West Wing Weekly, the Ladies, and Stories

08Nov16

westwing“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival

I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.
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