Does 'The West Wing' Represent What's Wrong With Liberalism?

Does 'The West Wing' Represent What's Wrong With Liberalism?

The cast of The West Wing, season two.

SourceNBC/Getty

Why you should care

Because even so-called progressive shows got it wrong about women.

If social media is any indication, many Americans would rather watch The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s turn-of-this-century fantasy of a Democratic presidency, than tune in to the Trump Reality Show. But some of us haven’t been too pleased with what we’ve found.

During its stint on NBC from 1999 to 2006, The West Wing drew consistently high ratings, won 26 Emmys and was named to the top 10 on the Writers Guild of America’s “101 Best Written TV Series” list. Today, the show’s legacy lives on: Twitter went nuts when Sorkin hinted at a reboot, thousands follow West Wing–related Facebook pages and Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina have a popular podcast called The West Wing Weekly.

While Hirway and Malina bring a “good man” sensibility to their podcast’s rehashing of the TV show’s episodes, the lens through which they view the show is still a decidedly male one — and often tone-deaf to a woman’s perspective. Take Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss on the show and has appeared on the podcast twice. In both conversations, she mentions how important the show was to her and her career, how fondly she remembers that time, but that she doesn’t like watching it, in part because of her “small waist and beautiful skin.” She goes on to say, “… when I was on the show — this is something good to remember as a woman — I hated the way I looked.”

It is men who drive the narrative of this show, men who have the answers, men who get things right and men who know what’s really going on.

This is a sentiment repeated by other female guests, including Allison Janney, who played C.J. Cregg. “I haven’t watched most of West Wing,” she reportedly said. “… At the time, I was so hard on myself. As I always am, but I was like, ‘Tommy, you’ve got to find some way for them to light me better. I look just awful.’ … I was so critical. And then watching it, I’m like, ‘You know, I looked pretty damn good.’ I was, like, so young.”

The hosts gently compliment each woman but fail to ask the tougher questions: Why do you think all the female actors say some version of this, but the men never do? What does that say about Hollywood? About society?

When Connie Britton talked to Malina and Hirway about her character being underdeveloped in comparison to her co-star Evan Handler’s character, she says, “But, of course, at the time it was more about ‘Oh, it’s because I’m a terrible actor’ … But I do think that there were other elements at play in regard to the fact that I was a woman.” Hirway’s response: “It’s amazing to me that you think, or you ever thought, that you were getting less than on the page because of your abilities as an actor.”

But it’s not amazing. It’s painfully sad, and infuriating. It’s time to stop patting women on the back and instead demand a deep dive into how this can and must change. Listening to Hirway and Malina shrug off such revelations is great fuel for rage-filled workout sessions, but don’t we get enough of that with current events?

The hosts continually let Sorkin off the hook with the rationale that he was merely “telling it like it was” when it came to women in the White House or greater society. But they miss the fact that a show as popular as The West Wing was also shaping culture. Even when they acknowledge Sorkin’s missteps, they chalk them up to a sign of the times in which the show was created, seemingly negating how inappropriate and anti-woman his writing was even back then.

Take, for example, a scene from the fifth episode of the first season, titled “The Crackpots and These Women.” As the episode closes, White House staff members are mingling at the president’s residence, and he delivers this jaw-dropping speech: “C.J.’s like a ’50s movie star — so capable, so loving, so energetic. Mandy’s like a man over there, going punch for punch with Toby, in a world that tells women to sit down and shut up. She’s already won her battle, but she’s not done.”

You can’t make this stuff up — unless, of course, you were a writer for The West Wing. The women on the show — and pretty much anyone who isn’t a white American man — are cardboard cutouts most of the time.

“The first time I watched … The West Wing … I found myself rooting for and simultaneously embarrassed by the characters Donna Moss, Amy Gardner and C.J. Cregg,” writes Oset Babur for CNN. “Sorkin’s chronic inability to intelligently write female characters has plagued him over and over again.”

It is men who drive the narrative of this show, men who have the answers, men who get things right and men who know what’s really going on. And their paternalistic, so-called liberalism is achingly familiar, both reflective of the time the show was made and the time we’re living in now.

It’s the boss who always votes Democrat and says he’s sure “any gal” can do the job of a man just as well — “maybe even better!” — with a wink and a nod. It’s the mansplainer who talks about how, philosophically, he doesn’t have any problem whatsoever with equal pay for women, but it’s a complex economic issue, and actually, those statistics about 79 cents to the dollar are not entirely accurate. It’s the guy who calls himself a feminist, but insists that his misogynistic comments are “just a joke” and why can’t “girls” lighten up.

And it’s the horrible wake-up call that when you first watched The West Wing you thought you were watching something progressive, when really you were being shaped into a neoliberal who devalued women.

At the end of the day, the show is a distasteful reminder of the demons that plague American liberalism to this day — not a pleasant respite from the daily news. And it is the sentiments that powered The West Wing — and which haunt “The West Wing Weekly,” and so many other aspects of our cultural and political landscape — that remind us how sorely women’s voices are still needed, on the screen (long live The Golden Girls!) and on the streets.

Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller and community organizer who works in higher education; Emily Popek is a communications specialist and freelance journalist.

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