“The Newsroom” is a soapbox for progressive politics—so why are its gender roles so ridiculously outdated?
At this point, everything that can be said about HBO’s “The Newsroom” being condescending, sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing has been said. There is not a critic alive who has failed to point out that Aaron Sorkin’s use of hindsight to show how news could have been done “the right way” is utterly ridiculous.
But really, “The Newsroom’s” idealism is the least of its problems. When the show actually dives into the fast-paced world of breaking news, it can be highly entertaining. By setting his show two years in the past, Sorkin occasionally dredges up stories that the collective consciousness has completely forgotten about, and it is often compelling to re-live those events, even when the show handles them poorly. The major problem with “The Newsroom” is not that the Atlantis Cable News team has magical time powers.
The problem is that it’s the most sexist show on television.
Every woman at ACN is either technologically incompetent, terrible at romance or just plain stupid. Depending on the episode, it might be all of the above. How any of them got jobs in 24-hour news is beyond me, but it’s more baffling that any of their actresses agreed to stay on the show after the first season. MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is the executive producer of a major cable news show, but is incapable of 1) understanding how email works and 2) realizing that “I cheated on you” is a much dumber thing to send in a test email than, say, “test.” Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who is supposedly one of the smartest people at ACN, does not know that most phones take more than two rings before automatically going to voicemail and is reduced to quivering goo at the sight of a guy she likes. And Maggie Jordan? Maggie (Allison Pill) is so terrible that it warrants another article entirely. The only exception to female stupidity is Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), who is pure evil.
It seems like the only reason that these characters can even walk and breathe at the same time is because they are surrounded by men who have all the answers to their problems. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is literally incapable of being wrong, except when he’s intentionally obtuse because he’s feeling more dickish than usual that day. Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) is a magical Internet wizard who shouts buzzwords like “viral” and “email blast” at MacKenzie until she stops asking questions (this may have to do with Sorkin’s own piss-poor understanding of the Internet). Jim Harper (Jon Gallagher Jr.) is actually just creepy and sad, but Maggie develops feelings for him because he’s the only one as immature as she is. Unfortunately this ruins her relationship with Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), the only completely likable character (who was supposed to be an antagonist) and strains her friendship with BFF Lisa, because Sorkin won’t stop until every character on this show tries to get with every other character.
Will opened the series with a grandiose speech about the good old days when great men ruled the news and the world was better informed because of it. If the show he anchors is the realization of that dream, the men are only great in comparison to the women, who can’t do anything right to save their lives. As a man, I find it sad that the show’s women take advice from these petty, immature men and that I’m supposed to view them as the driving force behind an ideal news broadcast. Because The Newsroom’s characters belong on a CW teen drama, the men create as many problems as they solve. Will eternally lets his past relationship with Mac get in the way of his job. Jim’s horrible Nice Guy shtick is responsible for Don and Maggie’s downfall. One could argue that the show is equal-opportunity when it comes to portraying stupid characters, but the fact that all of the women look up to these men is pathetic. The only guy that doesn’t cause problems is Don, who is always the voice of reason among the shitstorm whether the writers intend it or not. His break-up with Maggie was one of the only adult relationship moments of the series.
The first season of The Newsroom was tremendously disappointing to me on a number of levels. Aaron Sorkin was fresh off The Social Network, the cast was talented and HBO rarely misses. I spent most of last summer sighing and wondering what could have been. That glimmer of hope is the only reason I am watching this season. Maybe things will change, I thought. Maybe Sorkin and his writing staff will take the constructive criticism seriously. Two episodes in, Mac seems slightly smarter, but everyone else is even worse than before.
In case you haven’t been watching, let me explain an important Season 2 plot point. Remember Maggie’s tearful confession to the Sex and the City tour bus about being in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, leading to her and Jim finally hooking up at the end of last season? Or did you block that out of your memory? Well it happened, and now there’s a YouTube video of it, which Don sees and uses as a reason to end their whole stupid relationship. Maggie wants to get the video taken down before Lisa finds out about it, so she and Sloan use Foursquare to hunt down the woman who posted it, Erica, at a laundromat. The following exchange happens:
Maggie: I really need you to take down your YouTube post. It would mean a lot to me.
Erica: This is crazy. I can’t believe I’m talking to you. I’m really curious, did you and your best friend make up?
After Maggie is forced to tell her life story to this bizarre voyeur, things get worse, as Maggie explains that she’s been reading Erica’s blog.
Maggie [to Sloan]: She writes this Sex and the City fanfiction…
Erica: It’s not fanfiction! I take experiences in my life and write them in the voice of the characters.
Maggie: Will you take down the video?
Erica [in the bitchiest voice possible]: This is the most views I have ever had, and it links to my blog.
Eventually they convince her to take down the video by having Sloan tweet about her “SITC fanfic ever,” written by “a real life Charlotte.” This is what happens when women on The Newsroom try to solve problems on their own. They are forced to tweet about Sex and the City, which is apparently every woman’s favorite show. In the end it is revealed that Erica never took down the video because she thought Sloan was mean and because every female character is mentally 14.
Male dominance on television is obviously nothing new. But in this TV renaissance of the last few years, most shows have strong women as well. For all the undue criticism she receives from fans, Skyler White is arguably the most compelling character on “Breaking Bad”. FX’s new series “The Bridge” stars Diane Kruger as its lead detective Sonja Cross, who searches for answers with dogged determination. Even HBO’s own “Game of Thrones”, with all of its female objectification, features a number of women in badass roles. “The Newsroom” is ostensibly progressive, but compared to the rest of the high quality dramas out there, it has the sexual views of an Andrew Dice Clay routine.
Criticizing “The Newsroom” for its continued use of hindsight is mostly redundant—it will always take place in the past. But if the show is to improve, critics and audiences alike need to point out just how regressively it portrays the female gender in spite of its liberal idealism.
Photo: AP/HBO Melissa Moseley