When I was a baby feminist in the first year of university, I watched a lot of The West Wing. For those unfamiliar, The West Wing is an American drama series, set in the White House. It follows the lives of a Democrat President and a number of his senior staffers. One of these staffers is Claudia Jean (CJ) Cregg, Press Secretary and later Chief of Staff. In the early seasons, it’s CJ’s role to act as spokesperson for the administration and handle the often hostile press. As I was learning about gender norms, the pay gap and slut-shaming, CJ Cregg grew into my feminist pop-culture idol. She was kick-ass and gorgeous, and did more than hold her own in the boys’ club that was the West Wing. Her storylines addressed the challenges faced by women in male-dominated workplaces. She was judged on her looks and her relationships, and had to prove her capabilities more than any man on the team. But CJ stood up to the sexist nonsense and fought her way to the top, winning the hearts of women along the way. I loved her, and a part of me wanted to be her. That part of me tries to carry her confidence now as I make my way into the real world.
CJ moved in a man’s world, and in the early seasons had to fight to be seen as equal in value to her colleagues. She was often shut out of serious conversations by men who would otherwise view themselves as strong believers in the rights of women. This came to a head when she was misled about troop movements in Pakistan, which led to her lying to the press. When she gets upset, the men assume she is mad about being made to lie – but really her anger is centred on their doubt that she can do her job. CJ pushes back hard against this unwarranted doubt. She’s a role model because she confronts the misogyny and frequently forces the issue into the light, to the discomfort of her colleagues. While not many women have the privilege of calling out sexism in the workplace, watching someone do it was inspiring.
The sexism that CJ faces comes in many forms familiar to viewers. An irrelevant focus on appearance is one of them. A Google search of ‘Hillary Clinton style’ leads to a multitudes of articles explaining how Clinton’s style has deliberately changed to be less ‘matronly’; how it’s pointing to her wanting to be President; how she’s winning in political races but losing at the fashion stakes. People really seem to care what Hillary Clinton wears. Her outfits send messages, and there is apparently an inherent link between being a woman and being stylish.
The world’s obsession with how women look is reflected in CJ’s story. Like Clinton, CJ’s clothes represent so much more than her male colleagues’. Again, where CJ kicks ass is when she calls out this distracting focus on appearance. In season three, she coolly shuts down an entertainment reporter who asks what she is wearing in an emergency briefing during a formal dinner. This moment always makes the listicles of why CJ is a feminist badass. She doesn’t allow herself to be derailed; she gets the job done. She looks fantastic (and knows it), but the briefing room is her professional sphere, and her clothes have nothing to do with the task at hand.
I try to channel CJ’s confidence when it comes to my looks. I wear what I feel comfortable in, and am working on letting go of arbitrarily gendered beauty standards. I’ve stopped shaving my armpits, because it feels like a waste of time, and I’m not that interested in doing something that a man wouldn’t be expected to do. It’s a small battle and I know that no one worth worrying about actually cares, but it’s a start.
As a queer woman at the start of my professional career, I walk a weird line between being ‘out’, and being reluctant to talk about it until I’ve gotten to know someone well. I’m trying to be more like CJ by moving past this reluctance and refusing to care what anyone has to say. While her character was (probably) straight, CJ was (and remains) a favourite for many queer women, who chose to read her as one of their own. The queer question is raised pretty late in the series, and CJ has to work out how to refute rumours that she’s gay, while making it clear that it should be fine if she was. Ultimately, she throws away the script and refuses to deny the allegations on the grounds that it’s no one’s business, while calling out how terribly queer people are treated. It was great to watch a woman be proud of who she is and to stand up to snickering (even if she broke hearts by being straight).
Growing up with CJ as a role model, I absorbed the understanding that while things are harder for women, nothing is out of reach. I’m becoming more aware of the unsaid expectations of how women should appear and doing what I can to push back against it. I know to stand up for what I believe in, to be proud of who I am, and to call out patriarchal bullshit when needed. When in doubt, I can always ask what would CJ do?
Images: The West Wing, The Kobal Collection