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.
Photo: Alamy
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Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder