Friday, November 7, 2008

(Fictional) Feminist Icon: Dana Whitaker

Dana Whitaker may seem like a strange choice for a fictional feminist. She is the creation of a man who has often had at best mixed success when it came to creating women characters. She is neurotic; she is insecure; she is worried - at times - about being alone at 34. But I find Dana to be on the short list of my most beloved female television characters, and that is more than partially because she is a strong, capable, wholly impressive woman. Dana Whitaker is one of six brothers, all of whom were obsessed with sports. She was sent to an all-girls school by her mother so that she would not turn out like her six brothers and - as a matter of interest - her father. Unfortunately for Dana's mother, Dana took her education and became the executive producer of a cable sports show, thereby becoming very much like her father and six brothers. And that is the first way in which I find Dana Whitaker to be of a rather feminist persuasion. She went into what is traditionally a male's field, and knew as much if not more than many of the men she encountered about that field. She was proud of her knowledge, and made a career out of it, being surrounded with men who also knew a lot about sports and respected her knowledge and her ability in imparting that knowledge to potential viewers.

I also find Dana Whitaker to be written in a rather feminist light because her story ends in victory, but it doesn't end in romantic love. Sports Night, like all of Sorkin's shows, is built around the concept that work is where families are formed and work is where one escapes to when one cannot succeed in other aspects of life. Everyone is afflicted with the same issues, regardless of gender. Because of that, it is no surprise when Dana comes up with the truly horrendous dating plan, nor is it much of a surprise when her relationship with her first on-screen boyfriend, Gordon, fails miserably. And yet, Dana triumphs. Facing the demolishment of her show due to the selling of the cable company, Dana tells a mysterious man at the bar that "the show didn't fail; but I do feel responsible". Later, when it becomes clear that the mysterious man at the bar is the one buying the network and plans on keeping Sports Night, Dana's joyous cries of "My show is on!" is one of the last moments of the series. Dana triumphs, and the rest of her crew triumphs, because she gets to keep making her show. It isn't a bittersweet ending, with the ever-present cloud of "but she doesn't have a man". She doesn't have a man, but that is more than okay. Because she has these people and she has her show.

Which leads me into another point. Dana's struggle in the first season is in trying to balance her show and her love for and dedication to her work with her romantic relationship. Gordon, her boyfriend, doesn't take her work seriously, and in so doing doesn't take Dana or her concerns very seriously. One of her subordinates, Jeremy, says, "I understand what makes a woman think that any man is better than nothing; I'll just never understand what makes a woman think she's got nothing". And that is Dana's journey; she has to recognize that being 34 and "very much afraid of fish" and afraid that she will not get married is less than she makes it out to be. She has to recognize that she is worth more than the Gordons of the world. And she does. Not well, because she - and the rest of the characters who populate Sports Night - is all too human and is willing to put up with a lot of bad before she finally explodes. But even as she falls, like when she hands off the show to another producer for the evening after a delayed broadcast because Gordon was mad, she still manages to make up for it with the declaration that being executive producer is her job and not her hobby and by saying at an earlier point in time, "The truth is I have a job that involves me and stimulates me and rewards me and takes up a lot of my time and I'm not willing to do my job just a little bit; I want to do all of it. It's a part of me and I'm different without it."

Dana is deeply flawed, and yet incredible. She is intelligent. She is gutsy and daring and vulnerable and brave. And through her, Aaron Sorkin does something incredibly well, and that is to look at this particular woman and the insecurities she has and the issues she deals with as a woman, and why she has those insecurities. This is a woman who loves her job, but feels like she needs a man. And who is, at one point in time, willing to settle in order to be with one. And that isn't a feminist action; but that examination of a particular impulse, an impulse partially created by various forces in society continually bombarding women with how to get a man and how to keep a man and how it is your fault if your man strays, is incredible. And Felicity Huffman is brilliant and portraying a woman who is "an irresistible combination of brilliance inside the office, and something a little less than brilliance anywhere outside of it". Dana's brilliance in the office, combined with everyone's lack of brilliance anywhere outside of it on the show (except maybe Isaac), makes her a lasting and impressionable feminist icon of the fictional variety.

(Parts 1 and 2 of the series)

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