No wonder the show's female characters are angry, says Bruce Fretts -- they have nothing else to do
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Allison Janney
Credit: The West Wing: James Sorensen

Does ”West Wing” give women short shrift?

The cows weren’t the only ones who were mad on the Nov. 28 episode of ”The West Wing.” The dreaded disease threatened cattle in Nebraska, but ”The Women of Qumar,” penned by creator Aaron Sorkin from a story by three distaff writers (Felicia Willson, Laura Glasser, and Julia Dahl), was more notable for the herd of females having metaphorical cows. Given the show’s spotty track record of characters with XX chromosomes, who could blame them?

Let’s see? there was media director Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), who vanished without an explanation after the first season. There was Laurie (Lisa Edelstein), the happy hooker whose dalliance with Sam (Rob Lowe) nearly caused a sex scandal. Then there are the panoply of secretaries — that’s small s, not Cabinet Secretaries — including the deceased Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), who’s been welcomed into the inner circle of White House advisers. Why? Because Moloney’s a regular and they need to find things for her to do other than flirt with her boss, Josh (Bradley Whitford), and sleep with cute Republicans.

Wait a minute, you say. What about two-time Emmy winner Allison Janney as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg? Oh, you mean the one who was reduced to singing ”I’m Too Sexy” a few episodes ago? How about First Lady Abby Bartlet (Stockard Channing)? We’ll talk when she gets out of the wheelchair. As for Republican counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), she’s been missing from the show for so long, they should put her face on a milk carton.

So it was refreshing to see two plotlines devoted to serious women’s issues — at least initially. C.J. was up in arms over the U.S.’ plan to sell weapons to Qumar, a fictional Middle Eastern country that brutally represses females (are the Taliban’s ears burning?) in exchange for extending a military-base lease. Warned to pipe down by Toby (Richard Schiff), C.J. snarled, ”You know, if I was living in Qumar, I wouldn’t be allowed to say, ‘Shove it up your ass, Toby!’ But since I’m not: Shove it up your ass, Toby!” You go, girl!

The storyline also yielded a rare strong scene between two women, C.J. and National Security Adviser Nancy McNally (Anna Deavere Smith, a curiously sexless presence who’s played characters of both genders in her one-woman shows). In the end, C.J. wound up towing the party line in a press briefing, a disappointing cop-out.

But that was nothing compared to the bizarre denouement to the tête à tête between Josh and feminist leader Amy Gardner (guest star Mary-Louise Parker). The ostensible rationale for their meeting was to discuss her opposition to a proposed U.N. treaty that opposed forced — but not legal — prostitution. Somehow, this degenerated into Amy asking Josh if he’s dating Donna or pollster Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin), then dropping a water balloon on his head in an apparent stab at seduction. But hey, at least she didn’t sing ”I’m Too Sexy.”

How well do you think ”The West Wing” treats women?

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