What Aaron Sorkin Doesn’t Understand About Badly Written Roles for Women

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I really thought I was done being mad at Aaron Sorkin. This week marks the screenwriter’s promised retirement from his bully pulpit of choice, television, and with it his opportunity to journalismansplain the evils of clickbait and confessional blogging. But where there’s a will to give condescending sermons, there’s a way, and the past few days have seen both an op-ed begging journalists not to report on the Sony hacks (he’s a qualified judge of journalistic ethics because he wrote a show about journalists, you see) and a particularly infuriating revelation from said Sony hacks. Hopefully, the irony/general karmic vibe of the incident isn’t lost on him.

Weirdly, this latest debacle stems from an observation that’s pretty unobjectionable: there aren’t enough good roles out there for women. Maureen Dowd commented on this, among other things, in an Oscar follow-up column this March, and in some emails uncovered by the Daily Beast, Sorkin writes to let Dowd know he agrees — mostly. Here’s where the trouble starts.

“There’s an implication that studio heads have a stack of Bridesmaids-quality scripts on their desk that they’re not making and it’s just not true,” he writes. “The scripts aren’t there.” This may or may not be true (I have a hunch that it isn’t), but it also doesn’t matter: the problem is that Hollywood isn’t making enough movies about women, full stop, whether they’re Bridesmaids-level good or Under the Tuscan Sun 4: The Italian Stallion. It’s not like movies about men have to measure up to, say, Boyhood to get made.

That’s strike one against Aaron Sorkin’s understanding of gender inequality in Hollywood. Then comes the part that made me, and many others, jennamaroneyragestrokenosebleed.gif:

Then, Sorkin connects the lack of good scripts to his belief that “the degree of difficulty” in Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine was “nothing close to the degree of difficulty” to any of the nominated male lead performances that year. “That’s why year in and year out, the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Actor has a much higher bar to clear than the woman who wins Best Actress,” Sorkin wrote. “Cate gave a terrific performance in Blue Jasmine but nothing close to the degree of difficulty for any of the five Best Actor nominees. Daniel Day-Lewis had to give the performance he gave in Lincoln to win–Jennifer Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook, in which she did what a professional actress is supposed to be able to do. Colin Firth/Natalie Portman. Phil Hoffman had to transform himself into Truman Capote while Julia Roberts won for being brassy in Erin Brockovich. Sandra Bullock won for ‘The Blind Side’ and Al Pacino lost for both Godfather movies. Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep can play with the boys but there just aren’t that many tour-de-force roles out there for women.”

And there you have strikes two through what the FUCK, dude?! Somewhere in Sheryl Sandberg’s Fortress of Female Empowerment, Beyoncé is laying out plans for a #BANBRASSY campaign.

A totally understandable response to this would be watching this clip of Allison Janney performing “The Jackal” on loop while mouthing the phrase “Meryl Streep can play with the boys” and breaking your DVD of The Social Network into progressively smaller bits. But it’s worth taking a moment, first, to examine the very strange ideas about what makes a difficult part or a good performance in Sorkin’s message — ideas that are worth debunking not just because they blame actresses for screenwriters’ failings.

Sorkin’s logic seems to be that the better written a part, the more credit an actor deserves for rising to the occasion and giving the performance called for by the script. This makes perfect sense coming from a guy whose job is to produce scripts: Jesse Eisenberg got a Best Actor nod because he matched the brilliance of Sorkin’s material. (Not being facetious here! The Social Network is brilliant, and remains my only hope that 2010s Sorkin is not as much a lost cause as Maggie Jordan Goes to Africa might indicate.)

Except that this line of thought also dismisses on principle actresses, and actors of color, and trans* actors, and everyone else who doesn’t get a lot of parts written for them, period, let alone good ones. Because in Sorkin’s mind, without great source material, actors never even have a chance to give a great performance. Or at least a performance as great as Daniel DayLewis’ Abe Lincoln. “Sorry,” you can practically see Don Keefer/Josh Lyman/Mark Zuckerberg/whoever explaining, with sympathy in his eyes. “But that’s just how it works.”

Here’s the problem: bad, or even average, roles on paper often lead to fantastic roles on camera. And in those cases, the credit for that role isn’t split between the writer and the actor — it’s mostly owed to the actor, or in this case, actress.

When I read the Daily Beast article, I couldn’t help but think of Michelle Dean’s homage to Princess Leia, and Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of her, in The Guardian a few weeks ago:

The explanation for the magnificence of Leia’s anger is probably more accidental, something like an extra bay leaf falling into the soup. She’s reading lines more aggressively than they necessarily demand, her eyes on fire in a way that lifts the performance. In the Millennium Falcon cockpit she could have merely been asking questions; as Fisher delivers them, they are full-blown accusations. Another factor may have been the frustration that abounded on the original Star Wars set. It wasn’t only critics who noticed that the script was something of a club foot, dragging the proceedings down. Lucas himself repeated a story in which Harrison Ford finally said to him on set, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it.” And in Fisher’s particular case you can sometimes see it in her line delivery, as when, at the beginning of the second part of the trilogy, she spits out a line about a “stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!

Princess Leia isn’t a great character because of Lucas’ script, but in spite of it. Sorkin claims that actors have a “higher bar to clear” in the competition for a Best Actor nod, yet actresses arguably face an even higher bar: the challenge of crafting a great character out of a role that’s often clichéd and one-dimensional on the page.

Women might be handed this task more often than men, but it’s by no means limited to them. Take, for example, Matthew McConaughey — the very actor who won alongside Cate Blanchett at this year’s Oscars, and who Sorkin apparently believes gave the better performance. Plenty of write-ups have praised McConaughey’s portrayal of True Detective‘s Rust Cohle by trashing Nic Pizzolatto’s script. Take, for example, this Pizzolatto takedown from Gawker’s Max Read, which argues the show “managed to get away with blatant dormroomism thanks to Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.” Claiming True Detective’s writing wasn’t as brilliant as certain monologues about time led us to believe is a point in favor of McConaughey’s performance, not against it.

Still, women face badly written parts more often than men, and a theory of acting that equates difficulty with a killer script effectively discredits their work. After all, Alison Pill managed to turn her role as an incompetent associate producer on The Newsroom into one of the show’s few compelling characters. Doesn’t she deserve kudos for that?