There are certain lines of dialogue you just don’t want to hear from The Newsroom. This week, we got to hear all of them. We got Will McAvoy noting that “we’ve seen a host of contentious women’s issues in the news,” thereby declaring that the show is continuing to steer hard into Dealing With Sexism territory. We got “sluts are the interesting conversation,” from Maggie, thereby determining that the Dealing With Sexism will still be silly. And, finally, we got this one, the Dynamite Duo of Neal and Will: “People are Tweeting!” “Mostly women!”
But it feels wrong to crack glib jokes about this particular episode of The Newsroom. Because the fact is, a very large part of this episode centers around the sexual assault of a major female character. Although previous episodes led us to believe the show was going to fictionalize the assault of Lara Logan — Maggie’s strangely non-specific PTSD after a foreign reporting assignment inevitably suggested parallels — in fact, the show has chosen to fictionalize the assault of Erin Andrews, through Sloan (Olivia Munn). Sloan posed for some pictures with a man she’d been dating. They broke up. The pictures are now on a “revenge porn” site.
I’ve been an Olivia Munn doubter in the past — her work on nerd-TV variety hours such as “Attack of the Show” centered mostly around being humiliated by male co-stars, and her nasty statements about female critics didn’t compel me to look closer at her work — but when you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and I was wrong about Olivia Munn. The woman can act. She plays Sloan’s numb, fragile, worn-at-the-seams shell shock perfectly, and she gives these scenes far more gravitas than they ought by rights to have, considering that Don is there the entire time, telling her what to feel and asking questions like, “Is this the right time to ask why you date men like this?”
To which Sloan gives the only answer that matters: “You don’t know they’re like this until they are.” It’s one of those moments where you can see why so many people genuinely love Sorkin’s writing. And then the show hints that Sloan will reward Don for victim-blaming her by dating him, and you remember that you’re still watching The Newsroom.
Because then we flip back to Maggie and her breakdown over watching a child die in Africa, which now includes envy-reading the blog of delightful feminist reporter — and new Jim Girlfriend, may God have mercy on her soul — Hallie. She complains that Hallie’s writing about Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke smacks of “phony outrage,” and paraphrases a complaint about The Huffington Post—“to get to Hallie’s piece about the epidemic of sexism, I have to click past six articles about side boob” — that I first read from Amanda Hess. (The implications of Sorkin echoing feminist writing in order to dismiss feminist writing and/or further a catfight between two female characters are… you know, I got nothing. It’s beautiful just as it is.)
Maggie is also, yes, claiming proud membership among “the sluts.” She comes in to work smelling like liquor, screwing up her job (she cuts a leading question from the show’s clip of George Zimmerman’s 911 call), and eventually admits that she does all this because she’s “afraid to sleep alone at night.” Alison Pill, who plays Maggie, is struggling mightily to sell this. But where Limbaugh argued that “sluts” were morally corrupt and greedy, and (much like Sloan’s ex) that the world should be able to watch them screw, this script seems to proclaim that “sluts” aren’t evil, just broken and pitiful. This is taking place in the same episode as a plot about a woman being publicly humiliated for having sex.
But then, the whole episode is about humiliation. There’s Sloan’s assault; there’s Tyler Clementi’s suicide after being forcibly outed (and having his sex life filmed as a means of outing); there’s Mac’s attempt to shut down a young man who wants to come out on air in Clementi’s memory. She tells him that “you want to be a D‑lister and that’s it,” which seems uncommonly harsh even for this show. And then, of course, there’s Will being Tweeted at, by women, and greeting each new Tweet with a loud bellow of, “DAMN IT!”
For Will has “blown a woman off” in a restaurant, and his insult to her was apparently so profound that, based on her three Tweets about the matter, women across the Internet are banding together in protest of his actions. This seems to be, mostly, Aaron Sorkin’s big statement on Internet Girl-Gate, last year’s real-life brouhaha in which he was unaccountably rude and sexist to reporter Sarah Nicole Prickett, who had been sent to profile him. She (predictably) recorded his statements in the profile; they (predictably) became a sensation. Will’s father is dying, throughout this episode, and Will can’t get these Tweeting women off his mind.
And I feel for him. But there’s something manipulative in the way these are all framed as parallel plots: Sloan being assaulted is like Tyler Clementi being assaulted the same way and killing himself is like Will being relentlessly Tweeted at over a trifle. One of these things is not like the others. Nor, for that matter, is being Twitter-stalked over a minor social faux pas very much like being condescending to a reporter who’s been sent to profile you. Mac tries to tie it all together into a bow, something about writers and their audiences; “having a relationship with an audience is cool, I get it, as long as it doesn’t get serious… they don’t feel about you the way you want them to.” But she also calls that audience “bullshit” from “fundamentally small people.”
Well, there are big and small people in the world, and there are big and small problems. But in a show playing with stakes this high, it would be good to know that The Newsroom can tell the difference.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are 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 them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.