I’m six episodes into The West Wing, and it’s really, really, good — but also one of the most casually misogynistic shows I’ve ever seen. Which isn’t to say that there’s a complete absence of good female characters, because nothing is black and white and clearly C.J. Cregg is a queen, but when episode five ended with all of the upper middle class white dudes standing around proudly watching every girl on the show and patting themselves on the back: “These women! Look at ‘em! Being women! And as good as us! How quaint!” it felt like the end of a Mad Men episode in the worst way.
I’ve spent the past hour googling “Aaron Sorkin,” “sexism,” and “West Wing” in every possible combination, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are not enough people talking about this. An article on a blog run by Feminist Law Professors summed up my own thoughts pretty well — basically, it points out the following problems with women as portrayed on The West Wing: 1) Men are generally perceived as smarter, and regularly have to teach women about Math and Politics when they don’t understand. 2) When a woman actually does show intelligence, everyone is blown away as if it’s this huge statistical improbability and plot twist. 3) The word “girl” is used as an insult on an alarmingly frequent basis; being feminine is equated with weakness and stupidity.
In my internet quest, I was spoiled in a few different regards to what happens beyond episode six, which, whatever; but I think the writing was officially splayed across the figurative wall when CJ became Chief of Staff only after Sorkin left the show. I can guarantee you that never would have happened if he’d stayed on. That’s just not how Sorkin’s mind works.
Not to say I don’t like The West Wing a whole lot, and that I’m going to stop watching it or something: it’s a very, very great show. I care about these characters. But I’m really liking watching it with my Aggressive Feminist Taylor glasses on, as well. I think the fact that it’s a recurring problematic thread throughout all of Sorkin’s works is what’s most troubling.
In that way, I’m kind of glad The Newsroom wasn’t as brilliant as The West Wing, so people are able to recognize and dialogue about it all more openly. I’m not trying to say the man isn’t talented — he’s influenced an entire generation of screenwriters, myself included. But just because he can write a fucking awesome monologue doesn’t mean he’s without flaws. He knows how to write really, really, really wonderful and well-crafted stories… that are mostly about upper middle class white dudes.
A look at the show’s writing staff only further proves every point I’m making: out of the 29 people given writing credits over the course of the show’s seven seasons, nine are women and twenty are men. 9 vs. 20. That is…. actually the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. (I checked out Newsroom, too, and it’s 4 women vs. 7 men. Not as atrocious, but not great, either.)
Does he have a wife? Can you imagine how terrible it would be to be married to Aaron Sorkin? This is also because in every interview I’ve read, he reads as childishly proud of what a self-important assh** he is. In this interview I quoted, the reporter told Sorkin she’d watched “The Newsroom,” twice, and he actually, literally asked her — “Because you liked it so much the first time, or because you didn’t understand it the first time?” Which, I think, says everything I want to about his character better than I ever actually could.
I think we’ve come a long way in viewing media critically as a society since The West Wing premiered in 1999 — which is probably partly why there’s been more backlash at The Newsroom for having similar issues. The internet and the emergence of TV criticism as a real Thing have helped with this. Douchebags still think Girls sucks, but I find comfort in the fact that, for the most part, no one who isn’t an idiot really takes those criticisms seriously.
I think a lot of screenwriters have adapted Sorkin’s style of rapid dialogue and fine-tuned balance of emotional gut punches and idealism, but also managed to expand their character worldview to actually include well-rounded women and minorities: Amy Sherman-Palladino and Shonda Rhimes immediately sprung to mind, but I’m sure there’s plenty more. Sorkin’s an important man with an important legacy, and I personally enjoy a huge amount of the things he’s created, but he also… kind of… sucks.
On that eloquent note — I think we’re done here.
This article was first posted on March 26, 2013