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HEROES & VILLAINS: Stella Duffy on CJ Cregg

The novelist (below) hails the real hero of `The West Wing'
CLAUDIA JEAN "CJ" Cregg - ooh, but she's lovely. And I don't mean Allison Janney - the actor who plays the chief of staff, her character in The West Wing - though I have no doubt she's lovely too. She's probably a wonderful woman, full of deeply meaningful insights on the nature of all sorts of important things. But I don't care. Allison Janney is an actor, and even in America, where actors are usually cast for their ability to be the character rather than act it - even in The West Wing where the political activist and actor Martin Sheen portrays President Josiah Bartlett - it is quite obvious that CJ is bigger than the sum of her parts. Great actor, wonderful timing, brilliant dialogue, inter-character chemistry - these are the things that make a character, rather than just an actor, stand out. CJ Cregg is the intelligent, adult, female icon that I never had when I was growing up. Not in real life and certainly not on the telly.

We had Charlie's Angels. And they really were pretty. Farah Fawcett had the hair, Kate Jackson looked good riding a horse, and Jaclyn Smith was cute. But their mouths were, even on a great hair day, far from smart. We had Wonder Woman, in her satin tights, fighting for the rights ... of the old red, white and blue. But in the wish-list Bartlett White House, CJ is an occasional voice of dissent, speaking up against the idea that America is always right and its President divinely inspired.

We also had Follyfoot Dora, who cried a lot. And I'm sure there was a girl in The Tomorrow People, though jaunting John and a computer made all the decisions. There were several more women in Upstairs Downstairs (slutty maids and/or slutty posh totty to contrast with frigid maids and/or frigid posh totty), and there was always some girl or other getting her kit off for Dennis Waterman or John Thaw. Or both. What we didn't have, not for several lengthy series in a row, not week after week, scene after scene, was the idea that a woman, a good-looking one at that, could be on screen and holding that screen. Could be seen to be part of a team, not the plot point that rips a team apart. Could just be there, not as an affront to male power, not as a challenge to ingrained prejudices, not even because she gave the camera something nice to look at, but just there ... as a person. Another person.

Which is not to say that CJ doesn't have hot politics. She certainly does - good, old-fashioned, not-afraid-to-call-herself-a-feminist politics. In the fantasy America that elects (and re-elects) a dream-vote Democrat President, CJ Cregg is a woman of influence who can silence the press corps with a perfectly pitched, exquisitely timed one-liner, ideally while simultaneously juggling two personal crises and her boss's ego. Probably the only thing that isn't believable about her is the idea that in a team of five, heading a "left-wing" government, one of them could be a woman. One hundred and twelve years after New Zealand gave women the vote (Britain only came to the suffrage party a quarter of a century later), the dream that a woman might hold sway in a major world power has only come true twice - and neither Margaret Thatcher nor Condoleezza Rice regularly speak of themselves as feminist. Though they do, too, look good in blue.

CJ has a great job, fine colleagues, good salary, designer wardrobe - all this and less. She wears Armani and her father has Alzheimer's. She has a stellar career and is rubbish at maintaining a relationship. She smart-mouth quips with the best of them - while walking faster than is generally assumed possible at six feet tall - and falls into swimming pools. More than once. She loves her work, has a scrappy private life, and hardly any family time. CJ has exactly half of what we were promised when the second-wave feminist fairy godmothers said we could have it all - on some days the sacrifices are worth it, and on others they aren't. She categorically does not have it all, which makes her a far more honest role model than almost any other woman on US-made TV, and infinitely more credible than the Sex and the City mannequins.

CJ Cregg is brilliant. And Allison Janney looks a lot like her. E

`Parallel Lies' by Stella Duffy is published by Virago, priced pounds 12.99. `The West Wing' is next on Channel 4 at 7.40pm on Friday