Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Mad as Hell: Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin

I had no plans to comment on "Oh, Shenandoah," the now-infamous penultimate episode of Aaron Sorkin's final (?) TV series The Newsroom.  I've tried not to think about Sorkin since I gave up on The Newsroom two episodes into its beleaguered run, when it became clear that the flaws that had marred his previous series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--preachy characters who exist only to speechify, regressive politics, an elitism as overweening as it was unfounded, and a genuine disdain for women--were back in force, and it was actually a bit of a shock to discover that he was still capable of arousing as much outrage and indignation as "Oh, Shenandoah" did.  It seemed like a lot more fun to just sit back and watch the wall-to-wall pans appear--from Libby Hill at The AV Club, Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker, James Poniewozik at Time, Tara Ariano at Previously.TV, Ariane Lange at BuzzFeed, Todd VanDerWerff at Vox.com, Emily Yoshida at The Verge, Sonia Saraiya at Salon, and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd at Jezebel, to name but a partial sample.

The episode came under fire for multiple sins, from the hackneyed and cheesy shuffling off of a major character to the return of an unearned romance between two increasingly unpleasant characters, but the plot strand that has garnered the most attention and the most outrage involves a producer in the titular newsroom conducting a pre-interview with a rape victim who, having been confronted with the indifference of the justice system to her ordeal, has started a website on which victims like her can name and shame their rapists.  As multiple critics have noted, instead of dealing with the real and legitimate questions raised by such a tactic (while also acknowledging that it may be the only recourse left to victims such as this character), the scene centers on the male character's discomfort with it, and on his unwillingness to believe the victim despite the plausibility of her story.  As Lange writes:
Sitting in a Princeton dorm room, Don tries to convince Mary to take her website down, "to ensure an innocent person isn't destroyed." What about the men, he essentially pleads. One example he offers of the type of person who might post a false allegation on the site is "a woman who feels rejected." And we're meant to be on his side, really. In rape culture, being accused of rape is worse than rape. In rape culture, when we have to decide whose story to believe, it is our moral obligation to believe that the alleged attacker is telling the truth and the alleged victim is a liar.
You can read more about the problems in "Oh, Shenandoah" in any of the links above--if nothing else, the material has inspired many of these writers to greatness--but as I said, I had no intention of joining the fray.  Until, that is, I saw what at first seemed like a mere appendage to the brouhaha, a series of tweets from Alena Smith, a former Newsroom writer.  I'm going to quote Smith's statement in full--because it's short, but also because I want to make some things clear before we talk abut the response to it.
A few points worth making about this statement: it's brief and to the point.  It isn't angry or emotional (not that there's anything wrong with being angry or emotional, but it isn't).  It doesn't name anyone except Smith and Sorkin.  The only experiences, feelings, and ideas it reports are Smith's.  It doesn't violate anyone's privacy--except, possibly, Sorkin's, though only in the sense that it references a storyline that he had, by the time the tweets were published, already released into the world with his name signed to it, and which multiple sources had already condemned.  It's hard to imagine how Smith could have been any more civil or collegial in talking about her own experiences in the Newsroom writers' room--unless, of course, she chose simply not to talk about them at all.

Of course, if you've ever been a woman who has expressed criticism of a man--especially a more powerful man--in a public forum, you know that none of this matters.  How soft, polite, and matter-of-fact your statement is doesn't mean anything--the very fact of having made it puts you in the wrong.  And because the men who flock to the "defense" of the man you dared to criticize have some instinctive understanding that they can't actually say this, what you're in for (assuming it's not the more gruesome option of rape threats, death threats, and doxxing) is a death by a thousand cuts.  A million different ways in which you were wrong, not in what you said, but in how you chose to say it.  You've accused someone of the heinous crime of being sexist (which is of course far worse than actually experiencing sexism).  You've violated their privacy (by speaking about your own experiences).  You're calling for censorship and thought police (say the people who would just like you to shut up and go away).  You were rude (there's no actual response to this; the rudeness is inherent in your very existence).  You're just trying to get attention (what the hell is wrong with someone in the entertainment industry trying to get attention?).  You're endangering your career (somehow the concern-trolls who raise this prospect never actually do anything to make sure that it doesn't happen).

If all of this is starting to ring a bell, go back and read the excerpt from Lange's review of "Oh, Shenandoah" above.  Though the subjects at hand are very different, the same dynamic is at play.  A woman speaking out about her experiences makes a man uncomfortable, so he tries to argue that the choice to speak is inherently illegitimate--even though speaking out is demonstrably the only way to achieve any real change.

And here's where the whole thing becomes wonderfully surreal.  I've seen Sorkin defenders making these Don-esque arguments, towards Smith and towards the reviewers who criticized "Oh, Shenandoah" (though, for some completely unfathomable reason, only towards the female reviewers).  But yesterday their ranks were joined by Sorkin himself.  After largely ignoring the criticism of "Oh, Shenandoah," and confirming the details of Smith's account (though he also claims that she gave her "enthusiastic support" to a revised version of the rape storyline), Sorkin gets down to what he feels is the actual controversy of the day.  I don't usually go in for fisking, but this is simply too beautiful for any other approach:
I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story.
Obviously, the real issue here isn't the tone-deaf and offensive rape storyline I wrote, but the fact that a woman publicly expressed her disapproval of it!
But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality.
This is a thing that an actual human being has written, and which he clearly expects other actual human beings to take seriously.  Even taking into account Sorkin's reputation for self-importance, it's a little hard to take in.
It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched.
Please note: none of these private and intimate details were mentioned in Smith's tweets, and neither was anyone other than Sorkin himself.  The notion that she has violated anyone's privacy is utterly false and plainly a derailment tactic.
That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in
Not-too-subtle dig at female writer's inexperience, as opposed to the male writer, who Knows How Things Work: check.
the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.
Left unspoken: what other recourse Smith had given that her valid, legitimate objections to a storyline that has garnered near-universal pans were shut down by the person running that oh-so-private writers' room.

What we're seeing here is Aaron Sorkin becoming an Aaron Sorkin character, making the same arguments as Don.  In his conception of reality, a woman who feels that she's been treated unjustly and has no hope of redress from the hierarchy above her, also has no right to speak out, because doing so is Rude.

As beautiful as this conflation of fiction and reality is, it actually gets better.  Way back in 2007, Sorkin wrote the Studio 60 episode "4 A.M. Miracle," in which lead character Matt Albie tries to avoid a network lawyer who wants to depose him about a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in his predecessors' writers' room--a storyline itself based on a suit filed against the production of Friends in 1999.  Though he initially dismisses the suit (and the woman bringing it) as frivolous, Matt is eventually persuaded that the atmosphere in the writers' room was indeed toxic and hostile to women (though it is worth noting that he only accepts this once he learns that the lewd, sexual comments rife in the room were directed at his on-and-off girlfriend, Harriet Hayes).  Nevertheless, he tells the lawyer, he will help to quash the suit, because "No conversation like this has ever or would ever go on in a room I was running.  But there's a lot of good writing that comes out of rooms I don't run."

It's a testament to how generally vile Studio 60 was on all fronts, including gender, that this quote didn't get more play at the time.  Matt isn't simply saying, as defenders of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen will occasionally do, that great art can be an excuse for the abuse of women and girls.  He's saying that the abuse of women and girls might be necessary to the production of great art (this is leaving aside, obviously, the question of whether Studio 60's titular show-within-a-show was art at all, much less the great kind), and that, as an artist himself, he has to prioritize that over the safety of women (or people of color, or LGBTQ people).  The possibility that those people might have voices worth hearing, and that the hostile environment that Matt holds more valuable than their safety might be preventing from speaking up, is never even considered.

What we have here is a pattern.  On The Newsroom, on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and in real life, we have Sorkin repeatedly prioritizing the comfort of men--powerful, privileged men like himself--over the safety of women.  To be clear, I'm not saying that Smith's experience was comparable to rape or sexual harassment.  I'm not even saying that Aaron Sorkin wasn't fully within his rights to shut down a conversation with his employee, or order her out of the room (I don't even think that Smith is saying this; her tweets seem mainly to be about venting the frustration of that argument, and expressing some well-earned schadenfreude at having been proven right).  But in all three cases, there is an assumption that a woman speaking out is fundamentally wrong.  That no matter how unfair her experience was--and please take a moment to admire Don/Matt/Sorkin for recognizing that unfairness--and how limited her options are in response, speaking about it makes her the bad guy, because the system and its smooth running are more important than she is.  True, this approach means that nothing will ever change, but... well... let's pretend that isn't exactly what Sorkin wants.

What makes the Smith incident and Sorkin's reaction to it all the more delicious is that, judging by what I've read by her, Alena Smith's worldview may not be that different from her former boss's.  Coincidentally (or not?), she had an essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week.  "You Can't Make a Living: Digital Media, the End of TV's Golden Age, and the Death Scene of the American Playwright" is a long, interesting, perhaps tendentious piece that argues that writing for the theater has become effectively a hobby (and has been progressing towards that state since the 1920s) and that writing for television is going the same way.  Smith's analysis has many echoes of the bugbears that appear in Sorkin's writing: she discusses the advent of new media and the de-professionalization of many creative pursuits, the audience's shifting tastes which make it difficult for quality entertainment to get off the ground, and, of course, the internet.  The difference between Smith and Sorkin is that she doesn't come at the situation from a position of disdain.  She's identifying trends that she clearly views as problematic, but she doesn't depict them--as Sorkin often does--as the death knell of civilization.  Nor is she trapped by the delusion that these processes can somehow be reversed, returning us a golden age when everything was better.  This, not to put too fine a point on it, is what The Newsroom should have been.  There are obvious problems with new media, citizen journalism, and the effects that the internet has had on the creative industry that are worth talking about (just as there are obvious problems with a website where women can identify alleged rapists, that are equally worth talking about).  But the people we should be hearing from about these problems are people like Smith--thoughtful and cognizant of the inevitability of change--not frothing reactionaries like Sorkin, whose only real concern is with their own comfort and vanity.

I've been thinking for a while about Arthur Chu's essay "Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition: The Roots of Reactionary Rage."  It's a trenchant, thought-provoking piece that argues that flare-ups like the recent (and still ongoing, in some places) GamerGate are part of a reactionary stream within popular culture, which periodically explodes with the rage of white males' fear that their central role within it is being displaced--by women, by black people, by gays.  The whole thing is worth reading, and not just if you're interested in GamerGate, but it was this paragraph that suddenly lit a lightbulb over my head, and clarified for me why I've increasingly found Aaron Sorkin impossible to stand, and why even his earlier, better-written work has become nigh-unwatchable for me:
If you want to get a good idea of the "mood" of middle-class white people in the '70s, rewatch Network and pay attention to Peter Finch's Oscar-winning "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" monologue. Some of his grievances are legitimate. Some of them are incoherent, even bigoted. But all of them add up to a coiled-up rage, ready to lash out at the nearest target.
Network is, of course, Aaron Sorkin's touchstone text.  He references it, and its writer Paddy Chayefsky, repeatedly in both his writing and his public statements.  Both Studio 60 and The Newsroom are, in large parts, attempts to remake it for the modern era.  But as Chu notes, its influence on his writing is rarely revolutionary.  Sorkin has the reputation of being a liberal, but for more than a decade his commentary about our culture has consistently taken the form of that brave conservative self-conception, the man who stands astride history yelling "stop."  And it is, of course, always a man.  The Newsroom in particular nakedly yearns for the days when great men had a single platform from which to pronounce on the culture, determining right from wrong, highbrow from lowbrow, worthwhile from worthless.  Sorkin's depictions of the enemies of this manly authority are almost inevitably feminized.  His characters' enemies--bloggers, online journalists, gossip columnists, sorority girls, rape victims--are women.  The internet itself is perceived as the tool of women.  For years there's been an assumption floating around Sorkin that his misogyny is a trait distinct from his intellectualism, his idealism, his faith in humanity's potential.  What Chu's essay--and the events of the last 24 hours--have crystallized for me is that they all come from the same place, a world where white men like Sorkin have a platform and women who try to speak out against the system that benefits those men are, at best, misguided souls who must be condescended to by people who aren't really interested in grasping their experiences.  Sorkin thinks of himself as a liberal, but liberals seeks to dismantle unjust systems even at a cost to their own privilege.  As episodes like "Oh, Shenandoah" and his response to Alena Smith demonstrate, there is no injustice so profound as to convince Aaron Sorkin that such a dismantling is necessary.


Brigonos said...

Newsroom was my first experience with Sorkin television, but it did seem odd that so much of the show seemed to be about a rich white guy talking down to people. The stream of straw men arguments kind of grated after a while, too, although I suppose I should admire the chutzpah of any show that has a scene where a rich white Republican sits an Occupy protestor down and then lectures them about where they're going wrong.

Foxessa said...

For another entertainment industry of this sort of thing look at "Girl In A Country Song" - Mocking Unreal Female Images the Dudebros sing about in country music.

Fangz said...

Wow, that is pretty damning. I haven't seen any Sorkin previously, heard only good things about West Wing - the only apparent issue there seemed to me to be an excess of naivety. I didn't expect this stuff.

Dragonchild said...

"You've accused someone of the heinous crime of being sexist (which is of course far worse than actually experiencing sexism)."

Is it really? I'm not going to defend Sorkin against accusations that he's a jackass, and your emotional reaction to the backlash against Smith is understandable, but you didn't offer anything more than a solution-free Network-esque rant of your own. This may seem silly to bring up because justice is easy to grasp on an abstract level, but it's precisely in the details where men have the advantage, and thus only where true change can take place. Presumably you're saying you want accusations of sexism to be believed and acted on? If not please correct me, because leads right to the trap Sorkin laid out in his episode. If you're a victim of sexism in today's world, your career path can be compromised on a whim and there's nothing you can do about it. That's a serious problem. But in a "perfect" world where accusations are automatically believed & acted on, your career path can be compromised on a whim and there's nothing you can do about it. An unjust world where accusations of sexism are vilified is not improved by flipping the injustice completely the other way. Sorkin's argument boils down to this, and while it may seem silly in a world where women have such a disadvantage, you can't use the status quo as a crutch when countering. You can ONLY safely make the above complaint in the very world you're complaining about; otherwise the endgame leads to a false choice. To defeat Sorkin's argument you need to look past the status quo, and you fell way short.

In your haste to dive into the battle of the sexes you got similarly careless with the episode itself. A "wall of shame" website is certainly an inappropriate solution precisely because it's a "shoot 'em all and let God sort 'em out" sort of weapon, but the real takeaway here is that Sorkin has nothing constructive to contribute because the underlying premise is preposterous. There is nothing preventing the creation of such a website except the "real and legitimate questions raised by such a tactic" you note the show glossed over, but in your rush to defend a fictional victim you overlooked (or perhaps omitted) the fact these problems are the same problems rape victims have in the first place. Rape victims certainly aren't staying quiet because they're being prevented from registering a domain.

There are things to be said about shaping a society where women feel safe without implementing systems that could easily be abused in a world where reputations matter; I just don't want Sorkin making them. I'd feel more comfortable with you at the table given past posts on the topic, but this time, every time you note some problem or other was glossed over (what recourse the rape victim had, what recourse Smith had) you passed on the chance to offer your own ideas. Where else do you think they're going to come from -- Sorkin?? Sorkin's arguments are flawed, but I'm genuinely surprised to see you punch well below your weight and post a rant that, in the end, puts you right where Sorkin wants -- outraged at the injustice but with no solution to offer that he hasn't already undermined. I'm thinking on a better day you could've kicked his ass and boy does he need it.

Dragonchild said...

P.S. In hindsight I realize I'm calling you out for staying true to form. You've been consistent (and fun to read) as a critic who takes in an author's vision and then sees where it leads (often to flaws) instead of adding your own vision, so I guess I wasn't fair. Thing is, I feel "the problem with Sorkin is that when you criticize his shows, you turn into a Sorkin character" is very much his aim, and this looks like he succeeded, making this post frustrating to read.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Presumably you're saying you want accusations of sexism to be believed and acted on?

No. What I'm saying is that I'd like Sorkin - and I think you as well - to acknowledge reality, in which it is always more costly to be a woman accusing a man of wrongdoing than to be the man accused of said wrongdoing. There are a lot of theoretical problems with a world in which victims of rape and sexual assault are always believed, but we're so far away from that world or ever even being close to it that to focus on those theoretical problems instead of the actual, real problems of actual, real women - which is what Sorkin is doing, and what you're doing in your comment - is an act that can only come from monumental, clueless privilege.

Dragonchild said...

OK, that makes more sense. Thanks for the clarification and sorry if I was off base.

Foxessa said...

You sure were off base Dragonchild, as well as condescending and patronizing .

Tim Schmidt said...

"No. What I'm saying is that I'd like Sorkin - and I think you as well - to acknowledge reality, in which it is always more costly to be a woman accusing a man of wrongdoing than to be the man accused of said wrongdoing."

All the men incarcerated for fraudulent rape charges would disagree with you. If and when these men are later found innocent, the female perpetrators of such wrongful accusations usually walk away scott-free or receive slaps on the wrist. Never, ever do they serve time close to the years the wrongfully accused men received.

As for Sorkin, he strikes me as a typical American, that is, he's part of a people who have created a rather romanticized version of their country's history and love to get nostalgic about it. He's no Howard Zinn, but a middle-of-the-road liberal. The alleged glory of a bygone golden age is a running theme among both liberals and conservatives, equally bemoaning the lost status of the middle class within the nation and its ability to wield supreme influence on a world stage.

I've only watched one scene of The Newsroom's pilot episode, that well-beloved rant by Jeff Daniels' character in front of a student crowd that's still a very popular clip on youtube. It puts all the flaws in Sorkin's naive, white-washed look at the past in a nutshell: No one but white, heterosexual, communist-hating protestant men would even dare to bemoan the loss of a golden age that marginalized 70 % of the nations' citizens. It wasn't fun being a woman, black, gay, leftist or an atheist back in the days of McCarthy and Eisenhower. What good were the better paid jobs during that era if your gender or skin color prevented you from access to those opportunities for decades to come?

Thus Sorkin's message is far from progressive and leftist, when scrutinized even superficially. If he weren't a writer, he'd make an excellent politician for the Democratic party. As it stands, the simple world-view that his writing betrays could never interest me beyond a quick peek into his projects. I just can't stomach the fake gravitas of his world-building for long.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

All the men incarcerated for fraudulent rape charges

Really? All of the men? All of them? And how many is that, pray tell? I imagine that such things do happen, but do they happen more often than rape? More often than rape victims not being believed about rape? More often than rape victims receiving no support from the authorities meant to pursue their case? More often than unsuccessful prosecutions of rape cases? More often than rape victims are hounded, publicly humiliated, judged for every aspect of their personal life, threatened and often assaulted for speaking out, and driven to suicide?

I think you know perfectly well that the answer to all these questions is no, so I really have no idea what you thought you'd accomplish by saying something like this in the comments to my blog. But here's what you have accomplished: don't ever comment here again.

Tim Ward said...

Abigail, interpreting the question you asked on your twitter feed as a reference to this comment thread, I read, enjoyed and agreed with this post. The reason I didn't post a comment was simply that I could think of nothing sensible to say on the topic that you hadn't already covered in your post. Responding to Tim Schmidt's comments would have been pointless since you just asked him not to comment here any further and in any case would have continued discussion further down the "but false rape accusations!" tangent, which is a total red herring.

Also (cards on the table!), as a man I don't feel terrible comfortable commenting on sexism based topics. I know that's not rational, but it is how I feel and I therefore tend to avoid doing in unless there's something I really want to say that someone hasn't already said or what's going on in a thread is annoying me to such an extent that I feel compelled to speak up.

And, finally, I don't know if this is because I post under my G+ account, but blogspot likes to obliterate my comments unless I press preview first.

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