Sorkin Denies Firing his Newsroom Staff, Denies Accusations of Badly Written Female Characters

The story that the writers for HBO’s The Newsroom had been fired, first reported on The Daily, was soon refuted by Aaron Sorkin facing the TV critics Association:

“A couple of weeks ago an unsourced and untrue story appeared in the Internet that then got picked up: The writing staff was not fired. Just seeing that in print is scaring the hell out of the writing staff,” he said. “They’re acting very strange — they’re coming to work early. … I love the writing staff — I thought that we did great this year, and it’s a fantastic group to work with. We had a ball. A couple of staffing changes were made that included promoting our two writers assistants to story editors, but the writing staff hasn’t been fired; I’m looking forward to coming back to work with them soon.” As for reports concerning Corinne Kingsbury, a staff writer on the show, Sorkin said: “She was identified as my ex-girlfriend — she is not.”

The Daily’s Soo Youn stands by her story, saying two different sources told her what went down and HBO confirmed:

The story was tossed around like soft dough before it hardened, seeming to validate Sorkin’s fear about the way news is shaped and bandied about on the fly these days.  But who is lying?  Soo Youn stands firmly behind her story and other sources have also investigated.

During the panel discussion, Sorkin was also asked repeatedly whether he thought the female characters on the show were given short shrift. He gave his answer:

 “I completely respect that opinion,” Sorkin said.  But I 100 percent disagree with it. I think the female characters are every bit the equals of the men.” He added he worked hard to establish that the women have qualities showing that they “care about others, reach high, are thoughtful, curious. …” Because “once you have those things down, you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want.”

Of course that is his opinion — what else would he say? He wrote the damn thing. But by stating his opinion outright, Sorkin has sadly confirmed that this is indeed how SEES women. That is his warped vision of women: they need men to tell them what to do because they can’t make decisions. MacKenzie is relegated to being nothing more than the love interest to Will’s meatier storyline and/or functioning as his life coach and/or personal aid.  Olivia Munn, so fiery and capably spewing Japanese and acting out unprofessionally online, STILL had to ask Will and Will alone (shunning Mac’s offered advise) what she should do.  Note how on the show no one asks Will if he would lie.  You know why? Because he wouldn’t. But the woman, Munn, isn’t capable of deciding for herself. Her integrity is briskly sacrificed so that the network’s reputation — and Will’s — remains untainted.

Sorkin’s SHOW doesn’t have a woman problem; Sorkin has a woman problem.

Why does it matter, you might ask? Why is Sorkin being taken to task for not being PC? Why should he have to answer to the charges of sexism? Why can’t he just write characters? Well, for one thing, they’re badly written characters. With the possible exception of Olivia Munn, swap out the sexes of both of the female leads and make them men. They utterly disappear.  In Glengarry Glen Ross there are no women at all. That doesn’t make it sexist.  Great writing can often override any complaints — when the writing is weak, the rot seeps down to weaken characters, and cracks become all the more apparent.  Compare The Newsroom, which seems right out of the 1950s, with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Girls, Veep, Enlightened, Homeland, Game of Thrones. Mad Men takes place during a time when women really were subservient but look at how beautifully that’s handled on the show.

The argument that “all character have flaws” is beside the point. Of course they do. That’s screenwriting 101. We’re not talking about flaws.  We’re talking about a philosophy, an old-fashioned idea about women. The powerful women on the show use that power for evil. The weak women on the show defer to men 99% of the time. If they disagree, they are overridden. It isn’t about them being clumsy, not being able to work email (as if), or having jealous spastic fits in meetings where they’re supposed to be focused on work — it’s a philosophy infused into the show. Nice women don’t speak out; only bitches do.  Women are the ones who read the gossip stories and it’s THAT shit that’s ruining news.  Put men back in charge and all will be right with the media again.

But. There are many who disagree with me. Anne Thompson over at Indiewire loves the show and sees no problem. Jim Brooks wrote on Twitter that he thought it was all coming together nicely (paraphrasing). Many people I’ve read on Facebook like the show too.  In the end, Sorkin is right about one thing. He knows that it doesn’t matter what people like me think. Women are used to being treated and depicted that way — it doesn’t get to be the status quo for nothing. Sorkin is right: women really do like the romantic comedy stuff he throws in there to draw female viewers.  Sorkin is right: we do look to men to run the news, make important decisions, and tell us what to do.  What’s the evidence that Sorkin is right and I’m wrong? Because HBO has renewed The Newsroom for a second season. Looks like some important men at HBO see things the same way he does.

Though HBO’s Girls is bothersome to me as well I will stand by Lena Dunham because I believe in her.  I think she writes circles around Sorkin and she’s a cause worth fighting for. Sorkin, however, with his arrogant self-confidence is, I’m afraid, not. I’ve made the decision that I have better things to do with my time than watch The Newsroom hoping the problems can be fixed, especially now that Sorkin has refused acknowledge that there’s any problem at all.  Nothing will change on the show, ratings will probably steadily rise, as those with like minds will find it and like it, and the status quo will be maintained.  No one cares what I think. I might as well be one of the woman in The Newsroom who gets to blurt out her feelings just so those feelings can be overruled.

As a lifelong fan of Aaron Sorkin, someone who can quote A Few Good Men AND The American President verbatim, to say nothing of one my deep appreciation for one of my favorite films of all time, The Social Network, I am disillusioned.  His voice that I admired so well, his refusal to accept injustice, helped shape how I go about my daily life.  I speak my mind, fight for what I believe in, and confront the status quo and much of that has to do with Sorkin and some of the great roles he’s written over the last twenty years. But my faith in him has now diminished greatly.  So much so that I don’t even know if I can go back to his previous works (The Social Network, yes, but the others? Probably not).  I look forward to the day when I get over it.  But it ain’t happening any time soon.

I will watch instead MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who out-Sorkins Sorkin five nights a week.  A female presence like Maddow is suspiciously absent in the alternate universe of The Newsroom because the series structure isn’t built to support co-equal news anchors. Unless they’re shaping Olivia Munn to be Maddow (we might recall that Maddow got her start on MSNBC by filling in for Keith Olbermann before a slot opened up when Olbermann fell through a trap door)> It just isn’t so that there’s nobody on television confronting the corruption in the media and government every night of the week. In order to heroically rewrite his alternate history of the worst news practices he abhors, Sorkin must deny the existence of the best that an actual female broadcaster has to offer.

Meanwhile, since I’m not going to watch the show anymore, you have these themes to look forward to. I’ll take a guess which characters get to be involved in which story lines:

A lot unfolds in the remaining episodes of “The Newsroom”: The Casey Anthony case gets explored; the whole Anthony Weiner Twitter-gate fiasco gets the Aaron Sorkin treatment; the man with whom Mackenzie cheated on Will makes a return; the Maggie-Don love triangle gets more thorny; and there’s a major firing.

The full report from the LA Times.

 

20 Comments on this Post

  1. I think you’ll be happy to know that the ratings are dropping every week.

  2. Nate Johnson

    I watch the show. The female characters are messy, especially Mortimer’s, but without re-watching the episodes with the specific intention of comparing them to the male characters, I can’t say that the female characters are substantially messier than their male counterparts. I’d say a fair criticism would be to say that the Newsroom is a show with unnecessarily and unrealistically messy characters.

    The ratings are going down because he’s telling people things they already know. I only watch it because it’s ideological porn, and for the same reasons.

  3. “I think she writes circles around Sorkin”

    Really? I’m not here to bash Lena Dunham’s show, which I actually agree overall has been better than Sorkin’s current work. But as long as Sorkin wrote all the other stuff he wrote, how can anyone comfortably say that basically anyone else ever could “write circles” around him.

  4. Sasha, I’m very happy to hear that you have accepted what many of us have known all along, that Sorkin is a misogynist and a sexist. Still, I’m frightened (as I’ve voiced many times on here without response) that you still count “SOSH” as I call it, as one of the best films. That movie is a disgrace and a poor example to women everywhere–there isn’t one single female character who isn’t depicted as in the wrong, crazy or unsure of herself–Rooney Mara included.

  5. So every single movie and tv show has to depict its female characters as positive human beings? I guess that would make sense if every single female on planet Earth was a positive human being. However, just like men, not all of them are. For fuck’s sake, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend in The Social Network was the strongest (willed) character in the film. You’re going to hold up one tv show that happens to showcase weak people all around as proof that Sorkin is sexist.

    That’s like calling the director of Rise of the Apes racist because the villian in the film happens to be black.

  6. And that’s the beginning of Sasha’s new crusade. Good for you, i agree with some of your points but i can’t understand your anger over the fact that “The Newsroom” is not perfect. Of course it’s not, but it’s still better than at least 70% of the other shows currently running. So why all the rage, it was never supposed to be the messiah of tv shows.

  7. tony r, thanks for providing the desperately needed straw man argument that just because someone criticizes one aspect of one show and one writer, that means ALL shows have to perform a massive overcompensation.

  8. Thanks Sasha, for a great article. What bothers me about the show is what often gets under my skin in Sorkin’s writing, with very few exceptions, which is that you can see the punch coming a mile away. Aside from the opening exchange in TSN, I can’t really think of an exchange where I felt for a moment both speakers were on equal ground intellectually. Each one ends up boiling down to either the smarter one pulling the rug out from under the other, or the smarter one bloviating until the other makes the point that’s been obvious from the start of the conversation. It’s annoying the smarter one is often not a woman, and it’s frustrating he doesn’t realize the strings are showing. Sorkin’s a blindingly smart writer, he just needs to be challenged more with articles like this to up his game.

  9. Here’s the million dollar question, Sasha: how do you “cure” a misogynist? Someone with such a naturally negative view of women will obviously not understand why people see their writing as sexist. It’s like somebody whose body temperature is naturally higher than 98.6… anything else just feels unnatural to them. I’m not saying Sorkin is a hopeless case… I don’t believe in hopeless cases. But how can somebody, especially someone as strong-willed as Sorkin, be successfully taught that their worldview is prejudicial?

    I’m reminded of a Siskel and Ebert special where they were talking about Joe Eszterhas and his female characters, and they said that maybe or would be best for him to just avoid writing them altogether.

    Considering Sorkin’s next projects are the male-centric Steve Jobs, Harry Houdini (by way of a Broadway musical) and John Edwards stories (though that last one is borderline), I don’t think it’s right to completely write him off yet.

  10. But how can somebody, especially someone as strong-willed as Sorkin, be successfully taught that their worldview is prejudicial?

    “The only time a woman really succeeds in changing a man is when he’s a baby.”

    Natalie Wood said that.

  11. John G.

    I also hate the show but for other reasons. I’d contend that the worst writer of women currently working is Seth MacFarlane.

  12. Ann Hayes

    Nice Takedown Piece on Aaron Sorkin. We are 6 episodes into a new program and you are not only pigeonholing the female characters but also assassinating the character of the writer. You have no idea where Sorkin is going with the women; or how they will evolve. And you are not willing to give him time to do it. Why must it all be tied up in a perfect bow for you just out of the gate? Allison Janney’s character went from a slightly insecure Press Secretary to an extremely sharp member of the inner circle of the West Wing. I am a little tired of the media being so quick to judge and feel as though you are just proving Sorkin’s point for him.

  13. You have no idea where Sorkin is going with the women; or how they will evolve.

    No. But if he’s got grand plans why won’t he do what any good writer of any kind knows to do — and give us a fleeing glimpse of the brilliance that he’s supposedly artfully withholding?

    Breaking Bad’s first episode was so weird and raw it made me physically recoil. But even that first hour was studded throughout with dazzling moments that grabbed me by the balls.

    It’s called a hook, and after 6 hours Sorkin hasn’t yet bothered to bait his.

  14. As far as I know it was on an Aaron Sorkin show that we had one of the strongest female (if not THE strongest) characters in the history of american television: C.J. Cregg on The West Wing, making Allison Janney a 4-time Emmy winning actress for that role.

  15. ^
    JP,
    That would be wonderful if this was 1999.
    In 1999 Mel Gibson starred in What Women Want.

  16. Ann,

    These characters are nowhere close to a CJ Craig. CJ was great from the start – she was still getting her legs as Press Secretary to be sure, but she was firm, sharp, AND funny. Look at her conversation with Rob Lowe on Season 1, Episode 3 where she berates him for sleeping with a prostitute. All of the female characters on Newsroom act like Margaret (Leo’s secretary) and Donna (but even Donna knew how to conduct herself in an office environment).

  17. John M Webster

    This site never ceased to bring me amusement.

  18. steve50

    “It’s called a hook, and after 6 hours Sorkin hasn’t yet bothered to bait his.”

    After last weeks episode, I’d say he lost the hook and has nothing left to bait.
    (swims off)

  19. The show’s female characters are (mostly) a mess and yes the show does have a female problem… And a male problem. I’m not buying any of Will’s character, he’s an ace prosecutor, speechwriter, newsman, and lover whose only flaw seems to be his short temper which is just a result of his caring SO MUCH. A far cry from the power-hungry, though ultimately benevolent President Bartlett. And Sam Waterston’s character is a mess too. Sorkin has managed the near impossible: Making Waterston look like a crotchety old fool.
    Characterization is just one area where “The Newsroom” runs afoul. The unabashed idealism which I ate up in “American President” and “West Wing” here comes off as incredibly smug. This isn’t a question of the tv landscape. Go back and watch “West Wing” right now; I have and it still sings. “Newsroom” is poorly executed, ALL of it.

  20. Jake,

    Agreed. Both West Wing and American President hold up great. Even though a lot of issues have since been addressed, West Wing will be timeless television. I’ve watched the entire series (well mainly the Sorkin years) 3-4 times and it never loses its bite. I think why Newsroom comes off so smug is the decision to do deal with real-world news stories. What seemed like an interesting idea is now drowning the show (in addition to bad characterizations across the board – except for Jane Fonda whose short performance I really enjoyed).

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