We used to love Aaron Sorkin’s women.
CJ Cregg stands out for me as one of the (to borrow a Sorkinism) Best period Women period Ever period Written. She was funny, smart, self-assured and stood alone from the men in her world. Sure, a lot of CJ’s growth and the recognition of her worth in the Bartlett Administration came in later seasons of The West Wing, and her ascendancy to chief-of-staff ahead of the boys was well after Sorkin’s departure. Still, Sorkin invented CJ, and he did a fine job of it.
But these days Aaron Sorkin – as Josh Lyman might say – has a woman problem. His big 2012 splash, The Newsroom, has copped a barrage of criticism about its women.
Still, he is not alone. Hollywood has a woman problem. The Internet has a woman problem. The media has a woman problem.
So why is Sorkin copping it; is it because we expected better from him? Shouldn’t The Social Network have knocked that out of us? Maybe, it’s time to stop pretending one writer, one producer, one network or one studio is at fault. This is a collective failure.
The reason I think we notice it with Sorkin? Because he writes pie in the sky – he takes noble themes, great ideas, life-changing moments, and he lyrically unfolds them. It’s fantasy, dressed up as an almost-reality, where everyone is the best version of themselves. But not the women, they’re just foils, plot devices. Sometimes, they’re a punchline.
Watching The Newsroom I was so disappointed. Disappointed that the women in it are nothing like the smart, fierce, gutsy, wonderful women I’ve met in newsrooms. They’ve got the jobs, but you can’t help wondering: “How did you get there?” and, for all of them, the answer is because of their relationships with men (or, because they’re better looking than available men).
It has seemed, on and off over the past few years that Hollywood is starting to get it. There are the moments, like Bridesmaids, where people start writing about how women can carry a show, how women can be funny, how women can WRITE. There are the burning stars like Lena Dunham and her series Girls. Surprisingly (or maybe not), boys watch Girls too – in fact, in the US the demographic skews to men.
Women can write, women are funny; women earn independently, and spend up big on the things they like – meaning women can also make a studio plenty of money. So where are they? And why are they still being written like pretty-little-ladies or mannish-older-woman-caricatures?
These problems exist in most real and fictionalised representations of women in the media. And yet, despite the column inches devoted to it, sexism in popular culture and news media just keeps on happening.
My pop culture idols growing up were a cabal of fictional women journalists (April O’Neill from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lynda Day from Press Gang, Lois Lane from Lois & Clark – although the more soppy that character became the less I liked her). I watched them take on evil sewer-dwelling villains, fight for the front page (and save the world) and push back against a publisher who wanted them to drop a story. They were determined, they were strong, they were awesome (particularly Lynda).
Those heady days as a pre-teen girl I probably didn’t pay much attention to what was sexist about the representations of women, I was just inspired to see them on my TV, kicking butt and filing great copy.
As a teenager and young woman I got used to looking for aspects of what I knew in the women on my television and in movies. I never watched anything expecting that the women in it might really be like me.
So when Girls came out earlier this year it thrilled me. This show was about women. And it was written by women, and directed by a woman. Men weren’t pulling the strings.
Dunham has worn a lot of criticism about the lack of ethnic diversity in Girls, which people say is completely unrepresentative. That’s undeniably true, and it’s a worthwhile criticism of most television made today. One in three people in Sydney were born overseas, but you don’t see them reflected in the TV that gets made here – except maybe Masterchef.
So make the criticism, sure – but make it of everyone, because Dunham is not alone in this. The lack of true diversity in our media is a real problem. It diminishes us as a society, and it restricts our stories, and the value of them. More stories about every person, every culture, every way of life, need to be told.
When it comes to women it’s not that women aren’t represented, it’s that women are represented falsely. The women we see on TV and in movies – and often in books and even writing about women in news media – are not real women.
They’re sort-of like a Madame Tussaud’s replica of a woman. Looks like one, sounds like one, dresses like one, occasionally you’re fooled into thinking that they really are one, but they’re not. (Frankenwomen?)
Actor James Franco wrote a slightly-meandering piece about his views on Girls which had one really interesting thing in it.
“The guys in the show are the biggest bunch of losers I’ve ever seen… I know this sorry representation of men is fair payback for the endless parade of airheaded women on the West Coast male counterpart to Girls, Entourage, which in turn was fair payback for the cast of male dorks on Sex in the City. (They seemed like dorks to me, at least, on the occasions when my ex-girlfriend tuned in while I happened to be around.),” Franco wrote.
Must be weird to turn on the TV (or the computer) and see creatures that look like you but you can’t identify with. As a straight, white, well-off, well-educated man, it might even be something that’s never happened to Franco before. (Don’t poke the trolls I think as I write this, but some things have to be pointed out) The women in Sex and the City are nothing like real women, rather they take aspects of real women and blow them up into four stereotypes each more ridiculous than the last. That Franco can’t see the difference, shows just how ingrained the popular idea of what a woman is really is.
And what is that popular idea?
The first word that comes to mind is compliant. Then cute, and by cute I mean she’s adorable when she’s not being compliant. Look at the woman maddeningly arguing with that guy. She’s so CUTE. And her shoes (heels of course) match her belt, which is perfectly co-ordinated with her cardigan. Cute. What’s missing from her life? Well, a man obviously and probably the same one she’s arguing with.
Somebody get me a three-picture deal. I’ve got this.
In the end Franco seems to get what’s got us women hooked on Girls: “I’m also aware that I may be giving myself too much credit: for all I know, but for the grace of Judd Apatow I would be just like those struggling male idiots I see on the show. And of course it’s often more entertaining to watch people be irresponsible and make mistakes than it is to watch them lead stable lives. And yes, Lena Dunham gives the female characters just as many flaws as the guys. But the twist is twofold: we get to hear the girls’ insider conversations, so we side with them against the men.”
Yep, we can see them talking about their lives, their jobs, their insecurities, and guess what – not every conversation is about clothes, sex, or men. But women knew that already.
And we know women aren’t happy with the way we’re portrayed, we know women struggle to get backing for their ideas and projects, we know. What’s disappointing is even though we know, it keeps on happening. And people – like Sorkin, who we’d all like to think better of – keep on being a part of it.
This roadmap, put together by The Atlantic in May, 2012, gives us a clue as to why. Money makes the world go round, and studios have figured out that putting out generic blockbusters with high profile male stars is the best way to make a buck.
In 2007 a roundtable on women in Hollywood tackled a lot of these issues – what’s popular, why, who is watching? The write up of it in Salon is fascinating, and worth reading through to the end.
“There are movies in general, and then there are women’s movies. We’re still the other — we’re still a secondary audience… We know so much about the male experience because it’s been fed to us through the literature that the men wrote and the world that the men created; it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the modern world that we have power to say what we think and to express ourselves and our sensibility. But we’re still considered an alternative class,” writer and producer Laura Ziskin says during the discussion.
That’s it basically. It was true in 2007. It’s still true today. And it means Aaron Sorkin can write a bunch of compliant plot devices and no one in the production process is necessarily going to call him on it. And it means he gets to defend The Social Network with the argument that he’s just reflecting reality.
But I won’t cop it for The Newsroom. Women in journalism (like women in every field) are fierce, smart and hard-working. Like the men, there might be some who get an easy time or skate through on their charms, but we all know it’s a shrinking, incredibly competitive industry and if you can’t do the work you won’t get ahead.
I don’t see real women working at the fictional Atlantic Cable News. And I really wanted to. Studio executives, if you’re listening, that’s a show I’d watch the shit out of, and I bet a lot of other people would too.