Subtle Sexism in The West Wing?

Samantha Moore

Last week in my screenwriting class we watched an episode of The West Wing. I hadn’t ever seen the show before but have heard people raving about it for years. I liked the episode and the general topic the show covered so I decided to continue watching on my own. I love House of Cards and Scandal so I figured I would enjoy The West Wing as well.

I’m not sure if it was my classes this semester, Donald Trump’s unrelenting misogyny or something else that sparked it, but I noticed some very subtle sexism. To preface this, I haven’t truly noticed a lot of sexism in the shows that I watch. Maybe I’ve been naive and ignorant, but it hasn’t ever been something that has stood out to me the way it did in The West Wing. Here are some examples of the sexism I noticed just in the second and third episodes alone:

  1. Captain Morris Tolliver is showing Leo a picture of his wife and newborn daughter. A female staff member comes up and starts scolding Leo about not keeping her in the loop about a meeting, which is a justified, professional concern. Leo hands the woman the photo of the baby and says: “Here, it’s a baby and a new mother. Look at that for a minute”. The woman immediately forgets about the meeting and goes ga-ga over the cute baby…Seriously? In the next 30 seconds, you see her walking behind Leo and Captain Tolliver to show another woman the baby picture. The way the scene played out was very insulting to the attention span and intelligence of women.

Screen Shot 2016-10-12 at 1.06.10 AM.png

2. Sam Seaborn accidentally sleeps with a call-girl named Laurie and tries to “save her”, even though she insists that she is putting herself through law school and doesn’t need saving. Sam crashes Laurie’s work dinner and insults her 3 or 4 times in a row. He then tells her to put his jacket on because it’s cold, and she refuses. 15 seconds later she gives in and puts his jacket on. Laurie explains that Sam humiliated her and that what he did was inappropriate. His response to that is: “I guess that’s just the way it goes”. Sam tells her that he is going to be her friend and that’s she’s going to accept it, to which Laurie gives into almost immediately. She is seen as weak and malleable because she is a woman.

3. During a briefing before  a press conference, the president is shouting at everyone. Leo pulls him into a private conference room to chastise him for snapping at all of his staff members. Throughout the third episode, it is mentioned that the president had been snapping at his wife, Abbey, the most. Leo’s suggestion to the president to mend his relationship with his wife is to “send her some flowers”, because apparently women don’t deserve apologies in the world of The West Wing.

I’m not really sure what to think of this show now. I like the premise and I like the characters, but I dislike how women have been portrayed so far. I googled it before writing this post because I wasn’t sure if I was crazy or not, but this article talks about how Aaron Sorkin, the lead writer, was actually very sexist:


Screengrab from The West Wing, Season 1, Episode 2: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc


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3 Responses to Subtle Sexism in The West Wing?

  1. mediaphiles says:

    This is really interesting to me because I have been noticing this in lots of shows recently. I don’t know if it is because we have talked about sexism in early sitcoms a lot or if it is because of the recently exposed actions of Donald Trump, but in the shows that I have been watching I have noticed sexist undertones much more frequently than ever before. Now that I have been looking for it more, I feel like I am realizing that it exists in shows much more than I ever thought. Max Lissette

  2. mediaphiles says:

    Have you watched more of this show since the episode you watched in class? I think you make some valid points, but if you haven’t seen more I would highly recommend starting the show from the beginning. I’m not sure that I read your first example the same way as you do. The woman in that scene is Margaret, Leo’s secretary, and she’s pretty much portrayed as sort of a bimbo throughout the entire series. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a slight to woman in general or more of just a fact of this particular character’s personality. I’m not trying to be an Aaron Sorkin apologist because he’s received plenty of warranted criticism, but I’m just not sure that I would categorize this show as sexist.

    -Callie Sartain

  3. mediaphiles says:

    I haven’t seen this show, but it’s been highly recommended to me by several people. Based on your examples, I would agree with the subtle sexism in some of the comments, but I also agree that it’s important to watch more of the series to have more context. Because of this class, I think we are becoming more adept at noticing these things in shows! -Sarah King

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