Don’t get me wrong, I REALLY like watching Aaron Sorkin dramas. Studio 60, Sports Night, West Wing, and now Newsroom on HBO. His movies are also really interesting as character studies as well. Whether it is A Few Good Men, Money Ball, or The Social Network; I have seen and enjoyed them all to a varying degree.
I am broadly defining patriarchy in this context as a system where men, often prioritized by age, hold power and influence in the absence of and/or to the exclusion of women.
This is by no means a definitive or one size fits all definition, but as a starting point, I think it is an apt definition. Especially when this definition is viewed in the context of some of Sorkin’s more well known and recent works.
Take West Wing, for example. This show convinced me to become a political science major and remains one of my all time favorite shows, however the vast majority of so called “heroic” or “noble” acts are done by the men on the show. Whether it is young aide Charlie Young, Assistant Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, grizzled speech writer Toby Ziegler or the president himself, Jed Bartlett, the male characters of the West Wing are at once deeply flawed but also worth flocking back to in moments of inspirational scripting and music.
The women on the other hand, seem mere props by comparison. Inserted to show each male character’s sharp wit, heal a fatal flaw, or create a sense of chivalrous romanticism. In fact, the only major female character in the whole series who maintains a constant role is press secretary C.J. Cregg whose stories arcs include overcoming her insecurities in the press room and the Oval Office, being frozen out of a major military briefing, and having a long sexual tension with senior white house correspondent Danny Concannon.
Even Bartlett’s wife, played by an excellent Stockard Channing, makes very few appearences. Her major story arc, though it grants her an impressive resume as a Doctor, is one of aiding her husband in times of stress and illness. Again, the focus being to come back and support or challenge her husband, but with few real opportunities to exhibit or possess real power and influence on the show.
It is the Newsroom which has disappointed me the most though. The two major female characters are often shouted down or in the throws of an emotional breakdown while dealing with the male dominated culture of the tv media room. Within the first two episodes alone, each of the characters has show a particular ineptitude with technology and personal relationships that results in a blown newscast on immigration law as well as adds an excuse for main character Will McAvoy to become a persistent “ladies man” who uses his wealth and influence to bed a series of different women over the course of individual episodes.
My personal interest in these stories notwithstanding, Sorkin’s problems came to the fore front when he asked a female reporter if she had watched the pilot episode twice because she “really liked the show or didn’t understand it the first time.”
So why is Sorkin’s male dominated culture a problem?
First, in many cases, his episodes make light of serious problems such as sex trafficking for prostitution and sexual harassment. In his sweeping and idealized world, he gives power to the myths that encourage harmful behavior of men and fan the flames of disbelief when real victims come forward. Though I doubt he would say this is intentional, but the impact is important.
Second, he reinforces the negative and sometimes harmful characteristics of masculinity that reinforce behaviors that few would say would be appropriate in the every day work force. Hetereonormitive behaviors are king (no pun intended) and repeated sexual conquest is the way to prove it. Drinking “real drinks, not cocktails” is expected. Men are all capable problem solvers. Abusive behavior is ok and should be permitted if the end goal is noble. And should you fail these criteria or not be fabulously wealthy? Then either fake it or be relegated to being a bit player on grand mission of life.
Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that Aaron Sorkin’s reputation for idealism and chivalry masks his ability to critically analyze his own actions. I admire Sorkin’s intent, but it is the intent masks the impact that his actions have within his fictional world and the world we all live in.
As Jay Smooth so eloquently puts it, “If someone steals my wallet, I am not going to chase the person down to find out why they are a thief. I am going to chase that person down to get my wallet.”
None of this means we cannot like Sorkin’s work. Far from it. Only that we look at what assumptions we make and how that impacts our actions. If we’re idealizing a fictional world where men play dominant roles and women are bit players, what hope do we have for creating the just and equitable world that we all are seeking?