Sara Ramirez’s Kat Sandoval Debuts Even Gayer Than Imagined On “Madam Secretary”

On Sunday, November 19th, year of our (Audre) Lorde Two-Thousand and Seventeen, I saw something transcendent. I cozied up under a blanket on a cold fall night, drank camomile tea, and watched out bisexual actress Sara Ramirez, who happens to also be one of the best known Latina actresses currently working in television, play delightfully quirky and undoubtedly brilliant Kat Sandoval on CBS’ Madam Secretary.

In the 2015 Tony Award Winning Musical Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel memoir of the same name, the narrator recounts the first time she really saw herself in public. She was a pre-teen in a small town Pennsylvania diner when a butch delivery woman walked in. She describes the feeling as not knowing you were traveling in a foreign land until you see someone and instantly you know that they are your home. You’ve never spoken before, but there’s an instinctive connection.

She sings, “Why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful?/ No, I mean… Handsome!/ Your swagger and your bearing/ And the just right clothes you’re wearing/ Your short hair and your dungarees/ And your lace up boots/ And your keys/ Oooo-ooh/ Your ring of keys!/… I know you.”

It’s a beautiful tribute of recognition. A moment that I think we’ve all felt at one time or another. We are just going about our days, and then you look up and something has shifted. You see a glimmer of something that reminds you of your most authentic self. It’s rare for queer women, or women of color. Its even more rare for folks who are butch or genderqueer or masculine-of-center. When those moments happen, we are forced to take stock.

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We had one of those moments last month, when Madam Secratary introduced Kat Sandoval in her suit and tie, with her own version of a ring of keys, her just perfect pocket chain, in a photo heard throughout the queer world. We were gifted with another one of those moments last night, when Kat Sandoval came alive on screen in all of her dapper butch, nerdy, avocado farming, policy savant glory.

To be seen. Really seen. It’s a simple, but undeniably power thing.

Truth time: I have never seen an episode of Madam Secretary before last night. Okay, wait, in the interest of truth, I have once or twice sat in the living room on my phone while my parents watched Madam Secretary during holidays. So let’s say that over the years I have subconsciously absorbed roughly 20 minutes via osmosis.

What I’ve gathered is that Tea Leoni is playing some version of Hillary Clinton. She’s a woman with a blonde bob who is Secretary of State. I don’t think this is Obama’s America though, if for no other reason than I’m reasonably sure the president is white. I have no idea if we are watching a Republican or Democratic administration. Tea Leoni’s husband is played by Tim Daly, who I only know from another Shondaland legacy show, Private Practice. I think he’s a professor? Or he’s a spy for the CIA? Or he’s both? I have no idea. They have three kids. The show employs a lot of Broadway actors, I assume because it films in New York. One of those Broadway actors now include Sara Ramirez.

That’s it. That’s all I know.

But, don’t abandon me yet! I have other qualifications that I am bringing to this review! I’m no stranger to White House dramas. I have seen The West Wing front-to-back twice once as a teenager surviving the George W. Bush administration (I had a “ I Love President Bartlet” bumper sticker above my television) and once as a grad student when the series was first released on Netflix. I’ve seen every episode of Scandal. And I have seen every single episode of Grey’s Anatomy more times than I can reasonably count. I miss Callie Torres everyday, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to watch Ramirez come into herself in these new and incredibly exciting ways. I think I’m in the same boat as a lot of you. I know very little about Madam Secretary. I am open and willing to give it a try.

The main crux of the episode is that a Russian dissident/environmental justice activist has sought refuge in the United States after contracting smallpox. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) works with the retired chief-of-staff to the American UN Ambassador, Kat Sandoval (you already know), to convince the Russian Foreign Minister to contain the outbreak. There’s also a funny subplot involving Elizabeth’s teenage son and his new girlfriend that includes a cringe worthy classic Parents Sex Talk.

But, let’s cut to the chase, we are all really here for Kat Sandoval, right? She comes to us over the course of five acts and five costume changes. The first time she graces our screen, it’s when Elizabeth sees her while watching television with her children.

She’s wearing a broad checkered navy suit with subtle purple highlights in the pattern and a deep purple tie. Her undercut is SHARP. It’s the gayest thing my eyes have ever witnessed on network television, and we are less than six minutes in. She smiles and her voice is Sara Ramirez’s voice as she jokes in Spanglish about growing avocados in her retirement. Her eyes draw you in and you can’t blink. She’s simply magnetic.

Elizabeth McCord thinks so as well. The next morning she invites Kat to the State Department for a sit down meeting. The deal about Kat is that she used to work for the UN Ambassador, but she left in a fit of frustration. She metaphorically burned down the building on the way out the door. One of the Elizabeth’s aides quips that Kat “threw a chair and had a hysterical breakdown.”

Elizabeth doesn’t miss a beat before calling out his casual sexism, “You know, it’s funny that a when a man reaches a certain breaking point and throws something, he’s passionate. But, when a woman reaches the same breaking point she’s hysterical and can’t stand the pressure.” From what I’ve seen, there’s a sort of quiet, sleepy feminism that undercurrents Madam Secretary. I have to say, I’m digging it.

For the record, Kat didn’t throw a chair. No, that would have been silly! She threw a table. At a chair. That had a US senator sitting in it.

Elizabeth’s impressed. She asks her husband, when was the last time that the true story turned out to be worse than the rumor? To quote herself to herself, Kat has a real pair of huevos on her.

The second time we see Kat, she saunters into the State Department wearing a black and white patterned button down, untucked, with her signature chain, a red pocket square, a black suit coat and tie. Her hands are shoved in her pockets and her swagger is on a hundred, thousand, trillion. Fellow TV and Staff Writer Natalie asked that I rank each of Kat’s outfits last night in order of gayness. Let’s just say that it’s a bit like Mean Girls, the limit to her gayness does not exist.

Elizabeth’s schedule has changed because of the smallpox outbreak. As she is walking Kat out to the elevator, Kat cracks the case wide open! Super casual, she just happens to mention that the thawing of permafrost in the Siberian Tundra has the potential to cause zombie smallpox, along with a whole slew of other public health concerns.

Elizabeth’s eyes almost pop out of her head. No one on her staff had even considered that a natural environmental concern was the source. For Kat, it was as clear as the time of day. She doesn’t think twice of it.

The third time we meet Kat, she’s running late. Elizabeth has convened a policy meeting to brainstorm solutions for the smallpox outbreak. Kat apologizes, after spending all that time on the farm she hasn’t quite adjusted to DC traffic. She’s wearing a teddy bear brown suit that wants to own my heart and her smile is perfection. Never one to outgay herself, Kat also has a messenger bag to finish off the ensemble. No one on Elizabeth’s team has solved the outbreak yet, and Kat takes to the white board like she owns it.

She explains, the blankets of snow on top of the frozen soil acts as a down comforter, heating up the earth and allowing for disease to rebirth. Once upon a time, large mammals like Wooly Mammoths would stomp the snow, keeping everything beneath good and frozen. As those species die out, the environment is at risk. So why not slowly introduce new large mammals to the environment? She leaves them all stunned, jaws on the floor, as she flashes Sara Ramirez’s trademark kilowatt smile on her way out the door.

The fourth time we see Kat is probably my favorite? She’s eating a vegetarian kabob at her favorite pita restaurant in a leather jacket and grey hoodie with flannel underneath. Her MOTORCYCLE (!!!) helmet perched to her side. Elizabeth apologizes for intruding on her private time, and compliments her ultra-cool hair. She admits that has been unable to get the Russian foreign minister to sign off on their new large mammal plan.

Kat pauses for a second to chew her food, then nonchalantly throws out peat moss as a solution. Who knew that vegetation could be such fun? Russia has one of the largest natural supplies of peat moss in the world and a layer of peat will act like insolation. It will allow the ground to refrain from defrosting any further, while keeping the soil soft enough to for Russia to drill for oil. Of course, it’s about oil! Have you noticed that all international economy always comes back to oil? In life, as in fiction. I will save my rant about that for another day.

Kat goes back to her lunch. Already you can see the twinkle in her eye. She’s finding her footing again, working on policy and not just getting her hands dirty planting avocados. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting your hands dirty planting avocados, obviously! Kat just has so many skills! She’s excited to color with all the crayons in her crayon box.

The last time we see Kat, she’s visiting Elizabeth for a special request. Her black shirt and tie allow for the embroidered white peacock feathers on her collar to stand out. As she sits, we can see the rolled cuff of her pants and, I kid you not, combat boots! She had such fun solving this case with Elizabeth and she heard that a policy advisor position is open at the State Department. She promises that her furniture throwing days are behind her and would like to be considered.

We all know how this ends. Elizabeth accepts her application on the spot. And we have Sara Ramirez back on our television screens for the foreseeable future! It’s a win-win for all!

One last serious note- I cannot get over it. I cannot get over having a queer woman of color on network television who is this stylish, and smart, and geeky-sexy. A soft butch dapper babe after my heart. And on CBS, no less! A network most known for it’s older demographic and conservatism. A network who has been under fire in recent years for it’s stark lack of programming featuring women protagonists. I have racked by brain back and forth, but I can’t remember ever seeing someone like Kat Sandoval.

Watching her last night was a blur of emotion. It was hard at times to hear the dialogue over the thundering of my heart. I have never seen Ramirez this confident in her own skin, which is its own kind of marvel. Kat’s sexuality is never directly mentioned to the audience, she’s to be taken on her own terms. She’s there to be a member of the team— on Elizabeth’s team, on our own team. No wait, she’s there to be a star player on the team. And I can’t wait to watch her shine.

Carmen is Autostraddle's Associate Editor and a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 149 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. As a bi woman, I honestly thought it was never going to get better than when Blake came out as bi (THEY SAID THE WORD “BISEXUAL” ON A CBS SHOW) which was a really lovely speech/scene (transcript below) BUT THEN THIS. THIS IS BETTER.

    Blake:
    “I’m bi, ma’am.
    Bisexual.
    I know.
    You’re probably like, “What? Why is he telling me this now?” And I can’t say for certain, um, but it definitely has to do with an old boyfriend who can be kind of a jerk, but makes good points.
    One of them is about what I always considered my right to privacy, which, of course, I still believe in.
    It’s in the Constitution, for God’s sake.
    But, um, I realize now my right to privacy is different than me choosing to be private and really has more to do with trusting people with my private business, which is hard for me, because I’ve experienced a lot of weird bi-phobia from everyone I mean, straight people, gay people.
    Not that I think that you’re bi-phobic or homophobic or phobic about anything.
    It’s just, I’ve gotten used to keeping people at arm’s length, because, uh, (sighs) I’m not dumb.
    I know people are confused by me, or-or curious, and that’s fine.
    I’ve just, I’ve never felt the obligation to satisfy anyone’s curiosity by posting pictures of me with a boyfriend or a girlfriend on social media, like every other millennial.
    And I always justified that by thinking, “What does it matter about me?” I mean, there’s so many more important things going on in the world, like what just happened in Rome.
    I mean, who cares about my sexuality? But I realize now it’s m-maybe kind of the opposite.
    That if I can’t be honest with people about who I am, then how can I ever have an honest experience with them? Sorry.
    I really hope I’m not crossing the line right now.
    It’s just, I couldn’t wait another minute, because I just, I respect you and I like you so much.
    And I think that we know each other pretty well, and I’d like to think that you kind of like me, too.
    And if I can’t be open with you about this, then how is any of that even true? That’s all.”

    • Yes totally second this! Everyone should watch it. It does everything so well, ( like, several white cis straight male characters that I actually like! mostly) and also you need the background to understand a lot of the dynamics in season four.

  2. Was so excited to see her so many times this ep and not even remotely over it but my main takeaway was that I’m now absolutely sure I couldn’t handle direct eye contact with her cause seeing it on screen was already too much. How is it possible that Sara Ramirez has got even more smouldering?

  3. I’m in the same boat. Never watched a single episode of Madam Secretary. But yesterday I sat down and saw the whole episode while trying to figure out who’s who and what they do. I love Kat Sandoval. She had me at permafrost too 🙂

    I’m in for the ride.

  4. That was just glorious. I have never watched Madam Secretary before, but I loved this episode and will now absolutely continue watching every future episode of it (well, as long as Sara Ramirez is in it, at least).

  5. Hey everyone, straight white guy here. My wife and I have been watching this show since the beginning, and the only problem is that it makes us very sad that these actors seem to know more about running a country than our actual leaders. I echo the comments in this thread suggesting that people go back and watch from the beginning. It consistently shows that governing is hard, and it’s complicated, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Oh, and while several of you didn’t know about the show until Sara Ramirez came to it, I had no idea who she was until now. So nice to meet you all!

  6. I have been watching Madam Secretary since it started. I LOVE Kat, but puh-lease, Tea Leoni is NOT Hillary! I HATE Hillary & would never watch it if she was………YUK! YUK! YUK!

  7. I think you’d really enjoy the show going back into it. Even without the character of Kat Sandoval they’ve addressed sexuality before (one of the other characters came out on the show as bisexual a few seasons back). And they’ve always dealt with progressive issues.

    On another point, they never explicitly state which party the President is in but there is a point where it becomes apparent that he is a Republican and when he gets on the party’s bad side (because he’s a very centrist republican) he decides to go independent. It’s a whole story line so I won’t say too much. And to say that Tea Leoni’s character is supposed to be Hillary is doing the character a great disservice. Other than being a woman with a vaguely similar hairdo, there is little comparison. She’s an ex-CIA operative, not a former first lady or lawyer or senator. She’s brought in to replace the previous Secretary of State (who died) because the President used to be her boss in the CIA and they have history.

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