Hollywood suffered another blow to the patriarchy yesterday, as Academy Award-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—long criticized for his tendency to give female characters cutesy, alliterative names and place them as whip-smart, wisecracking, but ultimately supportive helpmeets to the powerful and high-profile men they worship (see Newsroom, The)—has officially become “woke.”
At the Writers’ Guild Festival this weekend at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Los Angeles, Sorkin, who has often espoused his belief that Hollywood is essentially a talent-based meritocracy, expressed astonishment at the difficulty women and people of color often have getting their scripts considered for production, or finding jobs on writing staffs. “Are you saying that women and minorities have a more difficult time getting their stuff read than white men and you’re also saying that [white men] get to make mediocre movies and can continue on?” he said, reported Variety. The audience averred.
“You’re saying that if you’re a woman or a person of color, you have to hit it out of the park in order to get another chance?” he asked. Again, the audience averred, confirming that this was precisely what they were saying.
A seemingly flabbergasted Sorkin, confronted with this breaking news, listed a few writers and directors he felt had managed to break the mold—Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, the ol’ perennial Lena Dunham—but ended the meeting asking what he could do to help rectify this terrible wrong. “What can I do [to help]?” he asked. “I do want to understand what someone like me can do…but my thing has always been: ‘If you write it, they will come.’”
There’s plenty someone like Sorkin can do, such as hiring and mentoring and signing on to produce projects from women and people of color, but given that this would require money to change hands (always a tricky proposition in Hollywood), he’s already done a most important thing, which is for a person of his stature to listen, and to acknowledge that this phenomenon exists.
It’s tempting to read Sorkin’s obliviousness as somehow disingenuous—a piece of “performance art,” as I’ve seen it referred to online—but I don’t think that’s the case. Sorkin is a genuine, good ol’ fashioned liberal who deeply believes in the power of the written word, and who would no doubt be horrified to think he harbors any kind of unconscious bias, let alone a racist or sexist bent. And that’s precisely the problem with so much of the Hollywood diversity debate: that so many people— particularly brainy, neurotic Jewish men like Aaron Sorkin, who, frankly, make up a disproportionate fraction of the industry but still see themselves as outsiders, because that’s what the media they continually create tells them that they are—fail to recognize bias when it appears. They categorize stories they personally identify with as good stories, and stories with which they don’t personally identify have to be all the better in order to be recognized as such. That’s the status quo, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Knowing, after all, is half the battle.