Decoding Aaron Sorkin: A 'competence porn' expert with a possible 'woman problem'

Utkarsh Srivastava

Jun,09 2018 11:17:02 IST

Name your ten favourite actors.

Easy.

Name your ten favourite directors.

Not too hard.

Name your ten favourite screenwriters.

No? Name any ten screenwriters.

Yeah, did not think so.

The strange thing about movies is that for so many people, the number one determining factor for the ones they like is the story. A great actor can make the role memorable. A brilliant director can reimagine the story in ways we mere mortals never could. But at the heart of it all is a good story. A talented screenwriter provides the source material from which everyone works off. And they are almost never given enough credit for their work.

Except for maybe Aaron Sorkin.

Aaron Sorkin. YouTube

Aaron Sorkin. YouTube

To be clear, Sorkin is not the best screenwriter to ever put pen to paper. He might not even be the best screenwriter of his generation. What he is though, is distinctive. After all, which other screenwriter can claim to be an adjective for a certain type of writing? The words Sorkinesque and Sorkinisms are practically part of common movie parlance now. And that is what makes him special. That is why Firstpost recalls the phenomenon that Sorkins is, on his birthday this Saturday (9 June).

The master of competence porn

Between 2008 and 2012, an extremely interesting show called Leverage ran on American TV. It showcased a gang of modern day Robin Hoods who used their skills to fight for the common folk. Nearly all the episodes featured a common story arc which involved one of the gang laying down the scenario and the plan for the others. It usually took place in a conference room and in a show full of action and heists, it should have been the most boring part.

Except it was not. The banter and the briefing was part of what made the show fun. It was smart people talking about their thought process and the audience loved it.

The show’s creator John Rogers identified this in his blog Kung Fu Monkey. In his words: “You people love the briefing scenes”. The writers called this “competence porn”, thereby giving a name to something which had always existed but somehow had never been specifically discussed.

Put simply, competence porn is smart people solving problems with their wit and brains. They are also usually quite good at explaining their thought process and pretty great at banter. All great detectives (Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Inspector Jacques Clouseau) are examples of competence porn. Breaking Bad is a striking example of it as it is not just about Walter White cooking meth but overcoming obstacles by being incredibly shrewd. Mad Men and Boston Legal gave us ad men and lawyers at the peak of their powers who were able to solve things by being brilliant.

All of these shows portray competence porn pretty well. But if there is one acknowledged master of the genre, it is Aaron Sorkin. Right from his West Wing days, Sorkin has given us genius characters who always had witty comebacks and wittier solutions to problems. The West Wing was pretty much all competence porn as President Bartlet and his staff of Leo, Josh, CJ and Toby had all the facts and most of the answers at their fingertips. Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) and Will McAvoy (The Newsroom) might have complicated personal lives but were capable beyond measure at their jobs.

It also helps that no one writes dialogue quite like Sorkin. He is fond of both monologues and snappy to-and-fro dialogue. He constantly breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing as his characters love to talk and tell us all the (usually pretty important) things which are happening. Also, the banter between two Sorkin characters is always a delight. It lets us normal people (who strike upon great comebacks only two days after the conversation is over) see how geniuses argue. And boy is it mesmerising.

The woman problem

What do The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Politico, Independent, New Statesman, Slate, Jezebel, IndieWire, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and Salon all have in common?

They all think Aaron Sorkin has a woman problem. The argument is expressed in different ways but the essence of it is that the women in Sorkinverse exist only as ditsy, irrational people who exist solely to spur men on to greater things. They are unprofessional and constantly make mistakes which show their incompetence.

The counter-argument comes from Mic, where Natalie Smith points out that men in Sorkinverse make pretty silly mistakes too. They too struggle to separate their personal lives from the professional. Smith argues that whereas we ask for realistic female characters, once they are actually written, we turn and complain about the writer not crafting the perfect female character.

The most common example given for Sorkin writing incompetent women is a scene in The Newsroom where MacKenzie sends an email to everyone while she meant to send it to Will. The critics point to it and say: Look, women in Sorkinverse cannot even send email. Except no one points to the scene earlier in the episode where the setup for this scene was given. MacKenzie reads a notice from IT about a new email policy which no one understands. Neil then explains it but it is clearly not too easy. The point is that it was not as easy as just sending a simple email. It was a mistake which would have been believable had it come from Jim or Will, or any of the other men. Neil also explains many things about technology to Will throughout the show and this is not seen as a put down to men.

In fact, in The West Wing, much hilarity ensues when Josh gets on the internet. Firstly he needs Donna’s help to post things. Then when it all goes wrong, CJ has to come in to resolve matters. And when Josh tries to make the point that he outranks her, she is not the least bit impressed. Furthermore, in another story arc, Josh bombs badly when he has to take a press briefing. Josh’s incompetence in these scenes are not seen as a knock on men but simply as him being a character with flaws.

Sorkin has also written some pretty strong female characters. Dana in Sports Night, Jordan in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, CJ, Abigail Bartlet, Mrs Landingham and Dr Nancy McNally in The West Wing are all confident women who overrule men many times in their respective shows.

As far as the argument of women existing only to spur men onto greater things, everyone in Sorkinverse exists for that purpose. Nearly all of his work has one character at its centre who is trying to accomplish something. From Matt and Danny in Studio 60 to President Bartlet in The West Wing to Will in The Newsroom, the entire staff around them (both men and women) works to ensure that that central character’s goals are met.

In fact, the problem here is that Sorkin’s central characters have invariably been men. This is especially glaring in view of his own statement where he says there are not enough good roles out there for women.

Furthermore, taking certain convenient examples from his vast body of work can hardly prove the point beyond doubt. I have watched almost everything Sorkin has written and have always come out with fond memories of the female characters (especially CJ and Sloane). They were competent yet flawed but then practically everyone on the shows was. But if #MeToo has taught me anything, it is that men (including me) are incredibly blind to casual, everyday sexism. Certainly some of the statements Sorkin has made are extremely discouraging. And while many of the above mentioned articles were written with specific discussion about the initial few episodes of The Newsroom and did not exactly dive deep into the issue, a blog called Raspberry Lime Ricki has gone into considerably detail as it has dissected multiple episodes of The West Wing for signs of sexism and the results are not pretty.

It is in this context that Sorkin’s directorial debut — Molly’s Game — comes along where he tells the story of Molly Bloom, a woman who ran one of the world’s most exclusive poker games and who later became a target for the FBI. As a Sorkin fan, I cannot wait for it as it will have Sorkinesque characters spouting Sorkinisms while being incredibly talented at various things. As a feminist, I would like to see how he portrays a female central character. Either way, the movie will surely form a large part of the conversation around Sorkin and his woman problem.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2018 11:17 AM