I was biting my nails to see if President Bartlet would run for a second term or not. I cling to each word of Sam Seaborn’s speeches. I am definitely a Josh Lyman and Donna Moss fan. I am with CJ Cregg each time she steps up in front of the press corps. I did all of these things the first time through watching West Wing when it aired on TV more than ten years ago, and still an avid fan now that I’m revisiting it on Netflix. Is it bad that I’m having dreams that I’m part of this administration?
Perhaps, yes. I have to keep reminding myself that this is not a real form of civic engagement. Though the show is producing in me something I hadn’t predicted. It’s energizing my drive to be more engaged in our democracy and to get others to do so as well. I hold firmly to Generation Citizen’s mission of envisioning a democracy in which everyone participates, though I find lately that I have been stirred to especially want to focus on getting more girls and women involved. West Wing is a well-written and entertaining show and accurately portrays gender roles in society it depicts from the last decade. Therefore, the barrage of negativity that women face is especially frustrating to me. It’s honestly not much better than the culture in Mad Men, which is set thirty years prior.
At one point, Sam registers his jealousy of the women having plush robes in their locker room at the White House, when he says, “Now, that’s outrageous. There’s a thousand men working here and fifty women.” To which CJ responds “Yeah, and it’s the bathrobes that’s outrageous.” And she has a point. How are we ever supposed to close the employment and wage earning gaps in this country when they come from the top down? In 2011, only 6 of the top 20 earners in the White House were women. And there is an $11,000 difference in median income for men and women.
Why do all of the conversations surrounding women in this show seem negative? Chief of Staff Leo McGarry regarding a visiting ambassador: “You’re going to let him loose in the White House where there’s liquor and women?” Bartlet: “We can hide the women, but the guy deserves a drink.” Your women on staff are mostly relegated to secretarial positions, so now you’re just going to hide them entirely from the political decision-making scene?
Also, take for example this exchange:
Josh: You’re overreacting.
C.J.: Am I?
C.J.: As women are prone to do.
Josh: That’s not what I meant.
C.J.: That’s always what you mean.
Josh: You know what, C.J., I really think I’m the best judge of what I mean, you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista! …whoa, that was way too far.
Josh: You look like a million bucks, by the way.
C.J.: Don’t try to make up with me.
Yeah. So, stereotyping women’s personalities and thinking they can be placated with superficial comments about their looks. Enough with the interpersonal oppression!
There are even examples of women contributing to their own (intra-personal) oppression. Ainsley Hayes: “I like it when the guys tease me. It’s an inadvertent show of respect I’m on the team and I don’t mind it when it gets sexual. And you know why? I like sex.”
Uh. Seriously? Why is there nothing more substantive for this intelligent Republican leader to talk about other than her own body? And why do no two women ever have a meaningful conversation with each other about something other than men? Certainly the real-life political world would pass the Bechtel test, but the media would have you believe otherwise.
Most of the women in our Congress today went to women’s colleges. Some argue that single-sex institutions are no longer necessary, though I think that they very much are. While it’s true that many of the things I got at Mount Holyoke I could have gotten at other institutions (top-notch research and internship opportunities, one-on-one support of professors, alumnae networking, etc.), I can’t help but think that these institutions play a role in inspiring women to make a meaningful and lasting change in the world. (One could always argue, against causation, and instead for correlation, saying that historically women’s colleges simply attract the kind of person who would run for public office, but as someone who greatly benefited from the confidence-building campus culture, I am indebted to this institution.) I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my representative from where I grew up in New York was also an MHC alumna or that Ms. Hayes from The West Wing was a Smith College alumna.
So, you wonder why am I obsessed with this show that belittles women, Seven Sisters Alumnae or not alike?
I think the answer is that it gives a very humanizing glimpse into the political world. It’s ups and downs, the good, bad, and the ugly – all there! I am obsessed because I very easily identify with the battles that the women face on The West Wing. I may laugh at myself for getting so absorbed in the plotlines, but this show lit a fire in my belly. I have heard the call to get more smart women involved in democracy and cannot shake it. “Women in public service” will no doubt be a thread that follows me throughout my life, and I am very glad to have Generation Citizen be a jumping off place to explore my role as an increasingly engaged and active citizen.
~Leila Quinn, Greater Boston Program Associate