Misogyny& Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing,” Episode 1.19, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”

I started this one a long time ago. Then I had a baby. So they got put on hold. But a reader reached out recently to bemoan the lack of more of these, and, as many of you may know, a writer’s soul is a voracious beast, desperate for adulation, but one such voice can encourage it to great heights!

So half of this was written before baby. Also before election. And inauguration. So if the tone takes a sudden turn halfway through toward the extremely bitter and caustic, well, you know why.

  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”, Josh obnoxiously offered Mandy a job at the White House, and also, everyone in the White House is feeling super-dissatisfied with their work.

It’s Monday morning and Toby thinks it’s going to rain. Sam is vehemently denying this. Toby’s concerned because the opening line of the speech the president is giving a speech this morning that opens with “As I look out over this magnificent vista,” so if it’s raining, and the speech is moved inside, he won’t be looking over a magnificent vista. Sam thinks that the president can change that on his feet, but Toby thinks he’s not going to be paying that much attention to the five-minute speech he’s giving to the United Organization of Trout Fishermen. Sam insists it’s not going to rain. And then the thunder claps and the lightning flashes and it starts raining.

C.J. joins them as they leave their office and asks if they know about a piece of paper going around. That’s all the information she has on it, though. That it exists, and is going around.

Leo joins the pedeconference to inform them that people have already been moved inside because of the prediction of rain. C.J. asks about the president’s mood and Leo, in the tone of voice one uses when one is trying to be positive about a cranky toddler, says that the president seemed pretty happy today. C.J. doesn’t think that’s going to last.

And she’s not wrong. The president is pede-complaining to Mrs. Landingham and Mrs. Landingham is assigning his mood to the lack of roughage in his diet. 4. She’s always fussing about his food. Because she’s a girl. He threatens to beat her with a head of cabbage. 5. The president is irritated that Sam, Toby, and C.J. aren’t there already and Charlie says it’s because they didn’t know it was raining.

The three of them join the pedewhine. The Secret Service is in front and I just imagine that they are like camp counselors trying to keep a head count of their campers. The president does not seem excited that he’s addressing the United Organization of Trout Fishermen.

Josh joins the gaggle and informs the president that “the CBO’s going to revise its out-year projections” (I have no idea what that means.), two FEC (Federal Election Commission) officers resigned, and the NGA endorsed trigger locks. I assume trigger locks are when you can’t pull a trigger on a gun without the right finger print or some such thing, and that the NGA is the liberal version of the NRA. Toby seems interested in the first thing, about which I continue to have no idea. The president seems excited about the idea of getting to appoint two FEC commissioners. Leo and Josh try to tamp down his enthusiasm – the Senate leadership is going to pick people to fill those seats – but the president responds that he just wants to “dangle their feet in the water.” The water, in this case, being the nature of American democracy. By appointing two people to the FEC who actually want to reform campaign finance.

The president goes to speak and Leo’s like, “Don’t get your hopes up,” and Josh is like, “Yeah, don’t worry, I wasn’t,” but angry. Then the president, as Toby predicted, begins, “As I look out on this magnificent vista,” and Toby refrains from slapping Sam, for which he deserves some kind of medal. I feel you, Toby. I have so been there.

Credits!

MPTF: 2

Back from the credits, our favorite Exposition Fairy, Donna Moss, is asking Josh how this whole FEC thing works. And again, I understand that this sort of a thing is a service to the viewers. It’s useful here, too; I definitely didn’t know any of this stuff before this show told me. But when there are two dudes in a room and a concept with which they would be familiar needs explaining to the audience, they do it in other ways. Like one guy explaining it while the other talks over him, saying, “I know, I know, I know.”

Anyway, Josh explains that, while the president officially nominates candidates to the FEC, what actually happens is that the leadership in Congress of both parties picks “one Democrat and one Republican” (which I don’t understand how that works if it’s always only one person quitting at a time, which Josh claims is true). The president says, “Okay.” Donna thinks it’s great that they’re going to do it differently this time. Josh thinks it would be great if they actually were going to do that but in fact he’s just going to have a series of pointless meetings about it.

C.J. is being charming in the press room about Easter egg White House stuff. “The theme of this year’s event is ‘Learning is Delightful and Delicious,’ as, by the way, am I,” she says, which is cute but I have to give it a 2. She also promises that the “cats” of the American Egg Board are “party people.” She hops off the podium but calls reporter Steve to the side to ask him about the paper that’s out there. He claims to know nothing more than she does but also reminds her that he’s a reporter, so he’s not actually obligated to tell her if he finds out more.

Then Mandy approaches. She knows about the paper. She wrote the paper. It’s a memo she wrote while working for Lloyd Russell about the weaknesses of the Bartlett presidency and how to beat them for reelection. Mandy is embarrassed. C.J. is pissed. Mandy defends herself by saying that C.J. should bear in mind how pissed she, Mandy, was, at the senior staff, which strikes me as a very unprofessional argument. 8. Isn’t it more to the point to remind C.J. that, at the time, she was working for Lloyd Russell and the production of such a memo was her actual job? But the Bechdel test is being passed here! -10!

In Leo’s office, Margaret is trying to explain to her very disinterested boss 5 why the e-mail is not working and the whole conversation is extremely 4. She expects her boss to know who her friends are, like a girl5, and it all has to do with calories in raisin muffins, 4, and is being told in a really drawn-out way, 4, until Leo finally tells her he lost interest when she mentioned bran muffins, 4 5. It’s totally awful.

Josh comes in and Leo asks who he came up with for the FEC. Lightening flashes in the background. It looks pretty cool. Josh has the names of two people who are for aggressive campaign reform. Leo notes that the leadership will hate them both. He tells Josh to arrange meetings with the leaderships’ “top guys” – their Leos and Joshes, presumably – but not with the leadership guys themselves. (Oh, a 4 for the use of “guys”, as if these must all be men)(and I say that as person who frequently uses ‘guys’ as a unisex word, but they’re not). Josh asks Leo if the president thinks that they’re actually going to get somewhere with this and Leo says, “No.”

Then Josh asks about the e-mail and Leo is rudely dismissive. 5.

MPTF: 15

You think I’m being too harsh? Let me ask you this: What is the point of this e-mail sub-sub-sub-sub-plot? Does it have anything to do with anything else in this episode? No. It does not. I thought for a minute maybe the e-mail security breach had something to do with Mandy’s memo leaking, but if that’s so, it’s certainly not made explicit in anyway. So it’s just comic relief. And what’s the joke? Wherein lies the comedy? That Margaret’s batty determination to publicize the correct calorie count of the raisin muffins has brought down the White House e-mail server. Those crazy dames with their crazy priorities. That’s the joke. The whole joke. It’s mean, it’s misogynist, it’s not even that funny, and it’s wholly unnecessary.

Anyway, Toby and Sam catch Josh as he leaves Leo’s office and ask who he’s got for the FEC. Josh gives us their names – John Bacon and Patty Calhoun, for those of you keeping track at home, and btw, I’m pretty sure Patty Calhoun is supposed to be a woman, so they’ve done the task of pretending gender equality while never having her on screen, so unless I’m proven wrong, 11. Toby and Sam agree that neither of those people have a chance in hell of serving on the FEC, and Josh does not deny it. Josh leaves Toby and Sam to go to their meeting. Outside the door, Sam offers to do the talking. Toby is not interested.

In the room, Toby sits down with a bunch of uniformed guys and a couple of suited guys. They’re there to talk about gays and lesbians in the military. A subject on which we’ve actually made progress! Huzzah! (And crossed fingers.) Toby says they’re there so that they can give an informed recommendation to the president and one of the military guys asks pointedly what he thinks the result of Toby’s recommendation will be and Toby says it’s actually Sam’s recommendation and everyone in the room, including Sam, doesn’t think Sam’s recommendation will be very effective. Sam tries to throw around a little “He’s the commander-in-chief so the military will do what he says” language but another military guy says it takes an act of Congress to change the uniform code, so no, they won’t do what the president says. Toby smirks in self-deprecation, which is rarer than his “I’ve won, you fools” smirk, and notes that this will therefore be a short meeting.

Donna is asking C.J. about the eggs. Hey, more Bechdel test-passing. (Only worth one subtracted point per episode, though.) Then she tells C.J. Mandy is waiting for her, and Donna tells C.J. she wants to see Josh. Donna goes to her desk and C.J. finds Carol to talk about eggs for another sentence, then goes to her office where Mandy is. Did Janel Moloney and Melissa Fitzgerald (the actors who play Donna and Carol) not have enough lines this episode per their contracts? Because otherwise that minute was entirely pointless.

In C.J.’s office, Mandy gives C.J. the memo. Mandy does not know who has it and C.J. is going to read it. She tells Mandy to go back to her office and not answer any questions, and to count on a call when she’s done reading. There is much tension.

Back from what would have been a commercial break, we look up at the capitol building. It’s lovely. Josh is at a table being served nice snacks with a table of men, lecturing about money in politics. They all condescend to each other a little. Josh names his guys to fill the empty FEC chair seats, and the guys name theirs – Grant Calen (sp?) and Joe Barkley. Josh notes that they both oppose campaign finance reform. One of the condescending guys says, “We can’t have this meeting every time the president wakes up and decides to make the world better.” Need some aloe vera for that burn, Josh? Condescending dude promises that if the president makes a thing of this, Congress is going to bring up all the issues the president wishes would not be at the forefront, including English as the National Language, in addition to simply not confirming their guys. Josh hates being out-condescended, so he says that while he came there knowing it was a fool’s errand, he is now determined to make John Bacon and Patty Calhoun the next members of the FEC. The guys don’t care, though. They leave.

Charlie approaches Mrs. Landingham for a pedeconference to tell her that the president is displeased with his lunch, which is a salad and not a sandwich. Mrs. Landingham don’t care. 4. Man, why do women have to be so obsessed with the healthy feeding of their men?

We break from them back to the meeting that was supposed to be short with Toby and Sam and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Toby makes a “haha, gay” joke 13, and a military guy says he doesn’t like Toby’s sense of humor, and Toby says he gets that a lot. I wish that line were attached to a better Toby joke, because Toby’s delivery of “I get that a lot” is perfect.

C.J. breaks in to call Toby away. Sam almost comes, too, but Toby says Sam is doing good – and Rob Lowe manages to take a half a beat to glow from that praise – and sends him back into the room. C.J. tells Toby that she knows what the paper is. He invites her into his office. Probably to bang their tension out. !

Donna is waiting in the lobby for Josh. She is cheerleader-esque and reveals that when he is out of the office, she sits in his office and looks for him out the window. 6. He is annoyed. 5. He tells her he needs her to prep him on English as the National Language. She jokes and he’s not in the mood but he’s not rude. Donna promises to get him bullet points in 30 minutes and that Toby wants to see him.

Ginger tries to get Toby’s attention while Toby sits in his office with C.J. but he’s not having it. 5. (They’re both clothed but you know they weren’t a few minutes ago.) Toby is not pleased about Mandy’s memo. Josh comes in and gets updated. Toby instructs C.J. to figure out where this thing is and she leaves to do so. Josh sits next to Toby and says, “Our second year doesn’t seem to be going a whole lot better than our first, does it?” “No,” Toby replies. I don’t know if I praise this show enough but moments like these, where the writing is exactly spare enough, and that the actors handle with such perfect, subtle grace, deserve to be mentioned.

Toby is outside Leo’s office with Margaret so that he can get condescending about the bran muffin e-mail, too. 4. Although, actually, Toby’s lack of interest could stem from his preoccupation with Mandy’s memo. So the 4 is more for the show than for Toby.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comes out of Leo’s office with Leo and another uniformed dude. Leo finishes saying something to Fitz about the Phillipines. Fitz asks Toby about the meeting with uniformed dudes and Sam across the hall. Toby tells him it’s about gays in the military. Toby also tells Fitz there may be a security breach with the White House computers. Fitz tells Toby the White House computers aren’t secure.

Hey, Americans in the year 2000, totally don’t worry about computer security and the federal government. It won’t in any way be important in the future! (Brb, sobbing quietly into my keyboard.)

Toby goes into Leo’s office. After some, you know, small talk about the Philippines. Then Toby tells him about the memo. Toby brings up the idea from the memo – which Leo can already guess – that Leo moves the president to the middle. Leo is sanguine and does not want to see a copy of the memo and tells Toby not to worry about it. Toby leaves.

See, this is what I mean about gendered differences when it comes to exposition. Donna, who has worked for the Deputy Chief of Staff for over a year, needs Josh to explain to her what the FEC is and who gets to decide who’s on it. Leo does not need the contents of a memo that he has not read explained to him. In both instances, information that the audience does not necessarily have are delivered. But in one, a female character is required to play the idiot, and in the other, a male character gets to be nearly psychic. Another for how perfect an illustration this is.

MPTF: 23

Donna gives Josh her six pages on English as the National Language. Josh snaps at her for giving him stuff about James Madison but Donna calls him on it -5 and notes that everyone’s “walking around like they know they already lost.” Josh even apologizes, clumsily, which is nice. -5.

Mandy is in Josh’s office. She asks about James Madison and tells Josh that the president is not going to look good fighting against English as the National Language. He tells her to tell him something he doesn’t know. Another for again illustrating that men don’t need the exposition they’re given for the audience’s sake. Mandy reminds Josh that it’s her job to tell them what the president will and will not look good doing and Josh tells her it’s not a good day for her to remind him what her job is. I’d think it’s the perfect day. But Josh has bigger problems, in that he feels this is all pointless anyway because the president won’t end up taking a stand on the FEC. He’s so demoralized, he can’t even get up the energy to be all that rude to Mandy. Aw, Josh. Mandy leaves and Donna comes in and confirms that everyone is as sad as Josh today.

Back in the meeting with Sam and the military guys, Sam is yelling at the military guys. He’s pointing out that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell only works if actually no one asks and no one is forced to tell. One of the military guys makes clear that homosexual identity has no place in the military when Fitzwallace stops by. Someone says it’s an honor to meet him and he says, “I imagine it would be, yes.” Fitz is kind of awesome. He takes a Danish and bullies two of the military guys into saying that they don’t think gays should serve in the military because they pose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion. Fitz pretends to agree with them, even saying that the military is not meant to be an instrument of social change. “Problem with that is, that’s what they were saying about me fifty years ago,” he says. “It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. I’m an admiral in the US Navy and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Beat that with a stick.” Then he throws his uneaten Danish back on the table and stalks out. It’s beautiful.

Sam follows him out and thanks him, but Fitz notes that this conversation is not going to go anywhere and Sam agrees.

C.J. finds Danny in that darkened corner he always seems to be working in and Danny makes her wait until he finishes typing his paragraph before talking to her. C.J. asks him about the paper and they bicker about their relationship a little 2 before he reveals that he’s the one who has the memo and that obviously he’s going to print a story about it whether she likes it or not. He points out that they must have known a memo like this would have existed when they hired Mandy and they should have asked for it and learned from it. He also says he doesn’t want her comment on the story.

This very short meeting is still happening. Sam continues making the right points but one of the suited guys makes the better point that the president is not acting like someone who actually wants to change Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so this is all pointless. Sam concedes that point and the military and suit guys leave.

Margaret is complaining some more to Toby about the e-mail stuff in the most irritating fashion possible 4 and Toby mocks her 5. Leo welcomes Toby in and makes another dig about the e-mails. 5. Toby had new job approval ratings and they’re not good. 42%, with unfavorables being higher than favorables for the first time. (Brb, sobbing loudly in the bathroom.) “We dropped five points in a week?!” Leo says. “We didn’t do anything last week!”

“I’ll say,” Toby replies. BURN, Leo. Major burn.

And Leo’s feeling it. He invites Toby to give him his resignation whenever he wants. Toby points out that their only victory so far has been putting Mendoza on the bench. Leo argues that they were elected by a narrow margin and therefore can’t govern as if they have a mandate. (Brb, beating my head against a wall until it hurts more than this conversation does.) Toby says it’s not the ones they lose that bother him; it’s the ones they don’t suit up for. Wise words. And also how dare Leo question his loyalty.

C.J. comes in and tells Leo she gave the president Mandy’s memo. Leo wishes she hadn’t. Josh and Sam come in. Josh says he thinks the Senate will have to confirm Bacon and Calhoun because their credentials are too good (It’s never going to hurt enough, is it?), but will then punish them by bringing up a legislative agenda designed to make them look bad. Leo agrees that it doesn’t matter because they’re not going to fight for their own FEC guys anyway. Leo asks about Sam’s meeting and Sam manages to express that it was a pointless waste of his time while saying out loud, “It was fine.”

Charlie comes in and pulls Leo into the Oval. And I’m going to end my misogyny counting here.

Total Misogyny Points: 27

I’m stopping there because the next scene-and-a-half is so damn good I don’t want it sullied. So. There were problems in this episode. Most notably the stupid e-mail-bran-muffin plot line that was mostly a throwaway joke about how silly and pointless girls are, when actually, computer security in our federal government should be A REALLY BIG FUCKING DEAL but never mind. Girls and their muffins and their calories and their long, pointless story-telling.

Also it was an excellent episode for the illustration of the way Donna is used as an exposition fairy (and sometimes C.J.) vs. the way male characters get to behave in an exposition-heavy scene.

But. The following scene-and-a-half. It’s television gold.

The president is very sad about the memo. “I really did wake up energized this morning,” he tells Leo. He wishes he felt the same at the end of any day as he does waking up. Leo concedes that the memo bothers him. The president assures Leo that Leo does not move the president to the middle, with the air of someone ending a conversation.

Leo is not ready for this conversation to end, though. Leo says that the president is the one driving them to the middle, not Leo. “Everything you do says, ‘For God’s sakes, Leo, I don’t want to be a one-term president.'” Leo correctly calls the president out for not actually saying he wants to name his guys to the FEC but that he wants to “dangle our feet in the water of whatever it is we dangle our feet in when we want to make it look like we’re trying without pissing too many people off.” Leo calls himself the hall monitor. “It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off to far.” He knows he’s sending his staff off on fool’s errands and so do they. The president says if he ever told Leo he wanted to get aggressive on anything, Leo would hall monitor him. Leo says, “If you ever told me to get aggressive on anything, I would say, ‘I serve at the pleasure of the president,'” but he doesn’t believe it’s going to happen. The president believes he has said it and it doesn’t happen. Leo declares the loyalty and commitment of his staff. Then he calls in Charlie’s willingness to go toward danger in order to date Jed’s daughter, which I think is a poor example, as Charlie should definitely not put himself, his girlfriend, or all the people who circle around them in harms way just because, as Leo says, “A man stands up.” (Nope, not changing the misogyny score for that one. Because this scene is just so damn good.)

Jed very quietly says he doesn’t want to feel this way anymore. Leo says he doesn’t have to. “This is more important than reelection,” Jed says. “I want to speak.” Leo peps him up with some sports metaphors, and writes on a legal pad, “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.” With the score swelling, he storms back into his own office to throw sports metaphors at his staff. He tells Josh to go forward with the FEC guys they want, and they’re going to fight, etc. “Does that sound alright to you, Josh?”

Josh closes his eyes briefly, and then says, “I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States.” Proud. Strong. Music swells. I feel so goddamned patriotic right now.

Each staff member gets a look from Leo, and they all repeat Josh’s statement. Leo says, “Good. Then let’s get in the game.”

The staff leaves, and Jed and Leo exchange priceless looks through the open door between their office.

This is a killer episode ending. Just killer. John Spencer (Leo) is especially holy-shit amazing, as is Martin Sheen, but the whole cast brings it home. Holy shit. Amazing.

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