Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing,” Episode 1.20, “Mandatory Minimums”

Okay so listen. I know I don’t produce these recaps at a fast enough clip. But I do love doing them. So this one took me, oh, eleventy-hundred months to write. But I enjoyed all of those months and I’ll see what I can do about working at a steadier clip.

Also you need to know – if you don’t already – about two podcasts: The West Wing Weekly, with WW alum Joshua Malina and podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway, and Jed Bartlett is My President with Lani Diane Rich, formerly of StoryWonk and also romance novelist and professor. The first has some big deal guests – including Ed and Larry – and obviously some insight from Joshua Malina himself on what it’s like to work with the Big Guy. The second has a lot more feminist-y stuff, which I like, but she’s going out of order, which drives me crazy. I am not in general a Type A person, but there are some things…

Anyway, on to the recap.

Remember:

  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.

Last time on The West Wing, Josh failed to land Joey Lucas because she was sleeping with Q; a piece of paper was going around; Leo told the news room about his history of addiction; two seats opened up on the Federal Election Commission and Jed wants to get all outsider-president about how he picks new commissioners, which makes some Congressdude threaten Josh with a legislative agenda that will embarrass the president.

At the Sheraton Centre Hotel in D.C. (which, this is America, bitches; we spell it “Center”), the president is giving a speech about our episode title. He says he feels nervous about laws that assume you can’t trust Americans. I, for the record, do not. (Although I am against mandatory minimums.)

Jed is also against term limits. Ah, Jed. Here in 2017, so am I.

The press seems impressed with the speech, and C.J. is quipping. With a female reporter. They are both women, but they are talking about what the president had for breakfast . I have no idea if this passes the Bechdel test or not. C.J. tells the press they’re about to hear something interesting and she’ll talk more about it at the briefing later, in a sure-to-be-successful effort to get them not to bug her about it now. Danny tries to chat with her privately but she blows him off so she can go listen to Jed’s big announcement.

In another room, a Senator is mansplaining cognac to his staffers. Do I have a number for mansplaining? Not really, and I don’t care enough about this particular moment to make one. The guy who was pissed off about the FEC thing last episode, who I thought WAS a Congressperson but in fact is the chief of staff for Senator Cognac, draws the Senator’s attention to Jed’s speech on the telly. (Hey, if the speech is at a centre, it’s on a telly.) The senator hears the names of the people Jed is appointing to the FEC and is furious that his threats-by-proxy didn’t work.

Sam is kind of needling Josh about the call he’s about to get from Senator Cognac. Toby tells Sam to stop it, and Sam says Toby told him to do it, and Josh appears cool as a cucumber. Donna approaches Josh with his cell phone. It’s Senator Cognac. Josh calmly takes the call, tells the senator to “take your legislative agenda and shove it up your ass.” He hangs up, in a move that definitely looks cooler with a flip phone than it would on a 2017 phone.

And on Cool-Guy Josh note, we get the swelling music!

After the credits, we’re in the briefing room with C.J., who reminds the press that the president has selected one Democrat and one Republican, “which he was under no legal obligation to do.” She also confirms to a reporter that they may not have told Congressional leadership that Jed was making this announcement, so Congressional leadership will be upset, as they expect to be the ones to choose new FEC chairs. Through all this, she’s sort of pointedly not calling on Danny. Another reporter wants to know if the president is declaring war on Congress, and we pan to Josh watching the briefing on a TV and encouraging C.J. (who cannot hear him) to say it’s a “police action.” She does not, but Josh seems pleased with her answer anyway.

Okay, wait, when C.J. answers a female reporter’s question, does that pass the Bechdel test? (Also, this confusion I am experiencing is not the Bechdel test’s fault. It’s the fault of television and movie scripts that force us to look for these little crumbs.) Either way, I guess I can put a -10 here.

Donna pulls Josh out to go see Toby about “polling”. Donna temporarily refuses to tell him that Toby is pulling in Al Kiefer, who you may remember from 1.16, “Twenty Hours in L.A.”, and whose face may or may not, depending on whether you watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and how you felt about his character Q, give you a visceral “No” reaction any time he appears on screen. It’s not your fault, John de Lancie, actor who plays Al Kiefer and Q. Or rather it is. For being such a good actor as the intensely irritating Q.

Anyway, Donna’s point is that, with Al Kiefer will be arriving Joey Lucas, who first charmed Josh in 1.14, “Take this Sabbath Day,” and then was sleeping with Al Kiefer in 1.16, but maybe not exclusively and maybe she’s interested in Josh and despite her stunning lack of taste in men, we like her. Josh pretends to be unfazed by this information and Donna pretends to believe him.

In the Toby area, the Toby assistants clap for Josh and his cool-guy flip-phone demeanor. Bonnie says they’re not allowed to talk like that in Indiana. Ginger, the Sheen, says in New Jersey, it’s encouraged. Speaking as a Jersey native transplanted to the Midwest, I can relate to both these ladies.

Josh finds Toby and Sam in Sam’s office. Toby is watching over Sam’s shoulder as Sam writes and says it’s good twice before saying he might want to come to a verb at some point. Sam says it’s imagery; Toby says it’s bad writing. I love this little byplay because it’s about writing and I love Toby but also if I were Sam I’d want to punt him through the wall and Sam doesn’t appear to want to do that so I love Sam a little, too.

The boys talk Al Kiefer, and how he’s only going to do what Toby orders him to do, which I’m sure will work out great. Also, given that English as the National Language is the first thing the Republican dudes threatened to put on the table, they want to gear up for that. Which means bringing in Joey Lucas and her Hispanic-heavy-California numbers. They are very concerned.

I feel like I should give this a number, this idea that a woman whom Josh finds charming but who didn’t sleep with him last time they saw one another is somehow a concern worthy of all of the professionals who work with Josh. But I can’t figure out which one. Maybe a for Joey being relegated primarily to romantic status.

But the more Sam talks about women in a very way, and also a little 4 for the mention of high heels, the more disheartened Josh looks, until finally Sam observes that nothing he’s saying right now is helpful and so he’ll just go back to his job. Josh leaves (after saying C.J. is doing great) and Toby mentions that Sam could use punctuation at any time, and Sam finally looks annoyed. I could 100% watch a show that is primarily devoted to Sam and Toby co-writing things.

C.J. is still killing it in the briefing room, agreeing with a reporter that the Federal Election Commission is generally “toothless,” but that the symbolism is still important. C.J. walks off and whispers something to Carol. Carol approaches Jack, a reporter sitting directly in front of Danny, and says C.J. wants to see him in her office for some follow-up. Jack gets all embarrassed and insists she must want Danny, not him – not because he and all of the reporters have been gossiping for months about Danny and C.J. possibly doing it, but because Danny outranks him.

Only ever on Sorkin shows do people committed to their intensely competitive jobs ever try to turn down major opportunities in their fields because it’s someone else’s turn. TNFTS!

Anyway, C.J. did not mean Danny, she meant Jack, and Danny is making many faces about this, but, because he is also Noble, he tells Jack to go.

On Tuesday morning, Sam is lecturing Toby about why mandatory minimums are bad, while Toby insists he knows. See, this is the point I was trying to make last episode. When it’s Donna, it’s, “Please, Josh, mansplain to me a thing that the real assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff would definitely know already, even if the average audience member wouldn’t.” When it’s Toby, it’s “I obviously already know this thing you’re telling me for the sake of the average audience member and I will mention with every sentence how much I already know this.” Anyway, the point is that Sam wants to do something, and Toby doesn’t want him to, so even though Toby said Sam was in charge of this thing, actually, Toby is still in charge forever and always. And they passed the breakfast place where they’re meeting Leo a block ago, but Sam felt they were having a nice conversation. You guys, I really love the Toby-Sam dynamic.

At the restaurant, Margaret is doing something weird with pencils. 4? I don’t know. It’s weird. Josh comes in, with Donna, complaining that they’re far from the office. Donna points out that Josh’s suit is particularly nice, because Joey Lucas is coming, and Margaret admires it, and it’s all very silly 4 in a way that Toby and Sam dragging Josh to their office to make sure he’s okay with Joey appearing wasn’t. Toby and Sam arrive – and by the way, they’re seated outside on this lovely terrace and it looks like a very nice place to get breakfast. Toby says they’re ready to go to the president with treatment vs. incarceration on drugs, and Sam also wants to go to him with stuff about getting rid of mandatory minimums (this being what they were talking about during their nice conversation), but Leo, like Toby, thinks they should do one thing at a time. And that Sam’s in-chargeness was not so much an actual thing.

Leo takes a call while the waitress comes over to take their order and has Margaret write some names down. The names are very Sorkin-y so I will record them here: Dalton. Dawson. Foxworthy. Greer. Morganthal. Stackhouse. Sugarbaker. Toby asks what that was, Leo says that Toby knows, and Toby says it’s the right thing to do. But what is it?! We don’t know yet. Boy, the audience anticipation you’re building better pay off.

Josh would like to clear up that he’s not dressed up specially for Joey Lucas and Donna insists it is. Leo threatens to fire them, as is his wont. They are unafraid of him and continue to argue about Joey Lucas. With a little homosexual side-eye thrown in. 13. I almost forgot I had a number for that.

Anyway, Leo feels that they’ve got to not screw up this week and also that he is perfectly calm, a statement which Sam disputes by using a word his mother made up and then everyone looks at him funny. I do that all the time, Sam.

In the Oval, Al “Q” Kiefer is telling them they’re going to lose. C.J. and Mandy head outside and C.J. says “Listen,” and they just stare at each other for a while until Mandy insists she wants to go over Leo’s head to talk to the president. Hey, this is definitely the Bechdel test being passed, though. So that’s cool. C.J. is telling Mandy that everyone is so pissed at Mandy that they’re pissed at C.J. and Mandy storms off in an uncharacteristically poorly framed shot.

Back in the Oval, Al hates Sam’s idea that we spend more money on drug treatment and less on drug enforcement. (Like, spend the same total amount of money on drug stuff, but flip more to the treatment side rather than the punishment side.) Al thinks it makes us sound soft on crime. Jed does not give a fuck. Al is very tired. And I am with the White House boys; Al Kiefer is always wrong and also he’s Q so I hate him. But then why do they keep paying him money to tell them stuff?

Charlie makes a cute little face at Josh to get him out of the room, because omg you guys Joey Lucas is here and Charlie is being just as much of a weirdo as everyone else around this issue. “She’s a fine-looking woman,” he repeats to Josh like 80 times, even though a) isn’t he 20 years old or so? Would a 20-year-old in 2000 use the phrase “fine-looking woman”? and b) 2. Joey is there to do a job. For real, guys.

In Josh’s office, Josh greets Joey and her translator Kenny and offers to show them to her desk. Josh is being rude and justifying it with “This is the White House, bitch,” but then Margaret brings flowers from Leo, so ha! He then says that “women” like to personalize their space with things like hand lotion (?) but he doesn’t like clutter 4 and also he’s a dick 5 because he likes her 2. Then she has her translator say very loudly that she’s not sleeping with Al Kiefer anymore 2,3 and Josh lectures her on professionalism. Hey, remember that time Josh thanked a reporter for favorable reporting by trying to help him get in the press secretary’s pants? Good times.

C.J. finds Josh and reports her mistake – it turns out that the president is, in fact, under legal obligation to nominate a Democrat and a Republican to the FEC. This still doesn’t make sense to me. If two don’t usually quit at a time, how can you always be appointing one Democrat and one Republican? (Also, are our political parties really locked into law like that? I’m not sure I approve.) Anyway, C.J., you made a stupid boo-boo. 7. Josh she’ll fix it in the briefing and don’t worry about it. This feels like a stupid scene. Like, why is Josh C.J.’s point person on this? Isn’t Toby her boss? Why does this need to be explained to Josh at all?

In the Oval, Sam persists in trying to persuade Al Kiefer that drugs are an addiction and not a crime. Al feels they can’t sell it. Toby says, in a tone of voice that implies everyone would agree, that, “This isn’t ideological; it’s science,” and I fall over because I’m sobbing so hard. “Science is science to everyone,” Toby says. I can’t even see the screen through my tears.

Josh comes in and wants Toby and Leo. In Leo’s office, Josh opens with Joey’s new relationship status, because this is pre-Facebook and they don’t all already know. Josh reports what C.J. said, like, why isn’t C.J. reporting this? Why did she tell Josh first? WHAT IS THE STRUCTURE OF THIS OFFICE I AM SO CONFUSED PLEASE SEND HELP.

Josh asks if Leo has talked to Sam about “the thing” yet. Josh, I’m sure Sam’s updated on Joey’s sex life. Oh, no, they need to talk to Toby about a thing. A thing where they want Toby to have lunch with his ex-wife because his ex-wife is in Congress and something something something FEC.

Toby goes off and Josh complains that Leo sent flowers. Because this is a Sorkin teleplay, Josh is under the impression that he, Josh, was successfully flirting with Joey when he was being a dick about the professionalism of the White House. Professionalism he’s displaying in spades right now by mitchering his boss about sending their new contractor flowers.

Josh goes and Leo calls in Margaret and asks for the names he gave her earlier. She repeats them back to him and he’s for some reason annoyed that she memorized them. 5.  He asks Margaret to get one representative from each of those people’s entourages at 2:00, in the press briefing room. He won’t tell Margaret what he’s up to. I’m in a mood so I’m giving that a 5, too.

Josh goes to check on Joey. He declares that her clock is an acceptable bit of personal decoration. Then he sits down and tells Joey all about the FEC and the retaliation and English as the Second Language. Joey knows this; she was briefed by Toby. I’m going to go ahead and give that a -9. A female character already knows the thing she’s having explained to her. See? I am not in such a bad mood that I cannot be generous.

Joey’s alarm goes off. It’s lunch time. Josh looks annoyed that his flirtation-by-way-of-being-a-jackass isn’t going well.

Sam and Toby feel they can sell the idea of spending money on drug treatment. Al disagrees. The president wants lunch.

Sam heads back to his area and Cathy tries to get him to commit to a lunch order. In Sam’s office is Senator Cognac’s chief of staff, the guy who was threatening Josh. Sam wants him to talk to Josh. Senator Cognac’s chief- Oh, Christ, this is too long. I think his name is Steve; let’s go with that, shall we? Steve thinks Josh is not being himself. “Take your legislative agenda and shove it up your ass?” he says. But Sam says that sounds exactly like Josh. As do we all, but I like the opportunity for a joke. Steve wants to have lunch with Sam at Sam’s desk.

A beautiful redhead is on the lawn, trying to get Toby to sit with her. The ex-wife, then. They banter. It’s cute. She’s got pie. I’m giving this a 4 but also it’s cute. They of course must start walking before they can talk business, so they do. Gosh, D.C. is pretty. Andy (Andee? Andi?) wants to talk about mandatory minimums, Toby doesn’t, and they have a little ex-marital spat. Toby asks if she has a problem with what Leo is going to do, and she says she doesn’t but wants to be there, for fun. Toby complains about her wanting to have fun. 4.

Back in Sam’s office, Steve tells Sam that as long as they press on the FEC, there’s no room to work with them on the drug thing, which Steve knows is important to Sam. “With the FEC, you can go back to writing speeches for when the president talks to the Girl Scout who sells the most cupcakes.” Sam is called out of the office but makes a point to tell Steve that Girl Scouts sell cookies, not cupcakes, and that he wrote a great speech about volunteerism. Sam’s defense of the Girl Scouts is why Steve’s comment is not getting a number. I’m taking this show/Aaron Sorkin to task for displays of misogyny, not the characters. We’re clearly not meant to side with Steve.

C.J. comes to see Leo; his peeps are in the press briefing room. C.J. brings up her mistake and Leo chastises her pretty hard. 7. Leo peels off to his super special secret meeting in the press room, and Danny accosts C.J. to yell at her about ignoring him. They yell at each other for a while, and it’s mostly about C.J. not putting up with Danny condescending to her anymore. God, I hope that sticks. A -3, I think, for how this is a woman being in control, quick-witted, and strong in her own defense without it coming across as adorably “feisty.”

Leo greets his group. He starts talking and one of the group interrupts him right away, which, rude. But Leo can handle it. He tells them there’s going to be a debate about fighting the drug problem, and that the White House will be in favor of more money for treatment vs. punishment, while the people they work for – those names Margaret memorized – being more in favor of punishment. Oh, and Andy is getting to witness this, which strikes me as WHOLLY UNPROFESSIONAL but whatever. So why is he talking to the seven of them about this? But it’s because each of their bosses are connected to situations in which privileged people did not have to serve the “mandatory minimums” connected to the drug crimes they committed. Someone’s daughter was trafficking cocaine and got a slap on the wrist. Someone’s husband committed vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, got community service. Etc. “The president wants a lively debate but he’s not going to stomach hypocrisy.” If any of their bosses start saying anything about being soft on crime, Leo will make his information public knowledge. And Leo has C.J. open the doors to the press to demonstrate how easy it would be to do so. Yes, the payoff was worth all the mystery. Andy and I both enjoyed watching that scene very much. Toby did not enjoy Andy’s enjoyment. Aw, Toby. I like you.

Andy reveals to Toby that the previous night, she had been on a date and her date “bumped” a car in front of them and a cop was about to give them a ticket when he recognized Andy and didn’t. Toby says as long as Andy didn’t ask for such treatment, there’s no problem. Then he marvels that she was on a date with the “executive adviser” for the Baltimore Orioles. Is that a real job title? Come the fuck on.

They banter a little more but Andy is very serious about mandatory minimums and enjoyed seeing Toby. Toby asks her for pie. It’s very sweet. I love Toby. And Richard Schiff is so damn good.

It’s 11:30 pm. The president is asleep next to a bunch of open books and papers. Leo barges in because why the fuck, Leo? Jed doesn’t beat him over the head but lets him in instead.

Charlie drops in on Josh still at his desk. Charlie has noticed that Joey is still here and wants Josh to go over there and not be a dick but be nice instead. 2. But also it’s a good piece of advice, Josh.

Charlie leaves and Toby and Sam come in to tell Josh about Sam’s meeting with Steve. Josh and Toby find this whole thing hilarious. They think that Steve knows about Laurie, Sam’s hooker friend, and wants Sam out in front on something so that Steve can use Laurie to take Sam down. Sam is not nearly as amused by this as Josh and Toby are.

They leave Josh’s office and Josh sees Joey. Joey starts telling him about her research but Josh wants to give her this White House mug he got her. You know, to decorate her desk. Joey likes it. Josh kicks Kenny out and tells Joey that he did, indeed, wear his nicest suit for her. Joey smiles. Joey is 100% too good for Josh. I’m not into her highlights right now, but it was 2000 so she is forgiven.

Okay, so Leo woke the president up to talk to him about his feelings regarding drug treatment legislation and Leo’s own addiction. Jed, instead of being irritated at being kept awake for this, says nice, supportive things to Leo. Then C.J. comes in because this is a staff that comes up to the residence whenever they want to. I suspect this is acceptable in very few White Houses. I suspect this is one thing the Trump presidency and the Obama presidency have in common – that staffers are not permitted to wander at will into the residence at 11:45 at night. Anyway, C.J. wants to apologize for her mistake but Jed doesn’t care about the mistake and forgives her. Sam and Toby turn up. Because sure. And then Josh, too. And Josh tells Jed and the gang about the coffee mug. The president wonders why his Secret Service agents haven’t taken them all out. I am wondering the same thing. Sam wants to know where Jed is on the drug thing. He’s not anywhere because it’s nearly midnight and he wants to be a-fucking-sleep, Sam.

I know, I know, this is cute and Jed gets an opportunity to give the gang a pep talk in his pjs. I’m just being a curmudgeon.

Jed also tells them to be nice to Mandy and Danny now because they were both just doing their jobs.

Everyone leaves except for Toby and Leo. Toby says he met with Congresswoman Wyatt. Josh teases Toby about calling his ex-wife Congresswoman Wyatt and reveals that he enjoys calling his own wife Dr. Bartlett. Anyway, Andy’s turned Toby around on mandatory minimums. They’re racist. And Jed promises they’ll be part of the drug conversation.

Toby leaves and Jed tells Leo he’s sleeping better, dreaming of utopias, waking up and thinking he can sell those utopias. It’s a nice ending to a middling episode. Of course, middling episodes on this show kick the asses of episodes on ALL THE OTHER SHOWS OF EVER.

Total Misogyny Points:  Aw, shit, I didn’t keep a running tally. Okay, went back and counted. 15. That’s pretty light. I’d say the misogyny in this episode is light but heavily concentrated around certain themes – like, say, “Hey, Josh, we brought you a girlfriend!”  That theme.

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