"What's wrong with you?" a petulant Steve Jobs asks Joanna Hoffman, the steadfast and no-nonsense head of marketing for Apple's Macintosh computer, during an early scene in Danny Boyle's eponymous film. "I don't know, but I'm sure it can be traced back to you," Hoffman shoots back.
In this moment, it's tempting to pat screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on the back, as the spiky dialogue epitomizes Kate Winslet's Hoffman, a woman who was reportedly awarded the title of "the person who did the best job of standing up to" the notoriously difficult Jobs in 1981 and 1982. She once told biographer Walter Isaacson of Jobs, "I told his assistant I am going to take a knife and stab it into his heart."
Hoffman was, by all indications, a strong, dependable and highly competent woman who firmly established herself among a sea full of temperamental, egotistical man-children.
It's a familiar and tired scenario in cinema and fiction.
It's all the more disappointing, then, that the film blithely sails past this. As the story unfolds, we see her character reduced to that of a scolding schoolmarm trailing behind Jobs, putting out the fires he lights in every sphere of his life. She isn't, in Sorkin and Boyle's imagined world, a woman who functions independently of the man for whom she works. She exists purely as the push to his pull. Her purpose is to serve him.
Of course, this isn't unique to Hoffman. Every character in the film orbits around Jobs — that's the point. But unlike Steve Wozniak and John Sculley, the movie's other primary characters, Hoffman is a regulatory tool for the mercurial CEO. Where Woz and Sculley are his professional adversaries, Hoffman is ultimately on his team. She's simply there to keep his behavior in check.
And Jobs — obnoxious, cruel and cold as ever — knows it. He constantly prods at her, asking her at one point if she'll "absolve" him of her "Eastern European disapproval." He begs her to be the mediator in a standoff with Chrisann Brennan, the mother of his daughter Lisa, of whom he staunchly and persistently denied paternity. He condescendingly tells Hoffman he doesn't want to put her in a position to lie to people. In one particularly bizarre moment, he flirtatiously asks her why they've never slept together.
It's a familiar and tired scenario in cinema and fiction: a fiery yet devoted woman whose smarts and talent are predominantly utilized to keep a childish but brilliant man in check.
She exists purely as the push to his pull. Her only job is to serve him.
The depiction is especially troubling when compared to Hoffman's role in Isaacson's book, upon which Boyle and Sorkin's film is partly based. The biography gave her a few passing mentions; the biopic hoisted her up as a central role, only to mold her into nothing more than Jobs' lackey. As it stands, her character wouldn't be as ripe for criticism had it not been enlarged in such a way that made it impossible to avoid.
In his review for the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott noted Hoffman was "the film's most obviously Sorkinesque figure, a cousin to Allison Janney's C.J. Cregg on The West Wing and Emily Mortimer's MacKenzie McHale on The Newsroom."
Like Cregg and McHale, Hoffman is capable, quick and spirited — and a crutch for what TV critic Emily Nussbaum described as Sorkin's go-to "Great Man" character. In the same essay for the New Yorker, Nussbaum expanded on Sorkin's female archetypes:
"There are brilliant, accomplished women who are also irrational, high-strung lunatics — the dames and muses who pop their eyes and throw jealous fits when not urging the Great Man on."
Hoffman's competency is inescapable, but she's also a firebrand who seamlessly fits into this characterization. In one scene, late in the movie, she furiously swipes her hand across a table, knocking a cascade of papers onto the floor in front of Jobs. "Fix it!" she yells at him, referencing the mess he made with his daughter Lisa. Her outbursts, like the rest of her character, are reserved for Jobs and Jobs only.
But we also know she's far more complex than that, not only because she's a normal human being but also because Sorkin and Boyle give us fleeting glimpses of it.
Her most compelling scene — and virtually the only one in which she's not wringing her hands in an attempt to get her boss to behave — doesn't feature Jobs. It happens in his dressing room immediately before the launch of the Macintosh as she speaks to a young Lisa.
"Hello, Lisa," she says to the 5-year-old. "We've met before and you said you liked the way I talked and that was my favorite thing anyone's ever said to me." It's a quiet, sweet and memorable exchange, and one of a handful in which we see the multiplicity of Hoffman's character. (Of course, one could make the argument that here too her actions are in service of Jobs; she was trying to get Lisa out of the room so that Jobs and Brennan could speak privately.)
None of this is to say that Hoffman lacked the courage or agency to act on her own desires, or that she didn't actually want to be Jobs' right-hand woman. She may well have reveled in her role as his devoted work wife. But we have no way of knowing, because we never see her as an independent entity. We only ever see her through the Jobsian lens — and that failing falls squarely on Sorkin and company.
As Scott put it in his New York Times review, "Her ambition is tethered to his, her intelligence the polished mirror of his incandescent brilliance."
It's not a crime to create a character to serve at the beck and call of a film's protagonist. But to expand her role solely so she can serve as an archetype of the devoted nagging wife is tedious at best and offensive at worst.