little back-and-forth about Donna’s handwriting but I’m going to give it a 5 and keep going. He’s confused about why he would have to talk to Mandy about a panda bear and also doesn’t seem to know the difference between a panda bear and a koala, or that a koala is not a tree. And for some reason we’re not supposed to think less of him for this lack of basic pre-school -level knowledge. Because knowing about animals is girl stuff. (Donna knows.) 4.

Mallory comes in and asks where Sam is. She’s pissed at him and Josh has no idea why. 8. They all head to the room where the Mendoza vote is being held. Josh is surprised that there is no champagne yet, which Toby forces a very annoyed Bonnie to explain 5 and Donna is nattering on about her handwriting 4 while Josh is asking her to go get Leo.

Leo is on the phone in his very dark office yelling about a book jacket when Margaret comes in to rush him off. Margaret plays Exposition Fairy about the book jacket. It’s that an appointee to a justice post favors reparations for African-Americans. Margaret says, “What for?” which is why this gets a 9. Because come the fuck on.

I do love how neatly Aaron Sorkin sets up an episode. What’s happening in this one? Mendoza is being confirmed, Mandy wants a panda, Mallory’s pissed at Sam, and there’s a judge who wants reparations for slavery. And based on the previouslies, I assume we’ll find out something’s up with Zoey and Charlie and white pride. And go!

Leo and Margaret enter the confirmation celebration room and Sam comes in right behind them. Mallory tells him she despises him and everything he stands for 8, 3 because of a position paper he wrote. He doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She tells him not to play dumb. He says he is actually dumb; most of the time, he’s playing smart. Which is a good line. Except that he does know it’s about his position paper on school vouchers. In case you’ve forgotten, she’s a public school teacher.

Yea vote 51 is called and Toby pops the champagne with that facial expression like he’s not sure he’s ever allowed to be happy and I love him.

Credits!

We’re back from the break and a clearly drunk Donna is still waxing stupid to Josh about her handwriting 4 when Leo breaks in. He tells Josh that their nominee, Jeff Breckinridge, for the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights (Is this a real position? I mean, if it is, that’s awesome.) is no longer going to sail because Breckinridge supports reparations for slavery, as is evidence by his quote on the dust jacket of a book called The Unpaid Debt. Leo wants Josh to talk to Breckinridge. Josh feels uncomfortable in his whiteness. “I’m not the guy for this,” he says, and he’d be right, if they had a black person on staff who ranked higher than Charlie.

They hear noise coming from the other room and Leo is excited to learn that C.J. is going to lip-sync “The Jackal.” So excited he asks Cathy to pull Sam out of the argument he’s having with Mallory for the occasion. (I like C.J. doing “The Jackal” as much as the next person, but the fact that this is a thing she does gets a 1.)

Sam has determined that Mallory got the position paper in favor of school vouchers from her father, who is trying to drive a wedge between them, in spite of the fact that they haven’t been on a date yet. Sam doesn’t want to talk about school vouchers. He wants them to watch C.J. do “The Jackal” and then get a late-night dinner, “after which I may or may not give you a good-night kiss.” Aaron Sorkin believes that this sort of arrogance is very sexy. He’s not 100% wrong.

Mallory appears to be immune, however. And my heart belongs to Toby.

Josh approaches Toby about Jeff Breckinridge, trying to con Toby into taking over. Toby instructs him never to talk to him during “The Jackal,” which C.J. is performing rather adorably. Then Toby puffs suggestively on his cigar. This moment totally gets a ! It is fairly clear that C.J. doing “The Jackal,” while exciting for everybody, is foreplay for Toby.

Sam approaches Leo about Mallory. Leo is #sorrynotsorry about messing with Sam’s dating life and also cares way more about C.J.’s “The Jackal.” Toby puffs his cigar some more, Josh and Sam try to execute some dance moves or something and look incredibly white doing so, and we’re out.

An aerial shot of the White House leads us to C.J. dancing in her office and Danny approaching from behind. Danny is sad he missed “The Jackal.” He was busy listening to his police scanner. C.J. surmises that in high school, Danny was the president of his A.V. club. Danny corrects her; he was, in fact, the vice president. Bobby Pfeiffer was president. Danny doesn’t like to talk about it. I only tell you this because it’s pretty funny.

So what’s Danny doing here this late, besides lamenting lost opportunities to ogle C.J.? Josh invited him down for a drink. Danny came after hearing on his police scanner that David Arbor was arrested outside a frat party for possession and possible intent to distribute marijuana. C.J. hopes David Arbor is not the son of Bob Arbor, but he totally is. And also Zoey Bartlett was at the party. Danny is hoping C.J. will remember he brought this to her, and also that she’s in love with him. 2.

The next morning, C.J. is going over with Carol the party line on Zoey and the frat party. Bechdel passed! -10! The party line is, the president doesn’t even know, because it’s such a non-story. Mandy also pipes in for one line and hopes it remains a non-story. Then she peels off into Josh’s office to talk about a panda bear. “I think we should get a panda bear,” she says. “You say that now, but I’m the one who’s going to end up feeding him and walking him.” Hah. Also 2.

MPTF: 12

Anyway, apparently the last panda bear at the National Zoo died two weeks ago and there have been 3,000 letters asking about when they’re getting a new one. Josh tells her to go ask Toby. Donna delivers a whole bunch of files. Mandy asks about it. It’s related to his meeting with Jeff Breckinridge, black civil rights lawyer. She wishes him luck. Wow, that was a Mandy meeting surprisingly free of feistiness.

In a college dining hall, Zoey and her friends are practicing French. As they get ready to go, Gina leads them out the back to avoid reporters. But a reporter is waiting in the kitchen. Gina throws him up against a wall but he asks why Zoey was hanging out at a party with a drug dealer, and Zoey responds by saying she was invited to the party and didn’t know David Arbor was going to be there. Gina sends Zoey and her friend tot he car.

Back at the White House, Sam is pleased with having his draft done on time, and asks Cathy about his schedule. There’s a noon meeting he doesn’t want to go to, but Cathy doesn’t care. Also he has a meeting with Mallory right now, much to his surprise, because she wants to yell at him about school vouchers during business hours.

Jeff Breckinridge enters Josh’s very, very dark office. Seriously, what’s up with this? I know Aaron Sorkin had former White House staff as consultants; did the (first(?!)) Clinton administration keep their electric bills low by forbidding the use of lights for much of the day? Anyway, it turns out Jeff once worked in the same law firm as Josh’s father, which is super-exciting for them both. Then Josh has to tell Jeff that some Republicans don’t like his book jacket quote. Jeff gives zero fucks. He feels that African-American descendants of slaves are owed somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.7 trillion (as calculated by an economist) and that he means this in a totally non-abstract way.

Carol announces Charlie into C.J.’s office. Charlie tells C.J. about the reporter who accosted Zoey. This reporter,a according to C.J., is not so much a reporter as a “professional Bartlet baiter” who works for a “fund-raising newsletter for the radical right.” Zoey wants C.J.’s help with David Arbor. The poor kid doesn’t sell drugs; he just buys them. User, not a dealer. And Zoey is trying to help him. In fact, she was at that party, according to Charlie, to return the car keys – to a Porsche, Charlie needs to point out – that she had confiscated from him the week before. C.J. asks Carol to tell Danny she’s coming to see him, then reminisces with Charlie about the time she backed her boyfriend’s Porsche into a pond.

It should be noted that they are pronouncing Porsche with one syllable. I never know if it’s pretentious or correct to do the two-syllable thing. Much the way I know you should pronounce Van Gogh like “Van goch” with the guttural “ch” but you sound like a pretentious asshole if you do.

Toby is approached while walking by Margaret, and Margaret notes Toby’s unusual good mood. Margaret peels off and other random people in the hall are similarly weirded out by Toby’s good mood.

In Sam’s office, Mallory is lecturing about why school vouchers are not a good idea. I believe she is correct, but also, I don’t care. I mean, I care about school vouchers. I don’t care about this plot point. And also 8 because this plot line is so ridiculous. Sam gets snotty; Mallory points out that this is not a good path toward dating her; Sam is like, but this is a business meeting! I’m giving that an too. Because girls, they’re so manipulative. She schedules a business meeting but his behavior during it counts toward their (non) dating life! Nofair!

Cathy comes in to tell Sam she cancelled that meeting on the Hill he asked her to cancel, a request he now regrets because he has to stay in this meeting with Mallory. (I love Cathy, by the way, who takes no shit and gives zero fucks, all the time.)

C.J. comes to Danny – also in a darkened workspace – to talk about the non-reporter. Danny complains that she never compliments his suspenders. 2 but also hah. Danny tells C.J. that Zoey told the reporter that Zoey didn’t know David Arbor was going to be there. C.J. realizes that Zoey was lying and manages to cover up this knowledge from Danny.

In Josh’s office, Jeff says the idea of reparations is nothing new; at one point, newly freed slaves were promised forty acres and a mule. But then that order was rescinded and maybe if it hadn’t been, the U.S. wouldn’t owe descendants of slaves $1.7 trillion dollars now.

Someone wise once said to me that it wasn’t the slavery that was our true original sin. Slavery is bad, of course. But even worse were the next hundred years. It’s one thing to have a law that says that certain members of the population are not equal. It’s not good, but it’s not as bad as having your law say that the whole population IS equal, and then very much ignoring that law with little if any repercussions. I’d add that, as Jeff Breckinridge is pointing out here, we could have done a lot to ameliorate the damage done by slavery. We just chose not to. In many ways, we chose to double down on that damage. And then the civil rights movement happened, and the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and … aside from electing a black president, we continue to fuck it all up. So if you’re a white person who routinely whines about “How come they still complain about slavery? It was so long ago.” then a) pro-tip – these are inside-your-head thoughts, not out-loud thoughts, and b) don’t let’s pretend they don’t have lots of more recent things to complain about.

Anyway, Josh pretends he’s going to move this conversation on to Jeff Breckinridge’s confirmation process, but he wants to talk instead about the “600,000 white men” who lost their lives to end slavery. Yeah, Josh was maybe not the best pick for this conversation.  Also, from what I gathered from the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, not actually true. Ending slavery seems to have been Lincoln’s secret agenda, not the public reason for the war. Jeff agrees that this is specious, even though Josh insists on continuing in this manner. Fortunately, we leave the scene.

Toby is overly nice to Mandy, and to Bonnie. Not so much to Ginger. Inside his office, Toby is weirded out by his own good mood – up until Mandy tells him she wants a panda. 4

Zoey runs into Charlie in the hallway. Charlie does not kiss her this close to the Oval Office, and they banter a bit. But Zoey is nervous about her meeting with C.J. Not so nervous that she can’t throw Charlie against the wall for a seriously good kiss, though.

Zoey comes to C.J.’s office and they go over her statement to the reporter. C.J. needs to know why Zoey lied to the reporter about knowing that David Arbor was going to be at the party.

Bechdel passing all over the place!

In a fairly sad-looking room, the Secret Service has some stuff to talk about regarding Zoey. The important thing is that more white pride groups might be targeting Zoey. Gina concludes, based on various factors, that they’re looking for two fifteen-year-olds. The guy in charge agrees. They break, and C.J. comes in to talk to Gina. More Bechdel test passing! Gina refuses to talk about the party with C.J. because that’s not her job, and, in fact, would hurt her job. Gina does defend Zoey’s behavior in front of the reporter, and she appears to enjoy her job.

Sam and Mallory are still talking. I still don’t care. C.J. comes to see Sam about the Zoey problem. They agree that the president needs not to get involved in that. Sam wants C.J. to be aggressive with the president if need be in order to keep him away. C.J. is not enthused about this advice. Sam wants to know how to date Mallory instead of fighting with her and C.J. suggests, uh, taking her on a date. Well, taking her to lunch. Right now. Sam appreciates the advice. C.J. says she’s going to check the want ads. Because someone here actually worries about her job! And of course, it’s the female senior staffer who has to worry that mouthing off to the boss could compromise her employment, even though the male senior staffers do it all the time with no worry. 5.

Toby is super-unhappy to be having this conversation about pandas, and calls the late, lamented panda ‘Dim Sum.’ Damn, I could go for some good dumplings right now. I mean, I can go for some good dumplings 100% of the time, including immediately after having eaten good dumplings, but I’m also kind of hungry right now. Also, another 4 for how angry he is about this. Pandas are stupid girl things! Never mind that making the president look good to the public is Mandy’s ACTUAL JOB FOR WHICH SHE WAS HIRED, everything she wants to do or talk about is stupid!

The main issue is that Toby doesn’t feel this is his job. Which is also possibly true. He discovers that Josh sent Mandy and the panda issue to him. Toby informs Mandy that she’s been played and Mandy asks Toby to help her “cause Josh pain.” 3. Toby is in. As am I. Even though I think this is stupid.

Mallory leads Sam into Leo’s office. Which is very dark. Mallory is asking permission from her father to have lunch with Sam because she has to ask permission to have lunch with fascists. 3. It turns out Sam is not in favor of school vouchers; he wrote the position paper as opposition prep. Because fucking duh and also whatever. Sam is confused by Leo’s capitulation. “I thought you were trying to drive a wedge between us,” he says to Leo. Leo says, “Yeah, but now you’re just boring the crap out of me.” Go, Leo! Sam’s real position on education makes Mallory looks like she maybe wants to jump him even though they’re in her father’s office, with her father right there. They go to lunch.

Charlie comes in to the Oval, where the president is lying on the couch, reading. Go, Mr. President! His lunch has been cancelled, surprisingly enough, given that he’s the president. He’s reading an etiquette book by George Washington, which sounds pretty fascinating to me. The president wants to know if he could “take” George Washington, like, in war. Charlie points out that the Air Force could probably take the Minutemen, then announces C.J.

The president greets C.J. with this pearl from the book: “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually covered.” C.J., utterly confused, says, “Well, I do what I can to keep the press corps happy, sir.” Hah. 2, but hah. C.J. tells Bartlett about the Zoey thing and the president is furious that a reporter accosted her on campus. C.J. gets aggressive in preventing the president from making a thing out of this with the press. And it works. Huzzah!

Back in Josh’s office, Jeff brings up reparations for the Japanese Americans interred during World War II. Which I did not know we did. Josh says that was for people actually interred; “bring me a living slave and you’ve got a case.” Jeff points out with more patience than Josh deserves that, as the civil rights attorney and expert in the room, he thinks he knows when he has a case. Josh points out that we don’t have $1.7 trillion. Jeff says they’ll take it in tax deductions and scholarship funds, which sounds pretty reasonable to me. Josh says he can take it in affirmative action and empowerment zones(?) and the Civil Rights Act, which, dude, stop talking.

But it’s Josh, so instead, he digs deeper. He says he’d love to give him the money, but the S.S. officer didn’t give his grandfather his wallet back when he let him out of Birkenau. Dude. No.

My first year in grad school, I was pretty naive about race relations in America. I had a class with a professor who was a professed communist – something I didn’t know at the time you could still be – who said that the only form of oppression is economic oppression and challenged us to think of a counter-example. I said, “I think a lot of rich Jews died in the Holocaust.” She said, “Look, I don’t want to get into a Holocaust vs. slavery debate right now.” This was my first exposure to the idea that this was a debate being had by social justice types. I was mildly horrified. If you are a social justice person who engages in this debate, stop it. Only one person wins that fight, and it’s The Man.

Jeff rightly points out that Josh’s problem is with the Germans. Josh finally slumps down in defeat. Jeff says no amount of money will make up for slavery, which seems like a counter-argument to reparations, but I’m not a civil rights lawyer. Then Jeff has Josh look at the pyramid on the dollar bill and points out that this country, like that pyramid, is an unfinished project, and they just have to keep doing better. Which is nice. Jeff offers to take Josh out to lunch, and Josh says he’ll get the bill.

Damn right, you will, Josh.

Total Misogyny Points: 20 A comparatively light episode! Of course, if I was doing racism, we’d have a whole different story, and I really wish Jeff Breckenridge’s confirmation process got the arc that Mendoza’s got. He’s interesting.

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