An ode to The West Wing and female characters in modern television
(Warning, this contains serious spoilers through season 6 of The West Wing)
For longer than I would care to admit, I really wanted to be Josh Lyman, Bradley Whitford’s character in The West Wing (TWW). As a teenage boy who was into politics, Josh seemed to have everything – he was clever, very funny, and was constantly involved in romantic entanglements with smart, strong and gorgeous women*. Man, did I want to be him.
Cue the beginning of season 6. I would have been about 16 at the time, hence pretty much at the height of my Josh-worship. With Leo’s departure for health reasons, I finally thought that Josh would get his chance to shine by being promoted to Chief of Staff. And honestly, I was seriously pissed off when President Bartlett asks Leo for a list of names, and Leo gives him only one – CJ. But Josh was the Deputy Chief of Staff! He totally deserved it! He was my hero, and so I protested. In my head.
But looking back on it now, it makes complete sense. CJ Cregg is one of the best female character in the history of television, and Alison Janney was the only cast member to earn a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress. Josh was intellectually and strategically astute but also a hothead, whose quick and snarky wit which combined with a massively oversized ego often got him into trouble. CJ was, in my view, the most consummate professional amongst the senior staff and I absolutely loved how she would get in the face of people who technically outrank her. But where Janney really shines over her peers is in the emotional depth of her character, which rarely ventured into the melodrama that TWW too often lapsed into. That the circumstances of Simon Donovan’s murder made no sense whatsoever and the aftermath being set to the tune of ‘Hallelujah’ a.k.a. the most emotionally manipulative song in history (seriously, can we have a moratorium on its use in television?) didn’t bother me compared to what I had seen played out between him and CJ in the previous four episodes in such an utterly believable way.
But what prompted my re-assessment of the CJ narrative in TWW from my originally adolescent attitude? As well as simply growing up, I think it has a lot to do with the brilliance – nay, magnificence – of some of the female characters on television in recent years. For me, it began with The Sopranos and the superb performances of Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco and Jamie Lynn-Siegler. In particular, Falco has to be singled out for portraying not only the best female lead but as arguably the most complex and interesting character on a show whose cup positively overfloweth with them.
I could go on (January Jones, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men, Felicia Pearson and Sonja Sohn in The Wire, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica, Sofie Gråbøl in The Killing etc.), but the show that really opened up my eyes and made me pay attention is Game of Thrones.
I read the first books when I was about 14-15, and I thought they were incredibly cool. My teenage brain treated it as something like Lord of The Rings, but with less magic and more cussing and fucking. I think I got through about book three before this bored me, but I was still excited to hear HBO were doing an adaptation. What I hadn’t remembered was how the women of Westeros went toe-to-toe with the men on almost every conceivable personal and moral dimension, from bravery and chivalry to downright bloody monstrosity. The women are fascinating, and that fascination has very little to with the fact that they have an extra x-chromosome. Needless to say, this is a big step up for me compared to my teenage appreciation of television and literature.
One question that lingers in my mind is whether female characters written for TV have genuinely become increasingly multi-dimensional, or whether I’ve just grown up and can see what was already there. An inordinate amount of conversation about television that takes place amongst men of a certain age (i.e. about 12 and upwards) is about the attractiveness/sexiness/hotness of the women on the show. Frankly, it would be untruthful for me to claim this doesn’t still command a disproportionate amount of my viewing attention. But the women on these shows give you so much more to think about, and are responsible for some of the most gripping television I have ever seen.
I couldn’t really think of a way to finish this, so… here’s CJ doing ‘The Jackal‘. So long.
*Except Mandy, who was so irritating that she was axed at the end of season one without explanation