The Work vs. The Text: Applying Barthian long-windedness to popular culture


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According to Barthes, the difference between a Text and a Work is significant. And it is within this difference that we truly can find the discursive elements of a cultural artifact- even a modern, popular cultural artifact. While a work (1) can be computed, (2) can be allocated into types of genres, (3) purely closes on the signified, (4) is caught up in filiation (read: attribution to an author/creator), (5) consumed with pleasure more or less like a product, and (6) is unreproducible; a text cannot be computed, is reactionary towards the sign, is not attributed to a creator, and most importantly is in its nature, intertextual. In other words, while we merely read a work, we play with texts with our symbolic faculties and combinatorial abilities to utilize our de facto modes of interpretation. A compelling case study of this difference between a work and a text can be found in the feminist reading of a popular TV series The West Wing.

Codified conventions in a seventeenth century Puritan marriage pamphlet included that a husband should ‘seek a living’ and ‘be skilful in talk’ while the wife should ‘keep the house’ and ‘boast of silence’. These overtly patriarchal maxims of conduct are of the past, thanks to progressive feminist movements. But does that mean that women are depicted as equal to men? Throughout history, men were almost always responsible for writing and filmmaking; consequently, expressed via a man’s point of view. At the dawn of the 20th century, women were starting to obtain legal rights to possessions and money. In 1915, DeMille produced The Cheat, a movie about a woman who, instead of using sex, tries to pay cash back to a man she owes $10,000. She is branded as his possession because she dared to use cash instead of sex as a female in the world of men. By the 1930s, there were suddenly women that found pleasure in sex. Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) showed this side of a woman and six months later, the Episcopal Committee on Motion Pictures was formed spearheading the era of censorship. The 1980s ushered in the women’s liberation movement which encouraged filmmakers to be mindful to the plight of women. But have they been?

American feminists have been exploring the representations of women in the arts. They shone a light on women’s stereotyped images in a patriarchal culture. This distinct focus made television, especially Hollywood, a forerunner for critique and evaluation. By studying Hollywood through a feminist view, not only does it conduce challenging the status quo but it can help explore how a film influences and/or reflects society; it also gives us insight into how true women’s representation on film are to life.

Ergo, how have women depicted in US political fiction? The depiction always has been and still is, relative to men (while he is not shown purely in relation to the female but in a plethora of roles). Any political position women occupy, no matter how high, can only be viewed through the prism of patriarchal concept of power and politics. The female characters of The West Wing (TWW) are the quintessential portrayals of women in a popular American political fiction.

TWW, produced by Warner Bros. Television, is an American television serial drama that aired throughout 1999-2006. It is set in the West Wing of the White House during the fictional democratic presidency of Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. Although this administration places women in high positions of authority, they are still represented through stereotypes. Woman have been portrayed in US political fiction as: (1) the man’s moral guide; (2) incapable of politics; and (3) sexual, according to the ‘male gaze.’

 Man’s Moral Guide

Women of political fiction who engage in politics are cast into stereotypical roles. Because there was a common belief that women were spiritually superior to men, they often were portrayed as a man’s ‘moral guide’. Before the franchise was extended to them, women were politically limited and could thereby only engage in politics by influencing a politically active man. Although the ‘banal reality of a female electorate’ would deem this moral guide as obsolete by the 1930s, women were still continuously portrayed in this light.

Even in a modern political fiction such as TWW, women are depicted as man’s moral guide. The quintessential moral policeman is Delores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), President Bartlet’s secretary.

As the president prepares for Mrs. Landingham’s funeral in the second season’s finale, he recalls their relationship throughout the years as flashbacks. Bartlet remembers how they first met thirty years earlier at his prep school where Mrs. Landingham was the secretary of his father, the school’s headmaster. Representing the women who also worked there, Mrs. Landingham asks the teenaged Bartlet to be their advocate in their plight for increased pay. Bartlet responds by saying: ‘I’m not a woman and I don’t work here,’ after which he gets schooling by Mrs. Landingham: ‘The women who do are afraid for their jobs…what is it you are afraid of?’. After they banter to and fro, she concludes: ‘You are a boy king…You’re blessed with inspiration…if you think we’re wrong…then I respect that. But if you think we’re right and you won’t speak up because you can’t be bothered, then, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know ya’.

This pivotal scene supports the impression that while men do the political activity, women work behind the scenes as their moral guides. Not only is this scene a crucial moment in Bartlet’s political education, it was inspired by Mrs. Landingham who encouraged him to represent the women, thus serving as a moral leader.

Even when Mrs. Landingham is dead, she is still Bartlet’s moral guide. As President Bartlet struggles over the decision of whether or not to run for reelection, Mrs. Landingham’s ghost appears to him and they have a familiar conversation:

President: ‘The party’s not going to want me to run.’

Mrs. Landingham: ‘The party will come back. You’ll get them back.’

President: ‘I got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham, I’ve never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party.’

Mrs. Landingham: ‘I’ve got a secret for you Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn’t as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worst off than you’

Landingham concludes, ‘If you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think it’s going to be too hard or you think you’re going to lose, well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know ya’. Inspired by this apparition and guided by Mrs. Landington, President Bartlet eventually decides to run.

These flashbacks are telling of how women are portrayed in American political fiction because Delores Landingham is behind the scenes but the one who guided the president’s search for justice and morality. Not only does she help shape his political values, she does so dedicating the rest of her life to assisting public servants after her two sons were killed in Vietnam. Thus, by dedicating herself to preparing the adolescent-turned-governor-turned-president Bartlet for political life, Delores Landingham embodies the ideal, and stereotypically female, moral guide.

 Incapable of Politics

Another way women have been depicted in US political fiction is as incapable of politics.

In patriarchal cultures, images of women connote differences from patriarchal norms. Thus, they are seen as an outsider- especially to politics. However, because politicians are negatively characterized in political fictions as clowns, criminals, or cop-outs, this outsider status of women can also be viewed as the cure required to redeem politics precisely for their lack of ‘the usual requirements for the task’. Therefore, although women are imaged as intelligent and authoritative, they are still expected to allure and submit. This contradiction is especially found in postmodern discourses where women are represented as equal to men in a still patriarchal society which ideologically calls for men to be in control.

The women of TWW are main characters whose roles are essential to the Bartlet administration as follows: the First Lady, a member of the White House Counsel’s Office, the press secretary, a Secret Service agent, the national security advisor, a political advisor, a political pollster. Although these women are depicted consistently as gifted and competent, they are also contradictorily represented as encompassing the stereotype of the emotional woman. Because their emotions can supplant rationality, women in TWW are incapable of politics.

CJ, the press secretary played by Allison Janney, is an example of this contradictory portrayal. She is in a powerful position but she is also emotional; the latter is responsible for her incapability in politics.

In the beginning of TWW series, CJ already asserts her authority. After learning that Sam accidentally slept with a prostitute, CJ establishes her power when she tells him that ‘Before, now, in the future…anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what, you don’t keep it from me. I’m your first phone call…You have to let me protect you, and you have to let me protect the President’. When she takes on this kind of assertive role, CJ upsets conventional rules of patriarchal authority where men are supposed to be the protectors.

Furthermore, in Season Two, CJ is imaged as politically sharper than Toby. When Toby commands that a presidential-congressional press conference be set on Capitol Hill instead of in the White House, CJ refuses attendance because as she earlier predicted, a member of Congress condemns the president, utilizing the event to describe the president as two-faced and ‘ambushing [the opposition] with ultimatums and threats’. At the end of the episode, Josh praises CJ as ‘a class act’ because despite having ‘a lot of opportunities today to say I told you so’ to those who wanted the press conference at Capitol Hill, she remains stoic even though she was right to oppose the event setting.

Although these powerful images of CJ contradict traditional images of women, they signify a ‘romantic sentiment’ of ‘dependence and goodwill that gives the masculine principle its romantic validity and its admiring applause’. However, CJ’s aptitude and competence are constantly foiled in TWW because a powerful woman poses a threat to the male world of politics. For example, in the third season, CJ is the epitome of the overtly emotional woman of politics.

The US will negotiate with Qumar, a small middle-eastern country, on an arms package in order for the US Air Force to renew a military base lease there. CJ is enraged because of the apparent abuse that the women of Qumar endure; she informs Leo that recently, ‘a woman in Qumar was executed for adultery. She didn’t need a lawyer because there wasn’t a trial. It was her husband’s word against her’s…Later today I’m going to announce that we’re selling them tanks and guns?’ He responds with a simple ‘Yeah’ which prompts CJ to angrily walk away. She does not let the issue drop as she later tells Josh that ‘when a woman gets raped’ in Qumar, she ‘get beaten by her husband and sons as a punishment’. CJ’s determination becomes extreme to the point where her emotions get the better of her political rationality and she vents her anger out on World War II veterans protesting an exhibit of a ‘vengeful America’ at the Smithsonian. She ridicules the veterans: ‘You’re protesting because you think the Smithsonian isn’t paying proper respect to what you and the soldiers of the 10th Armored, Third Army risked and lost your lives for six decades ago. How would you feel…if I told you that…I was announcing that we were selling tanks, missiles, and fighter jets to the Nazis?’.

This outburst is a product of CJ’s emotions as a woman fighting for the rights of other women. Yet, Qumar’s women do not attract any attention from her colleagues because they are concerned by mad cow disease. Dr. McNally (a woman) confronts CJ declaring that in the real world, ‘we can’t isolate our enemies’ while CJ continually repeats, ‘they’re beating the women!’. By the ending, CJ demotes Women’s rights from human rights to the private sphere because another powerful woman asks her to do so. While suggesting that the military and disease are part of ‘real world’ politics and violence against women is not, this episode shows women as emotional when concerned with woman’s rights and thus portrays women as incapable of politics because of their emotions.

 The Male Gaze

Women are largely depicted through a male gaze, which establishes the male as dominant by utilizing subtle mechanisms such as manipulation of space and time by editing, point of view, framing, and other film codes to portray women not as real women but as the male’s version of women. The male gaze ‘projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mayne 1985, 82). The male gaze is responsible for making the woman as the object to be sexually looked upon because in a patriarchal culture, to possess the image of a woman’s sexuality is also to maintain a degree of control over her.

By the very beginning of the series, TWW writers already set the male gaze. During a White House celebration in a first season episode, President Bartlet, Leo, and Josh are positioned perfectly in the scenes to gaze and comment on the female attendants:

Leo: ‘We can’t get over these women.’

Bartlet: ‘Look at CJ. She’s like a fifties movie star, so capable, so loving and energetic.’

Leo: ‘Look at Mandy over there. Going punch for punch with Toby in a world that tells women to sit down and shut up. Mandy’s already won her battle with the president. The game’s over, but she’s not done. She wants Toby.’

Bartlet: ‘Mrs. Landingham. Did you guys know she lost two sons in Vietnam? What would make her want to serve her country is beyond me, but in fourteen years, she’s not missed a day’s work, not one’ (Sorkin and Drazan, 1999).

Despite being admirable, these comments emphasize TWW’s masculine gaze by overlooking the women through a man’s point of view. Because the man fully and freely commands the scene, as Mulvey explains, the man is the one that represents power and exerts control over how the women are being depicted.

Furthermore, the male gaze sexualizes the women on TWW. To appease the president’s voracious lust, the First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), or ‘hot pants’ and ‘sweet knees’ as the president calls her, is ordered to take her clothes off, ‘get them off!’ by him.However, Abbey is not just sexualized by her husband, but also by Lord Marbury, the British ambassador who unashamedly compliments Abbey on how ‘magnificent’ her breasts are as he dances with her at her own birthday celebrations. Although the president shows substantial irritation towards Marbury when he asks whether Abbey’s ‘magnificent breasts’ are what initially attracted Bartlet to her, the president’s aggression is not towards the sexualization of women but rather of his wife: ‘it might be considered rude to talk about the physical attributes of another man’s wife,’ the president exclaims to Marbury. Thus, this scene’s gaze is sharply focused on Abbey’s body. According to Grosz, the ‘coding of femininity with corporeality’ not only gratifies men’s necessity for physical contact with women’s bodies but consequently contains women as well. Abbey’s body served such a necessity for the president and the ambassador.

Likewise, the associate White House counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), is represented through a male gaze and is thus sexualized. During the second season, Ainsley accidentally sits on wet paint and has to wear a bathrobe during certain White House appearances. In the same episode, Sam instructs the president to tell Ainsley that ‘A lot of people assumed you were hired because you’re a blond Republican sex kitten. They were obviously wrong and keep up the good work’.

This episode reinforces the argument that the bodies of women are sexualized in political fiction in order to comply with the male gaze and they are humorously played out in order to undercut the importance of women in politics. As Ainsley playfully dances in her bathrobe while enticing Sam to join her, the president unexpectedly stumbles upon them and she screams in surprise. While all the attention and therefore gaze is set toward Ainsley, the president says ‘I never knew we had a night club down here…a lot of people assumed you were hired because you were a blonde Republican sex kitten and well, they’re obviously wrong. Keep up the good work’. Although Ainsley’s ‘sex kitten’ status is peculiar to a serious workplace such as the White House, it becomes natural because it is reinforced by Ainsley’s appearance and antics that are amplified by the constant male gaze.

By analyzing the women of The West Wing, we see that in US political fiction, women have been depicted as (1) the man’s moral guide; (2) incapable of politics; and (3) sexual, according to the ‘male gaze.’ The women’s movement began to challenge long established presumptions about family life, sex roles, and marriage, while demand equality of pay and opportunity. But the world is still very much male. ‘Man’ embodies all of humanity and ‘woman’ is just a part of it. Imagine if it was the other way around: that the film industry uses its power to ridicule the men’s liberation movement by portraying them in films as ‘frustrated studs’ that burn their jockstraps because they are delusional enough to believe they can be women and at the end of the day, they end up with a condescending woman, giving up the struggle to be happily ever after subservient to her. In the real world, audiences would balk at this as a joke. Yet, that is how women are represented constantly, albeit more subtly in today’s Hollywood. What is more disturbing is how the public and especially its women can so passively embrace the industry’s interpretations of life.