As a long-time watcher of entertainment written by Aaron Sorkin, I am following the close of Sorkin's first season of The Newsroom on HBO with an evaluation of the politics of the show and of Sorkin's writing as a whole. Much like Sorkin himself tends to write two-parters or even three-parters towards the end or beginning of a season, this is a multi-part series of pieces. While Sorkin regroups with a new writing staff to prepare to resume shooting in mid-November, this is a good time to ponder what changes would be desirable in the forthcoming season. In my previous essay, I discussed what Sorkin was actually saying in The Newsroom about the mainstream media, and how important the message is. In this essay, I examine the portrayal of women in Sorkin's scripts.
HBO’s workplace dramedy The Newsroom has an ensemble cast, but its first season, which concluded last month, nonetheless revolved around cable-TV anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). While sometimes gruff and insensitive, Will is the center of gravity in the show – much as the President was in Aaron Sorkin’s hit show The West Wing – and though Sorkin is conscious of Will’s character flaws, the anchorman’s leadership – both of his staff and the national dialogue -- is generally portrayed as bold, wise, and perceptive. Many have noticed that the elevation of Sorkin’s middle-aged, white male hero has come at the expense of the rest of The Newsroom’s ensemble. In fact, several commentators have put it quite bluntly: “In Sorkinworld,” writes a Time.com reviewer, “the men are men and the women are sorry.” A critic for Daily Beast claims: “In Sorkinland, men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!)” Slate accuses Sorkin of having a “woman problem.” And Huffington Post media critic Maureen Ryan labels the new HBO show “dismissive of anyone who isn't a white heterosexual male.”
Indeed, there are a fair number of examples on The Newsroom to back up these assertions. The young associate producer of the series’ fictitious primetime show, News Night, is smart, conscientious, and an independent thinker. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) is often the one who rushes in with a key piece of information on a story; the one who puts forth an innovative idea for the newscast. Yet Maggie also happens to be a young woman who cannot leave her personal problems at the door. As laudable as her input is, she spends a lot of time distracted by romantic entanglements (two of which work in the office with her), and her primary color is neurotic. She also lacks credentials – she began as an administrative assistant, and got promoted as a reward for her loyalty, not her work. There have to be more experienced news hounds among the support staff that mills around the large open-plan office; it’s simply a statistical probability, since there are so many of them. But we don’t hear much from them because it’s the older white men – host Will, and news division head Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) -- who get to sound like journalistic pros, while the other News Night staffers generally sound like research assistants.
Though Sorkin consciously views the flirtatious, fast-paced dialogue he likes to write as a descendant of classic screwball comedy, he seems to have forgotten that those Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s featured tough, confident, professional women. In fact, that’s what made them work; ‘neurotic’ doesn’t really go with ‘banter.’ Nor were the men put on pedestals and treated as saviors; the scales were often balanced by giving the women more power and the men less. (Hence those films in which the man was impoverished, the woman an heiress; the man a rustic rube, the woman a worldly urban careerist.) It’s not like these films are locked up in a vault -- screwballs are readily available for study. Sorkin might even have gotten a refresher course in 2008, when George Clooney resurrected the cool, successful, feminine-but-at-home-in-a-man’s-world leading lady in his overlooked roaring-twenties film Leatherheads (which he directed and claims to have co-written, though the Writers Guild did not give him credit). Though Sorkin may be better at capturing screwball comedies’ effervescence and rapid-fire wordplay than anyone else, he’s gone off-track with the core character dynamics behind the verbal jousting.
The most knowledgeable and most serious female on the News Night staff is economist Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). She is fluent in Japanese, hosts her own afternoon show, is given a regular 5-minute segment on News Night, has two Ph.D.’s, and teaches at Columbia University. She also tends to speak in an amusingly affectless tone like Star Trek’s brainiac Mr. Spock. Still, her expertise is as a scholar; as a journalist she fumbles, and is insecure about her abilities as a broadcaster. But all her diplomas are truly for naught when Sloan has a bizarre attack of paranoia in a horrible moment when co-worker Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) asks if he can post sexist comments about her online to catch internet trolls. She doesn’t mind that the comments are crudely sexual or even slanderous: he wants to post that she slept her way to the top, and she doesn’t even seem to have heard him. What she freaks out over is a sudden fear when he suggests he post that she has a large backside; she demands to know if it’s true. She doesn’t call him a sexist, she doesn’t sound offended. She turns it on herself. Even worse, Neal tries to reassure her by telling her that some men like that in a woman -- as if she really does have a big rear. Not only is that rude, crude, sexist, and out of place in the office, but for God’s sake, it’s Olivia Munn. She probably hasn’t seen a piece of chocolate since 1990. Note to Sorkin: if you want to instill confidence in your pre-teen daughter, this eating-disorder-in-the-making kind of dialogue is no way to go about it.
Then there’s the fact that Will seems to get last word on each decision concerning News Night. His executive producer, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), makes her recommendations, but she either retreats to wait on tenterhooks and see if her former flame follows her guidance, or she tries to control him and fails -- she issues instructions into his earpiece rather weakly, even when he’s really screwing up. Mostly, she just hangs out in the control room, listening silently to Will say whatever he wants to on the air. She is ultimately so admiring of McAvoy, she even considers his altered state of consciousness stabler than her own -- she lets him go on-air to announce a huge bombshell, Osama bin Laden’s death -- though she can hear that pot brownies have affected his speech patterns.
Mackenzie is unprofessional in a variety of ways; she cries in the workplace, has trouble understanding email technology, obsesses over past mistakes with Will, discloses very personal secrets to a woman she’s just hired, and assigns her minions background research on McAvoy in a romance revenge plot. She is supposed to be a successful former war correspondent, but apart from vague tales of getting shot at, there is nothing about her that seems even remotely informed by that past – given her hystrionics, her confession to having cheated on Will, and her inappropriate, borderline sexual-harassment comments. This well-coiffed, leggy fashion plate seems more like the editor of a lifestyle magazine than a war-zone survivor. And her staff seem unimpressed by her: in a moment of professional crisis, financial reporter Sloan pleads “I need wisdom”; Mackenzie responds “I have wisdom.” Without even pausing to listen, Sloan tells Mackenzie that her ‘wisdom’ sometimes ends in – and then she mimes a nuclear explosion. Mackenzie (her boss) doesn’t take offense, but quietly agrees with her. Sloan then immediately turns to the Father Knows Best standing next to Mackenzie – News Night’s host Will – and his face is already serious and focused.
Obviously Sorkin is not the only writer to weave love stories into dramatic fiction, nor is there anything wrong with creating romantic tension. But he’s not writing Sex and the City, in which the women’s careers were almost completely irrelevant to their real focus: dating. In fact, in the season finale, he overtly contrasts Maggie’s life with Carrie Bradshaw’s in that other HBO show -- an odd reference for him, but he did after all recently date Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis. Throughout his oeuvre, he has elevated educational accomplishment and high professional standards as the ultimate signs of worth -- and has really given no props at all to housewives who dedicate themselves to a family, grandmothers who volunteer in their community, etc. So, particularly in light of his own framework and his narrow definition of value, when the women on The Newsroom are so easily flummoxed by romantic feelings, and so concerned with how the men in the office see them, he is ipso facto presenting his female characters as second-class.
There were precedents for these kinds of portraits on his previous TV series, NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin created an intelligent, discriminating, and risk-taking maverick for Studio 60, Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), and placed her in charge of network programming. Yet this key female character spent the whole season alienating the press with needless hostility, being scolded by big-wigs for foolish mistakes, worrying about the security of her job, and begging her staff to befriend her. After repeated bizarre outbursts, Jordan derides herself as “hormonal” (something I don’t recall any of Sorkin’s male characters ever calling themselves) and she laments her behavior as the “stereotype” of a woman in charge. It was not a stereotype I realized anyone believed in, actually, but I guess it’s one that pops up readily for Sorkin.
The show sexualizes Jordan, defining her by biology much more than by her opinions or her work performance. When network chair Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) wants to warn her to do a good job, he has to bring in her gender: “You saw how fast I fired Wes Mendell? Screw this up and I'll fire you faster. I'm not like every other heterosexual man in show business, Jordan. I don't find you charming.” Several episodes are taken up by a scandal that erupts when her ex writes a sordid memoir of sex clubs they frequented together, and other episodes revolve around her being pregnant and single. When Jordan exhibits an intellectual disdain for reality-TV to Hallie Gallaway (Stephanie Childers), a woman who heads up that division, the ambitious young V.P. sneers at Jordan: “That’s right. There’s another pretty girl at the dance, and this one’s not pregnant.” WTF? Is Sorkin, by any chance, going meta and poking fun at sexist reality-TV cat-fighting, like Tina Fey did (hilariously) in special episodes of 30 Rock? Could he be about to critique the deplorable way women are presented on ‘alternative programming’? Not on your life. After Hallie’s completely unrealistic and insubordinate outburst, Jordan does not reprimand her in any way; instead Jordan feels bad about her own conduct, seeks out the V.P., and apologizes to her! Even when commiserating with a female friend, Jordan doesn’t sound offended by the objectification. But then how could she be, when a few episodes prior, she had advised a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (Christine Lahti) to get access for a Vanity Fair piece by dressing sexily and flirting with Matt and Danny?
And the executive suite is hardly the only chamber at the fictitious Studio 60 soundstage where women are treated in an icky way. One of the performers in the SNL-like sketch-comedy show is openly portrayed as the resident slut, and she allows head writer Matt (Matthew Perry) to use her as sexual bait; Jeannie (Ayda Field) obligingly flirts with other staff members, or even reporters, when her boss asks her to pitch in as part of some con scheme he has going. Not to harp on the ways in which Tina Fey’s own SNL-inspired series beat Sorkin on the same network, but 30 Rock had a story where Liz Lemon tried to use sex to manipulate someone for work-related goals – and Liz ended up suspended and forced to attend sexual harassment sensitization sessions. Clearly, Fey and Sorkin have different mind-sets.
Sorkin actually seems resentful of the very concept of sexual harassment law: towards the end of Studio 60’s first and only season, a former employee files a sexual harassment lawsuit. The character never shows up on-screen to give the suit any credence, and instead we get to hear why the defendants – and people who weren’t even around at the time -- dismiss and deride it. She was too touchy, she just didn’t get the way a writer’s room works. She made too big of a deal out of the sexual jokes, which are just part of the creative process. (Creativity being, perhaps, a male domain?) When a female lawyer (Kari Matchett) is sent in by the network to investigate the details, her actual investigation goes nowhere; she and Sorkin seem to have little interest in the case itself, and focus instead on – I kid you not – the attorney’s attempts to ask Matt out. In fact, she’s so persistent she comes across as a sexual harasser herself, though Matt doesn’t seem to mind. All of which kind of makes sense if you read the report of a correspondent for The Globe and Mail, a woman who Sorkin demeaningly called “Internet girl” (though the newspaper she writes for is Canada’s second-largest daily), then insisted on high-fiving with the line “I’m sick of girls who don’t know how to high-five…let me manhandle you”, and bid farewell with a “Write something nice” parting shot in “the ‘Smile, honey’ tone of much less successful jerks.”
Let’s not forget the Christian comedienne Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), one of the star performers on the "Studio 60" sketch show; a talented mimic, singer, and actress. When she gets a breakthrough role in a major feature, it’s offered to her by a director who wants a relationship with her; not, perhaps, simply on her merits. In another episode, she has to be dissuaded by three male colleagues from posing for a lingerie spread; she has no idea anyone is trying to take advantage of her as a Christian icon. (Meanwhile Sorkin’s series itself takes advantage by interrupting her changing in the dressing room.) In another episode, the show’s producer Danny (Bradley Whitford) feels it is perfectly acceptable for him, as Harriet’s boss, to give her orders on her dating life -- she doesn’t seem to disagree. And though Sorkin tries to use Harriet as a foil to Matt’s sanctimonious, hedonistic, Hollywood-liberal views, her arguments rarely hold much weight. Instead, Matt repeatedly insults her religious beliefs and she puts up with it, pining for him.
Some have claimed that Sorkin has been writing this way for a long time; as The Guardian.com reports, “Critics say Sorkin has a habit of creating one-dimensional female characters in male-dominated settings.” One side note that may be related is that, from A Few Good Men all the way through to The Newsroom, he has frequently given unisex names to women in the most demanding professions: Jo (short for Joanne), Sydney, Dana, C.J., Mandy, Joey, Ainsley, Jordan, Hallie, Mackenzie, Sloan. In Sorkin’s subconscious, he may believe that women who aspire to positions of responsibility need to have something male about them – perhaps he feels that power is a more natural fit for men?
But still, he should get some credit for creating gifted and accomplished women over the years. Especially considering the fact that he does, after all, work in the same industry that gave us Charlie’s Angels and Baywatch. He invented Sydney Ellen Wade, the headstrong environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening in Sorkin’s 1995 feature The American President. Sydney earns more than the fictitious president (played by Michael Douglas) and is highly respected in her field. She is leery of a romance with the widowed dad while he’s president because she doesn’t want to be on the short end of the power differential, provoking this exchange with her sister:
Sydney Ellen Wade: Why did I have to kiss him?...I gotta nip this in the bud. This has catastrophe written all over it.Just a few years later, in the 1998-2000 sit-com Sports Night, Sorkin created Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), the witty, hard-driving, and perfectionistic producer of a late-night sports round-up show. This is a woman to whom authority comes easily and almost unconsciously, as her senior associate producer Natalie implies:
Beth Wade: In what language? Sydney, the man is the leader of the free world. He's brilliant, funny, handsome. He's an above-average dancer. Isn't it possible our standards are just a tad high?
Dana: People in Graphics are my friends.Dana readily gives orders to low-ranking staff members…
Natalie: That's not quite right.
Dana: I am so nice to them!
Natalie: That's one way of looking at it.
Dana: What's another way?
Natalie: That often times you express your displeasure with their work in ways that make them want to take their own lives.
Dana: Dave, Chris, Will, what are you guys doing tomorrow morning at ten?As well as to her star anchors…
Dave: Gotta basketball game at the "Y".
Will: Yeah, it's a 3-on-3 with the guys from...
Dana: Dave, Chris, Will, what are you guys doing tomorrow morning at ten?
Chris: Fixing the sound system?
Dana: There ya go.
Dana Whitaker: You mind telling me what the hell's going on?While the two seasons of Sports Night had plenty of romantic banter, and even some moving twists in its love stories, Dana seems comfortable with her own sexuality, and uninterested in boosting the male ego.
Dan Rydell: We're just --
Dana Whitaker: I don't wanna hear about it. This show's supposed to be fun. You guys sound like you're giving stock quotes. Is there a reason I'm not aware of?
Casey McCall: We think we should be able --
Dana Whitaker: Don't give me your excuses. We've got 18 minutes of show left. What I'd like is you guys to start earning your money. Do you have anything you'd like to say?
Casey McCall: Yeah --
Dana Whitaker: Good!
[She leaves the room]
Casey: Was there a stripper?Her speech to a suitor about self-realization sure sounds feminist:
Dana: At the party?
Dana: Yes, there was.
Casey: Did he have a better body than me?
Dana: Of course he had a better body than you Casey. He was a professional male stripper.
Casey: Let me tell you something. When we're asked, men know how to answer that question.
“The truth is, I have a job that involves me, and stimulates me, and rewards me, and takes up a lot of my time, and I'm not willing to do my job just a little bit. I want to do ALL of it. It's part of me, and I'm different without it. And that is who I am, and that is who you need to love.”And she is capable of delivering a lecture as forcefully and incisively as The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy, even one that is about her love life:
“You're mad at me? You spend six months making me feel guilty for liking my job. Then propose to me, then two days later, you tell me you slept with the woman who wants my job? I say fine. I say fine! Then six days after that, you tell me you wanna break off the engagement. Here's the thing. I think only one of us should be angry at a time, and I have a hunch it's gonna be me.”Moreover, with Sports Night Sorkin tackled the most extreme form of sexism in an episode when diligent associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) is sexually assaulted by an athlete in a locker room interview. Though one insightful blogger found some flaws in the follow-up episodes, surely Sorkin should get some points for broaching the subject and displaying the sensitivity he did – as well as for writing a female character who is so well-versed in sports history and so devoted to sports reporting.
As Sports Night went into its second season, Sorkin began writing The West Wing. Although some have complained about sexism in the Sorkin White House (such as this blog at Feminist Law Professors) the criticisms I have seen so far have seemed rather minor and perfunctory, and rather unfair to a television writer who turned in almost 88 hours-worth of scripts for a pioneering show. (Sorkin created the series and stayed for four seasons.) Sometimes characters on the series were themselves quite sexist: series regular Leo McGarry (John Spencer), for instance, held very old-school views; and the British ambassador Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), who appeared in four episodes during Sorkin’s tenure, was a lecherous 1960’s-throwback (evidently a big Benny Hill fan). But as one site about the show points out, sexist characters are not the same thing as sexist authorship.
Instead, what I always remember from the show are numerous vivid and capable women walking and talking their way through the halls of The West Wing. C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) endures pressures and crises that any White House press secretary would find daunting (pressures which George Stephanopoulos implied could be unbearable in his memoir All Too Human: A Political Education), and she stays grounded, principled, and sharp as a tack through it all. Moreover, Sorkin didn’t pretend that her gender would never be an issue for her – sometimes she is shut out or overlooked, and has to fight back. But C.J. is certainly able to stand up for herself and others:
C.J.: One other thing—The President’s wife of 30 years, Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), was a specialist at two hospitals, a Harvard professor of thoracic surgery, the mother of three young women, and a very rational and self-possessed woman who took seriously the potential to make a difference as First Lady. She was also an opinionated feminist. Her husband had enormous respect for her, and considered her a formidable opponent in any argument:
SAM: Are we done?
C.J.: No, Sam, when I say ‘one other thing’ that means we’re not done, that means there’s one other thing…Before, now, in the future, anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what – and you can’t tell me that you thought there was nothing to it, ‘cause you sat down with Josh and you sat down with Toby – anytime you’re into something and you don’t know what, you don’t keep it from me. I’m your first phone call.…
C.J.: We’re done talking now. You can go.
SAM:…I’ll see you later.
C.J.: Count on it.
C.J.: You're pissed at me?
Toby: I'm saying, I could've used your support in there.
C.J.: You get my support the same way I get yours: when I agree with what you're saying or when I don't care about what you're saying. This time I disagreed.
C.J.: They beat women, Nancy. They hate women. The only reason they keep Qumari women alive is to make more Qumari men.
Nancy McNally: So what do you want me to do about it?
C.J.: How about instead of suggesting that we sell the guns to them, suggesting that we shoot the guns at them? And by the way, not to change the subject, but how are we supposed to have any moral credibility when we talk about gun control and making sure that guns don't get in the hands of the wrong people? God, Nancy! What the hell are we defining as the ‘right’ people?
C.J.: You know if I was living in Qumar I wouldn't be allowed to say 'shove it up your ass Toby.' But since I'm not, shove it up your ass Toby.
President Josiah Bartlet: You know what I did, just then, that was stupid? I minimized the importance of the statue that was dedicated to Nellie Bly, an extraordinary woman to whom we all owe a great deal.Abbey’s Chief-of-Staff Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) is likewise a fiercely independent feminist. Before working for the First Lady, she held top positions in various feminist political organizations and lobbied within the Democratic Party on behalf of powerful women’s caucuses. During the series, she is sometimes in a relationship with the President’s Deputy Chief-of-Staff Josh (Bradley Whitford); this often leads to a certain amount of personal and professional conflict. Unlike the women on The Newsroom, she handles these conflicts with steely determination.
Abbey Bartlet: You don't know who she is, do you?
President Josiah Bartlet: This isn't happening to me.
Abbey Bartlet: She pioneered investigative journalism.
President Josiah Bartlet: Then she's the one I want to beat the crap out of.
Abbey Bartlet: She risked her life by having herself committed to a mental institution for ten days so she could write about it. She changed entirely the way we treat the mentally ill in this country.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes. Abigail--
Abbey Bartlet: In 1890, she traveled around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, besting by more than one week, Jules Verne's 80 days.
President Josiah Bartlet: She sounds like an incredible woman, Abbey…
Abbey Bartlet: When it comes to historical figures being memorialized in this country, women have been largely overlooked. Nellie Bly is just the tip of the iceberg.
Josh: So I just came from seeing Amy Gardner.Then there’s pollster Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin), a confident and forthright political strategist who can also flirt with Josh without losing her cool -- even with a male ASL interpreter accompanying her everywhere. Josh has a romantic/adversarial relationship with her too:
C.J.: Yeah? How'd it go?
Josh: Well, I showed her who's boss.
C.J.: Who'd it turn out to be?
Josh: It's still unclear.
Josh: When I get back, you're gonna argue with me and we're gonna argue about the things I wanna argue about and you're gonna do your best not to annoy me too much.There was also Nancy McNally (Anna Deaveare Smith), the hard-as-nails National Security Advisor. There was Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), Associate White House Counsel, a lifetime Republican who clashed frequently on issues with the rest of the staff – but with equanimity and confidence. For the first two seasons, the aging Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) was the President’s smart-mouthed, no-nonsense, personal secretary, and as it turned out a guiding influence on him since his youth. In the first season, there was also the hyper-educated, super-confident White House consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly). And throughout the series, Josh’s alert, aware, and wry assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) treated Josh more like a college classmate than a boss.
Joey: It's almost hard to believe you're not married.
Josh: I don't need a doctor.So what are we to think? Is Sorkin a sexist or is he a feminist? Perhaps the answer is he’s neither, or a little bit of both. And perhaps a writer’s work can’t be examined as if it contained clues to some secret permanent state. It’s possible, after all, that his attitudes can be in flux.
Donna: Are you a doctor?
Donna: Then be quiet.
Donna: Josh, this was delivered by messenger.
Josh: What is it?
Donna: It's... wait, wait. No, damn, my x-ray vision is failing me today.
Josh: I'm thinking about firing you.
Donna: You've fired me twice already tonight. I'm impervious.
For one thing, in the middle of his rise to prominence he went through a divorce. He later had a significant relationship with actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth, much of which is said to be reflected in the Matt and Harriet push-me-pull-you romance in Studio 60. And he also happens to be very, very successful. In a patriarchal industry like entertainment, if you’re acclaimed as a sparkling intellect and placed in charge of vast high-profile endeavors (as a show-runner of a TV series, for instance), it’s quite likely that you will find yourself surrounded by sycophants. And if it goes on long enough, you may start to think that that’s the way the world looks.
Woody Allen is another prolific and comedic writer whose female characters do not seem nearly as independent and self-sufficient as they once did. In Allen’s early films the nebbishes he played were shy and clumsy around women, while many of the women were poised, articulate, cultured, and seemingly out of reach. Annie Hall, however, ushered in a series of neurotics, harlots, and harridans. This is not meant to cast aspersions on Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, or Soon-Yi Previn; but when artists have had some degree of painful personal experiences in their own relationships, it’s going to be very tempting to use their public platform to express that – and if at the same time they’ve also been showered with accolades for their artistic work, it’s going to be especially tempting to use that platform to blame the Other, rather than question themselves.
Moreover, both Sorkin and Allen seem to have begun to view beautiful young women as creative muses. In Studio 60, Matt writes better if Harriet hangs out at his office to inspire him; Harriet even feels guilty when she hears he has been having writer’s block without her around. In The Newsroom pilot, the catalyst for Will’s inflammatory, Paddy Chayevsky-like public speech is the sight of Mackenzie at the back of the lecture hall holding up cue cards. He thinks it’s a vision. That’s all dandy, but where are the shows with male muses inspiring female geniuses? Artists may think they’re complimenting a woman by calling her a muse, but won’t she feel more gratified creating her own work?
Incidentally, the opening speech that Will makes in that pilot has had a second life on You Tube, as many have been eager to see facts about America – its abysmal world rankings in literacy and infant mortality, its chart-topping percentage of incarcerated citizens and its astronomical defense budget – exposed on the national stage. One statistic Will missed, however, was that the U.S. has one of the lowest percentages in the world of federal seats held by women; the Inter-Parliamentary Union puts it in 91st place worldwide. This ought to be of enormous concern to the person who worked so hard to rehabilitate civil service in his White House dramedy. It ought to be a thunderous alarm bell for him.
But as liberal as Sorkin is both in topics discussed and in his donations to the Democratic Party, he seems a little out-of-step with the status of women these days. There are grounds to conclude it hasn’t always been that way, and reasons to believe it’s not incurable. However, now he’s on the defensive, and has denied there’s anything askew about the way he has written for women on The Newsroom.
May I just say, actually he shouldn’t listen to everyone out there who attacks the show’s depiction of women. Not everyone has gotten there from a feminist place. (Much as the Bush Administration’s sudden concern for the women of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 did not mean they’d joined N.O.W.) Some of the criticism has, bizarrely, claimed that Sorkin’s vendetta against unscrupulous and trivial tabloid journalism is just further evidence of his misogyny. The logic behind this, apparently, is based on a pretty flimsy list: the scheme to smear Will through a tabloid magazine is conceived by a woman, company owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda); the shameless gossip reporter who writes hatchet jobs about famous people just for the hell of it is a woman (Hope Davis); and the primary consumers of such fare are women. Okay, first off, the definition of misogyny is not “women do it, therefore it must be terrible” (objections to the wearing of fur, for instance, are not mainly driven by hatred of women); and the feminist flipside is not “women do it, therefore it must be positive” (the ancient practice of Chinese foot-binding comes to mind). Secondly, I can’t believe that anyone writing about broadcast media can defend our trash culture with a straight face, or pretend to be ignorant of the direct relationship between an American public gorging on infotainment and an American public starved for real information – an electorate bursting with the details of Britney and Lindsay’s rehab stints and custody trials but unclear on whether we actually located weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
If Gloria Steinem guested on News Night, she’d almost certainly agree with Will that gossipy ‘takedown’ trivia is “pollution” and “human cock-fighting,” and that it’s “destroying civilization.” She and the rest of the activist-editors who founded the groundbreaking feminist magazine Ms. in 1971 viewed the existing women’s magazines of the time as “contentless.” Ms. writers, much like the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation, the blog affiliated with the film, and the 1991 Naomi Wolf book The Beauty Myth, have profoundly criticized the beauty-fashion-celebrity matrix for its effect on women’s psyches. Lisa Bloom’s 2011 book Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World also cautions women to break their obsessions with what she calls “our shallow, self-absorbed celebutainment culture”; she urges this for women’s own survival, among other reasons. Sorkin’s detractors would, in short, be hard-pressed to find a feminist to stand up for reality TV or checkout-counter rags. In fact, the Miss Representation blog specifically praised the episode of The Newsroom in which Will lambasted the TMZ (Sorkin dubs it “TMI”) industry, agreeing with him that the gossipy ‘takedown’ culture is toxic.
Sadly, Sorkin was not strategic enough to lambaste TMZ et al from a feminist angle, and indeed there are no feminists in sight on The Newsroom yet – unless Leona Lansing can be counted, by virtue of her power. Sorkin has instead laid himself open to charges of chauvinism with things like Will’s opening-episode speech, in which he waxes nostalgic for a time when Americans “acted like men,” when we were able to be and do great things “because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.” Sorkin may think he’s using the word “men” in a gender-neutral way, but his scripts for The West Wing are dotted with similarly worshipful uses of “man” and “men” and definitions of manhood. And The Newsroom’s opening credit sequence – a black and white montage that pays tribute to selfless and sober males of a bygone era in TV news – just reinforces that gender exclusivity.
What we need is for the former First Lady Abbey Bartlet to show up and harangue Will McAvoy for forgetting accomplished women reporters like Nellie Bly. (Or Ida B. Wells. Or Margaret Fuller. Or Lorena Hickok. Or even Christiane Amanpour or Leslie Stahl.) Let him eat some humble pie. Oh, if only Dana Whitaker would come over on loan from Sports Night and fill in at the control panel, showing Mackenzie that she doesn’t have to pussyfoot around Will. And what is Amy Gardner doing these days? Can’t she stop by and give News Night staffers some insights on how right-wingers are spinning the war on women? The Newsroom is not so far gone that these kinds of injections aren’t possible.
But if Sorkin is going to reverse his recent trend in TV writing, he’s going to need to become conscious of what he’s been doing lately. He can’t assume that because he gave female characters strength at times in the past that he’s in no danger of slipping into sexism. That was part of the lesson of the feminist revolution -- Consciousness Raising 101: that good intentions are not enough when sexism is so ingrained in the culture. No-one can sit back and assume that they are immune.
As Will himself says in The Newsroom’s kick-off speech: “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”
In subsequent articles, I will examine other aspects of the first season of The Newsroom and Sorkin’s mind-set as a writer, including several serious flaws which hold him back from having the impact his themes deserve.