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.
“The Newsroom” version of this dynamic is between newly energized cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his former love and supposed ace executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), and it’s even more off balance than the relationship between exes Matt and Harriet on “Studio 60,” colored as it was by its parallels to a certain real-life TV writer and a performer he used to date. Mac, we learn in the first episode, is the one who shook Will out of his complacent stupor by offering him inspirational prompts on notebook paper from the audience of a live talk (he thinks he imagined her there). She broke his heart by cheating on him, and he’s still obviously in love with her, and so he punishes her for coming back by arranging her contract so that he has the option of firing her at the end of every week and, in next week’s episode, having his dates meet him at the office where she can see.
As we’ve moved from “Sports Night” up through to “The Newsroom,” the men in these relationships have tended more and more toward being right all the time, while increasingly the women should have known better — either than to have once walked away or to be waiting for something to happen instead of making a move. Mac has been so far the worst off of the bunch, alternating between being Will’s conscience and his emotional punching bag, between providing him inspirational speeches (“Be the moral center of this show, be the integrity!” she urges toward the end of this past Sunday’s “News Night 2.0”) and humiliating both of them by accidentally emailing the entire company the reason they broke up. Mac’s ditziness gets amplified in the character of assistant-turned-associate producer Maggie (Alison Pill), in whom Mac tellingly sees a younger version of herself and who, in the same episode, also ends having a sexual misadventure aired to her coworkers. That’s not an issue — the issue is that it comes out after Maggie neglects to reveal her past relationship with someone with whom she’s been assigned to do a pre-interview in preparation for air, itself a serious professional mishap even before she messes it up and costs the show an exclusive.
“The Newsroom” is a workplace drama in which the female characters all seem anxious to be schooled, to be secondary, from the knocks Mac seems to seek out to the manipulative and toxic on-and-off relationship Maggie keeps returning to (blind to the noble, adoring Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) pining away) to the hiring of financial analyst Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). Several journalist have called out the moment when Mac makes Sloan a job offer to report on the economy every night. Sloan reponds “There are people are more qualified than I am — I can put you in touch with some of the professors I studied under,” to which Mac says “They’re not going to have your legs.” The legs comment is, whatever, easy TV cynicism — it’s that Sloan would suggest other potential candidates for the dream gig she’s just been told about is appalling. Is it meant to be a sign of modesty? Is it intended to be more likable for someone who’s just talked about her qualifications and why she doesn’t want to do morning shows to then defer when actually presented with a prime job and chance to shine? Why would an ambitious professional journalist ever act like that?
We’re only two episodes into “The Newsroom,” and it’s got enough raw potential to be something much better — Mortimer and Pill are proven gifted actresses, and Munn’s shown significant comedic spark on screen before in otherwise unremarkable dreck like “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” They deserve deeper roles than this — especially in a series that starts off with Will lecturing a college girl and seems to have never quite escaped that vein. I still enjoy Sorkin’s dialogue, even the extra-sanctimonious variety seen too often in this series, and his faith in work as a haven remains moving even as the depictions of the relationships on which that work is built have curdled. This doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be a show about great men and the women who appreciate them — for the benefit of the people watching and for those on screen, we could all use something richer.