Sorkin and Sexism in The Newsroom

by Andrea Shea / Pop Columnist • September 6, 2012

Since its June 24 premiere, Aaron Sorkin’s new series The Newsroom has seemingly garnered every reaction on the critical spectrum. Some critics, such as The Atlantic’s Jason Bailey, deeply enjoy the new HBO drama, that chronicles the inner workings of a cable news network while still acknowledging its flaws. Others, like Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post and Jace Lacob of The Daily Beast, just want to firebomb the whole series and call it a day. 

They have a very specific bone to pick with The Newsroom beyond general distaste. They believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that my new favorite summer drama is sexist.

Yeah, sexist. Well, hold on to your copies of The Feminine Mystique, because here’s the thing: Aaron Sorkin’s latest work is about as sexist as Betty Friedan herself. Which is to say, for those of you who don’t spend your free time Googling second-wave feminism, not even a little bit.

Upon closer inspection, Ryan and Lacob’s complaints involve the intern-turned-associate producer Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) being a “a hapless woman seesawing between two different men”; economist Sloane Sabbath (Olivia Munn) feeling insecure about her abilities when she’s first hired, then her subsequent bonding with a female co-worker over a shared manicurist (“...yikes!” says Ryan of this particular sin); and executive producer Mackenzie McHale’s (Emily Mortimer) “pathetic and needy” nature, as well as her now infamous struggle with a new email system.

Now let’s take a quick glance at the men of the show, something Ryan and Lacob didn’t think to consider in their assessment of the series. Ex-executive producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) frequently interrupts his co-workers to interrogate them about his on-again, off-again relationship with Maggie.  Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson), the news division president, is a shouty, red-faced alcoholic. Oh, and did I mention the scene when Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), star news anchor and The Newsroom’s male lead, falls face-first out of his office because he literally cannot put on a pair of pants? Why is all of this perfectly acceptable, but Maggie’s clumsiness or Mackenzie’s struggle with the new email interface is not?

Maggie Jordan is not Superwoman. She’s not a martyr for every feminist who ever felt oppressed by a pair of slingback heels. No, she’s doesn’t have a spine of titanium, but she’s hardly obligated to. Maggie’s just a girl trying to navigate her relationship and her job, not the thirteenth member of Pussy Riot.

But there are all kinds of women out there-women who are emotional and love shopping and bond with their coworkers over a shared manicurist, whether they be a receptionist or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company-and they deserve to be portrayed on television and in other forms of media. It seems silly to say, like it should be a given, but the second someone tries to write a human character instead of a factory-approved “Strong Woman” a la Katniss Everdeen, people get all up in arms without realizing that they’re the ones limiting females to just one acceptable personality type and deeming all others worthless.

I’m not going to say The Newsroom is flawless, because it’s not. Sorkin doesn’t always get it right. But at least he recognizes that the Strong Woman archetype as the only acceptable portrayal of female characters is just as sexist as the idea that all women are ignorant, simpering, self-possessed breasts on a pair of shapely legs.