chapter  5
14 Pages

Feminism and political strategy in The West Wing

Whither feminism in the twenty-first century? Or perhaps, wither feminism in the twenty-first century? In this chapter I cannot provide an exhaustive overview of contemporary debates about the vitality of feminist politics, nor is this my intention. Instead, I draw on a variety of works – both academic and popular, in the broadest senses of both – to illustrate that it is indeed the case that (most) feminism(s) is/are withering on the cultural vine. I argue not only that this has profound implications for the constitution of a vibrant feminist politics but also that the disavowal of a politics of feminism has implications for political engagement more broadly, specifically in relations to political judgments of ethical conduct and the legitimacy of violence. As with the other chapters in this book, here I aim to explore what narrative representations of gender and violence in this particular television show can tell us about the world of contemporary politics: in this case I focus on the narrative constitution of feminism and political strategy. To do so, I first analyse a short piece of dialogue between three relatively minor characters in a single episode of the one hundred and fifty-five comprising the popular television drama The West Wing. While this may seem an esoteric choice of analytical vehicle, I link the themes and issues raised in this exchange to wider organisational logics of the series as a whole, in particular interrogating first its representations of feminist politics and, second, the implications of these representations for the show’s visions of political strategy. Although there are many ruptures and resistant moments in the show’s discourses

about feminism – as would be expected in a series that ran for seven years – ultimately I argue that the show incorporates and legitimates ‘a tepid feminism indeed’ (Grant 1993: 188), which has profound implications for the forms of political authority that are considered appropriate and the political strategies that are considered viable. It has recently been suggested that we should ‘take a break from feminism’ (Halley 2006: 10). In this chapter I propose that this is not the case. Rather, through the analysis below I aim to show that a specific type of liberal feminist ideology has

been ‘mainstreamed’ and rendered acceptable in wider social discourse, and this is the type of feminism from which we may wish to ‘take a break’. I argue for the recognition of the multiplicity of feminist voices that speak in conjunction with the type of feminism that has been incorporated, and that offer an alternative to ‘stiletto feminism’, as represented in The West Wing. Ultimately, engaging with the representation of feminism in the show more broadly, and in the episode under discussion here specifically, encourages a more critical reading of political strategy that is crucial to the formulation of a progressive politics of the global in contemporary International Relations. The choice of text in this instance is particularly apposite given the status of the

series and its credibility as a political commentator.