TV writers seemed to unanimously agree on Sunday night that the latest episode of Veep was one of its sharpest, addressing head-on the way that gender plays a role in verbal attacks against bad politicians who also happen to be female — with the unleashing of the most weighted gendered slur — while simultaneously examining, with curious hilarity, the ways that we’ve placed so much importance on the symbolism of words that they’re allowed to become weapons. Emotionally, Selina is more destabilized (appearing more wired and transparently vulnerable than we’ve ever seen her, smoking, in a nightgown) by this than by most of other conflicts we’ve seen her cause and/or endure. But the episode was, after all, called “C***gate” [Their asterisks, not ours – Swearin’ Ed.], and as all gates are, this one was defined then exacerbated by the media. The episode thus also seemed particularly attuned to the clickbait potential of the “gate,” particularly a “gate” surrounding gender politics, hitting on the media’s inherent, paradoxically both progressive and parasitic relationship to identity, in that it calls out injustice but also therein thrives on its persistence, and thus can also craft, manipulate or amplify it.
It all begins when Selina asks her staff if they’ve “read the article on Politico.” As she tries to pull it up on her tablet, Selina can’t get the rotating screen to align itself, a funny gag that also heightens the sense of the desperate mercuriality of contemporary media culture. Finally, when she’s able to pin down the article, she reads, “A high level staffer was recently overheard calling the president ‘the C word.'” She then pulls Amy — one of her only female staffers — aside and asks her to find out who used the pejorative against her. “We can’t have a traitor in our castle, right? You need to bring me a head,” she says, before ultimately deciding to randomly fire three people, knowing full well that she’ll never be able to find out who really said it, because the joke of the episode is that everyone on her staff has used the word to describe her at some point.
Because the initial Politico report had only been about one staff-member using the expletive, the triple-firing itself then becomes a matter of further controversy. Leon West, the series’ fly-like journalist who was detained in a hotel room in Tehran earlier this season and partially fucked over by the Meyer administration (and thus holds a grudge), brings up the rumors of a Selina-targeting “c-word” having been vocalized within the White House walls, and the subsequent firings, at a press conference. The superlatively incompetent Mike McClintock tries to temper media fervor.
“Can you confirm the allegation that the firing of three people from the coms office is tied to See You Next Tuesday-gate?” asks Leon.
“That sort of coarse language is far beneath the dignity of this room,” says Mike, whose claim of dignity is then undercut when he reveals that really all he’s trying to do is quell a potential scandal: “And also it’s not a gate.”
“Oh, it’s a gate.”
“No, it is not a gate.”
“It’s very much a gate.”
“Gate” has of course been employed since the Watergate scandal, after which the suffix of the titular apartment complex was attached to various other sources of controversy — Nipplegate, Deflategate, Gamergate, etc. Some, like Gamergate, where people are legitimately threatened by a gross misogynist imbalance, should be controversies; others, like Nipplegate, perhaps should not. More now than when gates were first being written about in print newspapers, the desire to accelerate the process of deeming something a “gate” stems largely from its hashtag-ability as such. The go-to shorthand for controversy becomes a meaning-vacating term that can apply to all things clickable, glomming the likes of Water-and-Gamergate in with Nipplegate, through a suffix that sees the media acting like a puppy desperately panting in front of an out-of-reach Chartbeat screen.
In the standard climate of content journalism, where the successes of any given post are measured individually, via scrutiny of unique pageviews, there’s obviously a heightened call for cooking controversy within each post. This has defined the media’s relationship to varying degrees of pain and suffering since the beginning of print, but with the newfangled individuation of the value placed on posts — where, once they’re written, Chartbeat and/or Google Analytics set them of on a horserace against one another — we see posts literally competing with one another, and thus needing to one-up one another as far as their controversy-stirring capacities go. One of the best ways to do so is clickbait-y headlining, and one of the fastest tracks to a seductive headline is a “gate.”
Concerning identity, the media is currently at a point where we’ve both aided and simultaneously exploited America’s vast, detailed identity analysis, because for so long the country prized as its neutral the monolithic the cis/straight/white/male identity, and anyone else, in order to be heard, seen or valued had to assimilate to that. While it once perpetuated that notion, the media has now played a deeply pivotal role in enabling the beginnings of a positive shift, as has social media, which paradoxically connects people to others expressing how they’re experientially disconnected from one another. (If social media can accelerate culture clash, radicalize and infuriate, it’s doing so because it’s amplifying voices that for so long remained in the margins, and hopefully creating a broader understanding of the human experience as it’s felt across the spectrum of people society treats differently.) The end goal should hopefully mean enacting a cultural reorganization where people aren’t marginalized by their identities, and eventually where they feel freer to transcend the confining boundaries identity politics itself can create.
But the fear is that this isn’t — because financially it would not make sense for it to be — the endgame for the media. Because the media has shifted with the discourse it’s (thankfully) helped amplify, it also means that now it relies heavily on identity-oriented controversies to stay afloat; the more simplistically polarizing, the better. Sometimes, as in the case of, say, Kit Harington saying he’s experienced sexism, it blows extemporaneously mediocre social commentary from celebrities out of proportion, fueling the fires of outrage with minutiae, thriving on perpetuating divisiveness, thereby perpetuating an argument rather than a discussion, and thereby perpetuating the desired furious clicks.
The hilarious exchange between Mike and Leon during the press conference, in which they volley back and forth over whether or not this is a “Gate,” is actually Mike begging that both the President’s identity, and the ways it’s used to undermine her, not be leeched by the media as fuel for a thousand think-pieces. Amusingly, the promotional team behind Veep at HBO seems to even have been spoofing another way in which the media finds its controversies — in celebrity Twitter mishaps. With an idea pulled from an episode of the show, we see Selina saying something offensive about diabetes and then being called out by Leon West himself:
Amidst an episode of brilliant social commentary, Veep also gets at how the media can simplistically exploit the outrage-potentiality of identity discourse to evade the issues that sometimes underlie it. The potency of the Veep episode, and the “c-word’s” weaponization against Meyer, runs further in parallel to the current election than the show previously has. With Hillary Clinton, we’ve seen misogyny desperately try everything it can — both on the Right and on the Left, with Bernie Sanders’ worst supporters recently using violent language against the presidential candidate and Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Roberta Lange — to bring her down.
But we’ve also seen identity politicking deployed to exonerate her of her past ills, or to say that simply because she’s a woman, her policies would be more aligned with the ideals of contemporary feminism — when in fact she and Bernie Sanders share a good deal of their policy surrounding women’s issues, and when Bernie Sanders’ stances on reproductive rights and particularly LGBT rights have been more progressive than hers. On the other side, we’ve seen (and, honestly, it’s hard not to play a part in this, when everything he say sounds so horrifically “news worthy”) the media favor news about Donald Trump, and the ugly bigoted things he says, over other candidates, to the point where his policies — or even those ugly things — don’t matter as much as the entertainment fueled by his outrageousness. It’s telling that this “gate” in the episode is brought up in the midst of a press conference about the deterioration of the economy and the bailout of banks, and that the internal micro-scandal is ultimately made as macro by the press as the plight of the country.
The media has helped identity become the issue it always needed to become, in a country where it was ignored, except when it was used to disenfranchise and marginalize people. But it’s hard not to see the media simultaneously relishing the conflicts it creates for self-preservation purposes, as publications necessarily fight to stay alive through their dependency on changing algorithms and changing attention spans, as monopolized by a few huge companies; media suffers from capitalism, and so its content needs to reach further and further towards sensationalism and scandal to get viewers. It thus uncomfortably benefits most when someone, say, gets insulted via an identity-oriented affront. In the moment where Leon says “Oh, it’s a gate,” and Mike says “No, it’s not a gate,” that tug-of-war is the sound of journalism making the moves it needs to make to stay alive.