A long time ago, I reviewed Sports Night in general, and talked a little in particular about its examination of a neurotic male lead. I know the show is old, but I’ve recently re-watched it yet again, and there’s a lot more to be said about it. This article assumes you know the basics.
Dana and Natalie.
Sports Night passes the so-called Bechdel/Wallace test in every single episode, because the fictional TV show is run by two women producers – Dana Whitaker and Natalie Hurley. In every episode, we see them discussing the show and exchanging information as it airs. And they aren’t just nominally in charge – Dana tells Dan, Casey and everyone else what to do all the time. Natalie also takes charge when her position allows it.
Furthermore, these two women are a team. When Dana’s considering leaving Sports Night, Natalie says, “You’re taking me with you” even if they wind up on some show in Altoona, and Dana immediately agrees. Now, Natalie fulfills a female stereotype: she’s a chronic gossip. Dana fulfills another: she’s insecure about her love life. But because they’re both competent and effective in their careers, and their relationship is so like the traditional depiction of male buddies who look out for each other, it plays as real. After all, some women are gossips, and som are insecure in love. But very, very few of us are without other facets. It’s the other facets (and the fact that several of the Sports Night men are also gossips with painfully deep insecurities) that make Dana and Natalie different from most women TV characters.
And then there’s Sally. She has Dana’s job on the show that airs after Sports Night on the same network. She’s considered ridiculously beautiful by the rest of the cast, and she proves to be full of ambition and little else. It feels at first like the traditional setup for Scheming Vixen – a character that doesn’t exist outside TV and mental instutitions – but by the end, Sally feels real. She wants Dana’s job, so when she hears (mistakenly) that Dana’s getting promoted, she tells Dana’s boss she wants to run Sports Night. She networks with the suits at the network, with whom Dana can’t get along (because Dana won’t sabotage the show to suit their really bad theories about how TV works). And over time, she has an affair with Casey – the anchor with whom Dana has a never-on, never-off, rather unhealthy “thing” that’s lasted fifteen years so far – and then a one-night stand with Dana’s boyfriend. All of this happens without any sly glances or threats or catfighting. Like, you know, in real life. (Sorry boys, we really don’t wrestle in mud when we catch other women messing with our boyfriends.)
The relationship between Dana and Sally gets interesting when we reach what should be the traditional catfight scene: Dana has heard about Sally’s affairs with Casey and Gordon. Dana confronts Sally with great hostility, saying she “deliberately and maliciously went out of your way” to sleep with them both during a time when the show was in trouble (and messing with the personal lives of those who make the show could have made things even worse). Here’s the dialog that follows:
Sally: Oh! First of all, I didn’t have to go very far out of my way to do either one. And the fact that you think my personal life is an act of aggression —
Dana: You’re right.
Sally: — is so typically you.
Dana: You’re absolutely right.
Dana: I’m sorry. You’re absolutely right. (starts to cry) I can’t believe I just came in here and said that to you. Oh… aren’t I pathetic?
Sally: No. Dana, listen to me. You’re not mad ’cause I slept with Gordon. You don’t care that I slept with Gordon. You’re mad that I slept with Casey.
It’s hard not to interpret Sally’s personal life as an act of aggression. She wants Dana’s job; she sleeps with Dana’s boyfriend and her longtime friend and colleague. It’s all very Dana-centered. But does Dana have any right to assume it’s all about her? Not really, and so she sucks it up and does the right thing. And then Sally (perhaps out of guilt because there really is some aggression against Dana behind her actions?) throws her a bone, confessing that Casey really doesn’t like Sally, and their affair is just about convenient sex. Dana tries to reassure her she’s wrong, but Sally is certain.
On TV, women in these situations usually catfight, and men usually hit each other, then bond over beer and become best buddies. Dana and Sally do neither: they put professional accumen and the one thing they have in common – being women in a male-dominated field – ahead of more petty, personal concerns. Forget passing the Bechdel/Wallace test – this is a depiction of women with little in common but the men in their lives choosing not to let that theme rule their interactions.