Web Only / Features » August 5, 2013
Who Are You Calling Sexist?
This week on The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin helpfully shows us what a real sexist looks like.
Sorkin's options for portraying realistic, casual sexism are somewhat limited, given that his heroes can typically be found spouting it.
Ah, Maggie Jordan. Whether it's her professional ineptitude, her attention-grabbing tantrums—hark, ye craven worshippers of the Demon YouTube, for Maggie Jordan has facts about her life to scream!—or just the fact that she's an unavoidable presence in The Newsroom's equally unavoidable romantic sub-plots, Maggie has never quite attained the “lovably awkward everygirl” status the show has so clearly assigned her. Instead, she's become a reliable generator of rolled eyes and forehead slaps.
All of which is to say: Buckle up. Because we're about to dive deep into the psyche of Maggie Jordan.
This week's episode brings us back to the Genoa lawsuit storyline, and with it, Marcia Gay Harden, who does her level best to compose a character out of a series of reaction shots. The question at hand is whether Maggie is too damaged to be a reliable witness. For, you see, she was sent to Africa to report on the building of an orphanage, something very traumatic happened, and she came back hardened and strange.
“Hardened and strange,” here, is signaled by the fact that Maggie has short hair, and is wearing a hoodie over a tank top. I am slightly perturbed by the fact that Aaron Sorkin's vision of “bright young woman driven to sartorial madness by the world's cruelty” is pretty much exactly how I look every day. I am even more perturbed by the show's method of narrating Maggie's traumatic secrets, which goes as follows: First, Maggie describes an event that occurred. Then, we flash back, and see the thing that she has just described. Then we cut back to Maggie looking sad about that flashback, and Marcia Gay Harden's reaction shot. (Good job, Marcia!) Then, more often than not, we cut back to the same flashback, but in slow motion, thereby establishing that Maggie is sad about it.
Here, for example, is an example of how Aaron Sorkin uses the complicated narrative device of the flashback:
Maggie: We were met by Lieutenant Bill Casey, the Community Relations co-ordinator for the 490th Civil Affairs battalion.
Bill Casey: Bill Casey! I'm the Community Relations co-ordinator for the 490th Civil Affairs battalion!
We don't see this particular flashback again, in slow motion, presumably because it does not contain any weeping children. We'll return to that. But let's cut away from all this subtlety, for the moment, and focus on yet another dangerous reporting assignment: That of Hallie, the lone strong female character embedded in Planet Newsroom, and her ongoing role in Jim Harper's quest to prove himself the world's nicest, most sensitive dude.
Jim has been kicked off the Romney bus, and he's dragged Hallie along with him. Her boss, it turns out, is both (a) displeased with this, and (b) sexist, a character flaw that Sorkin chooses to illustrate with the following line of dialogue: “Unless you want to put on heels and fuck me for an hour, you need to stop being a little bitch,” says Hallie's boss, to Hallie.
At this point, I descended into appalled giggling. I appreciate that the script is trying to say something about sexism, here. However, Sorkin's options for portraying realistic, casual sexism are somewhat limited, given that his heroes can typically be found spouting it. Therefore, when Sorkin wants to indicate that sexism is a bad thing, he has to resort to full-on, moustache-twirling cartoon villainy. I'm surprised Hallie's boss didn't threaten to bomb an abortion clinic if she failed him.
But, rather than allowing Hallie to demonstrate any agency—for example, showing her get herself back on the campaign trail through her own devices, or file a sexual-harassment lawsuit for the fireable offense her boss just committed in front of two witnesses—the script promptly turns this into an opportunity for Jim Harper, Nice-Guy-at-Large, to save some lady's bacon. He accomplishes this bacon-saving by baiting a Romney press aide into saying something stupid, and then blackmailing said aide into giving Hallie a 30-minute interview with the candidate.
When Hallie finds out about this, she is understandably displeased. And once again, for a second, she does an alarmingly good impression of a real live feminist writer, trapped in some man's condescending rescue fantasy: “Either you don't know or don't care how insulting your 'favor' was to me, but it's one or the other. I'm experienced at this, Jim, more experienced than you.”
Pay attention, kids, because you're about to find out what actual, non-prostitute-invoking sexism sounds like.
“What the hell? Am I suddenly a fucking receptacle for every woman who's pissed at a guy?” Such are the sudden, nonsensical words of Nice Guy Jim Harper. He goes on: “I did it because I wanted to. Everything about it felt right, but if it was insulting, I still don't care.”
In other words: Lady, you're the damsel here, and you're in distress when I say you're in distress, so thank me for my chivalric valor or shut up. Hallie thanks him, of course. And, of course, she thanks him by making out with him, because female sexual attention is both the only reasonable inducement to male kindness, and the only currency with which said kindness can be repaid.
Meanwhile: Every single member of the cast is taking turns haranguing Shelly, the Occupy Wall Street protester, about how she is crazy and also a total nobody and also Occupy Wall Street will fail because all history is made by “leaders,” who are presumably also the Great Men Will never stops talking about. We'll skip this disgrace, as attempting to comprehend it would shame us all.
Let us return, instead, to those children weeping in slow motion. It's finally time to find out why Maggie is so traumatized: On her trip, Maggie befriended a little boy named Daniel, who was sent to the orphanage by his parents so that he would be safe from violent cattle raiders. As if on cue, violent cattle raiders attack the orphanage, and Daniel is shot and killed.
It's more than a little exploitative. Any plot that executed a first-grader in order to explain a woman's bad haircut would most likely fall under that description, whether or not the director kept re-playing the tear-soaked faces of traumatized children like a football commentator analyzing a touchdown. But, when Maggie's mysterious foreign-reporting trauma was introduced, the first association many people made was to the sexual assault of Lara Logan. Which means that the explanation for Maggie's trauma seems downright tasteful, compared to the callous exploitation we feared.
And such is the bargain we have made with The Newsroom: “Not quite the callous exploitation we feared” has reached the status of an actual compliment. It's worth remembering, because next week, an Onion headline comes roaring to life when Will McAvoy finds out about Trayvon Martin. Stock your bars and lower your standards, folks; this show is just getting started.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady