These Women: Is The West Wing Sexist?


Aaron Sorkin is a chauvinist. That can be easily recognised from quotes, behaviour in interviews and the gold-digging Asian chicks who represent the female population in ‘The Social Network’. I said as much on Twitter last night.

Then I made it about The West Wing and, in the common parlance, shit got real.

People who aren’t usually emotional about television are emotional about The West Wing and often approach it with the same intensity of analysis that they do “real life” current affairs. President Clinton said that The West Wing renewed the people’s faith in public service and for so many of us, Barlett is the “liberal dreamboat” of our political fantasies.

First Proviso: I include myself in that group, the West Wing is my favourite TV show by a long way. I’m inspired by its characters, particularly the women, particularly CJ Cregg. I don’t like to acknowledge the cracks in the ideal. However, when it comes to the treatment of women those cracks are there. That said, the above question is actually a question. Please be gentle.

Second Proviso: In West Wing tennis, like Quidditch, matches can theoretically go on forever. So this post won’t be example-led, and I would appreciate if responses weren’t either.

Third Proviso: I appreciate that a sexist show may represent a sexist world. Deedee Myers, the template for CJ’s character, was consulted on the production of The West Wing and presumably advised them of how difficult it was to be a woman in Washington in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  However, Sorkin basks many of the capital’s grittier aspects (partisanship, for instance) in idealistic sunshine. He didn’t attempt that with the gender (and indeed sexual) dynamics of Washington politics.

Fourth Proviso: I apologise for any gratuitous use of the word ‘text’.

Okay, so plunging into that wonderful world of pathetic fallacy and power, I have four themes. Feminist policy, casual sexism, embarrassment of women, and the transcendence of Allison Janney.

1. Feminist Policy

There isn’t any. An administration so committed to representation of minorities, righting of historical wrongs, eradication of guns, alleviation of poverty, speaking for the voiceless, crusading for the rights of foreigners and levelling every educational field, has no policy goals or drive when it comes to gender equality.

Of course, in Season Three Amy Gardner soars in with “wit, charm and legs that go all the way down to the ground, my friend.” In context, though, she’s definitely soaring from left field, hammering at a (realistically moderate) feminist message that falls well under the radar of the worldly-wise senior staff.

Still, Josh does like her smooth skin and as the old adage goes, “I support feminism, as long as the chicks are really hot”.

There are other moments when Bartlett promises to build statues of women, feels guilt over facilitating the mass abuse of women in the fictional Qumar, or is briefly concerned that his daughter is being sexually assaulted. But they’re isolated and inconclusive story-lines.

However, Sorkin does justify this seeming neglect, through Ainsley Hayes, arguing against specific protections for women’s rights:

…it’s humiliating. A new amendment we vote on declaring that I am equal under the law to a man, I am mortified to discover there’s reason to believe I wasn’t before. I am a citizen of this country, I am not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old, white, men. The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure. 

Impressive meta-textuality, but not buying it. There is a reason to believe that before we weren’t equal under the law to men. It’s that before we weren’t equal under the law to men. Unfortunate as it is, we’re still climbing that hill and policy should reflect that.

Casual Sexism 

This one doesn’t need analysis. Watch the West Wing, while attuning yourself to the casual sexism. “Come quick, Sam’s getting beat by a girl”. How devastatingly embarrassing to be bested in argument by a female.

“Were you the recording secretary for the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society for two years?” “No, but then again, I’m not a woman.” Well observed, Lionel Trilling, but how are those two things connected?

Humiliation of Women

This one has been controversial in conversation. The examples that jump to mind are these: CJ has to be lied to by her colleagues, because she like likes a boy in the press room. So she’s undermined, literally in front of the world.

Donna isn’t at all culpable in the MS scandal, and responds to it admirably. Until she accidentally perjures herself because she’s embarrassed that she keeps a diary. Probably because she’s had sex with Clive, the investigator, and doesn’t want him reading her ramblings about how dreamy he is. Josh, despite the fact that he has kind of already peed in a circle around Donna, is as cruel and unforgiving as possible, then the men speak together and sort things out.

Abby Bartlett’s career was eaten by her husband’s political ambitions. In the process he told a vast lie to the American

Really, Oliver? REALLY?

people and the world about his capacities. Which is a petty offence next to her violation of the procedural rules of her profession. You know, just saying…

There are worse things she could do…than appropriate a vat of betaseron or two…treat her husband when he asks…says he’s capable of his tasks…say that he’s just got the flu…there are worse things she could do.

Now, the obvious response here is that the male characters suffer disgraces too – Bartlett and MS, Josh and the defection, Sam and the leaked video, Toby and the breach of National Security. However, they aren’t slighted or undermined by their colleagues. When Sam has slept with a prostitute, Leo has had a relapse, or Josh has taken a pot-shot at the religious rights, they have the backing of the others and support in “getting up off the dirt”.

Whereas the embarrassments of women come from within the White House and female characters are often dismissed or demeaned by their colleagues. The White House Counsel actually tells the First Lady that she should be ashamed of herself. Try looking Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton in the eye and saying that. Then try keeping your job. What’s more, look at the frequency with which the male characters complain about having to bring news to CJ or the First Lady:

Josh: You’re overreacting.

C.J.: Am I?

Josh: Yes.

C.J.: As women are prone to do.

Josh: That’s not what I meant.

C.J.: That’s always what you mean.

For the record, C.J. isn’t over-reacting even a little bit to the potential sex scandal among the senior staff.

The Transcendence of Allison Janney

The primary response that I’ll get to this is people arguing about the number of strong female characters in The West Wing. Firstly, I think it’s important to recognise that The West Wing is a TV show about the most powerful office in the world, so that the women are powerful is only consistent with that. Note though that women are most often than not accessories to men – secretaries, wives, girlfriends, daughters (only daughters…coincidence?)

The exception, of course, is C.J. Cregg, the only woman in the senior staff and the only member of senior staff to last the entire seven seasons and who I want to be when I grow up. She’s not a token female character, she’s a force of nature with a narrative as compelling as all get-out.

Some credit for that goes to Sorkin, I can’t deny that entirely. However, We all know that at the beginning Sam was meant to be the lead character but Martin Sheen’s presence captured audiences and so the balance shifted. Similarly, I think C.J. outgrew the role that was written into the script, based on the sheer power of Allison Janney’s portrayal. Despite the foibles, the temper, the emotionalism and the exclusion, as soon as Sorkin leaves it’s completely plausible and satisfying that C.J. is appointed Chief of Staff.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not certain of any of this, but in its way I think it is important to talk about it. We are significantly affected by the TV we watch, and the characters we’re attached to. The West Wing has an added layer, in that it informs our political thinking and ideals. If Sorkin did paint “a world that tells women to sit down and shut up”, then that’s worth talking about.

P.S. I initially posted this from my phone, so it was a bit typo-tastic. Sorry about that, think I’ve caught them all.

5 thoughts on “These Women: Is The West Wing Sexist?

  1. There are basically two black people in the entire series- racism? Unfortunately it’s reality, it’s also reality that women in politics have to be better than there male counter-parts. I actually think that a show that reflects this reality highlights this sad fact, particularly let’s remember in the 90’s. Sure the west wing could have glossed over things to give us all the political nervana we crave, but I believe that would do a greater disservice- pretending everything is ok, there is no issue is in my book a much greater crime! I think the lack f faith everyone had in CJ highlighted the sexism which accompanies females in high power. Let’s not pretend they get an easy ride!

  2. I’m inclined to agree with Ruth to a large extent. And I’m not sure I understand your response to this in your third proviso:

    “However, Sorkin basks many of the capital’s grittier aspects (partisanship, for instance) in idealistic sunshine. He didn’t attempt that with the gender (and indeed sexual) dynamics of Washington politics.”

    If you mean that the reality of chronic partisanship is glossed over, then I think this is also done to ensure that the plot can advance (i.e. that policy can actually be enacted, and that we can thus get a payoff every once in a while) as much as for idealistic fluffiness. If the show was totally realistic, we’d almost never have a payoff with regard to domestic politics (see The Wire for a study in depressing realism).

    Much of what you say seems pretty fair at a gut level, but a lot of it *does* depend on the dismissal of the idea that WW reflects a sexist environment and a sexist world.

    Most of the characters in the show are made to look ridiculous at some point, and seemingly all make stupid mistakes. So I would say a lot comes down to your own mindset when watching. You can think that a character like Donna is being made to look silly, and that she’s being ill-treated — but then we do kind of hate Josh and others for the way he behaves towards her, and she does ultimately achieve a pretty high position. Males are mocked too: the men trying to be manly men nearly set the building on fire at one point.

    As a nit-picky side-point, I’m not sure I understand how an argument like this *can’t* be example-led. Many of your points consist of choice examples/quotations. “Casual Sexism” is just two snippets of dialogue. Replace “examples” with “evidence” and you’ll see my confusion.

    For instance, to demonstrate elements of progressive gender politics in the show, you’d have to (presumably) point to a character (ideally more than one) who was 1. Female, 2. Competent, 3. (maybe) Powerful, 4. Free of pejorative, gender-derived foibles. Finally, all of these elements would have to be pretty subtle — not thrown in your face to say “look, look how progressive we are!”. I feel like Nancy McNally is a good candidate here — especially as someone who is responsible for such a male-dominated field, viz. National Security/Defence. Kate Harper also does well I think. This doesn’t negate other aspects you have identified, but it’s worth pointing out. Also, Joey Lucas just knows her shit and gets it done without any fuss.

    Totally think this is worth talking about though, btw — especially for a show that is infused so much in discussions of policy and pop culture.

  3. I don’t have very much to add here, this is interesting and definitely worth talking about, not sure where I stand. In the pilot though everyone was white and they got a lot of stick so had to rush in black charicters so as not to be criticised further.

  4. Interesting read. Had honestly never seen sexist themes in TWW before, and I’m not so sure I agree with your assessments but it’s certainly food for thought.

    Just on the “Sam’s getting beat by a girl” bit – I always thought that this was construed as embarrassing for Sam because of Ainsley’s youth and relative inexperience, not because of her gender. If an older woman had beaten Sam in a debate I doubt Josh/Toby (can’t remember which of them said it) would have referred to her as “a girl”.

  5. My wife pointed out to me the casual sexist behavior of basically every character in the show.
    I was shocked that I didn’t recognize it myself. Shows how much I have to learn.

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