Does “The Newsroom” Have a Woman Problem, Or Is It About The Problem?

via: womensenews

The Newsroom, HBO’s newest dramatic series by Aaron Sorkin, has recently received criticism for its negative and insulting portrayal of women. In “The Newsroom Is Incredibly Hostile Toward Women,” Margaret Lyons writes that within the fictional world of the show, “There is no insult more grave than being a woman.” And she definitely has a point. This a show dominated by obnoxiously idealistic men who are obsessed with their own ideas and emotional growth. There are quite a few of them, in fact, that I’d really like to add to this handy list of the most insufferable men on television. Sure, there are several female characters, but so far they’re anxious, desperate and generally on the verge of emotional breakdown. According to Lyons, the writing of these characters points to a larger problem with the way the show is written.

I definitely agree with her up to a point, but to say that the writing of the show is hostile to women is an oversimplification. This is a show about the people who tell news. And news making, like the vast majority of industries, is traditionally a boys’ club. It seems to me like it’s not so much that Aaron Sorkin hates women, but that he is writing about an institution that has historically excluded women and would probably continue to do so if there weren’t laws in place to prevent discrimination.

via: HBO

In real life 2010, the year the show begins, the number of women directors in TV news was 29% — a record high. If women were only recently given more of a voice in the newsroom in 2010, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the hostility they were probably met with. To me, the show does a good job of illustrating that experience; the female characters on the show are treated as though they don’t deserve to share space with the noble newsmen around them and are generally regarded with suspicion and doubt.

It’s no wonder the female characters are anxious! They are fighting for the right to be accepted as professionals, an exhausting, daunting thing to have to do every minute of every day. Sure, they make silly mistakes: MacKenzie McHale, the new executive producer, accidentally sends a personal email to the entire staff. But you know what? If I had a clause worked into my contract that I could potentially be fired by my ex at the end of each week like she does, I’d be a nervous wreck too. I’m not the only one; anxiety has been proven to decrease one’s ability to perform tasks efficiently.

via: HBO

In terms of the less important female characters on the show, Lyons does make some solid points about how the male characters view their interest in topics other than hard news as a grave offense and also as a sign of stupidity. She writes that the most recent episode “seemed to be about how fashion is dumb and news is smart, how gossip is a social cancer and cable news is noble, that everyone else is an idiot and Will (and sometimes Charlie) is brilliant.” While she concedes that maybe this theme can be attributed to the main character’s “dated misogyny,” she still believes that the overwhelming repetition of gendered intelligence reveals a bias on the part of the writer.

Historically, this divide of interest along gendered lines has existed due to women’s exclusion from the hard news world. It was the boys, not the girls, on the bus, after all, who traditionally covered things like presidential campaigns. To this day, women still make up only 20% of the bylines in traditional news sources, but cover at least half of the editorials on gender, family, and style.

So why, if there are anti-discrimination laws in place, does this divide remain present today? And why on an HBO show about news-making in 2010 are women characters made to feel like they aren’t smart enough for hard news, but dumb for covering soft news? While critiques of the show blame its writer, I think that it might be an accurate reflection of a troubling truth: that even though struggles for women’s rights opened the doors to equality in the newsroom, men still act like they own it.

It’s no wonder that women tend to avoid pitching hard news stories when the prevailing attitude is that they don’t belong in the world of news. According to Katherine Lanpher, a senior seminar leader of the Op-Ed Project, many women feel confident in their expertise of soft news stories but when it comes to anything else, “they think that…there will always be someone who knows more.” The men on this show definitely act as though they know more. Lanpher believes that is is another artifact of social conditioning. “[If] you’re a white male who’s gone to one of the 10 top schools, you have cultural expectations that you will be heard and that people want to hear you.” The female characters, on the other hand, are left vying against each other — often working twice as hard — for the chance to be heard.

The misogyny that pervades The Newsroom actually feels a lot like Mad Men in that the men think they run the world while women thanklessly run around holding everything together. The women on both shows work harder than their male counterparts but receive little to no recognition for their efforts. Instead, they’re viewed as little more than sex objects, regardless of their proven professional abilities. Anchor Aaron Sorkin may very well be the new Don Draper.

Maggie Jordon, an assistant turned associate producer, seems to be a young Peggy Olsen — brilliant, innocent, nervous, fumbling, but confident in her intelligence and willing to fight for professional respect. Sure, Maggie’s in a love triangle, but Peggy has her fair share of romantic drama too. Because of Peggy’s drive and talent, she eventually becomes Don Draper’s second in command — and Maggie seems to be at the beginning of a very similar journey.

The girls on the bus are perfectly capable of covering the things the boys do, but up until recently, our bus wasn’t even allowed to drive down the same street. Unlike Mad Men though, The Newsroom begins at a time long after that road was legally opened up. The Newsroom‘s women are still fighting to prove they deserve to explore it — much to the horror of the many men who would like to believe that they own hard news. It makes for a great premise for a television show, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it goes.

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Gabrielle Korn

Gabrielle Korn is a writer living in Los Angeles with her wife and dog.

Gabrielle has written 95 articles for us.


  1. I don’t know – I think that Matt Weiner is very calculating about his portrayals of women on the show, which shows up both in execution on screen and in his discussion when interviewed. Weiner’s criticism of misogyny can be subtle; sometimes too subtle to be grasped by the fanboys of the show at times. But it’s definitely a critique.

    If Sorkin is trying to cover the reality of women in a news setting challenged to overcome hurdles that men don’t face… I think he’s doing it accidentally rather than deliberately. I can’t square the idea of a woman who’s been embedded in Iraq for 3 years with the scatterbrained woman who sends a personal email to her entire staff. The level of self-assurance and competence needed to do one would not suggest the other.

    I personally couldn’t bring myself to watch past the second episode because I was so frustrated with MacKenzie and especially Maggie.

  2. I’ve really, really enjoyed this show so far. I can definitely see that the two leading women are anxious on the job, but that’s partly because Maggie has an actual anxiety disorder that she has to manage with medication.

    MacKenzie seems to me to be extremely competent at her job and well-equipped to handle whatever’s thrown at her, but when it comes to dealing with social situations she is cringingly awkward. She feels a need to introduce herself to all of Will’s dates and ask about why they’re going out with him (or something to that effect) and she is horrified at the idea that people in the office would think that Will cheated on her and spends way too much time trying to manage other people’s opinions of a guy who doesn’t care what they think of him. It’s pretty clear to me that neither she nor Will has gotten over what happened between them.

    I see her social failings as being separate from who she is when she’s being the executive producer; she’s incredibly smart and good at her job, and she understands how to deal with the obstacles in her professional life much better than how to deal with the obstacles in her personal life.

  3. Oh, I’d have to really disagree with this article. And I think it’s actually insulting to imply that showing women as bumbling idiots (I haven’t heard the ‘they’re too anxious’ criticism) who need men to talk them down is somehow reflective of real life in a newsroom. These are women who are supposed to be top of their professional game, and they can’t do things like send emails. They freak out and start yelling about their love lives in the middle of the office, and have to be punished by men for doing so. Female coworkers talk with each other about going ‘shopping’ and getting their nails done, while men go out and get drinks. THREE female guest stars were brought in the last episode solely so that the main character can lecture them about how they’re too silly, stupid, and ‘bitchy’. I could go on. And really, I didn’t find ‘The Social Network’ (more Sorkin) to be problematic because I think that WAS a portrayal of an Old Boys’ Club. But Sorkin isn’t doing that. He’s deliberately put some women in here to be main characters and is writing them really, really badly.

    • I don’t know, I think you have to give Sorkin a bit more credit. Granted, I haven’t actually watched Newsroom yet, but given his legacy of the slew of well-developed, strong, non-cliched female characters that he wrote on The West Wing (not to mention Sports Night and Studio 60)–C.J. Cregg, Abigail Bartlet, Amy Gardner, and Ainsley Hayes to name just a few–he has at least, from me, earned the benefit of the doubt.

      He can clearly write female characters, and write them well. I think if he’s writing these female characters a certain way, there’s probably a reason for that.

      I think this is a really interesting take on this, Gabrielle!

      • Actually, Sorkin’s “women problem” is well documented, but yeah, when people start pointing out that female characters are being written poorly we should dismiss that because surely the male writer, who is a well known condescending ‘white knight’ type, has a great reason for doing so.

        • I’m not saying we should dismiss it out of hand; obviously we should examine it and question it, which is what this article and others are doing. I’m just saying that I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least initially, that there is more to it than just shitty portrayals of female characters given his history of writing very good female characters, or having a reason (to your point about The Social Network) when he does write female characters that can appear problematic.

      • See, his portrayal of women on The West Wing is why I absolutely WAS giving him the benefit of the doubt. I was all geared up to defend The Newsroom.

        Then I watched it.

        The women on The West Wing had significantly more substance, and there was more care taken in their development and portrayal. The characterization of the women on The Newsroom just doesn’t make SENSE, especially compared to his work prior. It’s why I’m far angrier about the gender issues on The Newsroom than I would be on a different show — I KNOW Sorkin can do better. I’ve seen it.

        And I would like to believe that it’s Sorkin trying to document a larger problem in that work environment, but it just… doesn’t read that way. I 100% do not believe that women as smart and capable as Maggie and MacKenzie would fall completely to pieces, in public areas of their workplace, over romantic jealousies. No matter how stressed they are, how anxious over gender imbalances, whatever it is — these kinds of people would not risk their job, and their professional credibility, so easily.

        When Sorkin’s handling how people tell the news, and doing his walk&talks, his respond-to-crises montages, and the like, it’s a great show. But when he tries to handle anything verging on romantic, or the tangled lives of men & women, it falls apart completely, and becomes an appalling mess.

        It’s BECAUSE of Sorkin’s past work that I’m so angry. I expect better. (And yes, TWW had problematic elements regarding, among other things, gender. But it was far better than this.)

  4. It’s funny, because I worked at the show that Newsroom is based on, with the guy the MC’s based on, and even though his public persona seems chauvinist he worked with all women (except for one guy) on a team of like 15, and he was very confident in their (and my) abilities. He didn’t cut them any slack or give them any special treatment, but he knew how good they were and that they were keeping the show together.

    Actually, he was consistently kinder and more respectful to me than any of the women working there, TBH.

  5. Sorkin has been given a pass for a long time for his piss poor depictions of women. Everytime fans of the shows or movies he writes jump to his defense. The guy writes bad female characters. That even includes The West Wing when scrutinized.

  6. I’m sorry I just don’t get that vibe at all. He’s writing characters… One’s a newbie with anxiety issues trying to learn the ropes. The executive producer spent 3 years covering combat, extremely talented at what she does but probably a bit socially awkward. The economic reporter is brilliant, but of course it doesn’t help if on-air talent is nice to look at. This is coming from someone in the business, and it’s pretty accurate.

  7. West Wing is the reason I don’t give Aaron Sorkin the benefit of the doubt. And I love The West Wing. I taped every episode through season 4, I got the dvds, I memorized entire scenes of dialogue.

    But the women on that show are demeaned in ways that men aren’t. all. the. time. Yes, CJ turns into a feminist’s dream and runs the country as Cheif of Staff…starting in season 5, after Sorkin left the show. In the seasons Aaron Sorkin wrote, she didn’t know the names of sports teams (Stackhouse Filibuster), she needed Sam to explain the U.S. census and CARE (Five Votes Down & The Drop-In). In the first 4 seasons she is scapegoated as screwing up more than anyone except MAYBE Josh and her appearance is commented on constantly.

    Josh is teased because he wanted to be a ballerina. Donna is a ditz. Ainsley defends being anti-ERA (and that is portrayed as the right answer). Amy Gardner is a crazy bitch who cuts phone cords and drops cell phones in soup. “Come quick, Sam’s getting his ass kicked by a girl!” The idiot reporters are always women–the woman from the DC affiliate who commented on CJ’s appearance and the Russian gossip columnist. And I have to stop now because I’m going a little nuts.

    Abbey Bartlet. Oh, Abbey Bartlet might be the savior of women on that show.

  8. I honestly don’t see it. Have watched every episode of the show so far and love it. Sure, the female characters have their failings, but so do the male ones.

  9. Listen Internet Girl… I’m not so sure Sorkin deserves the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a coincidence that the naive idiot who thinks America is the greatest country in the world is a woman, that all the idiots who waste their time on reality TV and need a lecture from Will are women, and that women’s emotional problems seem so totally out of control. Sorkin may not hate women in a Rush Limbaugh kind of way but on some, perhaps unconscious level, he’s very keen to condescend to them.
    I get a completely different vibe from Mad Men than the Newsroom. While an unfortunately large number of men seem to covet Mad Men’s gender relations, it’s very clear that we’re meant to see that those gender relations suck. Contrast The Newsroom with The Social Network and I can’t actually believe they’re done by the same person. The boys club in The Social Network is full of assholes we’re meant to despise. We’re not meant to despise Will McAvoy, we’re meant to see him as a misunderstood, rough-around-the-edges, flawed yet virtuous journalist, whose integrity knows no bounds even if he’s an asshole. He actually reminds me of the few episodes I’ve seen of House, where the theme always seemed to be that the truth comes best from an asshole who is so clever and important it doesn’t really matter that he’s misanthropic.
    Sorkin isn’t depicting sexism in television news so much as he’s canonizing his protagonist, shitty treatment of women and all.

    • Agreed! And I’m kinda suspicious of the whole notion that “it’s not so much that Aaron Sorkin hates women, but that he is writing about an institution that has historically excluded women.” Umm, why do you think he chose it?

      I’m not saying he hates women – in fact I’m not really interested in what goes on in his head. But I do know his shows make my skin crawl. Full of smug, self-regarding men who don’t really say or do anything challenging but are somehow seen as interesting cos they…talk fast?

  10. Whenever we get into problematic depictions of women in art, I have weird feelings. Because yes, there’s no argument that some depictions are truly problematic. But. As a writer of fiction I hold a few things close to my heart:

    a) characters are so much more interesting when flawed. Sometimes really flawed. Sometimes bat shit crazy and emotional.

    b) not every show can be everything to everyone. Because then you have the Glee PSA where there’s gay teen bullying, suicide, and texting while driving all in one episode. Where there’s a clear moral and you feel beaten over the head. Sometimes poor representations happen because sometimes everyone is a shitty person. The grey area is so much more interesting than the black and white, right and wrong. And of course, no art can be totally perfect in its representation of everyone.

    We just have a responsibility to both question the representations with rational dialogue (like maybe not starting with, “Listen internet girl”) and to make sure that one representation isn’t the only representation. I feel like everyone in this community is making sure those two things happen. We have these wonderful rational discussions and we are creating our own representations of women. In other words, we’re kinda awesome.

    Thank you so much Gabrielle!

    • “Listen Internet girl” was, presumably, a reference to the fact that Sorkin recently addressed a female journalist (for a print newspaper) as such in an interview, which went viral.

  11. thank you! I’ve felt this way since the pilot and I’ve struggled to express it.
    My main concern is my annoyance at mackenzie’s (and donna’s and dana’s) habit, or portrayal of always dating men who are dumber than them and who treat them poorly.

    but I’ve really liked the newsroom, I don’t think it’s preachy or mysoginist. sure,the atmosphere is, but it’s just being realistic.

    I totally understand mckenzie being a bit socially awkward,especially after spending 3 years in afghanistan.

  12. I haven’t watched the Newsroom, but I find that what is *usually* the problem with these type of ensemble shows is that there just aren’t enough developed female characters. There’s nothing wrong with having flawed, complex female characters in a show who aren’t always strong or righteous or whatever else. It’s also fine to make a show realistic: to show that the female staff is smaller than the male staff, and that women usually don’t have the highest positions on the staff.

    The real problems begin when you don’t develop your female characters, and leave them on the sidelines instead of putting them in the middle of the major plot lines along with the male characters. There’s nothing wrong with a neurotic female intern who sometimes jacks stuff up, so long as you develop her, allow us to see into her world, and tell at least part of the story from her POV. And maybe have other developed female characters with different personalities and stories so she doesn’t have to carry the torch for every woman on/watching the show.

    Again, I haven’t seen the Newsroom, but my guess is that if people are complaining about the female characters it’s because there aren’t enough of them in the spotlight, and not just because Sorkin is making some kind of feminist commentary.

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