Does Aaron Sorkin have a woman problem?

In the space of three shows - <em>Sports Night, Studio 60</em> and now <em>The Newsroom</em> - Aaron Sorkin's female television executives have gone from clever and competent to ditsy and childish. What's going on?

Does Aaron Sorkin have a women problem? In the early years of this century when The West Wing’s CJ Cregg was the poster girl for modern womankind such a question would have seemed unthinkable. But then came Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the two female leads were respectively "angry and incompetent" and "ditsy and repressed" and The Social Network, which ran into a storm of bad headlines about its negative depiction of women.

Sorkin vigorously refuted those claims, insisting that in The Social Network: "I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people." In other words just because characters are sexist, don’t presume the writer is as well.

It’s a fair point but what then about The Newsroom? Sorkin’s journalism drama, which returns for its second season this evening wears its heart on its rolled-up, ink-stained sleeves. It’s Sorkin’s funny valentine to the good old days of news before the internet came along and ruined it for everyone and it wants desperately to pay homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

There’s just one problem – those screwball comedies knew that there was nothing like a dame. When we think of His Girl Friday it’s Rosalind Russell’s smarts and savvy which springs to mind as much as Cary Grant’s savoir faire. In Bringing Up Baby the pratfalls are shared between Grant and Katharine Hepburn just as Hepburn and Spencer Tracy trade the one-liners in Pat and Mike. These are relationships of equals, of sparring partners, where no one loses. By contrast The Newsroom is a show set in modern day America that allows its female characters less agency than Mad Men, a period piece that explicitly addresses sexism in the workplace.

Thus one of the first things we learn about Emily Mortimer’s MacKenzie McHale is that’s she’s an award-winning war correspondent who has reported from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Frankly I’m glad that Sorkin tells us this because you would never know it from her behaviour in the opening episode which includes panicking, dithering, asking the nearest men for help and dithering some more before accidentally sending an email to the entire staff announcing that she was once in a relationship with Jeff Daniel’s character, Will McAvoy. No, this wasn’t a lost subplot from 1990s sitcom Ally McBeal, although I do understand the confusion.

Similar evidence that Sorkin has confused screwball with simpleton can be found in Alison Pill’s Maggie. Maggie is a young reporter and makes the odd mistake, which is understandable. Less understandable is her inability to separate her work and love life, ensuring that she spends each episode flapping, flailing and floundering until an obliging male walks by to bail her out.

Then there’s the fiercely intelligent, super sharp economist Sloan Sabbith. Lucky Sloan is actually allowed to deliver the odd zinger but only if she then redresses the balance by worrying about whether her (extremely pert) arse is too big or obsessing over her lack of broadcast experience.

While season two appears to address some of these issues and the arrival of a smart lawyer played by Marcia Gay Harden is welcome, Sloan’s fears cut to the heart of Aaron Sorkin’s biggest problem. His male characters might have flaws but they are always explained. In The West Wing we know Josh’s commitment issues stem from his sister’s tragic death, that Toby has a complicated relationship with his father and that Sam’s sense of himself was shaken by his dad’s long-term affair. By contrast, as website feministlawprofessors.com pointed out in 2006, CJ’s mistakes are silly and often rather demeaning: in season one she doesn’t know what the census is, in season two she sits in wet paint. These aren’t things that illustrate her character, they’re little scenes to pull her down a peg or two. You might think: "Oh come off it, these are pretty minor moments" and, yes, they are, but can you imagine Josh not knowing what the census was? Sorkin will allow his male characters many flaws but never incompetence. That’s something for women. 

And this attitude has worsened. Somewhere along the line – perhaps as he became more successful and thus less open to advice - Sorkin has stopped writing men and women as equals (as he did in both Sports Night and The West Wing) and instead started to write relationships where men are wronged but righteous and women need advice. As TV critic Jace Lacob astutely noted: "In Sorkinland men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!)."

Thus MacKenzie McHale, Studio 60’s Jordan McDeere and Sports Night’s Dana Whitaker are all the executive producers of their respective shows but only Dana, an early Sorkin creation, was allowed to be funny, clever and good at her job. Dana stood up for her workmates, fought her corner in a male-dominated world and made her own decisions. She had flaws but they were believable and never affected her professionalism, plus she was a grammar pedant, and who doesn’t love them?

By contrast Jordan McDeere was outwardly competent but secretly ravaged by neurosis and prone to rubbing people the wrong way while, rather than producing Will, MacKenzie tends to hang adoringly on his every word coming across like a precocious child hoping for a pat on the head from daddy.

In the space of three shows featuring female television executives, Sorkin has gone from the competent, clever Dana Whitaker to the less competent and less clever Jordan McDeere before ending up with the almost entirely incompetent MacKenzie McHale. If that isn’t a law of diminishing returns then I’m not sure what is.

The Newsroom is on Sky Atlantic from Monday 2 September at 10pm

In The Newsroom: Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale and Alison Pill as Maggie.
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In “Gary Numan: Android in La La Land”, the paranoid android visibly defrosts on screen

This documentary about the making of Gary Numan’s new album is full of the warmth and silliness of family life.

In a month that sees the release of two high-profile, music-oriented mockumentaries (David Brent: Life on the Road and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), it’s strangely refreshing to see the real McCoy in all its tender, ingenuous glory. Gary Numan: Android in La La Land may be howlingly funny in places but it’s no joke. The film follows the British pioneer of vaguely menacing synth-pop (“Cars”, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) as he uproots in 2013 from a farm in England to a castle-style mansion in Los Angeles while putting the finishing touches to his comeback album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind). With him are his highly animated wife, Gemma, and their three young daughters, none of whom shows any of their father’s shyness in front of the camera. Encouraging children to say funny things on camera may be a cheap way of earning a laugh, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable when one of Numan’s nippers gives him the once-over and announces: “You look old when you don’t have make-up on.”

Besides, Numan’s persona was always so calculatedly chilly that it is a joy to see it defrosted on screen by prolonged exposure to the warmth and silliness of family life. That impassive robotic face is now finally human: the skin is creased and crumpled, the gnashers uneven. Those of us who saw him on Top of the Pops in the late 1970s and early 1980s will have been both thrilled and chilled by his sneering poise: he looked like a forgotten member of Kraftwerk who was peeved that the rest of the group had gone off on tour without him. It’s delightful to contrast that memory with the scenes here of Numan grumbling about his wife’s navigational eccentricities as he sits at the wheel of a Winnebago, or confessing that he is creeped-out by his ornate new home with its trap-doors and its hidden passageways.

The property seems like an unforced metaphor for how other people might feel about his unfathomable mind, though the film also has a lot of fun showing the sorts of domestic woes that don’t go away just because you’re rich and famous. At one point, Gemma is on her hands and knees scrubbing cat pee out of the curtains in their new abode – cue a perfectly-timed shot of the guilty party peering disdainfully at the camera. In another scene, Gemma points at a dog turd in the garden. “There’s a whole Kit-Kat in his poo,” she says matter-of-factly as Numan looks on, entirely unperturbed.

At the start of the film, as he hauls bales of hay awkwardly around his farm, Numan comes across like one of the Replicants from Blade Runner – his mannerisms seem learned or programmed rather than felt. The magic of Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s documentary lies in its ability to coax the human being reluctantly out from behind the stiffness, the neuroses. The singer describes himself as “anti-social” and puts it down to “that Asperger’s thing”.

Indeed, it seems his condition accounted for much of the apparent remoteness that hardened into a persona in the early days of his career. It’s easy also to forget what a pup he was: just 21 when “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” reached number 1 in the charts in 1979. And fame terrified him. He talks movingly here of confining himself back then to a single room, converted into a self-contained bedsit, in his vast house, where he would retreat each night to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail while eating chips. In his front room was a blow-up dinghy. “It actually made a comfortable sofa,” he says.

The ostensible focus of the film is the making and release of the new album after six years in which Numan struggled with depression and emotional paralysis while his money ran out. And it’s true that the final 20 minutes or so plays like the sort of extended promo for new product that smacks of a DVD extra. But the picture has enough honesty in its portrait of Numan’s marriage to earn its documentary stripes. Gemma is not only the singer’s wife: she also happens to be his one-time superfan, prone to dashing into his garden to have her picture taken in front of his house. You can’t help thinking it was behaviour like that which sent him running for his bedsit. Asked about her ambitions by the school careers advisor, she replied that she didn’t need to get a job: she was going to marry Gary Numan. (At this point, the couple had never met.)

What’s touching is that she is still his superfan – her adoration has survived the years of stress and desperation, the numerous and traumatic failed pregnancies that preceded IVF treatment, not to mention the conversion of pop idolatry into the everyday, the humdrum. Gemma might come out with the sort of clangers that the makers of This Is Spinal Tap would have thrown out for implausible dumbness. (“There’s an ‘i’ in ‘team,’” she insists, before recalibrating: “In my team.”) But she’s no fool. When the hard drive containing crucial backing tracks for Numan’s new album is damaged in transit, it’s Gemma to the rescue with the soldering iron. “Now cool it down,” she says. “Really cool it down. Put it in the fridge.” Gary Numan taking advice on the art of refrigeration – how cool is that?

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is on release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.