If the fictional representatives, senators, and political wannabes we’ve looked at so far in this series have been limited by sexist stereotyping—emotional instability, petty greed, and weakness among these ideas—some of the women who are portrayed working outside of the spotlight come off a bit better. I want to take a look at a few shows, anticipating Shonda Rhimes’ new series, Scandal, debuting next month, and express some hopes for what her show may have in store if she follows form from these other narratives.
Let’s start with The West Wing. There’s a lot to say about this series, which ran for seven seasons and that gave us all manner of interesting, often problematic, female characters. At some point I’ll give some attention to Andrea Wyatt, the Congresswoman who was Toby Ziegler’s ex-wife, but this time around I’d like to dwell on Joey Lucas, the pollster, and Amy Gardner, a women’s advocacy and policy professional.
Joey Lucas comes into the series to help the President’s senior team interpret polling numbers, and immediately finds herself in the head of legislative affairs Josh Lymon’s crosshairs, I mean, insecurities. It doesn’t help that Josh, a known workaholic, is making his way through a hangover and expected that someone named “Joey” would be male. He also doesn’t handle her disability well. (You can watch a video of the scene here.)
It’s a fitting introduction—over the course of several seasons Joey repeatedly educates Josh on polling and statistics, part of a cycle that includes him inevitably misinterpreting the data all over again. And whereas Josh and communications chief Toby talk constantly about how communicating with President Bartlet is something of a sacred moment, Joey manages to have direct, informative conversations with the executive. It’s also nice to see Joey eschew Josh’s flirtations, too, even deflecting them in order to have a work discussion.
Josh does have a relationship with Amy, who initially works for an organization like EMILY’s List. On several occasions Josh tries to leverage this familiarity to score points for the White House, but Amy finds a way to push her feminist agenda ahead of his interests. In one classic scene, he admits people on Capitol Hill are working in compromises to a welfare reform bill, and she begins marshalling her colleagues for pushback. Before Josh can turn around and tell his aides to confront her pressure, she cuts her apartment’s land line and throws his cellphone in a pot of tomato sauce. Amy Gardner knows where her priorities are, commenting: “Does my government really believe that the law can create a family? Do these old, fat-ass men really believe that if they just pay people to act like Leave it to Beaver everything will be fine?”
On The Good Wife, Eli Gold is a campaign manager and damage control specialist, working to maneuver a governor’s candidacy out of a friend whom he has successfully helped into office as the state’s attorney. Though he is cool to his ex-wife’s offer when she asks him to serve as her campaign manager for congressional office, he becomes much more interested when she starts working with Stacie Hall (played by the riotously funny Amy Sedaris), his arch-rival in the damage control business. Stacie has stolen account after account from Eli, and now he has all kinds of advice for his former wife regarding everything Stacie is doing wrong on her campaign. “Green borders around a picture just makes you look sick,” he tells her, pointing to a big candidate poster. But Stacie has other ideas for keeping Eli in tow, namely by orchestrating a one night stand and then lording it over him.
Perhaps in other narrative contexts this would be just another sexist depiction of a female professional using her body to get ahead, but here it plays as her getting back at a rival. It also turns the tables on who is supposed to relish sex with no strings attached and who is supposed to get caught up by emotions, for it’s Eli who winds up wounded after enjoying Hall’s comment, “That was some good fishin’!”
The short-lived (and deservedly so) HBO series K Street attempted to fuse real-life politicians and political operatives with ficitonal narrative. It did provide some smart, snappy dialogue that seemed oblivious to the gender of each speaker—why even notice where there’s so much else to argue about—as characters doled out fake advice to real politicians in non-real situations. Still following? I bring up K Street, though, because Maggie’s character is the only one to ever apologize for her tone or communication style (e.g., yelling into phones). Seriously, this is a show that includes James Carville, one of the most outrageous communicators in the Democratic Party, but he never spends a moment considering if he should tone down his tactics.
Overall these narratives give female political power brokers and advocates an interesting voice in shows that are generally male-dominated. They certainly have some agency, too. But with each of these examples women are still expected to know more or be more successful than their male counterparts in order to do their jobs well. They also have to find that narrow acceptable range of pushing off men’s advances while not inciting men’s anger while they do so. Finally, there is next to no diversity in these characters—other than Joey’s deafness, which probably wasn’t a part of the designed role until Marlee Matlin was offered the part—these are all white women middle class or higher. As we’ll see next time, women of color interested in politics are portrayed quite differently.