In which I have thoughts about Aaron Sorkin’s female characters.

So, I finally sat down with the first episode of the new Aaron Sorkin show, The Newsroom. I’ve been putting it off all week in the fear that it is as bad as some of the critics have been saying.

That’s not necessarily about having to agree with the critics – to even mildly like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is to like it more than the critics, and I really like it – so I don’t feel like I’m too hung up on that. It’s more that some of the criticism has felt a little on target in thinking about Sorkin’s work more broadly (especially Alyssa Rosenberg, who I always find engaging). And while I love Sorkin’s work (The West Wing being probably my favourite show in the history of forever), I’m alive to the fact that that doesn’t make it unproblematic.

Having watched it, I am positive – with reservations. One issue is, I think going to remain problematic, and the other – I think – is more about the ‘kind’ of television show Sorkin wants to write, a kind that seems to be deeply unfashionable, and whether or not you are willing to go with it and enjoy it is something that’s is largely a matter of personal taste. I’m going to do the ‘women’ thing first – because it’s on my mind and is currently the most thought through. I’ll save my musings on the aesthetics of what constitutes ‘good television’ (which has quite a lot to do with personal taste) at a later date.

The first has come up a bit recently because of an interview Sorkin did with the Globe and Mail reporter, Sarah Nicole Prickett, in which he comes across as something of a patronising prick. Now, everyone has bad days when doing press, and she has the power of writing about him – but at the same time, let’s not sit around making lame excuses for him saying things like, “Listen here, Internet girl,” or, “I’m sick of girls who don’t know how to high-five.” He’s a grown-ass human being. He should know how to treat people better even if he is tired of doing press and feeling all misunderstood in the modern world (oh the pain, the pain, of being one of the most celebrated writers of the day and a white male American in the prime of life…). And Sorkin’s depictions of women are interesting, partly because they connect to larger debates about masculinity and what it is to be a ‘man’ (or, as Sarah Nicole Prickett writes, how, “A certain kind of man is now freaking out over the loss of his greatness”), and partly because in CJ Cregg, Aaron Sorkin created one of the most beloved female characters of the twenty-first century. I don’t think there’s any female friend of mine who hasn’t at some point said something like, “When I grow up I want to be CJ.”

But how does a guy who writes characters like CJ, like Dana in Sportsnight or Harriet Hayes in Studio 60 (a) still seem to think that the 50s were the golden age for America and (b) write a female character so deeply patronised as Maggie Jordan in the first episode of The Newsroom? I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that, for all I love the women that Sorkin has written, they are all quite often and quite largely defined by the ‘Great Men’ they work with and for (Isaac in Sportsnight, President Bartlett, the ‘great writer’ Matt in Studio 60) and in relation to the other men in their lives. To a large extent, Sorkin’s ace women are allowed to be as they are because they are because the great men around them allow and enable them to fulfil their potential. They don’t have the moment that Lena Dunham recorded this week, where another woman (Nora Ephron) acts as the influencer and empowerer (although Mrs Bartlett, CJ and Abby all encourage Donna on occasion in The West Wing, her defining relationship is always Josh). Ephron told Dunham, "You can’t meet someone until you’ve become what you’re becoming.” Sorkin’s women are helped to become that person by his men.

There are moments in The Newsroom’s first episode that look like they might buck that trend – as Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and Don (his departing EP, who is dating Alison Pill’s younger character) both start as pretty epic douchebags, and the women look like they’re about to band together to make their own way (although, shopping as the reward for doing well? Emily Mortimer and Alison Pill, I am sorry Sorkin thinks that’s the prize for women. Unless it’s book shopping, in which case I take it back). However, Sorkin’s not going to let them be douchebags for long, clearly. They’re already on the road to redemption buy the end of the episode, and both Maggie and Mackenzie are endorsed by the end of the episode.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m OK with men acting as mentors and patrons for women (I have male mentors, after all). But there is a line between ‘being a patron of’ and ‘being patronising’ – and also only really having men fulfil that role, and those are both potholes that The Newsroom falls into. And I think it would make for a more interesting show, with more to say about the state of the world and the state of news media, as regards gender balance and relations if it didn’t – if Will and Don were allowed to remain relatively unreconstructed figures who Mackenzie and Maggie were shaped against rather than shaped by.

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