HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’: Aaron Sorkin’s Women Problem
The Newsroom transforms its female characters into hysterics and fools. In a critics’ conversation, Jace Lacob and Maureen Ryan dissect the woman problem embedded in Aaron Sorkin’s troubling drama.
In certain circles, HBO’s latest drama, The Newsroom, from creator Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), has been the galvanizing event of the summer, eliciting no shortage of strong responses both pro and con. In a critics’ conversation reprinted below, The Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob and the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan delve into the troubling issue of women within the HBO drama.
MAUREEN RYAN: One of the bigger problems with The Newsroom is that so many scenes involve men setting women straight, men supervising women, a man teaching a woman how to use email (and the woman getting it spectacularly wrong regardless), a hapless woman seesawing between two different men, etc. It’s not that I can't buy Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels’s lead character, as a fully realized human being, but it’s pretty clear that the show thinks he is right, admirable, or brave most, if not all, of the time.
We’re supposed to believe that MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) covered conflicts in the Middle East and won multiple awards for her work, yet she doesn’t understand how email works? She can’t get through a meeting without knocking over a poster? But one of the most troubling things is the way she’s used to prop up Will’s martyr complex: she cheated on him, and yet she clearly still adores him, despite the way he repeatedly berates her. She is the Woman Who Done the Man Wrong yet can’t quit him (really?). He’s clearly our hero, and she’s capable on occasion, but as ditzy and needy as the show needs her to be whenever it suits Sorkin.
JACE LACOB: It’s hard to know what’s more infuriating: that MacKenzie is written as though she hasn’t even heard of a war zone or that she’s presented as alternately hysterical and incompetent. Her email gaffe in the second episode is unbelievable and galling. If you’re thinking, well, who hasn’t sent an errant email? Why does it have to be some symbol of misogyny? Then picture a male character in Sorkin’s world who doesn’t know the difference between the “*” and “s” keys on his BlackBerry. Impossible.
The pratfalls hardly help solidify her character, nor does the near-constant yelling that Mortimer’s MacKenzie indulges in. She’s strident in a way that Sorkin refuses to let McAvoy be. Where he’s ambitious and visionary, she’s shrill. In fact, The Newsroom seems to relish putting loud women in their place or to render them helpless and histrionic. If the message of News Night is “we can do better,” surely that can apply to Sorkin as well here?
RYAN: And would that be so hard? That’s what’s so jarring about these women—it wouldn’t take much to make them just a little deeper and just a little more coherent. But Sorkin doesn’t appear to be interested in that. He just builds up Will as our hero and, through him, makes repetitive points about the decline of public discourse. It’s been kind of frustrating hearing from Sorkin defenders the last couple weeks who think I have it out for the guy. Not true at all, and aren’t they the ones who should be able to best recall his more memorable and likable ladies?
LACOB: Even if you are a Sorkin fan, you don’t need to be blind to the pattern that continues to emerge in his television work and in The Social Network, in which the female characters are represented either as crazy dragon-lady stereotypes (such as Eduardo Saverin’s Asian girlfriend who is so nuts that she sets fire to things), mindless hangers-on, or in sequences such as Mark Zuckerberg berating Rooney Mara’s character. (While she gets the last laugh here, she’s presented as withholding throughout the film, emblematic of everything he can’t have.) And it’s not just the men who engage in such behavior within The Newsroom: MacKenzie’s entire speech to Olivia Munn’s Sloan Sabbith—asking her to come on News Night because of her shapely legs—is equally cringe-inducing; here MacKenzie not only reinforces a predatory male gaze but condones it as necessary, even in the realm of “serious news.” How did you read their exchange?
RYAN: It’s not really the content of that scene that bothers me, it’s the tone. This is not news to anyone—the idea that, even more than men, women in broadcast news are judged on their looks. But what was really missing from that scene was a sense of camaraderie between women who recognize this unfortunate truth with a sense of rueful regret. That wasn’t the vibe at all. To me, it was, “Well, here’s how things are, and that’s pretty much fine. When can you start?” That was jarring, and also a missed opportunity to establish any kind of interesting relationship between two characters. Not to mention, the scene ended with MacKenzie once again seeming pathetic and needy. If anything, Sloan was likely put off by her new boss’s desperate plea for friendship (who wouldn’t be?). But we haven’t even gotten to the most sigh-inducing female character on the show, Maggie. The fact that her character is so problematic is a shame, because Alison Pill is a terrific actress, and I’m all for introducing a newbie character who makes mistakes, à la Peggy in Season 1 of Mad Men. But Maggie is really, really not written nearly that well. But I’m going to let you go first on this topic, Jace, because I have a feeling you’ve got a few thoughts to share about Maggie.
LACOB: Ha, that is very true, and I agree with your point about the lack of regret between MacKenzie and Sloan. But onto Pill’s Maggie, who is just as prone to “funny” pratfalls as her female boss. Maggie goes from operating out of loyalty in the pilot to pondering whether she will move to 10 p.m. after all by the second episode, her very stability undermined from nowhere. Her entire speech about illegals seems ripped right out of Sorkin’s mouth, her speechifying meant to show how “fiery” she is, but then she’s undermined by what she actually says on the call. Things don’t get much better for Maggie as the four episodes we’ve seen progress, and there is a clear pattern of behavior that emerges between anxiety-prone Maggie and miracle man, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), who falls in line with Sorkin’s need to present (most of) the men of the show as white—very white!—knights. And that’s to say nothing about Maggie’s seething jealousy within the tedious love triangle that continues to unfold.
RYAN: I have no problem with the anxiety issues that Maggie struggles with, and though I do agree that it’s problematic how often the men rescue the women on that show, I didn’t mind how that particular story line will unfold in episode 3. But as we were talking about earlier, one big problem is that all the characters are merely collections of traits or talking-points memos come to not-very-convincing life, even the men. But we rarely see (or will see, in the next two hours) the men acting in spectacularly unprofessional ways. We’ve talked about all the ways in which MacKenzie has been undermined and more or less mocked, and in this episode, I lost all respect for Maggie when she didn’t tell her bosses that she had a personal connection to a source. That’s just ridiculous—a mistake an intern shouldn’t make, let alone an associate producer. And what am I supposed to do after listening to that story about her hiding under a bed as two people had sex? Was that supposed to make me like her? If so, fail.
LACOB: A massive fail, because it makes Maggie further read as weak-willed and rather pathetic. No Sorkin man would ever have hidden under the bed if in the same situation, Mo.
RYAN: That’s exactly it. They tend to take charge of situations, while the women reactively flail or otherwise commit gaffes in their personal and professional lives. Not a spoiler, but next week Maggie says something to Will that even she acknowledges is “inappropriate” and “insubordinate.” So professionally, she’s a mess, and personally, she’s even more of a mess, as she Ping-Pongs between a guy who treats her badly and her supervisor, who spends a lot of his time either lecturing her or covering for her. All those things would be acceptable, potentially, if they happened in the course of creating exciting drama, but I still find The Newsroom’s constant speechifying about the same few obvious points lacking in drama, tension, and momentum. And all this, again, is merely a prelude to MacKenzie’s jealousy of Will’s dates in episode 3 and … the events of episode 4. I won’t spoil that because I actually don’t have words for how much I disliked that hour. Want to take an unspoilery crack at it, Jace?
LACOB: Yes, though I am going to spoil some things from episode 4. Vaguely, anyway. Will’s condemnation of Bravo’s Real Housewives, reality television, and gossip columns (and gossip columnists)—all of which come across as Sorkin’s own ire—rankle all the more because they’re presented as female-centric interests that are rendered as trashy and exploitative by Will’s own worldview. In the same episode, by the way, MacKenzie and Sloan “bond” over their shared manicurist—YIKES! Readers, please let us know what you think after episode 4 when you get there.
But let’s circle back to the pilot. We’ve said nothing about the “sorority girl” whose question about America’s greatness sets Will off, and therefore puts the plot in motion. She’s a clear Sorkin construct, who is made to stand in for the vapid nature of American ignorance, waving her jingoistic flag in the face of the Great Man. Worse still, there’s the mention of the very recently departed from ESPN Erin Andrews, an actual person, who is forced into the pigeonhole of being another Sorkin construct. In real life, Andrews is most famous for being a victim of a gross invasion of privacy that sexualized her, and she’s further dragged through the muck here, reduced to being yet another perky blonde who is in and out of Will’s bed, a number of the “Netflix queue” of women he’s dating.
RYAN: The treatment of the college student and the “Netflix queue” are small things that are definitely indicative of larger problems. It’s telling that the college student is only the first of many women (especially younger women) that Will treats in a dismissive manner. And she’s later pilloried as a weakling who sued her college for emotional distress after the incident with Will—exactly why was including that necessary? Given all that we’ve discussed, did it strike you as surprising that Sorkin himself, during an interview with a Canadian newspaper reporter, called her “Internet girl” and admonished her to “pick up a newspaper once in a while,” casually disrespectful statements that have now become an Internet meme? Oh, and by the way, in that opening speech, Will refers several times to the great men who made journalism the respected profession back in the day (nice job of ignoring the legacy of all the female journalists who came before and after Murrow).
The twin foundations of the series are that men commit acts of brave journalism and women help them do that, and that any number of attractive women find the pompous Will attractive enough to date (or in MacKenzie’s case, obsess over). It kind of makes my blood boil that Sorkin refers to Preston Sturges and classic film comedies when talking to the press about this show, but Rosalind Russell’s character in His Girl Friday is one of the best parts of that great, great movie. She’s got her own agenda, she’s flawed but powerful, she’s funny, she’s independent, and she’s nobody’s fool. I think Sorkin thinks he’s recreating that kind of dynamic in various aspects of The Newsroom—in the dialogue, in the relationships between the men and the women—but the alarming gap between what he believes he’s doing and what I actually see on the screen grows wider with each episode. But what do I know, Jace? Heroic male, please set me straight!
LACOB: I think that’s the heart of the matter, Mo: in Sorkinland, men act (nobly!) and women support (comically!). And even though MacKenzie claims to “own” Will for that one hour, five nights a week, he is so punitive that he’s willing to sacrifice a sizable amount of his paycheck in order to be able to fire her every week. While that becomes a plot point I won’t spoil, the assertion that Will would want to hold this over MacKenzie, to punish her for her sexual misconduct, is troubling on so many levels, whether you are a male or female viewer. What is clear, however, is that The Newsroom will be giving us much to discuss for a while to come.
RYAN: You are so right about that. I can’t wait for Round 2: So Many Problems With Race!