I was about to comment on the below post about Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show, but I realized that what I had to say was on the long side, so I figured it would be a decent use of my guest-blogging privileges….
I love Aaron Sorkin’s work. The West Wing is the best-written and most intellectually substantive TV show I’ve ever seen; his prior series, Sports Night, was just as brilliant and, if anything, more pure fun. I own DVDs of both series and have seen them many times.
That said, Sorkin has a huge weakness in his game: he has serious issues with women that, over time, became quite glaring on West Wing.
(1) Lack of Diversity: At some point, it became startling that Sorkin’s fantasy liberal White House was less gender- and racially diverse than the Bush White House.
(2) Men Are from Mars — and Smarter: At least that’s the world according to Sorkin. A favorite plot device was to have one character explain a complicated political issue to another. It almost always was a Smart Man explaining to an Ignorant Woman: Sam explaining the census to CJ (who gushed about how smart he is); Josh explaining many, many things to Donna.
(3) Condescension about Smart Women: Sorkin repeatedly had characters express amazement at the few women he allowed to be smart. In one early episode, Chief of Staff Leo (talking to the President) pointed across the room and said, “look at Mandy – holding her own against Toby!” (Mandy had a PhD, while Toby was never assigned any impressive educational background.) When a genius conservative young lawyer (played by Emily Procter) joins the White House, the plotline is mainly about how incredibly smart she is — but her intellect wasn’t really that well displayed, and the male characters endlessly discuss her looks — with Toby (one of the “smart men”) actually saying that if you’re an attractive Republican woman, it means you’re an opportunist (whereas no character ever said anything about attractive men on either side of the political fence).
(4) “Girl”=Weak in Sorkinspeak: When that genius conservative young female lawyer badly beats Sam (Rob Lowe’s character) in a televised debate, Josh’s comment: “Sam’s getting beaten by a girl!” When Sam (in another episode) didn’t like some liberal speechwriters’ juvenile writing, he complained, “this looks like it was written by a high school girl.” (Sorkin actually tried to justify that by having Sam explain that he knew a lot of women who were great writers — “but this,” Sam further explained, “looks like it was written by a girl.”)
Some gender issues you can pin on a generational divide; we all know some otherwise well-meaning guy who can’t get past the gender norms he learned 50 years ago. But Sorkin didn’t learn his gender norms during the New Deal; he’s only 45 years old. He really, really should know better, and the fact that he doesn’t… well, it genuinely hurts his otherwise amazingly impressive writing. His shows sound like they’re written by a phenomenally talented guy who’s progressive on every issue except for the fact that he’s unable to understand the state of gender equality in the modern world, and therefore unable to portray that world effectively.
- Scott Moss