Aaron Sorkin opts for male gaze over sincere representation of women

Women are consistently misrepresented in "The West Wing" and "The Newsroom"

Graham Haught/Staff

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At the end of an interview with writer Sarah Nicole Prickett in June of last year, screenwriter and HBO “Newsroom” showrunner Aaron Sorkin cracked.

Rising from his seat, he told Prickett (who was on assignment for the nearly 160-year-old Toronto-based Globe and Mail): “Listen here, Internet girl … It wouldn’t kill you to watch a film or pick up a newspaper once in awhile.”

As Alex Pareene of Salon wrote in a devastating post from July of last year, “Aaron Sorkin is why people hate liberals. He’s a smug, condescending know-it-all who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.” In his tendency to use the TV format as a lectern from which to drone about how America needs to revert back to a day in which Great Men managed the country, he not-so-surreptitiously clothes what is a pretty retrograde worldview.

And it’s this backward perspective that reappears in each one of his shows, a kind of herpetic male centrism that brushes aside distractions like “nuance”; it’s the kind of insidious misogyny and elitism that behaves as if “feminism” is an obstacle to gender equity.

Consider “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom,” Sorkin’s most politically charged works to date.

“The West Wing,” an Emmy Award-winning drama about a Democratic White House that ran from 1999 until 2006, either serially underrepresented its best female actors or wrote them off prematurely. Opting for gimmicky plot devices and gazing male eyes instead of sincere female representation, “The West Wing” was overrated “good television” that overstayed its welcome. As for its harebrained commentary on women, look no further than “The West Wing” episode “The Crackpots and These Women.”

It’s “Big Block of Cheese Day” for the Bartlet Administration, and that means senior staff members spend the day meeting with fringe policy organizations like “Cartographers for Social Equality” or people concerned about UFOs.

The moral arc of the episode is simple. There’s about 40 minutes of “quirky people have important concerns too!” concluded with Chief of Staff McGarry musing about all “the amazing women” in the White House and how they are able to keep up with the men. McGarry remarks that one woman, political advisor Mandy, is “going punch for punch with Toby in a world that tells women to sit down and shut up.” President Bartlet then muses how press secretary C.J. looks “like a ’50s movie star, so capable, so loving and energetic.”

Sorkin’s idea of female empowerment is a lazy one. Consider this: In a cast full of capable and talented female actors, Sorkin leaves it to the male boss to tell us how awesome they are instead of letting us see it for ourselves. If the unofficial first rule of storytelling is “Show, don’t tell,” then Sorkin fails spectacularly.

“The Newsroom” is little different.

The premise of the show is that fictional network news anchor Will McAvoy is struggling to reconcile his massive ego with the fact that no one seems to care about network news anymore. Also, it’s set two years in the past, giving Sorkin an endless supply of IRL occurrences on which to base his drama about an archaic media system headed by an even less relevant news industry figure.

As it relates to vagina-shaming, the show’s fourth episode is a gem. Called “I’ll Try to Fix You” (no, really), the episode is just an hour-long answer to the classic rhetorical dilemma of “Women, aren’t they just crazy?” Accepting a story pitch from a male staffer about the possibility of Bigfoot’s existence, McAvoy then spends the rest of the hour telling one columnist he’s never met that she crossed an ethical line, lecturing a date on why she shouldn’t carry a gun (summed up: “No, honey, allow ME to let you know how to feel secure”) and finding out that said date is “crazy” and that he should look out.

This is just one episode, and I invite anyone to watch any others and not see the offensive stereotypes and prescribed “lesser people” roles that the women of “The Newsroom” get crammed into.

Sorkin, despite whatever designs people have of him as the second coming of David Mamet or as the Left’s voice in Hollywood, doesn’t really know how much about women or issues facing them, and he seems pretty comfortable with that. I just hope his audience feels differently.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected].