Monday, July 9, 2012 Whitney Holland
Why does Aaron Sorkin hate women so much lately? Isn’t this the same man that wrote CJ Cregg on The West Wing as a (mostly) pulled together White House Press Secretary who then went on to Chief of Staff? Why are all the female characters on his new creation, The Newsroom, klutzy scatterbrains for whom getting to work each day should be cause for a parade?
The two main female characters on The Newsroom so far, are Mackenzie McHale (yuck – why all the alliteration with the names?), played by Emily Mortimer and Maggie Jordan played by Alison Pill. To begin, I think both women are spectacularly miscast. Emily Mortimer, in all of her fabulous Britishness, seems completely out of place as an Executive Producer of a flag-waving American news show. Apparently, she was originally supposed to speak with an American accent, but couldn’t swing that and all the fast-paced dialogue, so they made her character an American who grew up in Britain. Okay, sure. Whatever. Alison Pill, so brilliant as a confident, well-spoken, young woman recently diagnosed with cancer on In Treatment, on The Newsroom, is asked to bounce around with her hair in her eyes, always nervous, never totally sure how to do her job without the help of the two men fighting for her affections. Seriously? I suspect her role would feel offensive in 1962, let alone 2012.
Both characters talk WAY too much, again, to show how nervous they are in seemingly every situation in which they find themselves. Yes, typically women are more verbal than men, but these women say 50 words for every one a male character says.
And then there is the problem with their balance. Both of them fall and knock things over A LOT. Which is why I’m shocked they are able to make it to work every day, at least without multiple plaster casts on their limbs. You would think that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the walk and talk approach to delivering dialogue, would want them to be able to confidently walk around the set without tripping, just to service that device. But no. They are women. And in The Newsroom world, that makes them second-class citizens. I wouldn’t be surprised if in future episodes, they end up doing walk and talks with their arms linked with one of the more capable, well-balanced men to escort them down the hall.
I haven’t even touched on their incompetent job performances. Maggie Jordan blows a pre-interview with an associate of the Governor of Arizona because the associate was someone she dated once. In the most recent episode, it’s revealed that Maggie has such a problem just existing that she has to take Xanax to cope. And when she runs out – she becomes unglued until her man crush/boss comes to rescue her. I know that’s always been my Snow White type fantasy. But best of all, her other “boyfriend”, the one that mistreats her constantly, makes out with her on the newsroom floor after she’s calmed down, to solidify her role as some insipid woman who is most concerned with whether or not she’s kissing someone rather than her job performance, or at the very least, the optics of trying to be professional. I guess I’d be nervous too if I performed like that at my job.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie McHale, apparently someone who won awards for her coverage of the War in Afghanistan, can’t work email and accidentally sends an extremely unprofessional correspondence to EVERYONE at the network! Well done, ladies. Next, she apologizes to the Jeff Daniels’ character, her ex-flame, for bringing her current boyfriend to the studio, after Jeff has unapologetically flaunted two of his flames in front of her in the workplace.
This has bothered me so much (obviously), that I’ve started to review some of Aaron Sorkin’s work in my head and I’ve realized that the competent women in The West Wing are more the exception than the rule in Sorkin’s world. In fact, Aaron Sorkin seems to prefer to write in male-only worlds. In The Social Network, the screenplay for which he won an Oscar, the only major female character is the girlfriend at the beginning of the movie that makes Mark Zuckerburg so mad (!) from having been put in his place, that he creates a program to tell everyone at Harvard how ugly she is. In Moneyball, his most recent screenplay, there are a few more women, but almost all play wives of baseball players. The most developed character was his daughter; hopefully she’ll grow up with good balance. In A Few Good Men, Demi Moore spent a large part of the movie sitting at the table while all the men screamed at each other about whether or not they could handle the truth.
Prior to The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin made a mark with Sports Night, his tribute to Sports Center. I’m fairly certain that the majority of the characters in The Newsroom started with character breakdowns from Sports Night. Felicity Huffman’s character is the female executive producer of Sports Night. She’s in love with one of the male anchors of the show. She knocks stuff over a lot. She chatters nervously. She can’t control the anchor from saying stuff on-air that she doesn’t want him to! But wait, there’s more. There’s a younger couple, played by Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd. He is slightly senior to her, and has to give her marching orders occasionally. She drops papers a lot. Thankfully, he’s there to pick them up. They make googly-eyes at each other throughout each episode and eventually get together.
I loved The West Wing. It is one of my top 3 favorite shows of all time. And while all of the characters were flawed in their own ways, the women, even Donna, had more going on than most of the non West Wing Sorkin females. I will give you, Donna weakens my West Wing argument a bit, because she said, “there goes my man” a few too many times to Josh for my liking. But CJ and Nancy McNally, played by Anna Devere Smith, largely made up for Donna’s weaknesses. I don’t remember CJ falling once. I certainly don’t remember Nancy dropping papers on her way into the Situation Room.
I realized that I would much rather be a woman in Matthew Weiner’s 1962 New York than Aaron Sorkin’s in present day. On Mad Men, Weiner has created well-rounded, extremely competent women, none of whom bounce around their world with hair in their eyes. They don’t jabber on incessantly. In fact, the control of their dialogue signals their power in many instances. While there is certainly an objectification of women in the series, attributed to the time in history, their gender is not looked at as a weakness. In fact, Joan, in all her curvy womanness, is the most powerful woman at Sterling Cooper, if not in the entire series. Weiner lovingly writes Peggy as our heroine, blazing a trail just before, and at the dawn of women’s rights, earning her place as a creative executive. She is respected, not looked down upon, by her male bosses and colleagues, and I suspect, by extension, respected by Weiner. Even Betty, while being basically a terrible mother, and a bitchy person, is still a competent woman, keeping a home and raising children (albeit badly).
I just can’t get over the feeling of derision that Aaron Sorkin has toward the women on The Newsroom. My understanding is, that in a future episode, two women bond over having the same manicurist! I hope that this conversation is had in the middle of producing a newscast, because God knows women can’t possibly keep their minds on getting the job done if a conversation about their nails presented itself. Hopefully a man will be there to refocus them on more pressing matters.
In all seriousness, I truly hope someone snaps Sorkin out of this pattern. I was excited for the arrival of Jane Fonda’s character, hoping that if she were asked to knock something over; she’d knock over Sorkin and then act like a totally professional woman who comes to kick some butt. She certainly rose to the occasion for the most part. But sadly, she was not allowed to speak until the final scene. Her son was there to protect her, saying things like “I’d be very surprised if my mother’s seen Rocky 2.” Two male characters go on to explain the extremely complex plot of the classic film. Thank God. Jane, please save us! And save this show that I really want to like -- but if it doesn’t get better soon, I’m not coming back.
ABOUT OUR CONTRIBUTOR:
Whitney Holland is a longtime lover of TV, chocolate, architecture and snark. Her slightly more recent loves include wine, Central Park in the fall and Sugarbang.com. You can reach Whitney at: firstname.lastname@example.org