Women Should Be Next on Aaron Sorkin’s Apology List


In a rare moment of humility this week, Aaron Sorkin apologized… sort of. He said a few words to journalists who do the kind of work he portrays on The Newsroom, in an attempt to smooth over any misunderstandings about how he portrays their profession.

“I’m going to let you all stand in for everyone in the world, if you don’t mind. I think you and I got off on the wrong foot with The Newsroom and I apologize and I’d like to start over,” Sorkin told Jon Favreau at a Tribeca Film Fest discussion Monday, after Favreau asked what he’s learned about the media from making The Newsroom. He continued:

I think that there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. I did not set the show in the recent past in order to show the pros how it should have been done. That was and remains the furthest thing from my mind. I set the show in the recent past because I didn’t want to make up fake news. It was going to be weird if the world that these people were living in did not in any way resemble the world that you were living in… Also, I wanted the option of having a terrific dynamic that you can get when the audience knows more than the characters do… So, I wasn’t trying to and I’m not capable of teaching a professional journalist a lesson. That wasn’t my intent and it’s never my intent to teach you a lesson or try to persuade you or anything.

Sorkin later added: “I like writing romantically and idealistically. I try to balance that with just enough realism so that it feels like whatever romantic ideal is in there is somewhat attainable. It’s not a cartoon. It’s not animated… These are people who are trying to do the news well when market forces work against them.”

(You can listen to the whole Sorkin talk below, via WYNC.)

There’s no way for me to say this without it sounding condescending, but: that’s nice. It’s a nice thing for Sorkin, thought by some to be a bullheaded egotist, to apologize, though it really wasn’t an apology. He sort of does the “misunderstanding” sidestep. It could appear as though this proverbial riff and its subsequent defense are coming from a place within Sorkin that doesn’t quite understand the media’s harsh criticism of The Newsroom, which will enter its third and final season on HBO this fall — and which Sorkin says he is “just now starting to learn how to write.” But I am going to choose to believe that is not the reason for Sorkin’s statements, seeing as his one-season wonder Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was almost universally panned and he never felt the need to clear up any “misunderstandings” about that show. Rather, I believe this is Sorkin aging gracefully and being a little more willing to admit his weaknesses.

Now, if only we could get him to apologize to women.

Aaron Sorkin has a woman problem, and admittedly it’s what you’d call a complicated one. It’s not that he’s incapable of creating smart women. Nearly all the women in supporting roles in his scripts — from CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) on The West Wing to MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) on The Newsroom to yes, even Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in The Social Network — are highly intelligent. But in many cases they’re flat characters, defined by their sharpness and little else, oftentimes not very likable. Sorkin writes female characters the same way as the press portrays Hillary Clinton. And it’s a disservice to smart women, who are more well-rounded than Sorkin makes them out to be. Think of a (non-Sorkin) character like Parks and Recreations lead Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler): not only the smartest woman in the room, but also the most thoughtful and energetic.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HbrQMgOUFw]

The one big exception to this rule is CJ on The West Wing, who reveals her humanity and multi-dimensionality over time (see the brilliant video below for proof of CJ’s candidness). She’s without a doubt the most stunning female character Sorkin has ever written. Some would argue that she does not exhibit much femininity, but The West Wing isn’t the place for it. The only thing that would make CJ better is seeing more of her; as in, two female characters who are as central to the plot as CJ is. (Donna and the other secretaries are not enough.) This is the other thing about Sorkin’s writing and women: Like Lena Dunham, he really seems to write not what he knows but who he knows — his characters feel personal to who is, like some small part of him. And Sorkin is very much a guy who speaks his mind, precisely, aggressively, and exhaustingly. In our society, women who behave the way Sorkin does are not likable, relatable characters to many viewers. In fact, they’re probably thought of as bitches, especially when they get so little airtime to potentially humanize themselves.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7H_L5cYkg8]

Writing smart women is not enough, but that was never less clear to Sorkin than when he devoted his 2011 Oscar speech for Best Screenplay (The Social Network) to female actresses. “I want to thank all the female nominees tonight for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that elite is not a bad word; it’s an aspirational one,” he concluded. “Honey, look around. Smart girls have more fun, and you’re one of them.”

This last line has always bothered me, the way he refers to all the female nominees as “smart girls” as though “smart” is the ultimate (and perhaps only) compliment for a successful woman. I recognize that this is the definition of feminist killjoy, this complaining about women who are consistently defined by their looks being called smart for a change. But it’s a window into the way Sorkin thinks, and the way he writes female characters. On behalf of smart girls everywhere, allow me to say that Sorkin was right — we do have more fun. You just wouldn’t know it from his shows.