Thursday, August 2, 2012

Aaron Sorkin Has Lady Issues (But The Newsroom Is Fun)

Okay. I’m a little behind on the zeitgeist. The Newsroom only just aired last night on HBO here, so I’ve just gotten a taste of the show and I’m now frantically tracking down the next episodes because this is a super fun show about people who care deeply about things. And I like that. It’s what makes Sorkin a great writer, and what makes him interesting artistically.

But here’s what I’ve noticed so far about his stuff. He’s a little…hung up?

I guess what I’m saying is that after watching The Newsroom and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Social Network and Sports Night, I’m starting to notice a trend. Specifically, a character trend. More specifically, an ex-girlfriend trend.

You see where I’m going with this?

Jeff Daniels looks the way Sorkin wishes he looked.
In an alarming number of his shows and movies, Aaron Sorkin chooses to focus on a male straight white protagonist (which is sadly par for the course), and that straight white male protagonist (who is also probably very privileged) has an evil ex.

Aside from sweeping assumptions about the state of Mr. Sorkin’s relationships and mental health, what this gives us is a trove of characters who exist solely in relation to the male protagonists. Now, I’m not denying that Sorkin is a great writer. I’d have to be crazy to do that. But I am saying that he’s got a problem with writing women who exist independent of men.

Let’s look at The Newsroom since that’s the most recent, shall we?

In this show the protagonist is clearly Will. It’s Will’s actions that set the plot going, and it’s his issues that keep it there. Since Will decided to open his trap and give his honest opinion in an interview, he’s now got to find a new Executive Producer for his show. And in walks Mackenzie, a bright and talented woman just back from Afghanistan, who happens to be his ex.

Here’s the deal: Will did not need to have dated Mackenzie to dislike her. Sorkin could have had him hate her because they clashed when they last worked together. Maybe she stole his dream job. Maybe he’s just too resistant to change and insists that they find someone more suitable to his old way of doing things. Maybe he just doesn’t like her.

But Sorkin went with the ex thing. This colors their relationship in a couple of important and irritating ways. First, it means that all of their interactions are subtextually about their failed relationship. Some people would approve of the tension this adds, but personally, it makes it all less interesting. If it’s a power struggle about sex, it’s less appealing to me than if it’s a power struggle about the appropriate way for a broadcast to run.

Second, it means that all of the references to them from the staff have to do with their failed relationship. In the second episode, when Mackenzie discovers from Sloan that everyone thinks Will cheated on her. Now, personally, in this situation, I’d probably just shrug and let it be, because a whimpering denial is only going to make people more interested in the real story (which they’ve chosen to keep hidden). But Mackenzie doesn’t do that. She throws her hands up in the air and freaks out about the importance of denying it, forcing Sloan, who has a rather important job, to walk around trying to fix it.

Let us note here two things: one, Mackenzie also has a very important job that she is choosing to ignore in favor of three year old drama about her ex, and two, Mackenzie is the one who has to strenuously deny this in the story, not Will.

This tells us a little something about how Sorkin sees women. As we can gather from most of his work, Sorkin sees women as a little flighty, commitment-phobic, and bad at handling two things at once. Seriously. Think about it. Even the women he shows that are supposed to be confident and interesting, like Mackenzie or Felicity Huffman from Sports Night, or Allison Janney on The West Wing are a little flakey, and more than a little neurotic.

It also shows us that Sorkin thinks women should bear the brunt of the relationship storylines. While Will is out stressing about his ratings and the future of the show, Mackenzie is running around like a chicken worrying about how people see her. Even take the minor character, Maggie, whose whole storylines revolve around her boyfriend, Don, and the guy who wants to flirt with her so that she sticks around and Don is helpful, Jim.

Stop hurting feminism. Please.
Just typing that made me feel skeezy.

And then there’s the final thing we can garner about Sorkin’s view of women: they are always supporting or undermining men.

Again, think about it for a sec.

Mackenzie’s whole job is to make a news show. A great news show. But in her interpretation of that, it means convincing Will that he should stand up for himself. Being his cheerleader. Fighting for Will to make the hard calls, while she backs him up.

The women are the producers, behind the scenes, always ready with a helping hand or a strong piece of advice, so that the men can go out in front of the lights to make things happen.

That’s Sorkin’s world. That’s what women are to him. Backup.

And also, apparently, his ex-girlfriends.

This would be a much cuter couple.
Now, this isn’t going to make me stop watching The Newsroom. I have other problems with the show too, about how cynical it is, the cheesiness, and the irritating sense of watching people report on stuff that happened two years ago.

But the way that he treats women irks me. It’s weird and specific, and frankly insulting.

We aren’t just backup to help a man pull off a show. And, frankly, the Executive Producer would have a lot more power than the star of a show like this. The EP decides what to cover, the anchor is supposed to shut up and look pretty, and read his damn lines. Maybe they’re trying to make a point, but all it’s doing is making Mackenzie look bad.

And I’m pretty sure that’s on purpose.

So, to close out, here’s an open letter to Aaron Sorkin:

Dear Aaron,

Hi. You seem like a nice guy, I guess. I’m glad you’ve stopped doing all those drugs. Good for you.

But you need to stop taking your relationship problems out on your characters. Why don’t you call your ex instead? Or, if that’s too hard, talk to a licensed professional about these feelings. I’m sure she was a bitch and she broke your heart, but please, please stop writing about it.

It’s getting boring.

Best wishes,

Actually, Olivia Munn is pretty great in this show. Like the one good female character.

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