Back when it first aired, I reacted the way football fans do when their home team wins. I bounced up and down on my parents’ couch whenever the opening credits rolled over the American flag. I giggled at every zinger Josh got in, and I cheered Toby’s every moral triumph.
I was also a blissfully ignorant 17.
A few months ago, I decided to rewatch one of my favorite series of all time. And yes, Aaron Sorkin’s scripts still scintillate. His characters still shoot off lines like live rounds in a pistol duel at noon. Everything crackles with wit and passion and idealism. Here, we have none of the Machiavellian schemes we get in House of Cards or even Madame Secretary. The Bartlett Administration seems guilty of nothing but excessive faith in human goodness and not-quite-full-disclosure about the President’s health. Twenty years later, it all seems a bit naïve.
But that didn’t stop me.
What slammed the brakes on my enthusiasm, though, was Sorkin’s treatment of female characters circa 2000. It was just so…well, bizarre.
I think it’s a fair assumption that if you’re working in The White House, you’re probably a tad ambitious. Male or female. Let’s also say that if you’ve reached the level where the President’s office is down the hall and you’re a top aide in charge of arranging meetings and assuaging egos for some of the world’s most powerful people, you probably have some serious chutzpah and know-how. And that knowledge would have to range from what an appropriations committee does and which members your boss needs to butter up, to which bills are up for votes and how your people need to swing or sink them.
In other words, chances are you got there because you know your shit.
But Sorkin’s secretaries don’t. They bumble through one scene after another, fuzzy on everything that could possibly matter–beyond the men’s ties and paperwork.
My first problem, though, is that they are all women. And all their bosses are men. Except for the Press Secretary, C.J. Craig. But more on Craig in a minute.
So right off the bat, we get some serious power imbalances. Hell, it looks like an office straight out of I Love Lucy.
In addition to putting men in positions of power and casting women as their underlings, the female secretaries inexplicably put up with all manner of shit–while knowing nothing. Josh, the deputy communications director, sexually harasses his secretary, Donna Moss. He constantly reframes her requests for help or her statements of fact as sexual innuendo. At one point, she’s searching his office for documents he lost while he just stands there. When she finally tells him he needs to help her, he leers at her position down on the floor, makes a sexual comment, and then jokes that she shouldn’t be so inappropriate. What’s more, the show treats this scene as cute and comic.
If you’re a woman, you likely have experienced this. I have. And it’s anything but cute.
But Sorkin doesn’t stop there. Not only do the secretaries put up with sexual harassment–which is depicted as fun flirtation for all–but they’re the butt of the show’s jokes. The characters themselves are written as ditzy, clueless girls-about-town who have to constantly be reminded to do their fucking jobs. And that’s somehow, magically, supposed to be funny in Sorkin’s universe.
When Margaret, secretary to the Chief of Staff, launches a campaign to meet DOL standards for ergonomic workplaces, she chooses to campaign by typing hunt-and-peck. Her boss inevitably shouts at her to stop holding up the workflow, and she inevitably caves and starts typing with all fingers flying. Imagine. A woman who has helped one of the most powerful men in government campaign for bills, senators, and other pet projects–she wants something, and this is how she behaves? You have to believe that her brain is made of pink playdough for that scene to even work. And there are a lot of these scenes.
I watched the first three seasons trusting that eventually Sorkin would realize how absurd it was to depict these women as nitwits. Nope. The men get to tell their secretaries how dumb they are and shame them in front of generals, senators, and pollsters. Josh even hands off a grade-school textbook to Donna. He’s marked a passage for her to read aloud. Which she does. Cue the swelling, emotional crescendo in the score. Apparently, male condescension is moving.
Sure, we get Mandy and Ainsley Hayes and Joey and the First Lady and Craig and a few other women over the years who can bust balls. But let’s take a closer look at what should be a feminist lineup of lawyers, doctors, pollsters, and PR geniuses.
So I mentioned Craig earlier. She’s the female representation on the show, and she should bring it. But instead, Sorkin gives her an insecurity complex the size of Montana. She’s constantly going to the boys asking whether she’s dating material or if she’s pretty or whether her legs are too long or maybe she’s just too tall? And she slips these pleas for male reassurance into conversations about congressmen or military strategy. I felt embarrassed for her.
There’s also the fun plot of a journalist who harasses her on a daily basis. He insists she’s secretly in love with him. Craig tells him no, but like any good rapist, he’s sure she doesn’t really mean it. This storyline continues for a couple years as he tries to coerce her into a date. All the guys weigh in like bros at a fraternity. Even the fucking President reassures her that her stalker is really a nice guy and, seriously, she should give him a chance. I mean, does she want to be alone for the rest of her life?
Finally, inexplicably, she starts kissing him. I mean, Jesus. Way to show that you have no fucking idea how romance even works, Mr. Sorkin. Like, just talk with her like she’s your equal.
Then, there’s Ainsley. A brilliant Republican lawyer who roundly beats Sam, the show’s golden boy, on national television. I started to get excited. But then she becomes a regular character. We get to see her dancing around her office in a bathrobe at which point the President wanders in and tells her she has a reputation as a “sex kitten.” In another scene, she gets flustered before meeting the President a second time and steps into a closet. Where she stays until she’s ordered to come out, like an ill-behaved child. Needless to say, Sorkin never lets her kickass again.
The only women who really get taken seriously at all are women of color and women with disabilities. But even those characters are mysteriously asexual and impersonal. Sorkin’s liberal guilt only extends so far, and as a straight white male, he doesn’t seem to have really dealt honestly with his privilege. From his writing in The West Wing, it looks like ten years ago, he still needed to feel superior to an entire class of people. And I guess from his seat in the Temple of The Way I See It Is the Right Way, women are still the easiest potshot.
So no thanks. I don’t have to feel slapped around by my entertainment these days. No West Wing for me. Let me know in the comments if he’s done better since.