Does The Newsroom Still Have A Women Problem?

A few Bechdel Test-passing episodes in a row have done a lot for the portrayal of women in this show -- but it still has a ways to go.

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Here you’ll find a recap of this week’s episode of The Newsroom – and all the spoilers that implies.

This time last year, four or so episodes into the first season of The Newsroom, the whole portion of the internet thinkpiece ouroboros not given over to “You didn’t build that” was musing on Aaron Sorkin’s Woman Problem.

In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum enumerated the show’s issues, among them its “brilliant, accomplished women who are also irrational, high-strung lunatics — the dames and muses who pop their eyes and throw jealous fits when not urging the Great Man on”. Writers at The Daily Beast and Jezebel and Slate and Vulture and countless others mused on The Woman Problem, Sorkin’s denial of the existence thereof, and that time he was a total bag of dicks to a female journalist he addressed as “Internet Girl”.

Much of the criticism of his female characters revolved around their informed competence and displayed ditziness – I mean come on, Aaron, how likely is it that a woman lauded as one of the best news producers in the business might accidentally send a reply-all to the whole office? (Is it less likely than a bright actress “accidentally” tweeting a topless selfie [NSFW]? Do these things even happen in real life, ever?) HuffPo’s Maureen Ryan lauded the wonderful Rosalind Russell character in His Girl Friday — the go-to reference for writers trying to make the point that Aaron Sorkin is influenced by “screwball dialogue” — as “flawed but powerful, she’s funny, she’s independent and she’s nobody’s fool”.

Does any part of that not describe Mac in last night’s episode? She’s working hard on an important story, she’s keeping a methodical skepticism about it even as her gut is telling her it’s true; she’s shepherding Will as best she can, and handling rundown meeting antics with as much efficient grace as she can muster… And then there’s the exchange between her and Kendra in that meeting, which touches on the awkwardness of saying “the n-word”, the awkwardness of not saying it (particularly in a room full of grown-ass professional journalists), the lack of ethnic diversity in that room.

She still turns into a wheedling, needy, emotional beast every time she has to deal with the battered remains of her personal relationship with Will – the difference between her imperious control-room voice and her please-just-forgive-me voice throws a blinding spotlight on The Sorkin Woman Problem – but there was little room for that this week. The way she breezes past Elliott in Charlie’s office, tossing the correct way to refer to the N-word on television in his direction like it’s “I before E except after C”, making Don and Elliott look like chastened interns; by the Howard Hawks metric, she’s less of a Problem for now.

Maggie has also been wildly competent in fits and spurts this season, and the Africa storyline — odious as the politics were (Willa Paskin at Slate wrote a neat little summary of why that was mad awkward) — allowed her to show how far she’s come since lucking into her associate job. Throughout her insanely heavy-handed framing device with Marcia Gay Harden The Fuck Up, she displayed a quick, steely wit that was probably supposed to indicate that her defences were way up, but also made her genuinely awesome for the first time. (It doesn’t hurt that Alison Pill’s line readings are all perfect. “I need a bigger ballroom” didn’t quite make up for all the times Pill’s script read “Maggie stands helpless, gaping in shock at her own crushing ineptitude”, but it helped a bit.)

There’s also been less of this:

Sorkin has always been great at writing characters who use snark and workaholism to avoid confronting their own trauma, though he invariably ruins the well-paced build to catharsis or crisis by slathering on flashbacks and voiceover and symbolism. The tautly-edited evacuation/shooting sequence (narration aside), and Daniel-the-sweet-little-plot-device, deserved much better than a Trauma-Inspired Bathroom Haircut scene. At least we were spared a Sorkin version of the Lara Logan assault; while his track record on assault trauma narratives shows a level of sympathy and nuance that might surprise some viewers, the setup had already painted Maggie as “damaged” somehow, which didn’t bode well.

“I asked them for the Dead Kid Crop, which is like the Rape Survivor Crop only slower and they don’t have to do it with nail scissors.”

“I asked them for the Dead Kid Crop, which is like the Rape Survivor Crop only slower and they don’t have to do it with nail scissors.”

Elsewhere in Eccentric Ladyland, Olivia Munn is kind of killing it. She’s found a sweet spot that makes Sloan’s odd mix of hot, awkward, smart and immature work. Her weird lack of filter or boundaries in office conversations, the fact that she seems to arrive in the office at 6am despite working on a show that finishes at 11pm, her lack of patience with people less clever than she — it all suggests a woman without a lot of friends or much of a life outside work, who’s been smarter than everyone she knows since preschool and doesn’t really know how to talk to other humans.

Is this the soda-sipping posture of a well-adjusted adult? Asking for a friend.

Is this the soda-sipping posture of a well-adjusted adult? Asking for a friend.

But that right there is a description of almost every main ensemble character in every Sorkin show. It certainly applies to a fair few of the male Newsroom characters: Don can’t resist making the exact same kind of smug rejoinder to Shelley that Sloan throws at her at Shake Shack. Will finds himself rambling to Shelley about his life, just as Sloan offers her feelings on Titanic and Kodak apropos of nothing. Don and Elliott should absofuckinglutely know that you do not say the goddamn N-word on cable news, no matter what the context is. Neal keeps taking senior ACN staff to apologise to a woman (whose crucial information turns out to be easily obtainable through other channels), even after she punched him in the lower stomach area. (She punched him. This is not long after Mac threw Will bodily against a wall.)

And dumb Jim’s boring, awkward, implausible fling with the Streep progeny was a boring, awkward, implausible ending to a storyline filled with women who kept telling him, correctly, that he didn’t know what he was doing. The women of The Newsroom aren’t the least annoying female characters going around (sup, Sookie), but at least the blokes are doing their bit to keep the hate-watchers throwing couch cushions at the TV.

When you’re embedded with the GOP, you can only kiss on the right side of the mouth.

When you’re embedded with the GOP, you can only kiss on the right side of the mouth.

A little equal-opportunity dumbness and several Bechdel Test-passing episodes in a row have done a lot for the portrayal of women in this show — of course, if the rest of the season is going to hinge on whether Maggie’s Lady Brain has been so addled by Emoshuns that she can’t be relied on to remember Facts, the Woman Problem is still problematic. But it’s absurd to expect Strong Female Leads to be flawless, particularly when our fascination with Flawed Male Leads is still so robust. And given this episode’s propensity for metacommentary on narrative devices and clichés, the episode where Sorkin must address the GOP’s own Woman Problem is sure to be binders full of fun.

Caitlin Welsh is a freelance writer. She has written for The BRAG, Mess + Noise, FasterLouder, Cosmopolitan, TheVine, Beat, dB, X-Press, and Moshcam.

You can follow The Newsroom with her here.