Aaron Sorkin is once again under fire for his writing of female characters. Following the blowback surrounding his portrayal of women in his script for "The Social Network" (one I didn't actually agree with), he's back attracting talk of sexism thanks to his new (and recently renewed) HBO drama "The Newsroom" as well as a cringe-worthy interview with Sarah Nicole Prickett at the Globe and Mail which starts with him asking the young reporter if she watched his series pilot twice "because you liked it so much the first time, or because you didn't understand it the first time?"
It goes downhill from there.
The Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan and The Daily Beast's Jace Lacob delve into "The Newsroom" and its problematic female characters in a long, funny discussion that's well worth a read. Ryan makes a particularly noteworthy point here:
The twin foundations of the series are that men commit acts of brave journalism and women help them do that, and that any number of attractive women find the pompous Will attractive enough to date (or in MacKenzie's case, obsess over). It kind of makes my blood boil that Sorkin refers to Preston Sturges and classic film comedies when talking to the press about this show, but Rosalind Russell's character in "His Girl Friday" is one of the best parts of that great, great movie. She's got her own agenda, she's flawed but powerful, she's funny, she's independent and she's nobody's fool. I think Sorkin thinks he's recreating that kind of dynamic in various aspects of "The Newsroom" -- in the dialogue, in the relationships between the men and the women -- but the alarming gap between what he believes he's doing and what I actually see on the screen grows wider with each episode.
Yes, when it comes to male/female banter, "The Newsroom" is very much a screwball comedy going slowly, clunkingly wrong. It's hard to really dig into this topic so early in the run of the show -- not just because as of this past Sunday only two episodes have aired, but because it's the fourth ("I'll Try to Fix You," set to air on July 15th), the last of those released early to the press for review, that offers the best and most egrigious evidence of this problem. And it is, definitely, a problem, one that's especially painful for representing a souring of the kind of dynamics that Sorkin once handled in a much more endearing and evenhanded fashion.
Sorkin is unquestionably better at writing for men. He's created some memorable and complex female characters in the past -- Allison Janney's White House Press Secretary (and eventual Chief of Staff) C.J. Cregg is a personal favorite of mine -- but he's drawn to stories of men, gifted men, struggling to work within (and sometimes struggling against) systems that don't always appreciate them. It's a twist on this tendency that made "The Social Network" such an amazingly sad, stinging story of loaded success. The film's version of Mark Zuckerberg lives in an almost entirely male world in large part because that's where he's most comfortable -- his rise to power and the very product he creates are portrayed as a means of having control in social situations. Facebook allows you to have something like a connection to another individual without the exposure of having to actually interact with that person; being rich and important also means that people will always come to you, though not necessarily the people you really want. "The Social Network" is the tale of men who are great at engineering a product that mediates relationships but are hopeless at actual relationships -- in the film, women are terrifying, objectified or both because that's how the characters see them.
But when it comes to Sorkin's television creations, men and women do work together, and one of his favorite on-screen relationships is between a male character and a woman who is essentially his office wife, sometimes one who's shared a romantic past with him. Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) in "Sports Night," Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) in "The West Wing" and, in a strained way, Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" all played off this pattern of smart but flawed men and the women they need to complete/support them. It's not an inherently flawed kind of pairing -- these are all shows about passionate workaholics, so if they're going to have romantic tension with someone, it's going to be a coworker they frequently collaborate with -- but the repetition and gradual erosion of any other type of developed female characters is disheartening and wearying.