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Courtesy of NBC

January 23, 2020

SIMS | Gendered Governance in ‘The West Wing’

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Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is a vision of the American ideal of governance. It’s an ideal that’s more often taken up by people who the United States has served exceptionally well: generally wealthy, white and educated people who trust that the government will meet their needs and move the society to be an incrementally wealthier nation. While this vision of our government is not universally recognized, it still reflects a lot of the people who direct the media and money of Democratic party politics.

The first time I watched the whole series, I was in high school and was absorbed by the command and coolness with which the characters took on leading the country. I aspired to emulate their intelligence and wordplay, even though no one actually talks like the dialogue Aaron Sorkin writes. The small faction of good men and (in significantly smaller numbers) women who guide the nation are idealistic, progressive, highly educated, well spoken, strong armed and ethically secure. They are imbued with competence and confidence, and are trusted to be fiduciaries of our country.

But in returning to the show now — showing it to my friends to explain a significant influence in my political thinking, re-watching episodes to bond with other fans, looking to Jed Bartlett and his staff for moral clarity on issues that I ponder — I find myself much more critical of it. I feel like I have to defend or critique some of the character’s actions when I watch with others — “I promise they’re better behaved in other episodes,” or “Wow — that was an unnecessarily forceful demand.” The team is often confrontational, self-important and dismissive. Because of these ways, I consider their governing to be very masculine in nature.

When I write that these characters and their actions are masculine, I define masculinity as the traits that men are encouraged to take on in order to gain and retain their positions of power in social hierarchy. I don’t think masculinity is something unique to men, but it is essential to their socialization. I use it value-neutrally, although I will admit my success is limited.

Still, that very power and command create the governing style of the show that is so attractive and idealistic. What I find interesting about this depiction in our current political moment is mirrors how liberals are largely taking a step back from this bold and brash masculine style of government. My intuition is that this shift comes as a recoil from the unrestrained masculinity of the Trump presidency, with all of its self-importance, approval of the sexual mistreatment of women, lack of empathetic policies and anger. I agree with the general opinion held by liberals that these behaviors are concerning. And I wonder at what point this masculine suite of characteristics becomes nefarious. I don’t have an answer yet.

A certain amount of the command that I associate with masculinity is required to find success in electoral politics as it stands right now. I think the assertion that you know what’s right, the confidence to run for president and the boldness to defend yourself to millions of people hundreds of days in a row comes hand-in-hand with contemporary American masculinity.

But I see elements of femininity in the decision by The New York Times to endorse Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and what turned The New York Times and some people I’ve talked to away from supporting Bernie Sanders.

Warren is often sculpted to move her positions to please multiple people. She has (sometimes) bent away from conflict and argument with others as well in a way that keeps her from being perceived as too confrontational. Klobuchar also frequently describes how she is amenable to all people and doesn’t proclaim her policies as boldly as some of her competitors do. Bernie Sanders is berated for being uncompromising, loud and idealistic. The New York Times editorial board draws comparisons of these traits with Trump’s traits and worries that a Sanders presidency would be all too similar. Yet those are some of the traits that The West Wing’s chief executive is lauded for. Still, within all of these debate, there’s a persistent hullaballoo about whether women can or should be president, whether our next president must be a woman and whether a president who is a woman could enjoy the trust and effectiveness she deserves.

Rather than illuminating a logical landing point or a greater truth, one of America’s favorite representations of the presidency presents masculinity and femininity to show how weird and disruptive this dichotomous vision of gender is. The idealization of a masculine government and fear of the same reality creates dissonance, and the dichotomization of masculine and feminine is so far entrenched that I think it leaves us unsure of where to go for leadership. I wonder how much the socialization of individuals to different ideals of gender affect what political results we see. I wonder how greatly the judgment of policies and attitudes are based on gender perception. How does our current understanding of gender restrict our ability to guide our country to a better place?

Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Thursdays this semester.