Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing”, 1.04 “Five Votes Down”

I must say, episode titles are something I think Aaron Sorkin really does well. Usually it’s the exact right amount of information and relevance. It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing, too, you know?

So I’m watching my favorite TV series for the purpose of criticizing its tendencies toward misogyny, tendencies that are exacerbated in creator Aaron Sorkin’s later works. Here’s what we’re looking for:

  1. Physical comedy is used to undercut a female character’s competence.
  2. A female character’s sexual appeal or sexual/romantic relationship with a male character is primary.
  3. A female character displays “feistiness”. “Feistiness” is a frequent shorthand in liberal misogyny for “See? She’s strong and independent and we find that adorable! What’s the problem?”
  4. Femininity or feminine concerns are disparaged, by male or female characters.
  5. Any character is rude to his/her female subordinate with no consequences.
  6. A male character is lauded and glorified in an unlikely way by a female character or characters.
  7. A female character screws up at her job.
  8. Anger 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.

And,

!. When we see evidence that Toby & C.J. are doin’ it. Not misogynist, just entertaining to me personally.

Some notes on the Bechdel test first, because it’s been coming up in the news lately. Apparently Sweden is adding it to their ratings system and also I’ve read posts here and there and I just want to emphasize that it is the view of this blogger that the Bechdel test is not the be-all-and-end-all of feminism in storytelling. It’s just one test, one way of showing that so much of our contemporary storytelling DOES NOT have something so basic. And on a show like “The West Wing,” in which romance is not at all central and there’s plenty of talking, it seems like it should be passable every single episode. If it’s not, that means there aren’t enough female characters and/or they’re not doing enough important stuff.

Anyway, here we go.

From last time, we are reminded about the contentious relationship between Vice President John Hoynes and Chief of Staff Leo, the contentious relationship between exes Mandy and Josh, and we are also reminded that Charlie! and his dead policewoman mom and his adorable “Yes, sir, I do,” which is my favorite thing ever.

A chyron tells us it’s Monday. The president is on a podium in a tux. There’s a sign behind him that says “Practical Idealism,” and a large, fancy audience at dinner tables with wine, so I’m assuming fundraiser. Everyone laughs at his line, “Bess, why do you suppose it is only sons of bitches know how to lick a stamp?” He exhorts the audience to, well, lick stamps, make your voice heard, etc.

We see Leo getting a call while the president says something about people who are dead, and that plus the reminder of Charlie’s dead policewoman mom makes me think this speech is about gun control. I am good at TV! Leo is not pleased about whatever he’s hearing on the phone, asking “How did the wheels come off this thing?” The audience claps – at the president, not Leo’s phone call – and Josh approaches Leo. Leo hangs up and informs Josh that they lost five votes. Josh is displeased and wants names. Leo doesn’t have any; he tells Josh to get on the phone.

Toby comes around to watch the speech. He is in a tux and he is tense. Ooh, baby. Have I mentioned I ❤ Toby? Not the way I ❤ Charlie. I ❤ Charlie like he’s my little brother. I ❤ Toby like I’m thinking of many ways I’d like to help him relieve his tension.

Anyway, Leo has got a phone to his ear, Josh has got a phone to his ear, and the president wraps up his speech. He gets a standing O and “Happy Days Are Here Again” plays as the president heads off, a whole brigade of be-tuxed Secret Service agents surrounding him. Behind them, Sam and Toby start pedeconference. Sam thought the speech was awesome. Toby is upset that the president blew “the D section.” C.J., looking fab in evening wear, comes up behind them and congratulates Sam on the speech. Toby objects, claiming that Sam wrote two and a half paragraphs and Toby wrote 37 pages. I think this is a little peek into the head of Aaron Sorkin, who hates sharing writing duties, but whatevs. C.J. calls it (either the speech or the two and a half paragraphs) “inspiring,” which annoys Toby. Then C.J. says she does it to see his face turn that color, like we don’t all know she knows MANY ways to change the color of his face. Mandy is walking with C.J., btw, and seems amused by this exchange.

Josh approaches from behind and C.J. informs him that his fan club is out in force tonight. Because Josh, the deputy communications director, has a fan club. That has a crush on him. Quick, who is the current real-life Deputy Chief of Staff? Can you picture him/her in your head? Okay, then. And if you did know who all the senior staff of the White House was and what they looked like, wouldn’t you be crushing on the one who’s a dead ringer for Rob Lowe over the one who looks like Bradley Whitford? I mean, especially if you were a superficial and hormonal young girl? 6. (And yes, I am aware that I crush hard on the older, balding, short Jewish one over the one who looks just like Rob Lowe but . . . just shut up.) Josh claims they like the way he looks in his tux. Him, and not Sam-who-looks-like-Rob-Lowe. C.J. starts to say something else and Josh orders her to “Stop talking.” While I only believe, and do not know, that C.J. is under Josh in the hierarchy of the senior staff, I’m giving that a 5. Then he tells her to look calm while he tells her that they’re five votes down on “802”. She proceeds not to look calm. Because women, amIrite? 8.

Misogyny Points Thus Far: 3

Meanwhile, Sam is making fun of Mandy’s choice of “Happy Days are Here Again” to cap a speech on gun control. 4. Mainly because they both have good points – Mandy’s is “Optimist is good” and “The president likes it!” and Sam’s is, “He just said ‘Kids are dead!’ and then you play ‘Happy Days are Here Again’?” –  but they let Sam make all his points and poo-poo Mandy’s, whereas Mandy’s sound weak and she doesn’t counter him. On the other hand, she appears to have zero fucks to give, so good for her. I’ll just give them for her.

MPTF: 4

The president gets in on the mitchering Toby action, an activity for which I give all the approval in the world. Toby tells the president that he, Toby, did an excellent job, and then points out that the president “got a little extemporaneous” in the D section. The president is very much enjoying Toby being bothered by this – as am I. BTW, they are now all pedeconferencing through what looks like the hotel’s staff hallways, what with the giant metal wheelie kitchen thingies and whatnot. Not as august as the West Wing halls but these people do not need glamorous settings; they are pedeconferencing pros!

They pass two hotel staff members making out in a corner, and the president razzes them, too. Toby laughs. I swoon a little.

The president calls Charlie over and asks Charlie what Charlie thought of how well the president delivered the speech, while Toby asks Charlie to focus on how well the speech was written. Charlie’s whole demeanor says, “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

Yeah, .gifs are too much fun.

Yeah, .gifs are too much fun.

It’s okay; they can (and do!) keep having their fight without him. The president tells Toby, “You’re what my mother calls a pain in the ass.” Toby says that’s what his mother calls it, too.

Charlie tells the president that the First Lady called and wishes for the president to take his back medicine, which Charlie has on him. The president claims they make him goofy, and Charlie says her tone was adamant. The president says he doesn’t need to hear a description of his wife’s tone because he is quite familiar with it. 8. Boo, Mr. President.

They exit the hotel to a crowd of people cheering, and I would have thought that this winding trip through the bowels of the hotel was to avoid the crowds, but I guess the crowd can find the motorcade just fine. The president waves and a bunch of fresh-faced girls scream out, “We love you, Josh!” because for fuck’s sake, that’s why. 6. C.J. calls, “It helps not to know him.” True dat, C.J. True dat. Of course this show was made before the advent of Twitter or Fox News. You know these days an offhand comment like that would go viral in six hours and be a talking point on Fox News for the next three weeks. “Strife among Senior Staff? Our expert on shit-stirring and middle school drama has more after these messages!”

MPTF: 6

Credits.

Senior staff are in a conference room in the West Wing with a bunch of boxes of Chinese food in front of them. Mandy and C.J. are pushing the General Tso’s on Sam and then insisting he have it with the sauce. Toby tells them to shut up about the sauce. 4. Girls are so annoying with their concern about feeding people, amIrite? It’s almost as annoying as how they want to make sure you take your medicine and eat healthily.

Leo has two names of the five they lost. Remember from his phone call? Anyway, he’s got Katzenmoyer and Wick. I also kind of adore Aaron Sorkin’s character names. Mandy could have called that, because she’s feisty! 3. Josh has a third, O’Bannon, and is floored by Wick being on the list, saying it must be a mistake. Leo reminds them that the president just made a speech about how they’re going to pass this bill and now they have to. Toby wants to know how they do it in three days with no noise. Mandy asks why no noise, and Leo quotes that “laws and sausages” thing, so that’s a definite 9 because no way the Mandy character didn’t already understand that. Her entire job, really, boils down to understanding that, and she’s supposed to be the best at it. So that was just for the 1/3 of the audience that doesn’t already know the “laws and sausages” thing. Mandy says they can’t involve the president and everyone agrees.

MPTF: 9

Leo asks what’s on tap for the press and C.J. says it’s financial disclosure time, which bemuses everyone. Sam asks Toby what he’s worth and Toby says he owns the tux he’s wearing and $23. I only report this because it’s a plot point. Mandy says it’s good to make this a big joke for the press, how little money everyone has. Josh likes this idea. Toby doesn’t. Mandy says they’ll love him for being broke. Toby says, “I find that. I find that women especially can’t get enough of my 1993 Dodge Dart.” I’d throw a 4 or an 8 up here, but it’s funny, so I won’t. I make the rules around here!

Sam also believes that Chris Wick is a mistake and believes the other two are Tillinghouse and LeBrandt. (I’m guessing on spellings, btw.) He claims that they’ll need the vice president’s help to get to one of them, preferably Tillinghouse. Leo is saying, “Nope,” but in a different way than Charlie.

nope

Anyway, Leo’s outie. He congratulates Sam and Toby, and, as he leaves, Toby again points out the 2-and-a-half-paragraphs/37-pages thing.

Leo pulls up outside his schmancy house. Because not all the senior staff are broke. He walks in to a darkened hallway and a miffed wife comes down the steps. She asks where he’s been and points out that the event was supposed to be over at 10:30 and it’s after 2 am. He tells her about the five votes down and then insists he can so do things at 2 am to help the situation. His wife – Jenny – tells him to come to bed and before he does he sees a box on the table in the front hall. It’s a wristwatch, Jenny tells him. For their anniversary. Which he clearly forgot. D’oh!

I just want a moment to say, this is not something that has ever happened in my relationship with Jason. We both tend to be sort of cavalier about anniversaries and stuff, and only lately have become more interested in them, because they are a guaranteed date night. And we always do dates, not so much gifts, so it’s not really an issue of “forgetting,” because we’ve already had the “What do you want to do that night? Okay, let’s get tickets/reservations/babysitting” conversation. I guess if we were more focused on gifts it would be more of a thing. And I would be the one who always forgot, not him.

Anyway. It’s Tuesday. I mean, I guess it was Tuesday when we left these people, because it was 2 am, but it’s really Tuesday now. The sun is rising on the White House.

A somewhat dowdy woman is in Toby’s office with him. And, like, almost legit dowdy, not just TV-dowdy. Which I mean as a compliment to the show – having a normal-looking woman do anything at all? Good job. Let’s give that a -2. She’s asking him about some stock he owns. So here’s the information we can gather from what Legit Dowdy – her real name is Leila – is asking: A year ago, broke Toby spent $5,000 on stock in some company because he, uh, liked them. Buying $5,000 worth of stock in a company because you like them is totally something that people do when their cars are worth less than that, Aaron. The stock is now worth $125,000, something Toby didn’t know until the same person who told Leila called him. Because when you are broke, you definitely don’t monitor the one investment of $5,000 you made. Aaron Sorkin, when was the last time you were broke? And if this is how you handle money when you are broke, maybe that’s why? Anyway, a huge portion of the jump happened after a certain person testified to a certain congressional committee, and is, in fact, attributed to that person’s testimony.

One of the assistants – Carol, C.J.’s assistant, I think, but I’m watching on my iPad and there’s a weird light on her face – comes in to tell Toby they’ve got all five and one of the five is, in fact, Tillinghouse. Toby nods and Carol-I-Think leaves.

Leila points out that it was Toby who got this person to testify to that congressional committee. Which was just because he’s an old friend. Leila asks, “Are you telling me you didn’t  know what he was going to say?” Toby insists that not only did he not know or care what his friend was going to say, “if he had sat in my office while I typed out his testimony for him, I wouldn’t have understood what he was going to say to the committee!” I use that line a lot to explain my total lack of understanding things. Leila asks if he knows that manipulating the stock market is a federal crime. Toby wants to know if he should be talking to a lawyer. Leila points out that he is talking to a lawyer – her. Toby makes a hangdog face.

MPTF: 8

Josh and Sam pedeconference as they exit the Oval, and Mrs. Landingham congratulates Josh. Josh says thank you but doesn’t know what for. Nor does he seem very curious. I guess women saying nice things to him is just a regular part of Josh’s day. 6. Sam and Josh continue their pedeconference about what the five will want in exchange for their votes. Sam is concerned about giving away everything. Josh wants to give away nothing. A random assistant congratulates Josh, and Sam is more curious than Josh about it. Josh says LBJ would never have taken this shit from Democrats in Congress; he would have said, “You’re voting my way, in exchange for which, I might remember your name.” We now know everything we need to know about Josh. Josh claims to own Chris Wick’s ass.

Josh and Sam enter the part of the building where Josh’s office is and a whole bunch of people burst into applause. Josh says he senses he’s being mocked. You are, Josh. Right now. By me. Donna informs him that he’s won their prize for Best Gift Valued over $25 on the financial disclosure reports. Apparently Josh received an $1189 Italian smoking jacket from a Sarah Wissinger. Ms. Wissinger also gave him a $345 scrimshaw cigarette holder, which is the runner-up. 6. For Ms. Wissinger liking Josh that much. Josh dismisses Donna, telling her that he and Sam are making important decisions and Donna has a lot of “typing” to do and lest you think I’m being unfair in my doling out of numbers, he has a definite sneer in his voice when he says it and is actively and purposefully juxtaposing “important things” and “typing”, okay? So 5.

MPTF: 11

Josh and Sam continue walking, and then realize that they were just following each other. Hee!

Josh departs and Toby appears and tells Sam they need to talk, and as they walk off the camera goes to Leo. I’ve never been to film school so I don’t know how to talk about these shots where the gang moves and the camera goes from one set to another, but it’s cool. Anyway, Leo is putting Margaret on the make-my-wife-not-hate-me project. He wants champagne in a high hat and the meal under sterling silver, and Margaret claims no knowledge of either of those things, which, no, so 9, because Margaret’s been working for Leo for a long time, and he’s got some pretty high-end tastes, and also, when he said “high hat,” I didn’t know what that was but I immediately pictured the little stand fancy restaurants put wine in. And when he said “under sterling silver” I immediately pictured the, you know, silver plate cover thingies that you see in cartoons, so . . . Anyway, Margaret suggests a violinist and Leo points out that “after the initial thing wears off there’s just a guy with a violin in my house,” which, fair. Harry Winston is sending a choker and Margaret disapproves of all this spendiness. It turns out Leo is making $40,000 a pop on the lecture circuit and Margaret is upset about it. When does Leo have time to lecture?

MPTF: 12

Josh comes in and Leo asks Josh if women like violinists. Josh at first thinks Leo is thinking of taking lessons, which is sort of funny, and then when Leo corrects him, says it’s just kind of weird. Until he learns that Leo forgot the anniversary, at which point, Josh thinks he should bring in the Julliard string quartet.

I mean . . . really? Are we just reconfirming that I am kinda a dude? Because if Jason forgot our anniversary . . . probably I did, too? And upon discovering it, I’d be more like, “Oh, okay, you wanna do something next weekend, then?” instead of needing FOUR instead of just ONE strangers in my house to play me songs.

I’m not giving numbers here because a) I think Jenny has a legit beef about her husband being unavailable and b) I don’t think the show wants me to think otherwise, and also c) maybe women who are not me do get upset about this stuff routinely? But I did think of throwing an 8 in here somewhere.

Anyway, Margaret uses this opportunity to get in a dig about the smoking jacket, and both Josh and Leo yell at Margaret. 5. Margaret leaves and Josh says he’s going to see Katzenmoyer (one of the five) and wants Leo’s permission to kick his ass. Leo is reluctant but eventually agrees.

MPTF: 13

Katzenmoyer and Josh pedeconference in front of the Capitol. D.C. is really pretty. The museum-y, government-building-y, monument-y sections, anyway. Katzenmoyer doesn’t want to vote yes because his people like their guns and he’s up for reelection. He promises to vote with them two years from now. Josh says he won’t be around two years from now because they’re going to pluck some obscure Democrat out from nowhere and endorse him in person and primary Katzenmoyer. (I mean he doesn’t use primary as a verb because 2010 hasn’t happened yet but that’s what he means.) Katzenmoyer points out that he’s a member of the president’s own party, and Josh points out that that’s not doing them much good. True that. Josh says, “President Bartlett is a good man. He’s got a good heart. He doesn’t hold a grudge. [puts on sunglasses in very cool-guy manner] That’s what he pays me for.” It’s a very cool moment. Trying very hard to be cool, but succeeding.

Sam and Toby are in Toby’s office, with the door open and the lights off, I think. I don’t know why. Sam is advising Toby on the $125,000 issue, and gloating about the whole thing because Toby’s $125,000 = Sam’s hooker. Appearance of impropriety without actual immoral behavior. Sam points out that just because it’s in the report doesn’t mean anyone knows because maybe no one read the report, but C.J. comes by to razz Toby about the $125,000 so I guess she read it, although she’s the White House press secretary; it’s her actual job to read it, so I don’t know what that proves. Also, her joke is terrible and she starts laughing in the middle of it, which I’m counting as a 1 even though maybe the normally poised C.J. is just a little giggly right now because she and Toby slipped away right after Toby got the news and she’s just got some post-coital high going on right now.  Sam promises to have Toby’s back. Toby believes he’s screwed.

MPTF: 14

C.J. is amusingly disclosing some financial stuff to the press, including that the president gave a gift from his brother-in-law to the Salvation Army. The press enjoying themselves. A journalist asks about the property value of the president’s farm in Manchester, which has gone up due to Secret Service improvements and “the ability to run a global war from the sun porch.” Man, I want a sun porch. On a beautiful old farm in Manchester. The press continues to be amused when C.J. promises them that the next briefing will be about Josh’s forms and that they’ll want to save column inches.

She gets off her podium to pedeconference with Josh, who tells her he’s got Katzenmoyer back, as well as O’Bannon and LeBrandt, and that Chris Wick is waiting for him right now, but that he can’t get Tillinghouse without Hoynes. C.J. says get Wick and then they’ll worry about Tillinghouse. C.J. leaves and Josh is greeted by Donna, who says Chris Wick has been waiting for Josh in the Mural Room for 20 minutes. Josh already knows this. He also knows about next two meetings she brings up. Graciously she says, “Well, then this whole conversation has only served as a reminder,” and he says it was in fact a “colossal waste of time and energy; keep up the good work.” 5. He then goes into the mural room, where Chris Wick is waiting with a bunch of guys. Josh dismisses them without allowing introductions to go forth and then gets rude with Chris Wick, who keeps calling him “dude”. While a camera swirls around their heads, Josh quizzes Chris Wick about the bill, as it becomes clear that Chris Wick could give a shit about the bill, and wants more attention from the president. Josh says he’s so sick of Congress he could vomit and then gives in to Chris Wick’s demand that he get a photo op playing chess with the president.

Sorkin, you think you’re sick of Congress in 1999? Come talk to 2013 us. If only personal vanity were still our biggest issue.

Leo has called C.J. and Mandy in to admire the Harry Winston choker. Because women like shiny things. 4. Sam comes up behind them and admires it, too, but his admiration is not met with smiles by Leo. Is it because Sam hit on Jenny that one time, Leo? C.J. wants to try on the necklace and Mandy wants to rub it against her teeth (? Is that a thing with pearls?) 4 and Toby is pissed and wants to talk about himself. C.J. thinks Leo won’t let her try on the necklace because of the size of her neck (?) which is the second time this concern has come up this episode (the other time was during the hotel pedeconference) and I’m going to go ahead and give that a because why is C.J. worrying about her neck this episode?

MPTF: 18

Leo is continuing to not want to go to Hoynes to deal with Tillinghouse and thinks he will instead go to Richardson. But Richardson’s caucus is already upset with them. Leo promises to do this quietly and immediately.

Sam points out that Toby can now afford one of those chokers and Toby says there’s no one he doesn’t hate right now. I love grumpy Toby.

Now Leo and Richardson are pedeconferencing outside what I think is the Lincoln Memorial. Richardson is black. I guess that’s the caucus that’s upset with the White House. Richardson guesses Leo’s talking to him because he doesn’t want to get Hoynes to talk to Tillinghouse. But Richardson doesn’t care. He doesn’t like the bill not because he likes guns but because the bill doesn’t do enough to get guns off the street. Leo lectures Richardson on the needs of the black community vis-a-vis gun control. “The bodies being wheeled into hospitals are black!” Leo says. Richardson quite appropriately shuts him down and calls him an idiot. Nice.

Mandy is in Josh’s office being feisty at him. 3. Donna puts Leo on the phone with Josh and Mandy intuits that Leo needs to talk to Hoynes. So Mandy was in that scene only to be feisty? Okay.

Leo sees a cab outside his front door. The entryway is dark. He goes to an empty dining room, set for a romantic dinner. Jenny is behind him and says she’s sorry he went to all this trouble but she can’t do this anymore. Their marriage, she means. Leo says this (his job) is the most important thing he’ll ever do and she says it’s not more important than his marriage. He says it is, during these few years while he’s doing it. He says he made the time for this date he arranged, and Jenny says she knows he has a meeting with the veep that night. Jenny tells him she’s leaving and staying at the Watergate for right now. Leo offers to carry her bag to the cab. She shakes her head. He asks her to call before she goes to sleep and she says okay.

You guys, I just don’t know how to feel about this. On the one hand, you knew he was going to be the president’s Chief of Staff and that’s not a nine-to-five gig? On the other hand, Leo, how could you say your marriage isn’t important? In any event, the show handles this very well. You’re not being asked to side with one of them over the other and there’s no sense that women, amIrite? And it’s just two mature, loving people who can’t get what they need from their relationship but still love each other and shut up I have ALLERGIES, OKAY?! IT’S VERY DUSTY IN HERE!

A blurry woman announces Leo at what I’m guess is Hoynes’s home, and Hoynes says to send him in. Hoynes is being pretty nice to Leo. Leo starts to explain what he needs but Hoynes notices that Leo is not okay. He invites Leo to sit down and asks the blurry woman – Jeanine – to get Leo a glass of ice water. I swear we never see her face. Is this a SAG thing? Is it like not having an actor saying a line? Anyway, Hoynes agrees very quickly to see Tillinghouse and Leo thanks him. Leo reveals that Jenny left him. Hoynes asks if he’s been to a meeting, and Leo says, “AA?” and then asks where he could possibly risk going to a meeting. He seems kind of surprised that Hoynes knows, but not that surprised, and also too shaken to worry about it. A+ acting from John Spencer here. I mean, also, always, but here especially. The VP reveals that he has his own AA meetings with, like, senators and judges and shit, so the anonymity is taken very seriously, and an agent stands outside to make it all look like a card game. Hoynes invites Leo to attend these meetings. Leo seems to consider it. He asks Hoynes to call him about Tillinghouse and goes.

The chyron tells us it’s Wednesday. Mandy is bothering Josh about Sara Wissinger, giver of the smoking jacket. Apparently the presents were given while he was still dating Mandy and Mandy is pissed about this 8. They enter the senior staff meeting still bickering about it. Josh says he thought that since they weren’t going out anymore, Mandy wouldn’t yell at him anymore and Mandy tells him that’s unrealistic. I can’t decide on an or a 3 so I’m going with both.

MPTF: 22

Leo enters the room and is confused about everyone asking him about “last night” and then lies that Jenny loved everything. Some more A+ acting. They ask about the president and Leo says his back is pretty bad so he’s staying in bed and making some calls. But the president is not in bed! He is entering the room from the outside hallway thing (portico? is that what that word means?) in his jeans and Notre Dame sweatshirt and it is clear fairly quickly that he is out of his mind on painkillers. He wants to participate in the discussion about Toby’s financial disclosures. When asked which of his pain killers he took, Vicodin or Percoset, he looks confused and asks if he wasn’t supposed to take both. You guys. I took Percoset for my wisdom teeth. It was way too pleasant. But I also couldn’t have gotten out of bed, never mind walked somewhere on my own power and had a conversation. I also took a muscle relaxer when my back was bad – Flexorall, I think? – and it made me so miserable and bitchy and I didn’t even attribute it to the medicine. I just screamed at Jason a whole bunch for doing things like breathing. Then he was like “Hmm, side effects?” and I was like, “No, it’s you, you asshole.” Then he started reading the side effects, which, in addition to “irritability,” included dry mouth and fatigue and headaches, all of which I was also experiencing. So I stopped taking them. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, the president being all goofy on his pain meds. He still wants to help, by saying that he loves them all very much, and then says, “Tell me what the problem is, Toby,” while looking at Sam. For some reason Toby fills the president in on the problem. The president says Toby is a nice name, but still insists he’s able to focus. He is not. Martin Sheen is delightful in this scene, btw.

Mandy says let’s consider each option from the bottom and starts with resignation. The president likes this idea until they tell him they’re talking about Toby’s resignation, not the president’s. Sam suggests that Toby gives up one year’s salary and cash out his stock issue. Toby hates this idea. Everyone else loves it. The president tells Toby that Toby is a great writer and insists on giving Toby a hug.

Best hug ever.

Best hug ever.

Charlie comes in and chastises the president and wants to take him back to bed. The president first wants to announce that he’s seriously considering getting a dog and then leaves.

Sam asks Toby how he feels and he says he feels like he just got screwed with his pants on. I feel like that was a silly set-up for a bad line. But there are enough silly set-ups for good lines through the course of the series that I’ll let it go.

Hoynes is having breakfast with Tillinghouse, an extremely cantankerous old man who insists he’s voting his conscience. Hoynes basically agrees with his pro-gun rhetoric. Tillinghouse also takes exception to how Josh handled the other four. Hoynes continues to be completely sanguine, but asks Tillinghouse to vote yes, anyway, and relate the conversation to the other four, because Hoynes intends to be president of the United States some day.

We get a swooping shot of the capital at night while we listen to journalists call this a victory for the vice president, and we learn that Richardson had no comment, and is maybe snubbing the president.

Inside the Josh area (I don’t know what all these sections of the West Wing are called for real), the staff are watching the journalists on several different TVs and talking about how incredible it is that the vice president is getting all the credit. It’s like the Veep wrote two-and-a-half paragraphs and they wrote 37 pages and now the Veep is getting all the credit. See what we did there?

Leo says it was hubris and they got what they deserved but I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I mean, sure, he lectured Richardson on how to be black, and Josh ran roughshod over a few people, but in the first case, only Leo was being hubristic, against the advice of everyone else, and in the second, Josh (whom I rarely defend) was being a solid political strategist. I mean, sure, part of the strategy was hubris, but I think he was also doing his job and doing it well, right? And also, the “we” is still just Josh and Leo, why is Leo saying this to Toby and Sam and Mandy and C.J. and Donna?

Toby wants to wake the president and C.J. wants to leave it until tomorrow. Because she wants to get it on right now? No, even I can’t read sexual tension into their body language right now.

Another faceless assistant – or possibly the same faceless assistant – tells Hoynes that Josh is there to see him. Josh comes in, and they joke about the smoking jacket, and Josh says the bill is a crappy bill in the same way Richardson thought it was, and says he knows because he helped write it. He congratulates Hoynes for being the only one to do well in this whole situation. The faceless assistant – it is the same one and we get a very brief glimpse at her backlit face – comes in to call Hoynes away, and Hoynes says to Josh “Welcome to the NFL” before leaving.

I am not that politically astute. I didn’t understand the thing with Hoynes’s quote with C.J. in that other episode, and I don’t really understand what is happening now. I get that they passed a bill but it looked like the veep’s victory more than theirs, and I get that that’s a little disappointing, but it’s reading like a huge defeat and I don’t see why it’s a huge defeat. Especially since politics is perception and can’t they just get C.J. to drum up some, “Isn’t it great how the president and the vice president are working so well together now?” stuff tomorrow and make that the story instead? Haven’t they already established that the press knows there’s tension there and therefore a “Yay to working together!” story would totally fly? No?

Leo walks down a small, empty corridor and approaches an agent outside a closed door. He tells the agent he’s here for a card game and the agent opens the door. We see him standing next to a coffee urn for a few minutes before closing the door.

At no point in this episode do two named women speak to each other about something other than a man. I don’t think two named women speak to each other at all. C.J. and Mandy both speak to Sam at the same time about Chinese food and to Leo at the same time about a necklace but they address all comments to the men in these respective conversations, and none to each other. 10. And I sort of forgot about this and added it in after I had already considered this draft finished. Which is sort of the point of the Bechdel test; that even though it’s not comprehensive, it’s this weird little misogynist quirk of our current media that you don’t notice unless you look for it.

Total misogyny points for the episode? 23

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Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing”, 1.02 “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”

Welcome to blog post #2 about my recaps & misogyny tracking for “The West Wing”! Here is the list of things we’re watching out for!

  1. Physical comedy is used to undercut a female character’s competence.
  2. A female character’s sexual appeal or sexual/romantic relationship with a male character is primary.
  3. A female character displays “feistiness”. “Feistiness” is a frequent shorthand in liberal misogyny for “See? She’s strong and independent and we find that adorable! What’s the problem?”
  4. Femininity or feminine concerns are disparaged, by male or female characters.
  5. Any character is rude to his/her female subordinate with no consequences.
  6. A male character is lauded and glorified in an unlikely way by a female character or characters.
  7. A female character screws up at her job.
  8. Anger 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.

And,

!. When we see evidence that Toby & C.J. are doin’ it.

As a reminder, I will be scoring each episode in terms of its misogyny. One point for every item on the list, and a negative point for every counter-example, for instance, when a male character plays Exposition Fairy. Also as a reminder, for item 7, the screw-up has to be a genuine screw-up, not a “Well, it might look bad to others but it was noble!” screw-up.

Ready for maybe the first episode on television to be named a phrase in Latin (citation for this totally unresearched claim needed)? Here we go!

Our first scene after the previouslys contains such an extreme amount of Mandy feistiness I feel like I need to pepper this paragraph with 3s. And you know what? It’s my blog; I think I will. Mandy is aggravated in traffic and honking her horn and looking around the windshield. 3. Mandy drives up on the sidewalk, perpendicular to a parallel parking spot. 3. She starts shouting at Lloyd Russell, her client/boyfriend who she was going to help take the presidency from our man Jed Bartlett. for the level of “feist” displayed in this interaction, what with the “Are you crazy?” and the shoulder-punching. He and his henchmen are condescending and rude to her while explaining that they’re keeping some bill he likes in committee until after the mid-terms in exchange for letting him make a big speech at the nominating convention. Also 8 because this whole time Lloyd and his boys are perfectly calm and all, “There, there, crazy lady,” while she’s screaming. BTW, it is not at all clear from this scene that Lloyd and Mandy have a romantic relationship, which is odd because such a big deal was made of the romantic relationship the week before. Anyway, a Random Dude plays Exposition Fairy, asking Mandy if she’s alright and prompting her explanation of what’s going on, but I’m not giving it a -9 because she’s not explaining, like, what taxes are. She’s just explaining her life. And telling us stuff we already know from the last episode (she had a big important job in the private sector) and from two minutes ago. Also she yells at one of the dudes for getting opera trivia wrong, and I’d say it’s a little elitist and show-offy, but really, you didn’t know Wagner is not an Italian name, doofus? And she’s screaming at Random Dude and Random Dude rolls his eyes and walks off in the middle of the conversation. Women, amirite? 8. Then Lloyd leads her off away from my henchmen, where they continue to display all the intimacy and chemistry of two blades of grass, and he condescendingly tells her that the job for which he hired her, the job for which he lured her away from her very high six figures, was always a fool’s errand. Then why’d you hire her, d-bag? Then he tells her she has “spunk,” like, for real, so 3. She threatens to kill him with her shoe. 3. Then she says that the worst part is knowing how her ex-coworkers/ex-boyfriend are going to be gloating over this. Really, Mandy? The worst part isn’t how you don’t have a job anymore and your boyfriend/client was just jerking you around? Okay. Lloyd mansplains that they will of course not be gloating, despite the fact that Mandy actually worked with these people for, like, a year. 5. It strikes me that the very concept of “mansplaining” might never have gotten the traction it did if not for Aaron Sorkin. 

Misogyny Points Thus Far: (Wow, this is going to make it a lot easier to score)

Anyway, of course Josh is gloating. Josh gloats when he’s in the wrong; imagine how insufferable he is when he’s done something right. He declares, “I drink from the Keg of Glory, Donna,” and demands she bring him “the finest bagels and muffins in the land.” She notes that it’s going to be “an unbearable day.” -5? No. Because Josh is not even paying attention to her, and if a rude comment falls on a blockhead and he fails to hear, it did not make a sound. Staff clap for him, which I wanted to give a 6, but it’s probably not unrealistic.

After the credits, Toby and C.J. walk and talk about a group declining to have their photograph taken with the president because of some joke we don’t know about yet and how they “need somebody”. Toby is incredulous but not rude to C.J. and their patter is just a little !.

Toby asks Mrs. Landingham if the president has free time and Mrs. Landingham replies, “The president has nothing but free time, Toby. Right now he’s in the residence eating Cheerios and enjoying Regis and Kathy Lee.” Snerk, and also -5 but then Toby earns it right back with a rude comment about Mrs. Landingham’s age 5 which he then retracts -5. Then Mrs. Landingham denies him a cookie and offers Sam one. -5. Sam comes in and they all talk some more about the joke that we don’t know about yet. Josh comes in gloating and gets filled in on the joke as senior staff head into the Oval Office. Leo and the president approach the Oval Office from another angle and they tell us what our plotlines for the episode are. Josh reports his successful victory over Mandy. We learn that the Ryder Cup team – which C.J. helpfully explains is a group of golfers, which I probably should have known but didn’t – is the group not posing with the president because of the joke, and the president is rejects the idea that discussing his sense of humor might be necessary at this juncture. 4. C.J. points out that there was also a Texas joke that cost them the state in the elections, both primary and the general election. The president accuses her of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” thinking and only Leo knows it means “One thing follows another, therefore one thing causes another,” which is a logical fallacy. (BTW, the poster I just linked would make an EXCELLENT present for me.) The president claims it was not the hat joke that lost him Texas and C.J. correctly guesses that it’s the being able to speak Latin thing. So either he’s saying Republicans are anti-intellectual (which many of them are), and ignoring the fact that he also lost the primary, or he’s saying Texans on the right AND left are anti-intellectual. I guess that’s possible but it’s kind of snotty, anyway.

MPTF: 8

A man in Navy uniform is greeted by Mrs. Landingham and then Leo as he comes out of the Oval with the rest of the staff. His name is Morris Tolliver and Leo steers him away from some more walking and talking. Morris Tolliver has recently had a baby and has a photograph to show Leo. Not a picture on a smartphone, kids, but an actual, printed-out photograph. Margaret, Leo’s assistant, comes out to reproach Leo for not giving her some information about a meeting she needed and Leo disgustedly throws the baby picture at her to distract her, the way you’d throw a treat to a dog. 5 for dismissing the concerns of her job and 4 for the “Chicks love babies” sentiment when Leo is the one who asked for the picture of the baby. And an extra 4 for the way the distraction is successful and Margaret coos at the picture.

MPTF: 11

Leo tells Morris Tolliver that even though he was just the substitute doctor the president likes him and wants to keep him on. Morris Tolliver says he’d like that but he’s leaving for Jordan for a week in a few hours. If you’re curious, military doctors are the ones who provide care for the president and the president’s family and everyone, and they do tend to be Navy.

We’re outside watching Mandy’s car get towed, although I don’t think it’s parked where it was before. Mandy goes into her office to tell her assistant that they don’t have a client anymore. Her assistant is perturbed and Mandy is keeping it peppy and feisty 3. Mandy is also being elitist and snotty. 5. By the way, Mandy’s assistant is female and they just spent a few minutes talking about their jobs, so even though their job was Lloyd Russell, a man, I’m going to go ahead and declare the Bechdel test passed for an episode! -10!

MPTF: 12

Donna informs Josh that he’s lost a football pool she played on his behalf, and stupidly. Women! They understand neither football nor betting! I’m going to give this a 7 even though it’s not technically her job to enter football pools on Josh’s behalf. If women continue to screw up in non-job related ways, I’ll add an item.

MPTF: 13

Josh finds Toby and they walk-and-talk about the various incidents, like the Ryder cup team refusing a picture because of a joke, that mean they need a new media director. Josh and Toby plan to gang up on Leo about this and Josh asks that it be anyone but Mandy. So there’s your super-obvious projection of a plot point right there. Your Chekhov’s Pager for this episode, if you will.

Josh departs and Toby keeps walking, picking up C.J. as his new ambulatory conversation partner. Toby advises that she uses the humor of the Ryder Cup thing to her advantage and C.J. heads into the press room. A journalist asks about a quote he has from the Vice President on some bill we don’t know about. Apparently the veep said, “This is a time when the president needs our support.” The journalist feels that the language sounds strained and C.J. and Toby exchange significant looks (!) and I will tell you the truth; to this day I have no idea what in the hell is going on with this plot line. I don’t know why it’s weird that the vice president said that; I don’t know why the whole of the White House seems to think it’s a BFD. But I am slow and naive. Anyway, just as Toby advised, C.J. skims over the question and throws up the Ryder Cup thing in defense. Then she and Toby exchange another, totally ! look.

Josh watches C.J. on screen and Sam approaches. They make much of the vice-president’s quote and then make light of C.J.’s deft handling of it by acting as if it was the obvious thing to do. I think I’ll go with a 5 here. They discuss whether Leo should be made aware of this or not, deciding that the answer is not. Sam acts all goofy about coming to see Josh and then, in an office with an open door and tons of staff buzzing about outside, Sam tells Josh he accidentally slept with a prostitute. Also, her name is Laurie. So now you know. Josh is concerned. Sam is trying to brush off his concerns so that he can make friends and reform his prostitute friend. I’m sure the idea of “reforming” a woman who has chosen to make her living with sex work is misogynist but I can’t figure out which item to put it under and it’s terribly specific to this one situation. Donna drops by like your annoying little sister wanting to gossip. Ugh, women, amirite? 4. Josh kicks her out then tells Sam to talk to Toby and rushes after C.J.

MPTF: 15

C.J. is pissed about the vice president and while I still don’t understand why, the other characters do, so no 8. The vice president is speaking stilted French to some dude in a suit while a bunch of people take pictures. The person I have to assume is the vice president’s Leo tries to brush C.J. off. Actually, now that I think of it, that person is more likely the vice president’s C.J. C.J. tries to walk and talk with the vice president, and, despite her anger, is being very deferential and polite, but he’s also brushing her off. He’s being rude to a female subordinate, so 5, but a soft 5, because I don’t think he feels comfortable being rude to her because she’s a woman. I think he’s being rude because she’s there from the president’s office. I’m still giving the point, because she is a woman and subordinate, although not directly, and he’s being rude to her.

MPTF: 16

The president is in the Oval with his doctor, making adorably terrible grandpa jokes. We learn Morris Tolliver is going to Jordan to do something regarding a teaching hospital. More talk about his 10-day-old baby and that ancient technology known as a “photograph.” Morris Tolliver wants President Bartlett to cut back on red meat, dairy, and Scotch, so . . . all the fun stuff, really. President Bartlett starts talking to Morris as if he’s his barber or bartender. The president reveals that he’s uncomfortable with the military because he’s a peacenik who doesn’t feel violence toward his enemies, and Morris reassures him that he’s the commander-in-chief and also a smart guy. Morris preps a flu shot for him and the president jokes that it might not be the flu shot, it might be the start of a coup, and he wants the Secret Service in there right away. Morris gets in the line of the night – maybe the line of the series – when he says, “In the event of a military coup, sir, what makes you think the Secret Service is going to be on your side?”

Donna asks Josh about the next week’s football game and he dismisses her. 5. C.J. comes by and they walk and talk. C.J. insists that her talk with the veep went fine even though it does not appear that it did although, like I said, I don’t understand this plot. Josh reminds her that he wants anyone but Mandy for new media director, in case we didn’t already get where this was going.

MPTF: 17

Mandy is drunk and bragging about her education to her assistant. So more Bechdel test passing. But it’s just a one-point-per-episode thing. But Mandy does continue to be “feisty,” even with no male present, so 3.

MPTF: 18

Sam comes out of his office to give his assistant a finished speech that he then adorkably checks over one more time. Then he ducks into Toby’s office to tell him that he accidentally slept with a prostitute. Toby gives a fantastic pause and then says. “I don’t understand, did you trip over something?” Which ought to be the line of the night except that the Secret Service thing happened. Toby determines that Sam didn’t pay her, because OF COURSE Sam doesn’t get charged by the high-priced call girl. I want to give a 6 but I don’t want to deny Laurie’s right to have the sex of her choice when she’s off hours, and Rob Lowe is hella hot, even if my . . . heart . . . only responds to Toby, so I won’t. Toby also determines that Sam will want to reform her, and Sam gets up on his high horse about how he shouldn’t be judged for hanging out with her. We’ll hear a lot more of this in episodes to come.

The gang gathers in Leo’s office where it becomes clear very quickly that Leo was already on board with hiring a new media director and this was all really just to ambush Josh by immediately approving the hiring of Mandy. Josh insists many times that Mandy answers to Toby and to Josh. So now in the future when Josh is snotty to her we can give it a 5. And he will be.

Leo stops C.J. on her way out and C.J. continues to pretend everything is fine. Leo pretends to buy it.

The president is ready to go home. He discovers that Mrs. Landingham has confiscated some steaks that a delegation from the University of Nebraska left for him. She insists it’s doctor’s orders. Neither of them is particularly rude to each other. The president is annoyed but joke-y, and Mrs. Landingham can hold her own. The president wonders, if he has her and Morris Tolliver, what he needs a wife or a mother for? Because wives and mothers are the same, right? And their job is to annoy you with their trying to care for your health? 4. 

MPTF: 19

Mandy and Daisy continue to bemoan their lack of clients when Josh busts in and suggests, arrogantly and obnoxiously, that they come work for the president. Mandy pretends to be grateful and then punches him in the shoulder. 3. Listen, writers everywhere. Women punching men is not cute just like men punching women is not cute. Cut it out. Daisy is extraordinarily grateful and nice, so much so that I’m throwing up a 6 because even though this is a lifeline for her, she’s still over-the-top, to contrast Mandy’s continued feistiness 3. Josh tells her about his chain of command and she says, “In your dreams,” so 3 again. Basically every line Mandy speaks and every move she makes is a 3.

MPTF: 23

Margaret ducks into Leo’s office to announce the vice president and they are cordial enough for two minutes until Leo asks about his conversation with C.J. and the veep gets snotty. Leo calls C.J. a “good girl” for not telling him that the veep was rude, so 5. It becomes very clear that the vice president has a beef with the White House in general, so I’m still reluctant to give his earlier rudeness to C.J. a 5, but with this whole Leo-as-white-knight thing, I’m not comfortable taking it away.

MPTF: 24

Sam enters some swanky bar looking for Laurie. When he finds her at a table with two men and one woman who is presumably also an escort, he proceeds to get dangerously rude and weird and threatening. He introduces himself by his real name to the random dudes at her table and then threatens to call the attorney general. Laurie pulls him the fuck out of there but quick.

She’s furious with him and he’s clueless, asking her why she didn’t return his calls and offering to reimburse her for her fees that night. She storms away and he follows her because Aaron Sorkin also contributed to the idea of the Nice Guy. Then he tries to start a normal conversation with her about his day but she’s not having it, telling him she doesn’t need saving. He doesn’t care; he’s going to anyway. She eventually softens, for reasons passing my understanding. I think it’s when he tells her he doesn’t intend to sleep with her. This scene is so many kinds of wrong that I’m going to throw every number I can find at it. 3, 4, 6 (because his attitude doesn’t warrant her easy forgiveness), 8. If I could find more numbers, I would. What’s more, we haven’t seen Sam be this obnoxious before. In fact, he’s been the more awkward and sweeter of all the staff. So either Aaron Sorkin doesn’t realize this is obnoxious, or this scene is mirroring something Aaron Sorkin’s own life that he’s trying to justify, making Sam the Aaron Sorkin avatar that’s usually Josh’s job. Either way, seriously off-putting and misogynist scene.

MPTF: 28

A chyron tells us it’s 3:35 am and some part of the West Wing is abustle. That can’t be good. President Bartlett strides down his, like, outdoor hallway? in his sweatshirt. Josh, Toby, and Sam are with Leo and some military dudes. Then Leo leaves them to go talk to the president. Morris Tolliver is dead, along with several colleagues. The plane he was taking to Jordan was shot down by the Syrian defense ministry. The president is calm but terribly sad, and also, has lost his distaste for violence. He promises Leo, “I’m going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.” Leo does not look pleased by this promise.

Misogyny score: 28. Mainly due to the extreme feistiness of Mandy and that last awful scene. I mean, with Sam and the prostitute. Not the one that was a well-done but sad scene to set up the next episode.

Misogyny & Aaron Sorkin – “The West Wing”, 1.01 “Pilot”

I’m not going to lie to you guys; this whole idea started with me wanting to rewatch “The West Wing” for the 473rd time and deciding that doing a blog post about it might make it “productive.”

And I do want to cover the misogyny on “The West Wing”. I know, I know, it’s a great show. One of the greatest ever, really. Didn’t I just say that I wanted to watch it for the 473rd time? But, while Aaron Sorkin has made his basic condescension toward women fairly evident on more recent offerings shows like “Newsroom” and The Social Network, (And I’m sorry, but if you don’t see it, you’re probably guilty of a little of this liberal, elitist “But I love women! Abortions and birth control for all! It’s just, you know, they do like shoes an awful lot” variety of sexism of which Aaron Sorkin is probably the patron saint. It’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person. You just need a little enlightenment, and I’m willing to provide it, you lucky, lucky thing, you.), The West Wing remains his best creation, with his strongest, most awesome women. But the problems with female characters are still present; they’re just masked by the better writing and the better acting and the more general awesomeness.  And sexism – any -ism, really – is so much more potent when it’s undercover. The greatest trick the devil learned was to convince people he didn’t exist, right?

Also I wanted to rewatch “The West Wing.” I cannot emphasize this point enough – I. Love. This. Show. Whenever I think to myself, “What do I want to watch right now?” 99% of the time, the answer is “The West Wing.” Just like when I say to myself, “What do I want to eat right now?” the answer is either pasta or veggie samosas. Because I like the starch. And conversations that happen while two people march purposefully down hallways.

But this whole thing was nearly torpedo’ed. I started watching and taking notes. Then I went downstairs and watched while doing dishes, so I couldn’t take notes, so I tried to remember after the fact what I’d just watched, and then I started over, and then I took some notes in one notebook and some notes in another and I know a bunch of you are going, “Notes? She’s taking, like, pen and paper notes? For a blog post?” Yes. Hello. I’m a nerd. Welcome to my blog.

And then I was like, there’s no way I’ll be able to fit the series in one blog post. How about I do season by season?

And then I was like, there’s no way I’ll be able to fit a season in one blog post. How about I do episode by episode?

And then I was like, that’s crazy, right?

And then I started reading these. (Which I found, by the way, through links to this. And now I’m burning my way through her entire blog and also reading one of her novels on my Kindle.)

And now I not only had the one other person doing a project like the one I had in mind to prove to myself that I’m not crazy, I also had a format. She keeps a list of trends in Buffy that she wants to point out and then just drops a number in her recap when she sees evidence of that trend. So I’m going to do it, too, with all the ways Aaron Sorkin displays his “Women are awesome except for how female they are!” misogyny.

So here we go. The items will be as follows:

  1. Physical comedy is used to undercut a female character’s competence.
  2. A female character’s sexual appeal or sexual/romantic relationship with a male character is primary.
  3. A female character displays “feistiness”. “Feistiness” is a frequent shorthand in liberal misogyny for “See? She’s strong and independent and we find that adorable! What’s the problem?”
  4. Femininity or feminine concerns are disparaged, by male or female characters.
  5. Any character is rude to his/her female subordinate with no consequences.
  6. A male character is lauded and glorified in an unlikely way by a female character or characters.
  7. A female character screws up at her job.
  8. Anger 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.

I’m sure I’ll add more as time goes by.

Now, it’s been pointed out that sometimes, Aaron Sorkin is not misogynist. Sometimes, an episode does pass the Bechdel test. Sometimes, a male character plays Exposition Fairy. And sometimes, a male character screws up at his job. So every counter-example to my list will be marked with a -(that number). Then, at the end of the show, every misogynist item will be weighed against a non-misogynist item and a total score for the episode will be given.

But! Note! A lot of the times the weight is not equal! For instance, male characters do screw up at their jobs, and frequently. HOWEVER! When male characters do it, it’s usually for “noble” reasons, or the screw-up is because the wronged party are stupid strawman jerkfaces and the Aaron Sorkin character remains awesome. When female characters screw up, they just screw up. Now, if a male character genuinely screws up, I will throw in a -7. And if a female character screws up, but for noble reasons, I will also throw in a -7. But neither of those circumstances will happen all that frequently.

Also, just for fun:

!. Any time anything happens that leads me to believe Toby and CJ are totally doing it. Not a relationship, just a little FWB thing to blow off steam. Because you know they are.

Okay, here we go!

Pilot

The first few scenes are quick little vignettes that very tightly characterize our new buddies and set up some of the basic plots of this episode. There’s a lot going on and these scenes are handled quite skillfully. So, first:

First up is Sam Seaborne, Deputy Communications Director. (I mean, we don’t have job titles yet, but I’m telling you now in case I forget later. Also, Rob Lowe for sure has a portrait of himself in his attic that is rapidly aging and grotesque, yes? Yes.) He’s fending off a journalist who is trying to find out if Sam’s colleague Josh, whom we have not yet met, is going to be fired. Sam then realizes a woman across the room is checking him out. First woman in is known for checking out Sam. 2.

Next is Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff, played by the late, lamented John Spencer. We know he is wealthy and grumpy and is annoyed with his crossword puzzle. Then he gets a call about POTUS. It’s worth noting here that, in 1999, when this show premiered, and even in 2003, when I first started watching, not everyone in the world would have known immediately what POTUS stood for, even people with an interest in politics. So at least a portion of the audience is meant to be going, “What’s a Potus?” and the other portion is meant to be smiling condescendingly at that portion of the audience while feeling immensely superior because they already know.

Then it’s C.J. Cregg, my beloved C.J.! She’s the Press Secretary, and she’s played by my also beloved Allison Janney! So her two co-workers have been portrayed a) doing their job well and being hit on by a beautiful woman, and b) knowing more than the New York Times crossword puzzle editor. What’s the only female senior staffer going to be known for?

How about a little set piece straight out of Chick Flick 101 where she is a) at the gym, and b) trying unsuccessfully to flirt with a man until c) her super-important but at the moment just-a-nuisance job interferes by way of her pager going off and d) she flies off the treadmill! 1! And what the hell, let’s throw in a 2, too, because the first thing she’s doing is hitting on a dude. Unsuccessfully. Whereas Rob Lowe is drawing them in across the bar.

Next we get Josh Lyman, the Aaron Sorkin avatar and Deputy Chief of Staff, played by Bradley Whitford. He’s asleep at his desk – you can bet your ass he doesn’t try to find pockets of personal time like C.J. over there. He’s awakened by his pager going off.

Then Toby Ziegler, light of my life, fire of my loins, played by Richard Schiff and Director of Communications, is on a plane. He’s being bothered by the silly (female) flight attendants with their silly rules about computer rules during descent and he’s brilliantly sarcastic with them and showing off his knowledge of the plane they’re flying. As much as I appreciate some Toby being sarcastic and nerdy, I think we’ve got a and a right there. Another female flight attendant tells him they’ve received a message for him – POTUS has been in a bicycle accident.

Sam, offscreen, adorkables to the girl from the bar about her water pressure while the girl inhales deeply from her joint and protests that she’s not a drug person; she just loves pot. Sure, Sparky. The girl reports his pager message – that POTUS has been in a bicycle accident. She broadcasts the B-plot by observing loudly and slowly that their pagers look exactly alike –

It occurs to me that I might need to explain something here. You see, kids, back in 1999, cell phones were not widely in use yet. People with important jobs had beepers, or pagers. If you wanted to reach someone, you’d dial the number of their beeper/pager, then punch your own phone number in, then they’d see it, find the nearest phone, and call you back. You could also use them to type short messages, although I don’t really remember how that worked. I know. Crazy, right? But that’s what they did in the olden days.

Okay, so this chick and Sam have the same pager, which will in no way come up when she, already baked at 5 am, hands him one of them as he’s rushing out the door to respond to the page. Also this chick doesn’t know what POTUS stands for. Now, I know I said POTUS wasn’t common parlance back in the day. But given that we later find out that this girl is a) a Georgetown law student and b) a high-priced escort whose clientele is largely comprised of big-deal politicos, it’s kind of unusual that she wouldn’t know. So 9!

Okay, so now that we’ve established all these characters and their personal lives, it’s off to the White House.

Leo is rude to two female subordinates 5, including our favorite Exposition Fairy, Donnatella “Donna” Moss (Janel Moloney), before talking to Josh about one of our many subplots, that there are Cuban refugees on rafts heading for Miami. Leo and Josh condescend to each other for a little while. Since Josh is Leo’s subordinate, I suppose I ought to be dropping a -5 but since Josh is condescending back, I don’t think one is warranted. Also, after Josh reveals no knowledge of anything to do with the Cuban refugees other than, there are Cuban refugees on rafts heading toward Miami, Leo gets in one of the top five lines of the episode: “True or false: If I were to stand on high ground in Key West with a good pair of binoculars, I’d be as informed as I am right now.” Josh concedes that that’s true.

Then Josh, whose job we know is on the line, asks Leo if he’s going to be fired and we find out why – he mouthed off to a member of the religious right on TV the night before. Now, this could be a place for a -7, except that, as I said above, male characters will only screw up if their intent is noble, right? So Josh admits that “It was stupid,” and Leo calls back, “Damn straight,” and then, as Josh leaves, he says, “I was right, though,” and Leo mutters, “Like I don’t know that.” So nope. No -7 here. This will be a common theme.

Then we meet Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), the president’s secretary, so that she can be condescended to a little bit by Leo  and also have her concerns about proper language in the Oval Office belittled 4 while we catch up on POTUS’s bike accident, in which we determine that Leo’s bike, which he lent the president, is broken, but not any part of the president.

Leo is then somewhat rude to C.J. but he has another great line when he tells C.J. to tell the press that the president, while riding his bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop.

Everyone argues about Cuba. Sam says something stupid so -7 and Toby condescends to him a little so -5. Aaron Sorkin clues us in that we like these people by keeping the discussion of the political ramifications of the Cuban refugees brief and the discussion of what should be done in a moral universe to help them long.

We flip to the journalist who was bugging Sam and is now claiming to have more insider information than he does to a female colleague before C.J. calls them in for a briefing. You know, this has nothing to do with my misogyny tracking, but I just want to note that this show was supposed to go in a very different direction than it did, with the focus being on the staffers and their lives rather than on the president so directly, but then Martin Sheen was awesome and what are you going to do? But while this scene with the two journalists arguing seems pointless in the general scope of the series, I get where it would have fit in the original conception of this series, and I think I would have liked it. Then again, Martin Sheen. Had this show run, say, ten years later, there would have been a possibility of webisodes about the press pool, the assistants, the interns, etc., which could have been really cool. Except that Aaron Sorkin hates the internet so never mind. (I won’t be tracking that because I don’t care that much, but he does.)

So C.J. holds the briefing and is awesome, inviting the press to enjoy themselves with the president’s ridiculous bicycle accident footage, and then keeping the briefing from becoming a speculation party about whether or not Josh is getting fired. I was going to give this a -7 but you know what? It shouldn’t be out of the norm that a female character is good at her job.

Josh watches footage of what he actually says to Mary Marsh, religious right representative, which is, in response to her claiming he doesn’t believe in any God she prays to, “Lady, the god you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud.” So that’s the line that he was “right” about. Okay, guys. Then he belittles Donna, his assistant, for caring about his tie 5 and she talks passionately about how awesome he is and how he shouldn’t be fired. I almost put down a 6 for that, but she is his assistant, so I guess it’s realistic to believe that she’s this invested in his right not to be fired over this monumental screw-up (which is not a screw-up because he’s right and the religious right is awful! And so is religion!).

Donna tells Toby to shut up so I guess -5.

Toby goes in to talk to Josh and tells him that he has a way for Josh not to be fired, although he tells Josh, “I don’t want this gesture to be mistaken for an indication that I like you,” and I swoon a little. (I don’t think this counts as a -5 but I really can’t tell whether Josh is Toby’s subordinate or not.)

Josh protests the nobility of his screw-up some more, which Toby does little to deny, but insists that he come to a meeting with the woman he insulted and two of her religious right friends. Then Toby gives a newsclipping of Josh’s ex-girlfriend Mandy to him. I mean, we don’t know all of that yet, but Mandy is introduced off-screen and in a way that indicates that she and Josh are connected romantically. 2. Josh even indicates that the clipping includes “a good picture of her” in a very tender and appreciative way, so double 2.

Then we get Mandy. Mandy is the absolute embodiment of 3, yelling fiestily to someone on the phone while driving totally recklessly through the streets of D.C. Then she’s feisty at the cop who pulls her over 3. We are supposed to find her adorable. We do not. Part of it is that Aaron Sorkin frequently overestimates the charm inherent in fiestiness, and part of it is that Moira Kelly, the actress who plays Mandy, does not do Aaron Sorkin well. Which is not to say she’s not a good actress; but Aaron Sorkin is a special skill set and she doesn’t have it.

Leo is being condescending to two male economists who are not his direct subordinates, so -5. Sam and Josh report a storm that might affect the Cuban refugees, and then Josh reports, via a roundabout Socratic conversation with Leo, that Mandy’s in town and representing a possible competitor on the Democratic ticket for the president in the next election. Leo goes off to yell at his long-suffering secretary Margaret (NiCole Robinson) 5 while Sam and Josh establish that they are both wearing the same suits from yesterday, Josh because he slept at his desk and Sam because he got some. Snerk.

Two girls giggle at a counter and then approach Josh, who is having lunch with his ex Mandy, and ask for signatures. Because we are supposed to believe that two poli-sci majors – or participants in a poli-sci “group”, as they say – from Florida State recognize Josh across the diner and know he was once dating Mandy and giggle and ask for his autograph like he’s a member of ‘N Sync. Sure. 6. Then Mandy talks about her client, Congressman Lloyd Russell, and Josh surmises that Mandy and Lloyd are dating. So now Mandy’s two primary reasons to be on this show are a past relationship and a current relationship. 2. Also Josh surmises that Lloyd is gay and “effeminate” so 4. I’m considering making homophobia its own entry, but it might all fall under “femininity is gross”, so we’ll see how it goes and add if we need. Then Mandy knows something that Josh doesn’t about poll numbers so I guess -7, although the fact that she’s sharing it with Josh is a total 6. Then Josh talks about her romantic relationship with Lloyd Russell some more which 2. Good scene, guys. Good scene.

Leo registers his complaint with the New York Times crossword puzzle with the New York Times. He’s rude and condescending but we can’t tell if the person on the phone is a woman, nor is s/he a direct subordinate, so we’ll let it slide. We are, as an audience, supposed to find Leo’s curmudgeonly demeanor adorable, and, when I’m not analyzing it for a blog post, I do.

C.J. comes in and they manage to have a polite and business-like conversation, in which we learn that Leo has no idea if the president is going to fire Josh or not.

We’re walking and talking with Sam and two of his staffers; they’re discussing gun stats. This show premiered in 1999. This same rhetoric is still be used about gun stats. Just sayin’.

Sam is pulled away by his assistant, Cathy, who is kind of rude to him. -5. She tells him Leo’s wife was supposed to lead Leo’s daughter’s fourth grade class on a tour of the White House but can’t and wants Sam to do it. We also learn that Leo’s wife hates Sam because Sam hit on her at a party fundraiser, and Cathy thinks it’s reasonable that she’s mad, and also that Leo was mad. 8. Why would she be mad about that? Why would Cathy think it was justified? Nothing we know about Sam so far would indicate that he’d be disrespectful in expressing his interest. Sam tells us he doesn’t know anything about the White House. I’m going to go ahead and give this a 4. You can argue with me that knowledge of the history of the building does not count as “feminine” knowledge, but I think it is.

Then Chekhov’s pager beeps and Sam returns the call and gets “Cashmere Escorts” and figures out right away that his lady from last night is an escort and calls to make contact with her to switch pagers. I do appreciate that Sorkin trusts us to figure this out as quickly as Sam did and not go over-exposition-y on us. I also appreciate that when he calls and asks if he can come see her, we know Sam well enough at this point to know it’s not so that he can pay for it this time.

We see the press gaggle bother C.J. and C.J. report to Toby about it very briefly and just because their interaction is so easy and quick and they don’t need to use a lot of words to communicate with each other, I’m going to give it a Shut up and let me have my fun.

Leo is now walking outside somewhere and talking to the “reasonable” religious right dude, Rev. Al Caldwell, reminding him that the president is very religious, and giving us, the audience, the answer to the only important question in 1999 – Does the president support the right to abort? The answer is that while his religious conviction tells him people oughtn’t have abortions, he also does not believe in the state’s rights to legislate the issue. So now you know.

They’re having a fair and even conversation about their political relationship, and doing a great job of expressing their disagreements while being respectful of each other’s positions, until Leo says that they can keep this from becoming bigger than “a petulant woman being angry about getting her hair a little messed up on TV.” Dude. 4. 8. And also f you. And also further evidence that this screw-up on Josh’s part does not deserve a -10 because here Leo doesn’t even assign him blame; it’s just that Mary Marsh’s “hair” got “messed up.” Force of nature. Then Leo claims that the president does in fact want Josh fired, but it’s unclear whether he’s telling the truth now and has been lying all day to the other staffers, or if he’s lying now to Al Caldwell to placate him. Either way, Al Caldwell is soothed. 

Sam goes over to the escort’s, they exchange pagers, and Sam manages to tell her he can’t really see her while also managing not to slut-shame her. Also we learn that she’s a law student and a part-time bartender AND a high-priced call girl. Lady, when do you sleep?

The camera travels the halls of the White House as we see the religious right trio come in, Cathy greet Leo’s daughter’s fourth grade class, and Donna coax Josh into a new shirt. She tells him that “all the girls think you look really hot in this shirt.” 3 and in just a few lines, Mr. Sorkin. Nice.

Cathy gets Sam into the room with the fourth graders and Cathy can’t point to Leo’s daughter. He greets the teacher, Mallory O’Brian, and Sam spouts off some total nonsense about his job while the fourth graders look bored. Then the teacher says they’re here to hear about the building. He gets everything wrong about everything he says, including which Roosevelt the Roosevelt room is named after, even though there’s an enormous portrait of Teddy behind him. I’m reluctant to give this a -7 because of the 4 I’ve given this whole subject before. Mallory calls him outside the room to ask why he’s so dumb, he explains that he’s having a really bad day and numbers among the bad things about his day that he accidentally slept with a prostitute the night before, as well as further bolstering my “Josh’s screw-up doesn’t get a -7 because everyone thinks he’s right” point and then asks this woman to point out Leo’s daughter to him so he can make a good impression. Mallory reveals that she is Leo’s daughter.

Okay, now I’m ready to give a -7 for revealing to a random stranger that he slept with a prostitute, but hold the phone. At this point we don’t know everyone’s history but we haven’t been given to believe that it’s the senior staff’s first week on the job. How is it humanly possible that Sam could think that Leo’s daughter is a fourth grader and not a grown-ass woman?

C.J., Josh, and Toby head into the meeting with the religious right and C.J. warns Josh that they will try to bait him into saying something arrogant. Josh says, “I don’t need baiting for that,” so that’s one of our lines of the night. Toby opens with cheer, then Reverend Al Caldwell speaks respectfully but forcefully about how disappointed they were with Josh while Josh tries to make eye contact with Mary Marsh and Mary is icy to him which is played totally a 8. Then Josh gives a sincere-sounding apology. Then Mary continues to be rude and use this whole thing as a political football. The conversation is devolving quickly into argument and then Toby interprets one of Mary Marsh’s sentiments as anti-Semitic, which is probably accurate (and also we learn that both Toby and Josh are Jewish). The third and most idiotic member of the religious right says we should talk more about the First Commandment, which says is “Honor thy father.” Which is so typical of Aaron Sorkin, needing to make his enemies such buffoons that they become unrealistic strawmen, not even caricatures, because a caricature of a religious right buffoon would know his commandments. Toby calls him out on it but then declares that “Honor thy father” is the third commandment, which is also not correct. Jews, Protestants, and Catholics get the order of the commandments a little different, because the way it’s worded in the Bible is open to some interpretation, but “Honor thy mother and father” is fifth for Jews and Protestants and fourth for Catholics. Just so you know.

Then the president enters majestically, answering the question, “Then what’s the first commandment?” with “I am the Lord thy God.” It’s a pretty good entrance. He’s got a walking stick so I guess he sprained his ankle. The room’s idiot asks him, “If our children can buy pornography on any street corner for $5, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?” He says, “No. On the other hand, I do think that $5 is too high a price to pay for pornography.” That, friends, is the line of the night. It’s been something of a guiding principle for what I buy for my Kindle, too.

At this point we realize that the president is not at all going to entertain these people or their problems because a fringe religious group sent his grand-daughter Annie a Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat when Annie told a magazine she’s pro-choice. You guys, this is my 473rd viewing of this episode and I only just got that the Raggedy Ann doll wasn’t just a childhood toy, it was the kid. Ann = Annie. I know. I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes.

So now instead of being apologetic, our lovable White House staff can be superior and smug, which is their favorite thing to be. Josh gloats and everyone argues as they head into the Oval Office, where the president yells at them a little bit, says something mysterious about a tomato and a rosary that I still don’t get no matter how many times I watch this episode. We learn that of the 1200 Cubans on rowboats, most turned back, many died, and a little more than 100 of them are here, and it’s time to get to work. Also, Josh is forgiven. We sign off with the president’s catchphrase, “Mrs. Landingham, what’s next?”

Man, that’s a good 44 minutes of television. I want to reiterate that, for all that I complain, I love this show.

So what’s our misogyny tally here? Taking all the incidents of misogyny, and then subtracting all the counter-incidents, I get an 21. Plus, the episode didn’t pass the Bechdel test. Many named female characters, only one of them on senior staff, and none of them talk to each other about anything. Donna shouts to Bonnie that Josh is changing his shirt, but a) it’s not a conversation, it’s a line, b) Bonnie isn’t even on-screen for it, and c) they’re still talking about a dude. So that’s a total misogyny score of 22.

I’m also seriously excited to be working on this project. 🙂 See you next time!