Before the events of the Russia/Ukraine war, I had written a piece about how The West Wing demonstrates the importance of language. About how in a world that provides open lines of communication to talk to anyone – even anonymously – that words are important to the way we talk to one another and how The West Wing shows us that they should be chosen carefully. However, while that is still relevant, especially in a time that demands we work collaboratively to help those in need, I want to take this opportunity to address something else; I want to talk about The West Wing and how it helped me align to a political field. I have long been frustrated with the state of modern politics, towards choosing a political side of two polarizing extremes, by being confused by reactionary politics and disregard for democratic norms. About feeling heard in a political field that seems to favour marginalisation more and more. It all gets too much sometimes, and The West Wing is my release from it all. When I need a break from xenophobia, from societal judgement, Jed Bartlett and team are my go-to as they not only believe in the liberal ideals I do, they also openly celebrate them.
I still remember the first time I watched The West Wing. I was in the first seat row of a lecture hall staring up at the projector screen when my friend, who was sitting next to me, quietly remarked, “you’ll like this!” just as the opening soundtrack of the episode ‘Two Cathedrals’ started to play. She was right! Only I didn’t like it, I fell in love with it! From the response to the crisis in Haiti, Bartlett’s health diagnosis, and the congressional democrats trying to buy time for the president I was hooked. I still remember the church scene as if it was the first time I watched it – Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and his confrontational speech to God after losing his friend Mrs. Landingham to a car accident. I was struggling with my own ties to Christianity at the time and had never seen a religious scene that didn’t glorify God. That didn’t feature a confession of sins or a consoling session between a priest and his patron. That didn’t swear the book of God would save us all. But instead, liberally charged God with the contradictions that exist in the books about him. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like this scene because of the blasphemy towards religion, I don’t think it demeans religion at all but openly challenges it. I liked it because it didn’t treat religion as a perfect entity.
There was freedom to the way Bartlett saw religion. He believed but he struggled with that belief too. I related to this and really appreciated seeing it on screen. Little did I know it wouldn’t be the first time I identified with the show. It wouldn’t be the first time it made an impact on me.
Aaron Sorkin in general has that effect on me. He isn’t afraid to commit his democratic views to screen and has found the perfect way to blend liberal ideals with the importance of agency and ethical dilemma. Whether it be the way he delves into trauma and addiction in his comedic drama Sports Night or the themes of honour and dishonour in A Few Good Men, he is able to tell new stories about liberty and power in an engaging way. His work matters, whether you like his project or not they demand conversation, and at that time I was looking for a show I could feel challenged by. At that time, living in a country so politically divided that it resulted in a conservative/liberal coalition, I needed to see freedom of speech, acceptance of human and civil rights, and democracy showcased. I needed to see a president like Jed Bartlett – a man who through all his flaws and open wounds believed he could make a difference and often did in his fictional America. I needed more. And after a conversation with a friend about the show, I was excitedly taking the bus journey home to my student share with all seven seasons on a USB drive to do just that. This was the start of a true love relationship that I have held for ten plus years and a show I am so familiar with that I sleep with it too.
It might be hard for some to understand why, as a British viewer, I don’t favour shows like Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It (2005) or Paul Seed’s House of Cards (1990) which focus on the politics of my homeland. However, to me, the answer is simple. They portray what is wrong with the political landscape. They too often concentrate on the fight for political power and the ruthless pragmatism and betrayal needed to keep it. The West Wing is different. It shows how freedom of speech can be used for good. How acceptance of others through community and collaboration can make a difference. How an effective government being elected could help put initiatives into place that will impact the world for the better. Yes, it has its faults, it idolizes democracy rather than maintaining a realistic viewpoint, but for a young woman struggling to feel seen or heard, The West Wing helped me refine and remain steadfast in my own political beliefs.
Its Magnus Opus though is its ability to inspire congressional policy. It’s rare for a programme to actually make a difference outside of reaching a viewers’ heart or inspiring them to do better but The West Wing did just that when the Obama administration adapted one of the fictional White House’s team initiatives into a real-life strategy. It came from the season one episode, The Crackpots and These Women where Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and staff have meetings with fringe interest groups that don’t usually reach the attention of the White House. It’s a controversial move to some of the staffers – particularly Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) who demeans it as a ‘total crackpot day’ – but is something that McGarry believes in as it allows everyone to gain the opportunity for their voices to be heard. As the day goes on and some traumatic life events are remembered by various characters – Josh is given an NPC card, but it triggers unhappy memories of a fire for him – they start to reflect on their relationships towards other people and particularly the women who show strength and integrity around them. By helping smaller groups of people who often go unheard, and that are unfamiliar, they were inspired to reflect on the people in their daily lives. It was an earnest display of honesty and collaboration for the show and was evidently inspirational to those that watched it as it impacted real-world events.
One of the most common criticisms I hear about the show is that if community and leftist politics are such as important part of it all, then why do the women get dealt a bad hand of sexism and misogyny? The argument usually gravitates towards Leo McGarry’s relationship with women and a set of actions and remarks that show a sexist side of him. For example, in the episode Let Bartlet be Bartlet looks at how Leo dismisses his secretary Margrett. Josh encourages his assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) to voice her opinions openly and ensures she is listened to while Leo always ignores Margaret when she tries to express herself often believing because she uses words such as ‘muffin’ that her opinions are unimportant. This isn’t the only example of Leo’s attitude towards women, and it does affect the team he leads as Josh starts referring to some women as “little girls”. However, although I understand where the argument that ‘Aaron Sorkin is a fairly condescending and problematic writer of women) I also believe that Sorkin deliberately creates flawed characters and that one of Leo’s flaws (along with addiction and alcoholism) is that he is sexist. Without being too strongly worded about this Leo spent his formative years in the military at a time when the forces were largely male, he went to law school at a time when he would have been surrounded by men, and he went into politics at a time when politics were understood and enforced by men. Yes, his character should have grown enough to accept women as ‘players’ but not only is that not an easy road, I would also argue that his character arc does display acceptance of women as while his relationship with C.J (Allison Janney) is tubulous but it’s Leo who recommends her for the Chief of Staff position.
Women are shown in a positive light in The West Wing. C.J is probably the beacon character as she’s the strongest female character in the series. Not only did she have a meaningful position as Press Secretary in the foundation years of her work with the White House, but she also showed through her personality that she wasn’t afraid to work within a team of men. She stood for what she believed in, wasn’t afraid to disagree with the rest of the administration and helped pass important decrees. She was a problem solver, a diplomat, and she was funny. She wasn’t perfect but nor should she be to feel realistic. And if Sorkin had had a sexist agenda for the overall narrative she wouldn’t have made it to Chief of Staff with her friends supporting her and acting as mentors.
However, it’s not just C.J that women could identify with. If you didn’t like the way C.J could be bullish when she wanted her own way you could identify with the Republican Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) and her perseverance in a hostile working environment, Joey’s (Marlee Matlin) honesty and charm, Nancy’s (Anna Deavere Smith) intelligence as a National Security Advisor, Zoey Bartlett’s (Elisabeth Moss) strength in navigating college life while being the president’s daughter, or even first lady Dr. Abigail (Stockard Channing) and the way she isn’t afraid to be angry about things that matter between her husband and herself. I don’t think any of these women held the positions they did in office because of a misogynist agenda. I instead believe that The West Wing reflects a period of time, and the truth is that women were in supportive roles at that time. Sorkin doesn’t seek to fridge women – he doesn’t say that’s where they belong. He simply keeps the show realistic by reflecting a period of time and shows that females are strong by their relationship to men.
As a matter of fact, where would the man of the hour – President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) – be without his administration. Without the support of his intelligent wife Dr. Abbey, the rebuttal and acceptance of C.J and Mrs Landingham, and the smart and articulate nature of loyal staff such as Sam (Rob Lowe) and Toby (Richard Schiff). In the Bartlett White House, the administration seems like a big, sometimes dysfunctional, family who triumph together and mourn together. The two-part episode In the Shadow of Two Gunmen shows closeness the team have when two beloved characters, Bartlett, and Josh, are treated for life-threatening wounds in the aftermath of a shooting. Mrs Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) runs to the president’s side and mothers him, Toby consoles junior members of staff and the most heart-breaking scene in the episode happens when the staff tell Donna about Josh, and her confusion shows through the words ‘hit with what?’. It’s clear from the way the others look at one another that it will hit her hard when she realises what’s happened. It’s a high drama episode but it’s also an episode that very many features everyone coming together and reminds us of the close relationships they have with each other. The relationships feel real and lived in and show that Jed would not be as effective without his friends.
It’s perhaps its sense of community that I appreciate the most. It’s where most of the positivity happens and it’s because of the familial bond between the characters that they are able to make things happen. It’s what I wish existed more in a world that has grown fearful and withdrawn from social bonding. In a world that I wish was more appreciative of liberal and democratic values. But I at least know one thing – I can come home, put any of the seasons of The West Wing into my Blu-ray player and return to a family that has helped me find myself. A group of people who value the freedom of religion and speech, of women’s rights and liberty, and of community spirit. For its this show that taught me that “we must sustain hope in the winter of anxiety and fear” (4:2, 20 Hours in America) and I can’t think of anything more relatable and more liberal right now.