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.