Sorkin’s Women

By Madeline Lane-McKinley

As she walks and talks through hallways and crowded rooms, she waves her hands in the air. Her hair flops above her shoulders as a necklace swings from side to side on her chest. She wears glasses only sometimes. She’s thin of course but she’s also very tall when she’s not very short. 

She went to Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, or Barnard. She was the top of her class in grad school at Stanford or Berkeley. Her career brought her back to the east coast. She’s WASPy, most likely. She’s had a series of boyfriends and almost-boyfriends. She probably won’t have kids. Her family is concerned and lives somewhere else.

She works from 7AM to 10PM but she gets time to herself each morning when she wakes up early to run 8 miles on the treadmill, no more and no less. She drinks diet cokes and black coffees and eats at least one meal in bar form. She doesn’t cook – either she doesn’t like to or she never bothered to learn. Sometimes she orders a salad at lunch, which she eats in a room full of sandwiches. She kills all of her houseplants, either through overwatering or neglect, and when her would-be-boyfriend gifts her a gold fish we’re asked to wonder how long it might survive. 

She’s kooky and zany and sometimes she falls down. She laughs awkwardly, and is known for putting her foot in her mouth. She has a hidden talent of some sort – maybe she plays the trombone, or she’s surprisingly good at poker. She learned sports metaphors as part of the job but doesn’t have a favorite team. She has quirks, like being a vegan or a Republican or from the Midwest. 

She knows how to pack a punch but most of the time she rambles, stammers, or blurts. She’s always listening. Day after day, she listens, tilting her head, nodding, smiling, and eventually, changing her mind. She changes her mind because she’s usually wrong, though always, and quite endearingly, in a way that she’ll only understand if it’s explained to her in a speech. 

*

When we meet CJ (Allison Janney) she is not the only woman in her workplace, but much of the time she is the only woman in the meeting. At the West Wing there are plenty of assistants and interns; sometimes the First Lady or First Daughters show up, too. CJ is not just the only woman in the room, but often the tallest person in the room – looming at six feet, and more with heels. 

A few days before Thanksgiving the boys play a prank on her. Part of her job as Press Secretary is to determine which turkey will be pardoned by the President each year. Josh and Sam arrange for the turkeys to be delivered to her office, where they spend the night uncaged before CJ discovers them in the morning. Then the boys have a laugh and talk about the game they plan to watch together on Thursday. CJ wonders if she’ll be invited. 

Another part of CJ’s job is to lead the Thanksgiving press conference. She complains, comparing herself to a cruise director. Not knowing the song, a constant outsider, she enlists Josh’s assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) to help her with the musical portions of the press conference. They walk and talk, walk and talk, until CJ tells Donna “but now I have serious work to do.” Then she gets in her office, closes the door, and addresses the turkeys, named Eric and Troy.

In other rooms of the West Wing, Josh deals with an international crisis after dozens of Chinese stowaways are discovered on a container ship in California, and Toby stokes the national debates on prayer in school. 

Getting way too emotional about her job, CJ begs the President to pardon both of the turkeys, but he really does have serious work to do. Heartbroken, she returns to her office, only to be uplifted, finally invited to the game with the boys. 

“Can I bring anything?” she asks Toby. “Yeah,” he says, “can you cook?”

*

“[Y]ear in and year out, the guy who wins the Oscar for Best Actor has a much higher bar to clear than the woman who wins Best Actress,” Sorkin contends in an email to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, leaked with the Sony Picture hack in November 2014. He elaborates his point: “Sandra Bullock won for ‘The Blind Side’ and Al Pacino lost for both Godfather movies. Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep can play with the boys but there just aren’t that many tour-de-force roles out there for women.” He is part of the solution to whatever problem he describes. 

Sorkin’s long-awaited directorial debut, decades into screenwriting, was after all a film about a woman. But, predictably, Molly Bloom is not just any woman. After training for much of her life in downhill skiing, Bloom became injured just as she set out to qualify for the Olympics. She moved to Los Angeles, became a bartender, and then began hosting high-stakes poker games with a long list of Hollywood celebrities (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nelly, and on and on). After she was arrested and charged as part of an illegal gambling and $100 million money laundering operation, Bloom eventually plead guilty, and wrote a memoir to get herself out of debt. Before writing the script for Molly’s Game, Sorkin met with Bloom. “I thought the person I was meeting was someone cashing in on a decade-long brush with celebrity that I wasn’t interested in,” he recalls in a 2018 interview. What impressed Sorkin was Bloom’s “sly sense of humor built out of integrity,” which he also reads into her book’s disdain for gossip. “[She] told as little as she possibly could, as little as HarperCollins would accept,” he gushes, “The book they wanted was about dresses and makeup. ‘Tell us about the Hollywood parties you went to!’”

Three years before, Sorkin was wrapping up The Newsroom, his not-so-triumphant return to television. Much like The West Wing, this was sentimentalist liberalism, readied and fully equipped with monologues to face the charge of liberal elitism. It was a world in which there were simpler, better times; and yet there’s still a liberal progress narrative. Back in the day, political struggles were more righteous than they ever could be now – and that’s a privilege, so stop complaining. Just keep monologuing…

The Newsroom begins with Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a Keith Olbermann-type nightly news anchor, on a panel of journalists at Northwestern University. During the Q&A a college student asks the panelists why “the United States is the greatest country in the world.” McAvoy at first makes a snide remark – “the New York Jets” – but then is asked, by the professor moderating, for a “real human answer.” A tirade of put-downs, fact-checks, and superior posturing is subsequently unleashed. Once McAvoy humiliates the other panelists, and their banal soundbite answers, he turns to the college student who asked the question: “And yeah you, sorority girl,” he says to the young woman, “Just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know.” Like any Sorkin hero, he speaks in statistics that nobody questions (“we’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science…”). He rattles off different demographic rankings, all proving that United States isn’t the greatest country in the world. “Now none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student,” he concedes, “but you nonetheless are without a doubt a member of the worst period generation period ever period. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Yosemite?”

The audience goes silent. The young woman fights back tears. Then we turn to McAvoy. We watch as he pulls himself back in. What these fools don’t understand, he seems to remind himself, is that he is the real patriot. He loves this country more than they ever could: “We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons,” he tells them, as the music begins to swell. “We sacrificed… we never beat our chests… We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.” He looks to the audience – “the worst generation ever” – and takes another deep breath: “We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it, it didn’t make us feel inferior… We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered…”

In the weeks to follow this outburst, McAvoy faces a PR nightmare – not because he was wrong, of course, but because he was misunderstood. ACN President Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), apparently an infinite reservoir of compassion and admiration for McAvoy’s genius, makes an executive decision about how to fix our hero’s likeability problem: hiring his ex-girlfriend, MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer), as his new Executive Producer. 

Like any Sorkin woman, MacKenzie is incredibly beautiful but this is entirely unmentionable. Not a beat can be wasted dwelling on these details – that Mortimer is sixteen years younger than Daniels, that hers is a face found on fashion magazines and the like, while Daniels strikes an uncanny resemblance to Sorkin himself. Mortimer’s most pitch-perfect casting was in 30 Rock, in which she played Phoebe, Jack Donaghy’s (Alec Baldwin) “very delicate fiancée,” an art dealer with a condition called “avian bone syndrome,” making her very easily crushed and practically untouchable. In Sorkin’s world, this kind of winking is not allowed. The fantasy must be upheld throughout. 

Like many of Sorkin’s women, MacKenzie’s name is abbreviated, boyishly. She’s called “Mac” by most of the men, like Skinner. Before we get to meet her, Skinner makes the case for why he has to hire her, over drinks with McAvoy: 

“She was in Peshawar for four months. The Green Zone for a year before that. Her guys were filing stories from caves. She comes home, she wants to be an EP again, have a normal life… She’s exhausted. Not like at the end of a long day. She’s mentally and physically exhausted. She hasn’t had four hours’ sleep in two years. She’s been shot at in three different countries. And she’s been to way too many funerals for a girl her age.” 

None of this, we might think, makes her a particularly good candidate for the job. But then the real reason slips out. “When was the last time you saw her?” Skinner asks McAvoy, who’s storming out to find a way to prevent the hire. Flustered, McAvoy recalls that it was about three years ago – to which Skinner blurts, “Coincidentally, that’s the last time you were a nice guy!” 

*

The Sorkin Woman is instrumental to her workplace, precisely because she is an expert on public perception. She is brilliant and credentialed with impressive degrees. But she is useful because she is emotional and also emotionally-driven. She knows the chatter, the gossip, the angles – and she knows when and when not to bring this up. She can predict how each story will land, and where, even if she can’t explain why. She is deeply connected to the anxieties, criticisms, and stupidity of “the public.” While the big thinking happens at other desks, by men ranting and tossing baseballs back and forth in their offices, she comes in as translator, and Godsend. And this is because she is smart in the one way that her big thinking colleagues can be idiots – mostly because they can’t be bothered. 

Just as CJ manages the pressroom, and by extension, public opinion of the Bartlet administration, Mac comes in to re-brand Will McAvoy, much to his dismay. “Where does it say that a good news show can’t be popular?” Mac asks him. “It’s impossible!” he yells. But then she paints a picture he can’t help but fall for: “Reclaiming the Fourth Estate; reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession,” she tells him, “the death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid.” The music swells again. 

The Sorkin Woman is most loved when she betrays other women. Not the other Sorkin Women, but all the other women, the whole lot. Ainsley Hayes – the blonde Episcopalian Republican who’s appointed to White House Counsel in The West Wing – is never sexier than when she’s arguing against the Equal Rights Amendment. 

Maggie (Alison Pill), Mac’s manic pixie ingénue in The Newsroom, is praised for her loyalty to McAvoy, but she is only taken seriously as a character in this world through her betrayals. She betrays her roommate Lisa (Kelen Coleman), by setting her up with her workplace crush Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), only to try to steal him away from her. This betrayal is not just about Lisa, however – it extends seemingly to all women, as in… Sex and the City fans. After putting up with Lisa’s love for the show, and becoming jealous when Jim attempts to express interest in it, Maggie encounters a Sex and the City tour bus on the street. In fact, the bus splashes gutter water on her, as it pulls up to one of the tour destinations, in a not-so-subtle reference to the show’s opening sequence. “To the left is the famous brownstone where Carrie Bradshaw lived, loved, and lost,” the bubbly tour guide announces. “Hey!” Maggie yells at the boozy women on the bus. “I’m the typical single woman in New York City. I don’t wear heels to work because the typical woman’s job doesn’t exclusively involve gallery openings. And I know Carrie must have made boatloads writing her 800-word column for a newspaper no one’s ever heard of!” That world, she screams insistently, is a fantasy world – unlike this one.

Perhaps it seemed strange that silly high femme fodder like Sex and the City even enters into this world of Great (but Troubled) Men. But this all makes much more sense upon the discovery that in 2012, at the time when this episode of The Newsroom was written, Sorkin was actually dating Kristin Davis – who famously played Charlotte on Sex and the City. For some reason, they broke up soon after.

By then this pattern was already well-established. Back in 2006, for the brief NBC flop Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin transparently based the character Harriet (Sarah Paulson) on his ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth. While Chenoweth gave permission at an early stage of the project, Harriet was often portrayed in derogatory terms, specifically for her Christianity. Chenoweth, most famous for her performances in Broadway musicals like Wicked, also invited Sorkin to make a “guest appearance” in her memoir, in which he describes her lustfully, and recalls their first fight “when I was schooling her on how Jews invented Broadway… and I said that if it weren’t for Jews, she’d be working at the Hooters in Tulsa.” When asked about the Studio 60 character she inspired, Chenoweth consistently brings up that she is not homophobic like Harriet – in fact, she’s a prominent LGBTQ activist, and the implication is perhaps disturbing.  

A few months before Maggie’s Sex and the City rant, another of Sorkin’s ex-girlfriends spoke up about the character she’d inspired, one of the central antagonists of The Newsroom, gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis). In an article she wrote about being made a Sorkin Woman, gossip columnist Mandy Stadtmiller includes an excerpt from an email she received from Sorkin: “in the writer’s room, when talking about this story, we call the character ‘Bad Mandy’ (as opposed to real Mandy) because I haven’t named her yet.” She also includes a screenshot of an email from Sorkin, in which he tells her “You’re a brilliant and funny woman in the body of an idiot.”

Here, we might anticipate the familiar rebuttals, each imploring us to “separate the art from the artist.” We can guess the moves and claims, like this is all just gossip, merely the matter of a man’s private life – anything but the very basis of his writing practice. 

*

In January 2021 one of the few things everyone seemed to agree on was Nicole Kidman’s miscasting as Lucille Ball in the upcoming Sorkin project Being the Ricardos. It was almost out of sympathy, for the public scrutiny she endured, that Kidman received numerous nominations for her performance, including the Oscar. 

In her first scene, we begin with her legs. Then we see her from the rear. She’s in her bra when we finally see her face – just as she hears Walter Winchell end his broadcast on the radio announcing that “Lucille Ball is a Communist.”

Being the Ricardos hedges its bets, framed as a week in the life of its main characters (with some considerable historical sacrifices). It all starts with what’s framed as a simple misunderstanding. As she recounts to her lawyer, “Fred C. Hunt, my grandfather, was a member of the party. This was in the early thirties. I was in my early twenties. He never used the word ‘Communist.’ But he cared about workers, the working man. He raised my little brother and me, and I wanted to please him. So I checked the box.” She explains, “My relationship to communism was twenty years ago. I checked a box.”

“A long time ago Lucy accidentally checked the wrong box on her voter registration,” Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) promises the cast, walking into the Monday morning table reading of that week’s script. “That’s the first act of a new episode right there,” he jokes. 

The Lucy we encounter is hardly recognizable. Kidman certainly bears a close enough resemblance, from the hair to the mannerisms, and yet there’s something unfamiliar about this physically violent, emotionally manipulative, monstrous woman. She’s not a clown, but a hard-nosed businessperson. She’s gruff with her writers, insulting to her director, frequently assaults her husband. She’s abusive to Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), preventing her from being costumed in flattering dresses and coercing her into gaining weight. However, she’s a genius. 

The tragedy of this Lucy has nothing to do with Kidman, and everything to do with being one of Sorkin’s Women. Throughout the film, Lucy complains of her director for that week’s episode. “Donald Glass doesn’t understand the moving parts of physical comedy… that’s all,” she tells Vivian. Perhaps the real Lucy would’ve said something similar of Sorkin. The film feels almost compulsively unfunny – self-seriously emptying out all potential for comedy from this Sorkinian biopic. Throughout the script, Sorkin’s characters take note of each other’s jokes, as if to persuade us, these really are jokes. At times it’s that the lines fall flat, the wit is too stilted, too distracted by the illusion the film tasks itself with: representing Lucy. 

Sorkin’s Lucy is a career woman, and she might, in fact, be a communist. But she’s also, unambiguously, a Sorkinian anti-feminist. When Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawcat), the only woman writer for I Love Lucy, expresses concerns about the character Lucy’s self-infantilization, and a desire to write Lucy instead as a woman who “outsmarts” the men, Sorkin’s Lucy replies: “I question your comedy IQ,” only to add, “my fervent wish for you is that you will be half as funny as Gracie Allen.” These gestures toward a feminist critique of Lucy are obligatory, but like everything else, flattened out. 

Like any other Sorkin Woman, Lucy can mostly be found in rooms full of men. “We cannot have an all-American girl married to a man who isn’t American,” a CBS executive explains to her, after she pitches her real-life husband as the co-star for what would later be I Love Lucy. Whether or not Lucy is a commie fades into the background throughout the film, as it persists in telling the story of how Lucy and Desi, like all Sorkin characters, are Great Americans – that is, whether they know it or not, deeply anti-communist. 

If anything, the scandal at the center of Being the Ricardos contorts itself into the matter of an emotional, irrational, feminine side which must remain always in hiding. “I’m not an idiot,” Lucy tells Desi, “I didn’t check the wrong box.” Then she gives her reasons: “Grandpa Fred raised me from when I was age four. He cared about the little guy. He cared about workers’ rights. It was a tribute to him. And to say that I was wrong—” “Grandpa Fred, grandpa Fred!” Desi interjects, “Grandpa Fred was wrong! Lucy!… he didn’t tell you the part where they throw your father in prison… I was chased to this country, Lucy!” he yells. “Believe me, you checked the wrong box.” Throughout the film, Desi is this voice of anti-communist reason – recalling the monstrous ways in which his childhood was ruined by communism. The Bolsheviks burned down his house, murdered all the animals, put his father in prison. For him, communism is nothing but totalitarianism. To this, Lucy just goes quiet. Unlike Desi’s anti-communism, it would seem, her communism is merely feelings. It won’t be defined.

While it teases at the question, the film has no clear investment in Lucy’s politics. The big bet that Desi insists they wage against this McCarthyist scandal is that their viewers “will accept the truth, give their approval, and the press will write about it.” Desi stands in front of the live studio audience before their show, telling Lucy’s story. “Lucy was and is in no way involved with the Communist Party,” he swears to them. He then holds a telephone to his microphone, on the line with J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover assures the audience that there is no evidence whatsoever that Lucille Ball is a communist. Case closed, I guess.

Whether or not Lucy really was a communist – or what she believed that meant, as opposed to what Desi told her it meant – is hardly a point of curiosity. It’s shut down, before it can even emerge. 

She is a Sorkin Woman after all. And what she could be otherwise can never quite matter. 

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