Attack of the Tweeting Women

In Episode 5, Sorkin tackles topics (feminism, the Internet) that The Newsroom should never, ever touch.

Sady Doyle

Maggie (Alison Pill) continues her season-long breakdown in episode 5, this time tearing down the work of a feminist reporter.

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!”

And then, of course, there's Will being Tweeted at, by women, and greeting each new Tweet with a loud bellow of, “DAMN IT!”

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. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. 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.
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