The Newsroom and The Hour: Feminism in a Fictional Newsroom

The Newsroom Cast

With the news that The Newsroom has been picked up for a third season comes a wave of bemusement. A show that had more potential than a sack full of Jack’s magic beans, The Newsroom has repeatedly turned out episodes that make Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip look like a modern masterpiece. A lack of nuance and a failure to abide by the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell” don’t help matters, but it is Sorkin’s writing of women that creates the series’ biggest problem. So, why a third season?

Any fan of The West Wing will have been exposed to some of Sorkin’s casual misogyny (see: the closing scene of The Crackpots and These Women), but his acclaimed White House drama was of such high calibre that those issues were overshadowed. The dialogue was razor-sharp, the political debates were forward-thinking and the characters were warm as a hot chocolate on a winter’s night. The quality of The West Wing was reason enough to get excited about The Newsroom. Added to this, real news stories being told in a fictional newsroom was a format that had recently been explored brilliantly on BBC series, The Hour. Set in the 1950s, The Hour offered two six-episode seasons, with the look of Mad Men and a cast as impressive as they come.

The HourThere were three central female characters in The Hour: Bel Rowley, Lix Storm and Marnie Madden. All three were complex, interesting and sympathetic characters. They were distinct from one another. The three women all got along but there was a particularly significant friendship between Bel and Lix, with Lix being a sounding board for Bel and a constant ally. Bel, the show’s main protagonist, was the show boss, facing the critical eye of male colleagues who were sceptical that a woman should be in her position. When one of the male characters questioned her ability to do the job in the opening episode, she deliciously responded, “Watch me.” After that, it was a matter of indeed watching as she demonstrated her capability and integrity in their newsroom as the producer for the little show that could. She earned the trust of her male colleagues, not without resistance, and she chased the significant stories, not without obstacles.

Bel’s Newsroom counterpart must surely be Mackenzie, executive producer for News Night, but more often seen flapping her arms around, not understanding email, and getting shrill over her past relationship with cantankerous Will McAvoy. She’s good at her job, though, because Jim says she is and Jim is a man so we trust Jim. In fact, Charlie also says she is. Will concurs. All the blokes in the house can agree that Mackenzie’s really great. So why is it that we are exposed to moronic levels of stupidity, without any substantial indication that what all these nice men have been saying is true? She spends far too much of her time whining at Will to forgive her for an affair, and yet confirming what a wonderful person Will is. It’s aggravating, and more so because remember when CJ Cregg was great at her job and we knew because she consistently proved it?

Added to Mackenzie’s flaws is the fact that she has experienced zero character growth since the show’s pilot, and it seems her arc is of the when-will-she-get-with-the-male-lead variety (as of the end of Season 2, she is yet to actually have a storyline of her own). Sorkin’s always struggled writing romantic relationships: Josh and Donna were left unresolved when he departed The West Wing (and probably better for it), Dana and Casey took a terrible turn in Sports Night‘s second season and Studio 60‘s Jordan and Danny bordered on harassment (a theme: CJ and Danny, Charlie and Zoey: “Stop pursuing me.” / “No.”). The Newsroom‘s pairings are frankly no different. Will and Mac are tedious; Jim and Maggie are also tedious and within a love triangle riddled with self-proclaimed Nice Guys™; Don and Sloan involve Don. The way the women are written within all of their relationships leaves them with almost no power. The dynamics are controlled by the men, with Will punishing Mackenzie and her accepting it, and Don consistently treating Maggie terribly. In fact, it’s one of the only consistent things about the show.

Don and Maggie’s relationship does not work at all, and that’s Maggie’s fault – or so, Sorkin would have us believe. “We break up, I apologise, everything’s fine,” Maggie says of their on-off relationship, with no one weighing in with the suggestion that perhaps four breakups in five months might not all be entirely her fault. On The Hour, meanwhile, we see Hector treat his wife Marnie with cool disdain, similar to Don’s treatment of Maggie. However, viewers are not made to sympathise with Hector. Development in the Hector and Marnie relationship leads to a power shift, where a previously powerless Marnie asserts more self-respect and self-attained authority than Maggie could muster if she bumped off the entire newsroom in their sleep. Hector’s display of respect and, eventually, love for Marnie is the writer’s plot device for softening a previously unlikeable Hector to the audience. Sorkin, though, seems to assert that Don is, by default, a Nice Guy™ – as, on one occasion, reinforced by fellow Nice Guy™ Jim: “He is a really good guy and I screwed him.” Over the course of their relationship, Don strung Maggie along despite explicitly saying he did not love her, set up Maggie’s roommate Lisa with Jim because he suspected something between Jim and Maggie, undermined Maggie’s self-confidence plenty, was as dramatically unconcerned about Maggie’s panic attacks during which “she thinks she’s going to die” as it is possible to be and dated other women in their brief “off-again” periods – with overlap. Jim, meanwhile, dated Maggie’s best friend Lisa for no reason other than to distract from his feelings for Maggie or to make Maggie jealous. Such nice guys.

The third major female character on The Newsroom is Sloan Sabbith. She is easily the most likeable, but once again is plagued with gender issues, the most disturbing of which is the scene where Mackenzie hires her. While Olivia Munn is stunning, I have no problem believing that her character could also be an incredibly knowledgeable economist. Sorkin clearly thinks differently though, and had Mackenzie clarify that, though there are in fact plenty of men more qualified for the position, “they’re not going to have [Sloan’s] legs.” As a general rule of thumb, women do not tend to talk to each other like that, and certainly not in a job interview, having only recently been introduced to each other.

For much of the first season, Mackenzie and Sloan are ostensibly friends. “Please come on our show so that straight men can sexually objectify you,” is an unconventional way to begin a friendship, but then female friendships have always been a struggle for Sorkin to get his head around. In the recent episode Election Day Part 1, a male character even told Sloan she needed to be less desperate for female friends. Wow, really? Before Sloan, it was Mackenzie who was all-too-keenly pursuing female friends (News Night 2.0). Before The Newsroom, it was Jordan on Studio 60. Why does the idea of an organic, stable female friendship seem to cause Aaron Sorkin’s brain to short-circuit? While Sorkin throws together character friendships whenever he requires a little camaraderie, The Hour provides consistent and complex friendships for its entire ensemble. The dynamics evolve and adapt with the storylines, as you would expect real people and real relationships to develop. This is particularly true of the female relationships, with a solid close friendship with Bel and Lix and a complicated, compelling dynamic between Marnie and Bel. Ultimately, despite Bel’s brief affair with Hector, the two characters maintain a deep respect for each other, recognising the shared obstacles they face as women.

While The Newsroom continues for another season, The Hour won’t be returning to screens, despite having more well-paced character development in a single episode than The Newsroom has had in its lifespan. Television is a cruel, dark place. Here’s hoping that a third season of The Newsroom might finally allow it to meet the standard it should have always been. It seems bizarre, though, that a series set in the 1950s should depict more powerful portrayals of women than that which is set in the present day. Watching Maggie, a graduate in her twenties, unable to recognise, firstly, that ‘LOL’ means “laugh out loud” and not “lots of love” and, secondly, that acronyms are wholly inappropriate on a sympathy card, it strikes me that Sorkin has no aspirations to create complex, sympathetic, believable female characters.

The landscape of television has changed significantly since Sorkin made his name at NBC. With the ubiquity of reality TV, there has never been more need for high quality, scripted television. A big part of that is creating female characters as diverse and complex as real women. In this respect, The Newsroom has a long way to go.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Garth Fey

    I enjoyed season one The Newsroom – reminded me of The West Wing – except that it was far more liberal in tone than TWW and was often over-the-top liberal (I don’t really mind the legit critiques – and there were many legit points made on the show – but that sword cuts both ways).

    This season, however, has been significantly improved in the political bias area and I think the programs, overall, have been much better.

    Really love this drama. Second best on TV right now, imo, only behind Breaking Bad. I will give The Hour a chance.

  2. I loved The Hour. I really feel that the BBC should have followed through with making a third series. It seems ridiculous to set up these plots which need to be rounded off properly only to cancel the series. There really isn’t much quality TV at all these days (at least on the main channels anyway).

    • Jessica Eve Kennedy

      I totally agree. I was gutted that it was cancelled – especially on such a cliffhanger. And Abi Morgan has since mentioned that she had planned the series for three seasons, so it would have wrapped up the story as planned.

      • The ratings were poor for series 2 so I am not that surprised. If people do not watch it then the BBC are not going make more.

  3. Emma Mcwaters

    I had not viewed the newsroom from a feminist perspective, but as I think of it now, it is heartening to see more than one fleshed out professinally employed character of both sexes, a rarity in TV for sure.

  4. Sparkle

    Admittedly, I’ve learned to expect all females in HBO series are there to visually stimulate male viewers or sell beauty or fashion product so I no longer pay for the channel or watch their brand of shows, which are more predictable than shows with Disney branding.

  5. An excellent comparison of a show I lobe and one I’ve been trying to( putting it down to the west wing nostalgia and the serious lack of high quality entertainment on our tellys today. I find it utterly impossible to wrap my jeaf around the newsroom’s renewal; if only I could swap it out for but one more episode of the Hour.

  6. Claire Macallister

    This is super fascinating with many well though-out and intricate points. As a fan of The Newsroom, I have witnessed Sorkin’s misogyny firsthand, but I have never realised the extent of it. A very interesting article, with some thorough research to support it and some detailed parallels. Nice work!

  7. There are some aspects of The Newsroom that are sexist, but it’s portraying a very sexist world. Now, I don’t live in America, but I do occasionally watch CNN, MSNBC or the like and what is really hits me are the anchors. The men are, well, men, while the women are, without fail, very attractive. Here in Sweden the news anchors are sometimes very good looking and sometimes not, on average they are just that, average. Just as an example of the very obvious sexist nature of the news business.

    • Bridget W

      I watched it once and I flinched at the female characters from the get-go. Not why I stopped watching, though. I found it somehow dated in its approach. Thinking back, maybe the portrayal of women had something to with it.

      I absolutely loved The Hour though.

      Nice post!

    • Jessica Eve Kennedy

      That may be true, but it would be an idea to then explore the sexism the women are dealing with as part of a story – as The Hour actually does. You can depict a sexist setting without perpetuating the sexism itself. I think it’s just a matter of how the story is explored, and from whose POV.

  8. Excellent article and deconstruction of Sorkin’s problems writing women. Sadly, I doubt he has the foggiest idea how to learn from this sort of critique.

  9. Although I see your points, and you make valid arguments, I don’t necessarily agree with them. Women absolutely have their freak-out moments (men do, too), and I think it’s fine that Sorkin portrays those moments the way that he does. No, I don’t think he’s the best writer of women on television (I would love to watch The Hour to compare, but I cannot find a source for it!), and maybe I’m just not much of a feminist, but I love Mackenzie and Sloan and the ways that they are written.

  10. Francesca Turauskis

    Interesting article. I haven’t seen either of these shows but you make some very convincing arguments. I might give the Hour a shot.

  11. Great article!

    I’ve had a lot of the same problems with how Sorkin treats his female characters in his shows. But ‘The Newsroom’ seems to be the worst of all.

    What I liked about your article (and what I think separates it from the other criticisms of ‘The Newsroom’) is your comparing it against ‘The Hour’. Using it to highlight ‘The Newsroom’s problems and showing how ‘The Hour’ doesn’t fall into those traps was a great idea. Especially since the latter, despite being set in the past, still features more female characters than Sorkin’s show. More than that, they’re actually strong, dynamic characters.

    The only criticism I have of your article is that it makes me miss ‘The Hour’ and wish it was never cancelled.

    • Jessica Eve Kennedy

      I agree that it’s a recurring problem with Sorkin, that presents itself most clearly in The Newsroom. I’m glad you enjoyed reading what I had to say. Thank you.

      And, yes! Writing it made me miss it more too. I can only apologise.

  12. This is one of the most convincing pieces I’ve read criticizing the depiction of women on The Newsroom. I’m a fan of the show, but in the time since the second season aired I watched The West Wing, and now I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself from constantly comparing the two, only to see The Newsroom fall short. While the scene in which Mackenzie hires Sloan made me cringe from the start, I guess I ignored the crucial error Sorkin made by telling, rather than showing, the competence of the women on his show. Maybe now that we’re seemingly past the when-will-she-get-with-the-guy arc for Mackenzie and Sloan, we’ll see them have more development, independent from the men. I really hope so, because The Newsroom does have a talented cast, and the show itself could be so much more (see: Funny or Die parody). I think it’s time to bring in Allison Janney.

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