West Wing Continuity Guide
path: Home / * Sexism & "The West Wing"

First a definition (since this can be a highly emotionally charged word):
"sexism" "behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex." [Webster's Third New International Dictionary Unabridged]

We don't wish to make some kind of outrageous demand for a strict code of political correctness, but consider the following second season conversation between Leo and Josh in which Leo wants Josh to apologize to a woman for something Leo said the night before:
"I made a joke about her shoes. . . ."
"You're the second most powerful man in the country."
"And she writes a column for the New York Times and who knows what kind of special relationship women have with their shoes."
"What could you possibly have said. . . ."
"It doesn't matter. It was perfectly benign to anyone who doesn't take shoes that seriously." Leo pauses to think for a moment. "Just tell her, I love her and that I'm sorry. And I'll take her shoe shopping."
"Why don't you tell her?"
"If someone else tells her it makes me seem that I was thoughtful enough to mention it. If I tell her it just makes me seem feminine."
"You don't think the shoe shopping's going to take care of that?" [#33]

Strange conversation. Some people who love the show seem to be amazed by the strangeness of it. People who don't see sexism in anything else, did a double take wondering where this came from.

Query: Is "The West Wing" a Sexist Show?
Our Answer: No.
Query: Are those who create "The West Wing" Sexist?
Our Answer: We would hope not, but they sometimes do seem a little oblivious to what is acceptable in current society.
Query: Are any characters on the show sexist?
Our Answer: Absolutely.
Query: Who?
Our Answer: Leo McGarry

We don't claim that Leo is a sexist because of any one thing he's ever done (one can revert to ways of talking of one's youth now and then). We don't even think that any two of his actions or statements could be used to brand him a sexist. It is the pattern of his actions and remarks that show this side of him.

We don't brand Leo as a sexist because we don't like the character. We created this site because some young kid had written in the first "West Wing" website we ever saw (unfortunately that website no longer exists) that she thought Josh and Sam were devoted not to Leo McGarry but to the office of Chief of Staff). This annoyed us so much we started a site to show off all the characters --- especially Leo. However, we believe Sorkin deliberately creates imperfect people. And one of Leo's imperfections is that he is a sexist (along with being an alcoholic and an addict).

The fact that their leader (and it is Leo who leads the senior staff --- the President leads the country and the cabinet but Leo leads the staff) is a sexist has been known to affect statements from others as well. Consider Josh's lead-in to the conversation at the top of this page:
"And what stupid-ass Irish thing did you say to Karen Cahill that you now need me to go apologize for. . . like a little girl."
  • Although, we see this statement as a sexist remark, we do not brand Josh a sexist for making it because we remember little else he's ever said that caused us to wonder whether he thought little boys never apologized.
  • And, in addition, Josh treats Donna as an "assistant" not a secretary. Donna still feels she can voice her opinions. Leo treats Margaret as a secretary --- when she tries to express an opinion, Leo stops listening to her, figuring it can't be anything important 'cause she mentioned the word "muffin" or something that obviously only a woman would be interested in. [#19] Margaret is allowed to voice opinions but Leo just doesn't take them seriously.

We do this page now because we have gotten letters complaining about the sexist comments on the show and we want to make sure they are put in perspective.

So what evidence is there for the fact that Leo is sexist? Consider the following:
  • In the pilot episode after Josh insults the beliefs of a right wing spokesman (spokesperson?), Leo, in talking to a confederate of her's, suggests that she has just had her hair messed up. (He would never have said that about a male commentator in the same situation and Josh, who made the original statement, never claims that the woman he made it to didn't have a legitimate beef). [#101]
  • When all the male senior staffers predict that a new poll will show no change and C.J. argues that it will show the administration has a higher approval rating, Leo ignores her opinion when the President asks what the staff thinks. See the conversation where C.J.confronts Leo on this. (Had any male member of the senior staff disagreed, we, like C.J., are convinced Leo would have mentioned it as a contrary opinion, as he does about Toby's opinion that they might go down a point or two.) [#21]
  • The conversation at the top of this page. (This whole conversation with Josh is full of comments about women and girlishness, etc. even from Josh.) [#33]
  • He may call Margaret his "assistant" but he treats her as a secretary. Not badly, mind you, just not as someone who's opinion he values, even though he likes her and they have a good relationship.
  • Except for C.J. all the members of the senior staff (of whom he is chief) are men. Some members of the cabinet are women but not members of the senior staff (about whom Leo would have the most say).

So, what made Leo this way? Consider the following:
  • He spent six of his formative years in the military flying planes (at the time he would have flown planes in Vietnam, he would have done so in a strictly male fraternity --- both the training and the time in Vietnam would have been spent almost entirely with other men).
  • He went to law school at a time when almost of his teachers and most of his fellow students would have been men.
  • He went into politics at a time when the only people one had to take seriously in politics were men.
  • It is possible to go through all these experiences and still see women as "players" on the world stage but that isn't the easy road. Many people after such experiences keep a world view that claims that men do the important things, make the important decisions, and women are "support personnel".

Much of the above list is done from memory (we don't have the time to go back over all of these lines and get the exact quotes) and we welcome additions and will credit anyone who will send us the exact quotes. We are also interested in any other evidence for or against our contention.

Also see:

We do admit that we were annoyed during the second season when the President claimed that missile defense was a topic for "serious men". Someone who has been in the public eye as much as President Bartlet (in order to get as far as he has), would have learned to use the word "people" when speaking of the "decision makers". But Bartlet doesn't say these kinds of things often enough to be declared a sexist.

Notes to the writers of "The West Wing":
  • "Men" is no longer a synonym for "people" when discussing "decision makers".
  • The "feminine" --- "girl", etc. --- is not a synonym for "weak" or "wrong". Nor is apologizing something "little girls" should be doing more than "little boys".
  • Women are not merely "support personnel" and you can't assume some occasional, token female cabinet secretaries balance things out.
  • Oh, and most women don't have any more of a strange relationship with their shoes than most men do.
  • Leo is a great and wonderful and fantastic character; unfortunately, his instincts tell him that women aren't really "players" on the world scene. This can't be changed since he has already been created like this but the other men in the series can be kept from having similar attitudes (they would have no excuse).

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