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.
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.