What The Newsroom’s Incompetent Female Characters Could Learn From The West Wing

A shot from the Newsroom with the text, "Why are you so terrible?"

Aaron Sorkin, I love you, but we need to talk.

As many of the West Wing faithful have gleefully discovered, all seven seasons were recently added to Netflix Instant, which means I know what I’ll be doing for the next few months.

The West Wing isn’t a perfect TV show in its depiction of women, but it’s better than most. So what went wrong with Sorkin’s newest show, The Newsroom, which struggles to present even one plausible female character? 

As a sad teenage liberal, disillusioned with the Bush administration, I grew up on The West Wing. The political world that Sorkin depicted—one that passed the Bechdel test, where women’s reproductive rights mattered to the president, the press secretary was a woman, and the first lady was as awesome as Rizzo in “Grease”—wasn’t a reality then, but watching The West Wing made me think it could be.

Less charitably, The West Wing is porn for liberals.

I wasn’t sure it would hold up this time around. But it does. The writing is still excellent, and the issues explored on the show—gun control, abortion rights, marriage equality, gender parity, terrorist threats—aren’t any less timely now than they were in 1999.

There are only a couple glaring examples of problematic writing that stuck out to me while re-watching the series. For example, does anyone else know what happened to savvy media consultant Mandy after the West Wing’s first season? The smart, independent character was just written out of the script.  There’s are also moments like in the fifth-season episode, “The Supremes”—which follows the nomination of the Supreme Court’s first female Chief Justice (Glenn Close)—when Press Secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) freaks out over a stain on her shirt. You know, as Ari Fleischer was wont to do (kidding! Ari Fleischer would’ve been way more concerned with his unicorn-shaped cufflinks). Let me repeat that. The PRESS SECRETARY, panicking about clothes. Which, okay, I suppose she’s meeting with the press, but still. But CJ is not the only character who freaks out over clothes sometimes, and Sorkin’s male characters are flawed too. In a particularly endearing moment, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), gushes over Close’s character’s political tactics: “I love her. I love her mind. I love her shoes.” 

To compare and contrast the women of The West Wing and The Newsroom, I’ll briefly dig into that episode, “The Supremes.”

In the episode, Close’s character has had an abortion. President Bartlet’s staff, anticipating that it will come up during the confirmation process and hinder her credibility, nearly throws her out of the running. When President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) finds out why, he makes sure she stays on the shortlist:

“Are we discarding anybody else for legal activities? Tonsillectomy? We down on surfing this year? Twenty-seven million women voted for me. I think they might have had it in mind that I was going to protect this particular right. I like the guy from Florida with the good hairdo, but I want to retain my right to choose. I’m voting for what’s-his-name married to Abbey Bartlet.”

“The Supremes” has an overtly feminist message. But what’s interesting here is that it can also be read as a more general statement about women in power, and valuing their capacities over their private lives. At least to an extent, Sorkin seems to have this in mind in his approach to female characters on The West Wing. They might freak out about shirt stains sometimes, but the women of The West Wing are functional adults who are good at their jobs.

And that wouldn’t be mind-blowing if not for the fact that The Newsroom’s women are framed as the exact opposite. 

The female characters on The Newsroom trip over cords in the office, accidentally reply all, cry in staff meetings, fall in love with their coworkers, get into love triangles with said coworkers, botch research assignments, and operate at one emotional speed: flustered. Shall I go on? I could, but it might hurt my lady-brain.

In sum, The Newsroom seems concerned with nothing but its female characters’ weaknesses and private lives. That’s limiting and terrible for any writer but is disastrous in Sorkin’s hand. But if Sorkin were able to apply his treatment of women in The West Wing to The Newsroom, if he were able to focus on their jobs over their boyfriends, it would be a much better show.

At a Q&A in its first episode, news anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels), is asked (of course) by a young woman to explain what makes America the greatest country in the world. While Will boorishly dismisses the question and its asker, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) his show’s producer, holds up a sign from the audience that reads, “It isn’t. But it could be.” 

This scene makes me wonder if Sorkin has picked up on his own show’s message.

The Newsroom isn’t a show with any great female characters. But looking at the history of CJ Cregg, Abbey Bartlet, and Ainsley Hayes, it could be. 

by Megan Burbank
View profile »

Megan Burbank lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is arts editor at the Portland Mercury.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

5 Comments Have Been Posted

Don't give Sorkin so much credit

That episode is so feminist because he didn't write it. He left the show at the end of season 4 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_West_Wing). The episode was written and directed by women. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Supremes_(The_West_Wing) This article shows Sorkin's relationship with women well http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/television/how-to-get-under-aaron-so...

The reason that the women in The West Wing were so awesome is because the actors made them so and the people who wrote the show season 5-7 were feminist.

In fairness, it was widely

In fairness, it was widely reported that Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) was written out of the show for two reasons: Sorkin and the show's writers felt Mandy's PR expertise and CJ's Press Secretary duties had too much overlap, and thusly struggled to find storylines for Mandy; A romance between Mandy and Josh Lyman had originally been conceived, but Bradley Whitford turned out to have much better chemistry with Donna (Janel Maloney). Mandy is certainly not the only character to unceremoniously disappear from the West Wing (Matthew Perry's lawyer, Oliver Platt as Oliver Babish, Emily Procter as Ainsley Hayes), though the writing staff would come to describe characters who outlived their story usefulness as having "gone away to Mandyland".

I do communications work for

I do communications work for a living. Sometimes political, legislative, and various forms of organizing and advocacy campaigns. When I need to explain what I do, I tell people I'm a one woman Toby, Sam and CJ. While I'm very good at my job and highly respected by my peers and superiors, I have freaked out over stains on my clothes. I have tripped over wires (and fallen out of cabs). I have also hit reply all to emails, fucked up work projects, had unfortunate love triangles, cried in meetings and exhibited varying levels of fluster. I can understand that it's frustrating if this is the only side you see of a character, but seriously. Yes, even PRESS SECRETARY's get upset if they spill stuff on their clothes. Because they're on tv. I keep a change of clothes at my office for this very reason. It's kind of a big deal if I look like a hot mess on the tv. Those are actually the kind of things I find very realistic about Sorkin's shows.

Forgetting something?

I think you may be forgetting some important aspects of The Newsroom like....

1. It's a woman who comes in and turns the show around from spitting out fake news to reporting on stories that matter.

2. It's a woman who controls the news anchor on a daily basis. She's the one in his ear. Literally.

3. Everyone on the show makes silly mistakes (you use the examples of women tripping over cords and hitting reply all). ....The male anchor gets high and does a huge live report while stoned.

4. The shows portrays women climbing the ranks in a male dominated industries (news production, journalism, economics, corporate C-Level jobs, etc.)

5. The main romantic plot on the show shows two people of equal caliber and on equal footing figuring themselves out.

6. It's a woman that runs the entire company the news show is produced for.

I'm all about critiquing shows for their fair portrayal of women, but you need to report on the whole show and not just half of it :-)

I heart Bitch Commenters.

I agree strongly with the facts and opinions stated above.

1. Yes, Sorkin had left the show by Season 5, which this writer would have known with the use of wikipedia.

2. Yes, the show got rid of Mandy, but it also ditched several other characters along the way (both men and women), because they didn't fit the direction of the show. I'd think anyone who had seen the entire series would know that. Everyone I've ever known working for an administration (Dem or Republican) will tell you turn over is high, especially the lower you go, so it seemed realistic to me that everyone but the core team came and went.

3. To the Communications professional - thank you, thank you, thank you. Nice to know I am not alone.

I am a lawyer working in the tech field. In the last two months I have: cried in a bathroom, fallen out of chair, spilled food on my shirt and freaked out about it, and best of all, sent an email to MY ENTIRE COMPANY about being late because I had to go pee in a cup to get drug screened for a client.

Despite all this, I am not a moron. I am smart, educated, and successful. But I am also, frankly, kind of a mess sometimes. It is nice to see people like me on TV. It is nice to know that I am not alone in feeling incompetent and embarrassing myself despite my resume to the contrary.

As for the workplace romance? I married my boss after secretly dating him for two years, and while we occasionally engaged in Sorkin-level ridiculousness in the workplace, we are still happy eleven years later.

4. To: Forgetting something? - Yes, yes, to all points yes.

Thanks Bitch readers, for saying all the things I was yelling in my head while I read this piece.

Add new comment