I have been on a bit of a West Wing extravaganza over the last few weeks, and there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in this show that I suspect I will be writing about as I move through my epic DVD set. One of my all time favourite things about the show is Joey Lucas, played by the fabulous and lovely Marlee Matlin. Joey is a fantastic example of a D/deaf character I love, and she’s also a terrific feminist television character.
The West Wing is a depiction of the working lives of White House staffers that aired for seven years in the United States. Fairly early on in the show, we are introduced to the character of Joey Lucas. A California expert for polling is needed, and she’s the woman for the job. What I love about the way she is introduced is that when people first encounter her, they are more surprised by the fact that the California expert is a woman than they are by the fact that she’s D/deaf.
There’s a lot of sexism in US politics, and it’s pretty common to assume that men are the primary movers and shakers, the experts, the consultants. The West Wing confronted that throughout the series with strong female characters like Joey Lucas, challenging the assumptions of viewers as well as characters in the show. A far bigger production is made over her gender than her D/deafness, and we don’t have laughable/ugly scenes where other characters struggle with how to interact with her and her interpreter.
Joey Lucas is presented as a woman political expert, struggling with sexism in politics, having romantic interests in other characters, and having her own opinions on things. She is a character who happens to be D/deaf. She isn’t consumed by this identity. It’s acknowledged in the show, but it’s not made into the central point of who she is and what she does. Sometimes characters say and do ignorant things. They are corrected within the context of the show, and everyone moves on. The show laudably avoided the temptation to include very special educational moments with her character. They told by showing, something television seems to struggle with a lot these days; it’s really ok to just let characters be themselves, to show other characters interacting with them, and to not lecture the audience.
As a feminist television character, there is a lot to recommend her. The men in the show are constantly stepping on her toes and acting like she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and she puts them firmly in place. There’s a great scene where they are preparing to run a big poll, and Josh Lyman is concerned that the pollsters will be chewing gum, and he fusses mightily about this, convinced that Joey won’t remember to tell them not to chew gum; it’s also implied that since she’s D/deaf, she wouldn’t know that chewing gum would be a problem. Lo and behold, when she gets ready to tell the pollsters to start calling, what’s the first thing brought up? Gum chewing. Bam.
Joey’s fully integrated into the landscape of The West Wing. She’s not singled out as a special character or an exception. She engages in brisk discussions, she challenges people, she reminds people that she really knows what she is doing, she has happy and sad days like everyone else. And I love, love, love seeing American Sign Language on television. One of the things that I especially love is that the camera actually shows it. A lot of times, I see a D/deaf character, and the camera focuses on the face or another character while ou is Signing. Not on The West Wing.
This is the right way to do it. Develop a complex character with a lot of stuff going on, let that character just be a person. Depictions like this one do far more than repetitions of hackneyed tropes and stereotypes.
The West Wing may not be airing anymore, but it’s worth checking out if you haven’t seen it, since there is a lot going on in this show; not always good stuff, but such is the nature of television. I think that in particular, the show does a really good job of depicting fussy white liberal attitudes in the United States, with characters being more concerned with how things seem than how they are, and constantly requiring reassurance from minority characters that they’re doing things right on race, or women’s issues, and other -isms.