The Newsroom: Behind Every Great Man are 15 Other Great Men (and One & a Half Great Women)

The Newsroom is smart. It is witty, and impassioned and oh, did I mention smart? I liked a number of things about The Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin at his best is my favorite thing to watch. He makes intellectualism a moral issue and I love him for it. If I could boil the first season of The West Wing in a spoon and inject it into my veins, I would.

But Aaron Sorkin has lady trouble. In that, he doesn’t really like to write them as characters. Oh sure, they exist, and sometimes they’re even awesome, but for every CJ Cregg, there are 20 Josh Lymans. 20 whip smart, misunderstood Aaron Sorkin avatars at every stage of life, shooting through hallways soliloquizing at record speed.

If Sorkin were a new writer, fresh to societal criticism, I would note the gender failings of The Newsroom and hope for better next time. Lena Dunham was rightly criticized for her alarmingly racially homogenous cast, but I can note the (correct) criticism of Girls and still enjoy all of the things it did right, because I genuinely believe Lena Dunham will learn, and that her mistakes come from inexperience and ignorance, not hatred. But now she knows, and if her next project features the same palette, she will have made an active choice. “I’m sorry, I just didn’t think…” becomes “I chose not to think.” Aaron Sorkin has had chance after chance to fix the glaring hole in his record and he doesn’t care to.

I guess it isn’t everyone’s job to fix sexism. I suppose it’s anyone’s right to just not give a shit about racial and gender diversity. But Aaron Sorkin’s whole schtick is “doing better.” Being better. Tilting at windmills. Which I love! But it is hypocritical to rant at the American public for sinking into the intellectual and moral mire, to pat yourself on the back for “speaking truth to stupid” and then blithely ignore the negative impact your work has on 51% of the population. Aaron Sorkin prides himself on tackling The Big Issues. Well, Aaron, gender equality is a Big Issue. It is a moral issue. When you are a self-appointed prince of the liberal elite, you must be held to a higher standard. Depressingly, the “higher standard” for mainstream tv is still pretty low and shouldn’t be that hard to reach.  

Sorkin is an experienced writer, one who crafts meticulously and understands structure and symbolism. I do not believe any of his choices are haphazard, though I do suspect his motivations are sometimes subconscious.

Let me run through my specific issues:

1. In the opening rant (you’ll recognize it from Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip, with like, relevant bits cut and paste) Will McAvoy sneers at a “sorority girl” then goes on to extol the virtues of some mythical foregone time when you could “be a man” and there were “great men” who were venerated for being great men.  

2. The first time we meet Maggie (the charming Alison Pill), she is being emotionally bulldozed by her older, more successful boyfriend. I’m not saying people don’t have boyfriends, or personal drama, but Sorkin is a writer who nearly fetishizes the Character Introduction, so to have Pill’s first words on a show about journalism, politics, and morality be about her relationship is insulting.

3. Will McAvoy knows the names of his white, male colleagues, but not his female assistant or his Indian blogger.

4. The first time the two named female characters (The aforementioned Maggie and our main female protagonist Mackenzie) interact on this show about journalism, politics, and morality they discuss….clothes, beauty, and boys. Again, I’m not saying that female co-workers don’t discuss fashion or relationships. I do! But in Aaron Sorkin-land, to make this their primary interaction is defining and insulting.

5. When Maggie is promoted by Mackenzie, it is not because she does something noteworthy in her work (which she does later in the episode!). No, the impetus for her promotion is that she has displayed a warm, fuzzy feeling. While loyalty is certainly an admirable quality, in Sorkin-land, men are lauded for merit, even when they’re assholes. Women are rewarded for being nurturing.

6. So far, there are zero visible LGBTQ characters.

I have not given up hope. Mackenzie is pretty great so far, not seeming to suffering from any of the usual trope ailments that seem to strike Sorkin ladies: Hungry Thin Lady Syndrome, Beautiful Klutz, Neurotic Overanalyzer. Future episodes promise other prominent female characters from Jane Fonda and Olivia Munn (although, good god, am I really pinning any feminist hopes on Olivia Munn?!) Pill’s character Maggie had a shaky start (and Sorkin was especially lazy with her, pulling her almost quirk for quirk from The West Wing’s Donna Moss), but I think there’s potential in that arc.

The Newsroom has other problems that have nothing to do with feminism, most notably that, seriously, I believe Aaron Sorkin does not think we will notice that he is recycling himself at an alarming rate, including his own personal issues. Yeah, you gotta work your shit out through your art, but you’re obviously not making any progress, because you’re chewing the same gristle you were 4 years ago.

A lot of people hate The Newsroom because it’s made by pedantic blowhards for pedantic blowhards. I have a pretty high tolerance for pedantic blowhards (myself included) so that won’t be what drives me away from the show. Sometimes, I need my hour in the liberal, intellectual echo chamber. But I do need to see him try to respect my gender, to try to write something new. I know it’s hard to leave the formula when you feel like the formula works. Bad news, though. It doesn’t work anymore.

I’m still holding my breath for Aaron Sorkin to grow. I want to believe there’s another great show in him. Call it quixotic.

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5 thoughts on “The Newsroom: Behind Every Great Man are 15 Other Great Men (and One & a Half Great Women)

  1. Did you watch Sports Night? I probably need to see it again with more educated, active-feminist eyes than I had when I first did, but I remember the *two* female characters (Dana and Sabrina) both being smart and very, very equal to the central males on the show. Of which there were three, four if you count Robert Guillaume, who was a more supporting character. Not a bad ratio for his first foray into television, on a show focused on sports, no less. Both the females had flirtations and romantic subplots, but then, that’s a two-way street, and standard television fare.

    I think ALL of Sorkin’s characters adhere to archetypes to a degree, male and female. His strength has never really been character; his work is more thematic- and dialogue-driven.

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  4. This is awesome. At least Donna was competent and Josh needed her. Maggie is just… what is the term… “the worst”? Yeah.

    Also, now that Munn’s character has been developed a little, I don’t buy it. I like what he was trying to do, but no one who is that beautiful and together would be as socially awkward as she and other characters claim she is. Her character doesn’t show that in a believable way.

    Wonderfully written and incredibly accurate, Liz.

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