Sorkin’s Girl Trouble, Ctd

Jul 11 2012 @ 2:20pm

Readers push back on this post:

I'm not going to defend the whole show – I too have been surprised at how easily flustered the female leads can seem at times in "The Newsroom" – but stopping there is literally only part of the story. This week McHale was thrown off balance by McAvoy's parade of women, sure, but that merely served to setup the kicker, where it becomes clear what an inconsiderate ass McAvoy has been, and how decent McHale was.  We're left thinking a lot more highly of McHale than the "great man." Maggie's panic attack scene, as I saw it, was about how Jim treated her no differently than the best men he's ever known, who can have the exact same kind of attack. There's also, of course, the new female CEO character who by all appearances is quite the confident and commanding presence.

Another writes:

I confess to being a sucker for the idealism of "The Newsroom", and the mouthpiece for that idealism is a character I'm beginning to love and others have maligned: MacKenzie McHale. 

Let me start defending her by pointing out that occasional inarticulateness is shared by nearly every character Sorkin has ever created.  That's his idea of funny: having smart people sometimes sound stupid.  What the critics are missing is Sorkin's tendency to have his male characters say something stupid at the moment they are acting most superior.  The opening scene from The Social Network is the classic example. 

However, there are more subtle examples which suggest an almost pathological tendency on Sorkin's part to undercut his male characters.  For instance, in the first episode of, when MacKenzie McHale refers to Don Quixote's horse, Will McAvoy interrupts her to say that Don Quixote rode a donkey.  It was Sancho Panzo, of course, who rode a donkey.  I don't think the mistake was an intentional plant by Sorkin to undermine the character, but it is uncanny how often these flubs happen to male characters when they are at their most condescending.  Just one more example: in "The West Wing", President Bartlet chides a high school teacher for not having her students read Beowulf in the original Middle English.  Beowulf was, of course, written in Old English.

I mention this tendency because it ties together a couple themes you've explored about the show.  The first is obvious: this could be proof that Sorkin is good at sounding intelligent but isn't himself very intelligent.  More interesting: Sorkin seems to struggle when men act superior to women whereas he has no problem whatsoever having women set men right.  Indeed, we see it over and over in The American President, A Few Good Men, "The West Wing", and yes, "The Newsroom".  Woman are in nearly every story Sorkin tells the moral center, and we can see in The Social Network what happens when women are pushed to the margins: men act badly. 

For that reason, Glynnis MacNicol is not entirely wrong to say that women are nothing more than helpmates, but not for the reason she argues.  McHale is the antagonist in her relationship with McAvoy because her character is fully formed: he's the one who needs to change, not her.  In Sorkin's world, men are typically the ones who get things wrong.

Another:

Glynnis MacNicol needs to take a deep breath, relax and realize she’s watching a TV show.  She should also look for more plausible reasons for certain character motives.  For instance, MacNicol attributes every possible negative motivation to Sorkin’s portrayal of McHale.  Yes, she’s awkward and a little nattering and she really flubbed a few things.  Does MacNicol get that McHale is still in love with McAvoy?  Or has she missed that completely… I mean who among us hasn’t reverted to a nattering teenager when confronted by an ex’s new beau?  If anything McHale is more realistic for her weaknesses rather than being a caricature of a strong military woman.

I personally love "The Newsroom", the dialogue pops, most of the characters are likeable and all of them are compelling.  It also appeals to my inner Philosopher King and let's face it, this day we could use a Philosopher King.

One more:

Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy is an arrogant, needy, and insensitive bully – he's basically a stereotype of a powerful white man. He is portrayed as such, and though his appeal to the masses is frequently noted, it is done as a sort of backhanded compliment, as if people like him because they don't know him. It's as if his anger and egotism comes from a place of insecurity – that he knows he's hiding his light under a bushel for the sake of money and comfort, and this troubles him. We saw the same struggle with Pres. Bartlet, though his didn't manifest in cruelty, but in milquetoast leadership (remember "Let Bartlet be Bartlet?).

I feel like the female characters (at least in the 1st episode) come off as more authentic. They are strong enough to convey vulnerability and emotion. In the worlds that Sorkin creates, the workplaces demand so much of the characters' lives that there is an unavoidable mixture of the professional and personal (see: Josh & Donna, CJ and Danny, Casey and Dana). I'm not sure that Sorkin can be accused of not creating strong female leads (Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg, Felicity Huffman as Dana, freaking Stockard Channing as Abbey Bartlet!).

All of the major characters in the first displayed some weakness (jealousy, arrogance, addiction) except for Allison Pill's character, whose tears and flustered nature are an expression of perfectly natural nervousness and hurt (she's understandably mad at her boyfriend on the most stressful day of her young professional life). I don't believe that writing a character that cries under those circumstances is done so to make them appear weak.

I think folks get a little too worked up about the make believe worlds that he creates, and it's hardly newsworthy that a wealthy, successful and powerful creative brand like Sorkin's might be the work of an asshole with a tendency toward misogyny toward a young blogger who challenges him.

I think the criticism is good, and valid, and a good reason to watch.

Further discussion at our Facebook page. Most of the commentary is critical of Sorkin. A representative sample:

I had high hopes for Sorkin's new show, love his writing. But his portrayal of women in the show is nothing short of amazing. They're like no professional women I've ever worked with. The lead and Executive Producer of the show is supposed to be this incredibly experienced war correspondent, etc., thought of as the best producer in the news business, and yet she's portrayed as bumbling, emotional and immature. Along with the second female lead. And just keeps getting worse with each new episode. Totally cringeworthy. I'll keep watching as love the subject matter, but boy is it revealing about Aaron. Some deep issues goin on there.

Another commenter goes deeper:

The Newsroom is a Sorkin fantasy-world populated by former high-school debate team superstars, perfect SAT-ers, and red bull-ed ex-Ivy Leaguers who can miraculously spout detailed data on any relevant topic as if they were reading the information off a teleprompter. The main character, though obviously unpleasant, is nonetheless adored (nay, worshiped) by a younger, beautiful, almost obnoxiously idealistic woman, who spends most of her time all but begging to get back in his pants and stroke his…ego. When Sorkin dies and goes to heaven he doesn't get 72 virgins in a garden, he gets the Newsroom.

(And I LIKE Aaron Sorkin!)

Update from a reader:

Sorkin is no more sexist than the person who labeled this thread "girl trouble" when not one child, tween or teen has been involved.  Girls are minors.  The cut off for girl is 17 at the latest.  After that, we become women.  Legally responsible, accountable, fully competent, employable adult women.

The use of "girl" in the title is in reference to Sorkin calling a female reporter "Internet girl", which is prominently illustrated in the first part of our thread.