5 scholarly things we learned from ‘The West Wing’

Perhaps my proudest moment as an American came when I introduced my U.K.-born and Irish-educated friend to “The West Wing.” It started during a phone call when the newly immigrated post-doc asked me “What is the State of The Union?” I pointed her to a particular episode. As members of the cult know, while policy is the premise, relationships are the heart of the show. It was the relationships – particularly the tragic one of C.J. and Simon – that hooked her.

Recently, she confessed to me that that she got ‘the west wing’ (lowercase) into an academic paper. While she works in the natural sciences, it planted the seed in my head that uppercase “The West Wing” must be in social science academics.

So, here you go, Internet: Five selected studies that worked in the fictional television show to analyze discourse, activism and cognition.

1. ‘The Discourse of Politics in Action: Politics as Usual.’  Wodak

What the researcher did: This book dedicates chapter 5 to a critical-historical discourse analysis* of TWW. It looks at the construction of hero in the text of two specific episodes: President Bartlet in season 4’s “Commencement” and Josh Lyman in season 3’s “Isaac and Ishmael.”

What we learned: The episodic nature, the always-favorable outcomes, and the ability of particular characters to affect change create fictionalized politics in ways that don’t work in the real political sphere. Anecdotally, this can be seen when journalists suggest a president adopt a Bartlet characteristic or an individual depoliticizes when the political reality doesn’t match his expectations.

My interpretation: The point of argument of this chapter is weak – it pretty much says that television politics are a Hollywood version of real politics. The most intriguing bit was the analysis of the two episodes in the tradition of the Russian fairytale and Wild West mythology.

Interesting fact: The author refers to the show as a soap opera in a way we now think of prime time dramas in the vein of “Scandal” or “Grey’s.”

*Discourse analysis is a qualitative way of understanding the meaning of a text.

Cite: Wodak, R. (2011). The discourse of politics in action: Politics as usual. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

2. ‘Television Illnesses Depictions, Identity and Social Experience’ Zoller and Worrell

What the researchers did: Talked with people who have multiple sclerosis in focus groups and in individual interviews. Also, they looked at MS support group sites online. They wanted to learn how the MS community interpreted what they saw on TWW. This study only collected information through the first three seasons of the show, before many of President Bartlet’s symptoms began interfering with daily life.

What we learned: Some of the people liked the depictions of MS; some didn’t. But, overall, they wished there were varying depictions so that President Bartlet wasn’t a token MS character. After all, the condition effects each patient differently.

My interpretation: You can’t please everybody. Of course not everyone who lives with MS was happy with how something so personal to them was shown on television. Sorkin worked with MS advocates to shape the story responsibly, and Sheen did his own research to show the symptoms accurately.

But, I bet the community that works with disability and rehabilitation today would tell you that giving a character who symbolizes so much power a condition like MS only reinforces the ‘inspirational’ myth. People who ‘overcome’ afflictions and disabilities need not be placed on a pedestal to serve as our inspiration. They are people who are doing their best to live their lives.

Reading this piece reminded me of former vice presidential aide George Covington, who was blind since birth. He chastised Hollywood (though not particularly TWW) for it’s ‘hero’ mythology of the disabled, saying:

“Being blind isn’t a burden; having to be so damned inspirational is.”

Well, I can’t think of a better way to illustrate the ‘overcome adversity’ stereotype than to have the president do it.

Interesting fact: Sorkin gave the President Bartlet MS because he wanted to set up an episode where POTUS was bedridden and relegated to watching soaps – which would require something more serious than the flu – according to a footnote of this study.

Cite: Zoller, H. M., & Worrell, T. (2006). Television Illness Depictions, Identity, and Social Experience: Responses to Multiple Sclerosis on Among People With MS. Health Communication, 20(1), 69-79.

3.  ‘The West Wing and Depictions of the American Presidency.’ Holbert, et al.

What the researchers did: A quantitative content analysis of President Bartlet’s portrayal in three roles: chief executive, political candidate, and private citizen.

What we learned: President Bartlet was shown as primarily engaging or primarily principled depending on whether he was serving as a politician, executive or citizen in that scene. This creates an idealized version of the presidency. The authors say adoption of this ideal by the American public means political communication scholars, who usually examine the news, should also examine art.

My interpretation: Think of a crack house. Now, close your eyes and describe what you see and hear to me. I hope you’ve never been in a crack house. But, then, from what did you draw on to describe it to me? Television, of course. Maybe the news, maybe “The Wire.” The authors here would argue that effect works not only for crack houses, but White Houses, too. Because the evening news doesn’t take us inside the communications bull pen or the president’s residence, how we imagine the goings on of the White House and what we expect of the president is mostly dependent on the stuff we see on TV – even if we know it’s fake.

Although this is a fictional account, it is often times the only information of this kind that a vast majority of the population has to work from in trying to understand the internal workings of this important part of our representative democracy. p. 517

Holbert, R., Tschida, D. A., Dixon, M., Cherry, K., Steuber, K., & Airne, D. (2005). The West Wing and Depictions of the American Presidency: Expanding the Domains of Framing in Political Communication. Communication Quarterly, 53(4), 505-522.

4.  ‘Spatial Representations of Sets of Familiar and Unfamiliar Television Programs.’ Levin

What the researcher did: In three lab experiments, participants were asked about their viewing habits and shown clips of  Friends, ER and TWW. Then, they were shown a picture of a room from the set and asked for directions to another part of the set. For example, “Which way is it from Joey’s apartment to Monica’s apartment?”

What we learned: Viewers understand how scenes are connected directionally better on shows that use fourth-wall sets, such as Friends, than on multiple-view shows like TWW. Also, the set of ER was confusing to everyone. Everyone.

My interpretation: Some people love to call out continuity errors, i.e. “You can’t get from the operating theater to the waiting room through that door!” Most of us don’t care.

Cite: Levin, D. T. (2010). Spatial Representations of the Sets of Familiar and Unfamiliar Television Programs. Media Psychology, 13(1), 54-76.

5. “This is the Night TV died.” Glamorgan

As TWW ended, it was important for many fans to re-narrate their self identities by reiterating the importance of the show to their own lives and intertwining characters or narrative events with events in their “real lives.” p. 277

What the researcher did: Analyzed the text of fanpages of TWW  for patterns of emotional language. This makes a unique contribution to the literature on fandom because it particularly looks at what happens when the show ends.

What we learned: Strong fans identify so strongly with particular characters that after a show ends, they use language that resembles mourning of a death. They began associating events they read about in the news to events they had seen in the show as a way to continue communication with the fanbase.

My interpretation: Do you have an acquaintance with whom you talk about only one topic? And anytime you something reminds you of that topic – a conversation with a friend, a world event, a similar experience – you reach out to that acquaintance to reminisce and reconnect? That’s because that relationship keeps an important part of your personal identity alive, what researchers call ontological security. That’s what was happening here. Fans create an identity around the show, develop community with others who feel similarly, and then face a bit of their own mortality when the show dies. The author points out that likely this is the same type of phenomenon seen when the Beatles broke up, for example.

Cite: Williams, R. (2011). “This Is the Night TV Died”: Television Post-Object Fandom and the Demise of The West Wing. Popular Communication, 9(4), 266-279.


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