Jenny Shepard and American Politics

Jenny Shepard speaks like Louis Armstrong sings: husky and decisive, full of wit and jazz and careful severity. She chooses her words slowly, unafraid of an argument. She will override a classified mission, confident that she’s in the right, and will not back down. (1)

I placed my emotional stock in NCIS Director Jenny Shepard five years ago, when I first started watching NCIS. I have a history of falling in love with fictional characters, so to speak, and the remarkable Jenny Shepard captured my imagination. Jenny was the type of character we rarely see in popular television: an ambitious woman over the age of thirty, whose strength lay in her intelligence. She was snarky, brazen, flawed in the ways Hollywood and society at large don’t often allow women to be.

I once bought a t-shirt with “Team Shepard” written across it in block letters: an act of appreciation for the confident side of me that Jenny Shepard brought out. I wore it everywhere, from restaurants to grocery stores, garnering weird looks and the rare thumbs-up from a grinning stranger. Assuming I’d received a laugh or two from people who recognized NCIS, I wore the shirt to school, and instead of knowing chuckles, I was met with a surprising amount of hostility.

A classmate took one glance at “Team Shepard” written across my t-shirt and exploded in outrage. How could I care for such a horrible person, she demanded, as if Jenny had reached through the screen and personally slighted her.

Jenny was power-crazed, my classmate argued. All she did was manipulate the people around her for her own gain. I could have said the same for Gibbs, the striking male lead, the morally-ambiguous centerpiece of the TV show, but any criticisms I tried to speak against Gibbs were loudly silenced.

This scenario was strikingly familiar to me. Hillary Clinton had recently announced her bid for the 2016 presidency, and the furious condemnations of Jenny Shepard I heard that day rang eerily similar to media comments about Clinton’s disposition. Even this morning, a guest on NPR commenting on Clinton’s campaign called her “power-hungry.”

In January 2007, Hillary Clinton announced her 2008 presidential campaign, heading to the campaign trail in the following months. In April 2007, NCIS aired an episode that reversed Jenny Shepard’s character like Smeagol’s transformation into Gollum. Gone was the stern woman committed first and foremost to the name of her agency, who remained calm even when she was held hostage, who privately grieved for her driver in the morgue. In her place appeared a nearly clown-like combination of obsessions and emotionally driven conspiracies that betrayed the trust of her agents.

Jenny Shepard quite literally went insane, sacrificing the agency she placed above all else in her life in a quest for personal revenge that seemed to emerge out of thin air. The plot hung by threads, nearly impossible to rationalize, and as her vengeance arc was partially resolved, the male lead left her office with final words, “long live the queen,” which almost perfectly embody our society’s perceptions of ambitious women.

Our popular culture is a reflection of our society, and I do not believe that the timing of Jenny Shepard’s poorly written downfall was a coincidence. As Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign progressed, so did people’s disgust for her. The most common word to describe Clinton was “untrustworthy.” In an appearance on CNN, NPR editor Ken Rudin “equated Mrs. Clinton with the actress Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” (2). Rudin viewed Clinton as a woman whose emotions and desires would drive her to insanity, and his opinion was a common one. On the blog Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum likened Clinton to Lady Macbeth, a woman who becomes murderous for power (3), urging her husband to kill so that he can become King and she Queen, which adds another layer of insult to NCIS’s “long live the queen.” NCIS’s writers transformed Jenny Shepard into the type of character to whom media outlets so often likened Clinton. Our television reflected the opinions of our society.

I confess that even as Jenny Shepard tread down the path of un-grounded madness, lacking the substance writers once happily gave her, I refused to give up on her. In some ways, she’d become my personal study on the perils of writing television in real time. In other ways, she had become far too human to me; I looked upon her as a real person, and what NCIS’s writers had done to her was an injustice that inspired me to fight pop culture sexism through writing and conversation.

As a society, we dislike ambitious women. Women who are already powerful, we see no problem with, but the moment they decide to seek power—we villainize them. A recent article by Sady Doyle on Quartz linked Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings to her ambition. According to Doyle, “her public approval plummets whenever she applies for a new position. Then it soars when she gets the job.” Doyle says that when successful women like Hillary Clinton ask for success and power, society villainizes them. “To campaign,” says Doyle, “is to is to publicly claim that you are better than the others (usually white men) who want the same job, and that a whole lot of people should work to place you in a more powerful position. In other words, campaigning is a transgressive act for women” (4).

Unlike Clinton, Jenny Shepard did not campaign for public office. However, NCIS’s writers heavily implied that Jenny had made sacrifices and sought promotions throughout her life in order to become the director of her agency. “To get here, in this office,” says Jenny in the episode “Singled Out”, “especially as a woman, my career has been on the fast track my entire life.” [5]

I have seen a grown man’s face contort in discomfort upon the discovery that I was a fan of Director Shepard. My classmate, in jest, introduced me to her father as “the girl who likes Jenny,” and he let out an awkward, forced chuckle.

“I can’t say I share that sentiment,” he said tightly. He turned away from me almost immediately, crossed his arms and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and I realized he was genuinely discomfited by my personal fondness for a television character.

“I blame the writers for her downfall,” I argued to his back. So few people were fond of Jenny Shepard, and I considered it my duty to defend her. I had seen her fight, and I had seen her hurt. I had seen her hollow and harden, weather with her job and take the world onto her shoulders. The confidence in her stride, her ambition, her rough edges and sharp angles, the rare moments of tongue-in-cheek humor she allowed herself, had made her human in my head. She had become too real for me not to defend if she wasn’t around to defend herself.

My friend’s father didn’t turn around. “I’m not a fan. She’s an incredibly unlikable character.”

“To each his own,” I said, “but honestly, I think NCIS’s writers were inconsistent. It’s as if they had two Jennys, and I’m very attached to the one they originally created. They decided out of nowhere that she should be more of an antagonist.”

“Well they did a good job.”

I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone call Hillary Clinton “not likable” as if that summed up her character and policy. No nuances, no discussion, simply, “she’s not likable.”

People are uncomfortable seeing ambition in a woman, and the uneasy reaction of my classmate’s father to a fictional character solidified that notion in my head. I had never seen a grown man recoil at something so insignificant to his life.

Jenny Shepard died in May 2008, in the finale of NCIS season 5, in a rain of gunfire worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie [6]. Lauren Holly, who had played Jenny for three years, resigned, and writers saw no other option than to offer Jenny a short, half-hearted arc of redemption that utterly failed her, then kill her off.

In the real world, Hillary Clinton had lost her lead in the primaries, and Barack Obama was on track to become the Democratic nominee. According to the New York Times, media coverage of Clinton became more positive when Obama became the frontrunner—Clinton’s own ‘arc of redemption,’ so to speak.

I cried when Jenny died. Most fans of NCIS chewed their popcorn and went on with their lives, perhaps pausing to write a Twitter post in her memory. The writers leave their audience to imagine Jenny’s death, ending her final episode with a tracking shot of the desert and an abandoned building lighting up with gunshots. I prefer to imagine her standing outside the frame, hands on her hips and her bird’s nest of copper air sticking up in the wind. She furrows her brow; then she marches out of the narrative, leaving it behind for a better story.

Jenny Shepard deserved better from NCIS’s writers. She deserved better from the fans, deserved more than making number 94 on an obscure list of the 100 Saddest Television Deaths. [7] She deserved credit for the inspiring, groundbreaking character she was when she first appeared. To me, Jenny is a beacon of practical hope. I admire her confidence, her ambition, and the skill sets she worked to acquire—from sharpshooting to the mastery of Arabic, French, and Hebrew languages. Now, I remind myself, surly and dark-circled at eight in the morning, that I might not be able to stand up to a Navy commander, but I can voice my beliefs with confidence in a group of teenagers. Jenny motivates me to set ambitious goals and to hope for success, even if it seems impossible.

The portrayal of powerful women in television still represents of our perception of ambitious women in reality. The television backlash to Hillary Clinton’s bid for the 2016 presidency rears its ugly head in shows like Castle, which was cancelled this year after attempting to do away with its ambitious female lead. Meanwhile, I will hold onto Jenny Shepard and keep her safe until the world is ready for her.

[1] Bellisario, Donald and Don McGill. NCIS Season 5 Ep. 6. “Chimera.”

[2] Seelye, Katherine and Bosman, Julie. “Media Charged with Sexism in Clinton Coverage.” New York Times, June 13, 2008. Accessed October 27, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/13/us/politics/13women.html.

[3] Frederick, Brian. “To Weekly Standard‘s Bottum, Clinton remark about washing hands recalled Lady Macbeth.” Media Matters, February 12, 2008. http://mediamatters.org/video/2008/02/12/to-weekly-standards-bottum-clinton-remark-about/142515.

[4] Doyle, Sady. “America Loves Women Like Hillary Clinton— As Long As They’re Not Asking For A Promotion.” Quartz, February 25, 2016. http://qz.com/624346/america-loves-women-like-hillary-clinton-as-long-as-theyre-not-asking-for-a-promotion/.

[5] Bellisario, Donald and Don McGill. NCIS Season 4 Ep.3 “Singled Out”.

[6] Bellisario, Donald and Don McGill. NCIS Season 5 Ep.18 “Judgement Day Part I”.

[7]http://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-list/saddest-television-deaths

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