Who’s Working in “The West Wing”: Using MALLET to Assess Representations of Work | A Print Proposal from Contributor Lauren Pfeil

The American family room is oriented towards a television screen, a setup made for entertaining the home audience and creating water-cooler fodder for the next day on the job. Many viewers can find personal connections with characters and events depicted on television shows; this is reflected with Halloween costumes, the dating profiles of Jims looking for their Pams, and of course, in the recently revived claim “I’m a Samantha.” With both work and television being so central to American culture, I’m hoping to look at the impact of a setting that exists across genres: the workplace. 

Setting aside any main and side plots which are not specifically about workers, working, or being in a workplace, certain elements that are worthy of evaluation appear across workplace television shows. Analyzing the biographical details of television characters—such as employee demographics, reporting structures, wardrobe—as well as their actions—like landing a big sale or microwaving salmon in the break room—would allow critical analyses to be made about how a series portrays the work that forms its basis. Naturally, the selection of the literature to be reviewed would impact the results gained. 

Evaluating the script of a show where the main cast of characters find themselves working on the same level or in similar positions might allow for an interesting assessment of the characters and their relationships when faced with the same tasks. Reading through scripts of NCIS might implore a historian to count how many times Gibbs tells Kate and Ziva to “sketch and shoot” and compare it to how many times he barks the same order at Tony and McGee, perhaps demonstrating a skew in gender or seniority. Jim, Dwight, and Andy’s sales tend to get more minutes of an episode of The Office than those of Phyllis, Stanley, or Pam, and the sales careers of Michael Scott and Todd Packer are heavily celebrated. How significant is this portrayal of the white, male sales representatives’ career trajectories at Dunder Mifflin? 

On the other hand, evaluating a script from a show where the positions of the characters are varied invites a vertical analysis where one could consider who works in which role or how much screen time that individual’s work is given. Mad Men’s interpretation of strict societal roles, for example, is explained as a statement on another time (though I’d invite everyone to consider the employment and pay gaps that persist to this day, as they might be closer to Don Draper’s world than we’d imagine). 

The West Wing is one of my favorite television shows of all time, and not just because my high school choir student teacher said that I bear a passing resemblance to Janel Moloney. A variety of people surround the White House, spanning industries, generations, and Congressional districts, and because the show focuses so heavily on the work of West Wing staffers, there is a wealth of Sorkinese to sift through. If afforded a good sabbatical to repetitively binge-watch seven seasons, I could go about this research question in the old-fashioned way—from my couch. However, digital transcripts and topic modeling would allow for much more expeditious data collection to be done. 

Happily, a fansite exists which boasts transcripts from every episode of The West Wing, aptly named www.WestWingTranscripts.com. Using MALLET (MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit, linked here), I would feed in episode transcripts and get back Mallet’s perceived topics. If I ventured a guess, I would imagine that amongst these would be directives (keywords perhaps including Margaret, Carol, Bonnie, Ginger), legislative (votes, aisle, Hill, bill), and public opinion (survey, poll, Danny Concannon). The findings that Mallet would collectivize would allow me to evaluate the nature of the work being done and the workers who were doing it, without hearing that catchy theme song one hundred and fifty-four times. 

As the Executive Branch is one of the most important workplaces in the nation, it certainly merits scholarly attention. With the success of The West Wing as a series, the fictional President’s fictitious staff were invited to join many Americans’ Wednesday (later Sunday) nights on their La-Z-Boys. Considering the prestige of both the White House and NBC’s stake on primetime TV, I’m hoping that the use of topic modeling and digital transcripts will provide effective quantitative analysis of work on The West Wing

Lauren Pfeil is a graduate student at American University. A native of Des Moines, Iowa and a proud alumna of Butler University, she hopes to push the field of public history towards a more inclusive & accessible landscape.

Reach Lauren on Twitter: @lauren_pfeil
Reach Lauren via email: laurenspfeil@gmail.com

3 Replies to “Who’s Working in “The West Wing”: Using MALLET to Assess Representations of Work | A Print Proposal from Contributor Lauren Pfeil”

  1. Hi Lauren, this is such a cool idea!! I would be so interested to see what the results are and how the gendered roles could show up. Are you planning on doing every season? If so it might be interesting to account for the departure of Aaron Sorkin after the 4th (?) season to see how the writing/roles might change or if any change is present! Also Professor Rao is writing a book on the West Wing right now if you wanted to talk to him about your idea. 🙂

    1. Hey there, Emma!
      You’re spot on in your line of questioning—I think looking at every season would be crucial to analyzing this topic. Ideally, I would divide up the episodes by season, particularly because the episodes weren’t necessarily written in the order that they aired. That allows the presence/absence of Sorkin to be an interesting variable, too. Theoretically, if the representation of women’s work massively improves once the show hits Season 5, Episode 1, then my thesis statement could basically be “Aaron Sorkin is a sexist”. Fingers crossed that determining my argument turns out to be this easy. 🙂

  2. Hi Lauren,

    This is an interesting idea. I like the way you have set up the centrality of representations in television up front. It is also great that you have identified where you can source the transcripts for the project.

    Given the way that The West Wing delves into a range of issues in and topics and plays such a big role in how people imagine and think of our political world it makes a lot of sense to focus on that as a text.

    I would be really interested to see what kinds of topics come out from working with the scripts in MALLET. The fact that the scripts chunk out into individual episodes as “documents” is useful in that MALLET basically treats each document as a fundamental unit which it then attempts to classify. So you would end up having a good number of those units just based on the nature of episodes in a series.

    If you did delve into this as a project, I think you would want to do some explorations in media studies/television studies to see what kinds of things you could find as secondary literature to situate your project in about computational analysis of scripts. I don’t know that area well, but I have to imagine there are some discussions of how those methods work in that context. Along with that, there is a good bit of research and writing on the West Wing, so I am sure you would be able to find some good secondary literature in that context to explore issues that have previously written on and discussed too.

    All in all, this is a really interesting concept and I think if you ran with it that you would come up with an interesting paper.

    Best, Trevor

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