Character Study: Donna Moss

When The West Wing first aired in September of 1999, I was six years old and a little too young to watch it let alone understand the content of the show. But I always liked politics and government administration, so when the show was finally added to Netflix last year I jumped at the chance to binge watch it. I finished all seven seasons in the span of about two months. But this article isn’t going to be about all the reasons why I love the West Wing; I’ll save that for another time. This article is about why, around six or seven episodes in, I decided that it was my life’s aspiration to become Donna Moss. Not like Donna, mind you. No, I wanted to be her.

Donna Moss is a fictional character on the West Wing played by Janel Moloney. It is widely known that she was only supposed to have one appearance in the pilot episode, but that the writers and director liked her fast-talking banter with Josh so much that they decided to keep her around. She’s listed as a “recurring character” for the duration of the first season after which she is credited as a regular cast member.

Throughout most of the series Donna works as the senior assistant to the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman. She’s the “deputy, deputy chief of staff” as she likes to call herself, though it sometimes appears as though her job is more secretarial then the work of the other senior staff members. It’s unclear whether this has more to do with her attempts to manage her boss’s personality or the job description itself, but Donna is certainly in the thick of Presidential action nonetheless. Later in the series she goes on to do other things, but this is the Donna Moss that I admire.

For one thing, she’s smarter than she seems. We know from early on in the show that Donna never finished college because she dropped out of the University of Wisconsin – Madison in order to support a boyfriend as he went through medical school. After breaking up with him, she drives halfway across the country to work for the Bartlett campaign, even going so far as to pretend she was already hired as Josh’s assistant. The deception is quickly uncovered, but Josh, amused by her moxy and impressed by her initiative, hires her anyway. Donna is a go-getter and she’s not afraid to stand up to her boss when it really matters. Plus, it takes a certain kind of person to keep up with the long hours, late nights, and fast-paced work of the White House, college degree or no.

Donna is also extremely caring. The show tells us in season two that Donna once left the campaign trail to reconnect with her previously mentioned boyfriend, but returned after an incident in which he stopped for a drink on his way to pick her up from the hospital. In a most memorable exchange, Josh tells her that he would never do something like that. To which Donna replies that, if he were in an accident she wouldn’t stop for red lights. It’s a powerful moment, not just for the undercurrent of romantic tension between these two main characters, but also as a way of showing the humanity behind the bureaucracy. Donna and Josh and the rest of the cast work so incredibly hard in order to help the president run the country; it’s easy to forget that they have lives happening around that work, too. I’d like to think that I could manage my personal life and professional one as well as she does. It’s harder than it seems (especially in the hustle of Washington DC) and it’s a trait that I greatly admire.

I know a lot of people grow up thinking that they want to be CEO or president, but I always thought that the man behind the curtain was more important. To me, Donna is a lot like that man behind the curtain. Josh has a more public role than she does, meaning he gets credit for a lot of work that is actually extremely collaborative. Mind you, I’m not saying that he doesn’t work hard. You can tell that he does. But Donna is the mechanic that keeps his machines running; without her, he would fall apart. In fact, later in the show, he does. I’m not saying I want to be a glorified secretary for half of my career, but I do aspire to be that essential to my superiors.

However, the real reason I like Donna so much is because she already reminds me of myself. Surrounded by a cast of hardworking, Ivy-League educated men (plus CJ), she’s the quirky, down to Earth, somewhat broke, dedicated twenty-something who keeps her bosses grounded in the real world. She slaves away at her job because she genuinely cares about helping other people. She knows what she wants and goes for it, demanding it only when she really needs to. She’s the glue that keeps things running smoothly in the hectic White House environment.

So yeah, I want to be Donna Moss someday. Who do you aspire to be? Let me know in the comments down below!


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