Women v. TV tropes (as written by intelligent men)

December 19, 2014

The Newsroom

They say you should never meet your heroes. But if your hero is a writer, even with the literary separation of church and state that is ‘characters’ and ‘the author’s personal opinion’, you’re probably, at some point, going to run into your hero’s True Self in print. Or on screen. Or, let’s be honest, probably in 140 characters.

*Fair warning: some Newsroom spoilers ahead*

I’ve loved Aaron Sorkin’s work since my sister brought home The American President on VHS and, literally decades later, we are still quoting it back and forth across the miles between our lives. Then came the magnum opus that is The West Wing (or at least, the first four seasons…we don’t talk about Season Five in this house) and the pedestal on which I placed Aaron Sorkin rose by a few hundred feet. The wit! The wordplay! The CJ Cregg! So when The Newsroom followed the travesty that was Studio 60 being canceled way, way too early, I was so unutterably excited. This was going to be the big one for me. Watching The Paper on repeat literally got me through my year as an MA ‘Journalist’, pretending that I wanted that life, when really, I just wanted the film about that life. There was no way that The Newsroom couldn’t tick all my internal boxes.

And yet. Here we are. Watching episodes of preaching, white-knighting and internet-despising. What is it about these characters that I’m 75% bought into, but can’t quite bring myself to the West Wing levels of like? Have I simply grown up? Or am I now far too tuned in to the way Aaron Sorkin portrays his women? Or maybe I’d just internalised Sarah Nicole Prickett’s exceptionally written piece for the Globe and Mail.

But it’s not the Aaron Sorkin IRL that bothers me. If your hero is an egotistical arse after so many hits then…well. So far, so life. No, for me it’s the Sorkin that’s beamed onto our screens each week. The one that speaks through the mouths of his characters. The one who writes programmes that smart people love, and not enough people are questioning because of that love. He’s built up some serious credit with The West Wing and The Social Network and all that came before – even writing this is a little difficult for me, when you’re wrestling with all that you loved as a teenager and young adult, only to see the foundations of it beginning to burn as you grow up.

And you know what the worst thing is? We’re on the same side. Believe it or not there are people who have idealistic dreams about journalistic integrity and the triumph of technology over the greater evil in the world. Except, it’s always the men who get to put that into action in Sorkin shows. They get the poignant speeches, the top roles, the rolling credits covered with smoky chords and that prickle in the back of your throat. The women in his shows get to be sassy-mouthed, ‘intelligent’, but ultimately not-quite-enough roles like…like the Newsroom’s fearless producer Mackenzie McHale who can literally function with five voices in her ear at once but apparently can’t fathom the ‘reply all’ function on a blackberry.

Seriously.

Seriously??

There’s nothing wrong with female characters getting the cute/clumsy joke every now and then. But the difference is, slapstick from characters like Will McAvoy or Josh Lyman is cute and endearing, because you know that by the end of the episode they’ll have actually saved the day. It’s a humanising aspect to their powerful roles. When the Donna Mosses and Sloane Sabbaths say and do cutesy, dumb things it’s less endearing, because you know it’s their jobs/lives that are getting saved by the men by the end of 45 minutes and commercials.

Does it matter? On the surface of it, no, I’m just one of those people on the internet speaking in first person about the things in my head that Aaron Sorkin made it so clear that he dislikes. I’m not an Ivy elite, I’m not ‘the establishment’, I am so far – in this small corner of the web – from the New York Times op-ed section. But I am part of his target audience. I’m one of many voices. I’m part of a generation that cares about the representation of women in the media and helping to build the pathways that will, one day, contribute to gender equality. Far in the future though that may feel. So it matters. It matters because his are the characters that smart people watch and admire. These are the women we get. And you know what? It works. Twenty minutes in you can be frothing at the hypothetical bit because of all the ridiculous ways the women dig holes and then men have to save them, but three minutes from credits you’re crying because – let’s face it – Ave Maria over any Sorkin scene is positively pavlovian at this point; those waterworks are coming whether you like it or not. But truly, I’m sick of seeing real chances to show intelligent, fiery, wonderful female characters go up in flames, and then, watching their writer dance on the embers by essentially saying most actresses aren’t as good as men anyway.

So, goodbye dear childhood love of Aaron Sorkin. It was so good while it lasted. But it’s time to find myself a new hero…

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