Whether you’re a fan or a hater of The Newsroom, pretty much everyone agrees that Aaron Sorkin has a "woman problem." Nearly every feminist writer with access to the internet has taken to the blogosphere to criticize Sorkin’s female characters as "ditsy," "incompetent," obsessed with their love lives, and in constant need of being "set straight" by men.
But I'm a feminist, and I love Sorkin's women. I think the women of The Newsroom are compelling, funny, strong, realistic (impossibly witty banter aside), and yes, flawed.
Critics cite episodes like this one in which Mac, the executive producer of News Night, accidentally sends a "reply all" email as evidence of Sorkin’s pattern of depicting women as incompetent and overly-emotional. Apparently having a character who happens to be a woman make a common mistake proves he’s a misogynist. More to the point, those critics ignore the fact that Will McAvoy responds to the accident just as emotionally, if not more so, than Mac herself.
Critics argue that Mac isn’t the only ditsy or emotional female character, and the email incident wasn’t the only problem. It just one scene in a much larger pattern of storylines with incompetent female characters. What about Maggie? She gets tangled in her headphones, forgets her notes, and is constantly making maddeningly bad decisions in her love life.
It’s true. Sometimes the female characters make silly mistakes. Sometimes they make big mistakes. But so do the men. Don Keefer, for example, can’t assemble his desk chair and literally falls on his ass in the office — not once, but twice. Jim trips over luggage before being introduced to his subordinates. Will forgets the combination to his own safe. Far worse, Will eats pot brownies the night Osama Bin Laden is killed, does the news high, and leaves a foggy voicemail confessing his undying love to his producer and ex-girlfriend. That all sounds pretty incompetent and emotional to me. When men make mistakes, it’s just funny; not a statement about Sorkin’s inability to write competent male characters.
Sorkin is similarly criticized for having his female characters obsess over their love lives at work, but Will is forced to go to a psychiatrist to talk about his romantic feelings for Mac. Jim is similarly paralyzed by his inability to handle his romantic feelings for Maggie. In fact, in Season two, he skips town and takes a demotion to be an embed with the Romney campaign because he can’t stand being around her. If anyone can’t seem to separate their romantic and professional lives in this show, it’s the men.
Meanwhile, Mac goes from being an embedded reporter in a war zone to sitting in the control room during Will’s show, where she regularly saves him from looking like an idiot on national TV. Maggie volunteers to report from a war-torn region of Africa and narrowly avoids being killed. Sloan Sabbith holds a PhD, goes toe-to-toe with the president of the news division, punches Wall Street jerks, speaks fluent Japanese, and stands up for what she thinks is right, even when it means physically threatening her executive producer. Leona Lansing owns the network and, it’s safe to say, scares the shit out of almost everyone, including her male subordinates.
The Newsroom is chuck-full of robust female characters. When faced with flawed women, we find ourselves utterly incapable of appreciating them for who they are as characters. Instead, we see them as universal representations of their gender, which means Sorkin doesn’t have a "woman problem." We do.
Feminism, as a movement, constantly begs Hollywood to depict, "real" female characters. We refuse to accept the overly sexualized "hero" like Cat Woman or the sexless, overworked bitch like Miranda Priestly. We’re starving for smart, funny, flawed female characters who, if they don’t actually "have it all," are struggling to get there like the rest of us. But, when we actually see those characters on TV, we immediately complain about what we said we wanted all along — we turn on the writers of those shows for not crafting the "perfect" female character.
Sorkin knows that women can make mistakes without those mistakes being representative of womenkind. Women can be funny without being incompetent. While real sexism in Hollywood is certainly rampant, we should be able to laugh at ourselves without seeing misogyny behind every corner.
With the amount of attention Sorkin has received from the feminist blogosphere, you’d think he was a Todd Akin-like wing nut, when in fact he’s the classic Hollywood liberal conservatives love to hate. This is the creator of The West Wing for god’s sake. This is the writer that gave us Abby Bartlet, CJ Cregg, and Nancy McNally. I’m certainly not arguing that writing a few strong female characters gives Sorkin blanket feminist immunity for the rest of his life, but when we spend 10 times as long criticizing The Newsroom as we do talking about shows like this, we’re not using our time or our voices wisely as a movement.
So, I know it’s trendy to hate The Newsroom right now. However, when feminists write that the women of The Newsroom have less agency than the women of '60s-era Mad Men, we're taking part in the most self-destructive act of serious cultural and political movements: refusing to pick our battles.