Posted 9 January 2009 in Television by Catriona
I mentioned in the last post on The West Wing and in the related comment thread that I have an antagonistic relationship with this programme.
That relationship came to a head last night, when we were watching the fifth episode of season two, “Initiation.”
This one, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, deals with two concurrent storylines: the first full day of work for Ainsley Hayes, the Republican hired to the White House Counsel’s Office, and the President’s clumsy self-sabotage of the first opportunity he’s had to have sex with his wife since he was shot.
Now, both storylines are nominally dealing with questions of female empowerment. In the case of the former, White House staffers are assuming that Ainsley—whom characters rapidly come to call “the Republican sex kitten,” just to make my argument nice and easy—was hired because she’s pretty. And in the case of the latter, the President ignores the First Lady’s cogent arguments about the fact that pioneering women are memorialised in far fewer numbers than pioneering men, which is, naturally enough, not a form of foreplay that suits Abby.
It’s just that they’re both dealt with in such daft ways.
Ainsley, for example, can’t actually fight her own battles. Sam Seaborn has to come along and beat up the two staffers who subject her to entirely unjustified harassment—well, metaphorically beat them up, by firing them. And, yes, he fires them because he’s their boss not because he’s a man, but then how is Ainsley ever going to work effectively when someone more powerful than her (in a power structure where boss equals man: less blonde, less pretty, and therefore less threatening when exercising power) always has to step in to, essentially, do what she has been asked to do?
Then, in the same storyline, there’s this constant reiteration that Ainsley, because she is attractive, must be stupid and ambitious. No, they really use the word “ambitious”—frequently—as though it’s a bad thing. Certainly, strong ambition without commensurate talent can lead to manipulative behaviour, I suppose—but to simply use the word “ambition” as though its connotations are immediately and inevitably negative is poor writing, and if it’s only used in a negative sense in association with women, it’s something else.
Then there’s the Jed and Abby subplot, which is rather adorable in parts: I am fond of Martin Sheen in this role, when he’s not being too folksy (folksy in the President of the United States often comes across as patronising, in this show).
But this subplot annoyed me, too. Yes, women are memorialised less frequently than men. No argument there, and no surprise either. But using the Statue of Liberty as a riposte, as the President does, is absurd: not only is the Statue of Liberty a French gift to the U.S., and therefore not representative of statues to pioneering American women, but it’s also not a statue of a real historical figure: it’s a representation of an abstract concept that happens to have been feminised in this one instance. And representing abstract concepts such as liberty or justice as women does not go far towards undercutting any real inequality between men and women.
But that’s fine. That’s not what really annoyed me, thought you wouldn’t know it from this post.
No, what really annoyed me was this exchange between Sam Seaborn and the White House Counsel Lionel Tribby, on the subject of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics, which was a running gag through the entire episode:
SAM: I hate to stick my head in the lion’s mouth, but I gotta ask you, were you the recording secretary for the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society for two years?
LIONEL: No, but then again, I’m not a woman.
Do you see why you annoy me, now, West Wing? What’s the point of ostensibly devoting an entire episode to subplots about the historical and contemporary mistreatment of professional women entirely on the basis of their gender when you can slip such absurd sexisms into dialogue and play them as jokes? Especially since it was Tribby who brought the Gilbert and Sullivan line up in the first place, so why is it now a feminised interest?
Quality of writing and subplotting is one thing, but this casual sexism says something else entirely, and it gets right up my nose.