I’m a self-proclaimed super fan of The West Wing and Aaron Sorkin, so it was no surprise I was recently asked, “If you really believe what you believe about sexism in the entertainment industry, how can you possibly be such a devout fan of Aaron Sorkin?” As an aspiring writer for television, one of my heroes is Aaron Sorkin. His plotlines, writing, and character development epitomize good screenwriting. After finishing The West Wing, I devoured all of his series in an attempt to fill the Sorkin-shaped hole in my life. I watched The Newsroom, Studio 60, and my favorite of the three shorter series – the “gone-too-soon” Sports Night. However, besides the amazing writing, all of Sorkin’s movies and television shows have two things in common: a clear lack of capable, independent women and men who treat women like objects to be fixed.
Recently, Sorkin (whose relationship with entertainment media is nothing short of complex) was part of the Sony hacks. Hackers revealed an email he wrote responding to an article in the New York Times written by Maureen Dowd that addressed the lack of women at the center of today’s films. The controversial quote, which suggests something that his fans have absorbed for a long time, demonstrates the prevailing lack of awareness about sexism in the film industry and in his own work.
“I’d only take issue with one thing and that’s the idea that something like Bridesmaids is seen as a fluke and that’s why we don’t see more movies like Bridesmaids. 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. The scripts aren’t there.”
This statement infuriates generations of women who have seen sexism prevail in the entertainment industry. From television to film (*cough cough* this year’s Oscars), we have seen some advancement, but not enough to imagine gender parity any time soon. While Amy Pascal is one of the least popular people in Hollywood as of this moment, she gets one thing right: there are constant road blocks for female directors, screenwriters, and female driven films at each level of the industry hierarchy. Sexism has been institutionalized, onscreen and off. To say, as Sorkin does, that the scripts do not exist is an affront to the many female screenwriters and female driven stories in the entertainment industry that have been shrugged off for lacking wide appeal because they were seen as “Women’s Films.”
A common Sorkin subplot features a righteous man trying to fix a woman. This plot repeats in in multiple of his series. In Sports Night, the character Dan Rydell relentlessly attempts to make a woman, Rebecca, believe in love again after her husband scored her. While Sorkin might see this as romantic, the character’s actions are often cocky, knowing, and impetuous, with his pursuit lasting long after Rebecca asks him to leave her alone. In The West Wing, Sam tries to fix a law student who chooses to moonlight as a prostitute. His quest ends in tragedy for the law student, but there is virtually no consequence for the man in power. Lastly, and one of the most clear iterations of this scenario comes from The Newsroom. Will McAvoy makes the internal moral call to “fix” a gossip writer and set her straight on what he discerns the journalistically moral path. All of these men wish to fix these women instead of fixing their own problems: Dan’s professional troubles, Sam’s difficulty reconciling idealism and politics in the White House, and Will McAvoy’s own struggle between staying on the high road and less than stellar ratings.
Let me be clear: My favorite Sorkin character of all time is CJ Cregg, a woman far more superior than all her male colleagues put together, a counterpoint to the anti-feminist Sorkin plotlines and characters. CJ is an uncompromising woman in her high-powered job, quick with her wit and intelligence, fiercely protective of her family and friends, and is universally beloved on the show. But Sorkin makes her weaker; certain humanizing moments portay CJ as vulnerable to weakness because of her gender not because of her humanity. In one episode in the first season, CJ is about to leak a story to a reporter she is romantically entangled with because she feels the stress of being constrained from doing good as a result of political necessity. Each male character on the show has a similar moment to this, in which they are humanized because they feel the pressure of being unable to make good due to their organization’s political motives. However their weaknesses, well known among the rest of the Senior Staff, are never used against them to withhold information, which is something that constantly happens to the comparatively stronger CJ. At one point she even says to her boss, the chief of staff, “I’m not your daughter I’m the White House Press Secretary.” I appreciate one speech in particular when CJ goes off on Josh Lyman for not informing her of a possible scandal involving the president and a call girl. It’s pertinent information for the White House Press Secretary, yet hidden from her because her male coworkers assume she’ll react badly due to her gender. This chastising speech can be seen two ways: as the possible light at the end of Sorkin tunnel, a female character acting against patriarchal views of gender in the workplace; a shout into the void, that is ignored as unimportant by her co-workers.
So when challenged with this question, “Can you believe in Sorkin as this screenwriting god and feminism in film?” I now have to say, I cannot. As someone I used to look up to, for Aaron Sorkin to espouse this clearly negligent belief is extremely hurtful. Whenever I think wistfully of the fantastic storytelling and amazing dialogue of The West Wing, I will now be concurrently thinking of the neglect and disdain Aaron Sorkin has for women in entertainment: onscreen and off.