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Aaron Sorkin Mansplains Hollywood

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by Melissa Silverstein
April 24, 2014 12:30 PM
13 Comments
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This week writer Aaron Sorkin showed up at the Tribeca Film Festival and, in his typical way, gave us some nuggets to digest about how the privileged few in Hollywood regard the rest of us. This is a man who has created some fantastic female characters, including The West Wing's CJ Cregg, and written one of the most misogynistic movies -- The Social Network. So he's an incredibly talented paradox to say the least. 

Sorkin was asked a question at his Tribeca talk about the fact that women make up 52% of the moviegoing audience and yet are only 15% of the protagonists onscreen.

Here is his answer (which I transcribed from a video of the recording) with my commentary in between:

There are roughly as many women who can greenlight a movie in Hollywood as there are men, from Amy Pascal at Sony to Stacy Snider at Dreamworks to Donna [Langley] at Universal.

Well, no. There are not roughly as many women as men who greenlight movies. The women mentioned above all have greenlighting power, but they do not have the power to greenlight alone. As a recent piece in The Wrap showed, women do not really have the ability to greenlight films. Several studios have lone men as the final decision makers, and when women have a say, they work in tandem with men.

This answer has actually become quite typical of late. Now that there are a few women in power, I constantly hear people looking to cover their asses by blaming the women for not making more movies about women. But remember, these are corporate jobs. These companies are part of multi-national corporations who are thinking about the dollars they can make overseas by shelling out another crappy superhero movie. Honestly, the fact that these women get any movies made by or about women should be seen as a victory. Pascal has hired Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron and released Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, and Langley hired Sam Taylor-Johnson for 50 Shades of Grey and Angelina Jolie for Unbroken.  Have they done enough? No. No one has in Hollywood, but to blame the women is just such total bullshit.

Sorkin continues:

There is a misunderstanding out there too. I've been reading a lot lately about how a female-driven movie like Bridesmaids is looked at as a fluke and therefore Hollywood doesn't do it. That's a premise that suggests that studio execs have piles of scripts as good as Bridesmaids. They don't. Bridesmaids got made because it was really good, and I promise you that nothing but capitalism drives decision-making in Hollywood. 

If there is a sense that this will make money, then it will get made, and I think that studio execs understand that it's more than just 52% of the audience is female. Generally, if there is a couple -- men and women -- it is the woman who is deciding what they are seeing tonight. I think they understand that and the trick is there just needs to be more good scripts that have the kind of characters you are looking for.

While he doesn't say that women are writing crappy movies, he does say that there are no good scripts about women that exist because if they existed they would be made. I take issue with that. 

Firstly, I don't think I am going out on a limb to say that there are many great scripts by women that just don't get to the right place to even be seen by the studio execs for so many different reasons. 

Second, I am sure they have some great scripts in their hot little hands that have female characters that for a thousand reasons just can't get to the finish line to get a greenlight. 

Third, his comment implies that the scripts about men that are made are good scripts when we all know that most of the scripts about men are terrible. 

Fourth, how can you blame women for picking the movies to see that star men AS IF THERE ARE OTHER OPTIONS. If you live in a place where your only option is a multiplex with Hollywood's latest fare, you have only one or two times a year to potentially see a movie starring women.

If Sorkin decided to remove his head from his ass, he might one day come up with another woman as exemplary as CJ Cregg. 

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More: Aaron Sorkin, Sexism, Amy Pascal, Donna Langley

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13 Comments

  • Matt | May 8, 2014 3:27 AMReply

    I think you might have missed Sorkin's point. In the majority of stuff he does he includes STRONG female characters. Amanda Peet was a woman in charge in Studio 60, Felicity Huffman in Sports Night, The West Wing was tough but he tried to make Alison Janney as important as he could in her position. In The Newsroom, Emily Mortimer. In all of these roles these women characters are put up against insurmountable odds that they come out soaring through. I don't think Sorkin is as much of a misogynist as you want to make him. While he could have worded it better, I think quite frankly he was saying is that there are more male screenplay writers than women, so the quality isn't there. I would imagine that men make up the majority of screen writers in hollywood, so they green light 10% of the scripts they get from them. 10% of the women that get scripts green lighted might only be a handful. It's not a matter that women write worse then Men. It's just there is more selection for great movies from Men because there is more to choose from. I acknowledge I could be talking out my butt. But this is what I generally gather from what he is saying.

    Star,

    I think by starring he is referring to a role such as The Heat or Bridget Jones' Diary. Gravity isn't exactly a "starring" role, she Co-starred. When I think of a woman starring in a Movie, the main character is a Woman. Veronica Mars for example or Melissa McCarthy's movie "Tammy". I wouldn't consider the upcoming movie Drew Barrymore is in "Blended" as a starring role since she is Co-starring in it with Adam Sandler.

    If anything let Sorkin's comments inspire more women to get into screenplay writing, he is basically saying there aren't enough of you doing it. Just no garbage like "50 Shades of Grey" in which my wife has referred to it as having 3rd grade grammar issues.

  • White Dust | May 7, 2014 1:04 PMReply

    go back to cocaine, Sorkin. no good dialogue is going to replace the crippling flaws in this man's character.

  • Star | April 26, 2014 8:11 PMReply

    "If you live in a place where your only option is a multiplex with Hollywood's latest fare, you have only one or two times a year to potentially see a movie starring women."

    One or two?

    Um, since the beginning of 2013:

    Gravity, Carrie, The Heat, Mama, Blue Jasmine, Philomena, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Identity Thief, The Call, Admission, The Big Wedding, The Bling Ring, The To Do List, August: Osage County, Vampire Academy, The Single Moms Club, Divergent, The Other Woman...and I'm sure I'm missing more.

    All these mainstream movies prominently showcasing strong, powerful women and the "feminist" completely disregards their existence. That ain't nice.

  • budmin | April 25, 2014 2:51 PMReply

    This Web site ( & it's cause in general) still seems to have a problem solving for the the Capitalism Argument. A while back when Frozen was in pre-production, I had it out with the feminist at Jezebel who had already written the movie off as being a sexist tool of the patriarchy to promote heteronormative, white cis-gendered notions of...blah, blah, blah...(you know the rest)

    To which I responded "Show me an escapist fantasy with a strong social message and you will have your billion dollar franchise." So now that Frozen became a phenomenon I've tried not to gloat too much

    When it's all said: YOU LADIES HAVE TO START WRITING MORE ENJOYABLE STORIES WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT!

    Or.. Stop making it a money issue if all you want to do is create art.

  • Howard | April 25, 2014 11:58 AMReply

    Brava Melissa for continuing to drive this conversation forward. It's amazing how people cannot tolerate your confrontation of the idea that it's just a lack of good women-centric scripts (which seems to be Sorkin's assertion) that maintains the lack of female representation in film. If some of your critics read your site more regularly, they would know that your "assumptions" are based on statistics, but their need to diminish your expertise is further evidence of the proliferation of this kind of sexism. To the person who asks where your screenplay is....what a ridiculous comment. Melissa never claimed to be a screenwriter and one of her points is that the good female screenwriters are ALREADY THERE, but are inhibited due to the institutionalized sexism of hollywood that Sorkin seems ok with.

  • j | April 25, 2014 7:11 AMReply

    bravo, ms. silverstein, and absolutely right on. thank you.

  • bruce | April 25, 2014 6:23 AMReply

    This really is total nonsense.

  • Kathy | April 24, 2014 10:40 PMReply

    I have never trusted Aaron Sorkin, but after this interview, I now realize he is part of the problem of patriarchy. Sorkin is so clueless.

  • Sally | April 24, 2014 6:26 PMReply

    Thanks for this Melissa, I'm pleased you've taken Sorkin on. Whilst I see the work it does for you rhetorically, I wish we could all stop pretending that the often wonderful CJ isn't also an example of Sorkin's pitiful gender biases. Rewatch the WW when Sorkin is the writer and notice the number of times CJ does silly "girly" things, things which don't smack of a writer in control of his character but just a writer thoughtlessly revealing what he thinks of women. I also don't believe for a moment Sorkin meant the men to be as patronizing as they were in that series.

  • Buddy Glass | April 24, 2014 5:53 PMReply

    Hollywood doesn't make enough female-driven films. But a lot of this article is just lazy assertions.

    #1 "Firstly, I don't think I am going out on a limb to say that there are many great scripts by women that just don't get to the right place to even be seen by the studio execs for so many different reasons. "

    Really? I've written scripts and sold some; and worked as a development exec. There's not some magical backlog of amazing scripts out there that Hollywood is keeping away because they're from the disenfranchised -- whether that's women, minorities, folks who live outside of LA, etc.

    There are probably some people who don't know how to get a script to Hollywood who have a good script. But every time I've read something amazing that came out of "nowhere" -- Juno, Seven, Little Miss Sunshine, etc. -- it got all over town pretty quickly. For the most part, if you write an amazing script, people will pass it along and it will get you meetings and an agent and probably made.

    MS's #1 is the same myth behind Trigger Street and Project Greenlight. That there's a mass of great scripts waiting for disintermediation to appear. All of the Project Greenlight movies sucked :) And there aren't a ton of amazing projects made coming out of The Black List or Trigger Street or other online sources. Because writing a really great script is hard. Very hard. That's why people get paid so much to do it, and that's why agents, managers, development execs and everyone else craps their pants over the hot new "amazing" spec script or pilot every year or two. Because there's one or two truly great pieces of writing out there that are from new folks.

    #2 - "Second, I am sure they have some great scripts in their hot little hands that have female characters that for a thousand reasons just can't get to the finish line to get a greenlight."

    Again, this is an assertion without any backup. This is actually the point to be made, and there are lots of examples you could have listed about movies that had a hard time getting made with female protagonists. I've had discussions with folks about scripts and about financing films; and there's this conception -- true or not -- that there aren't very many women who can open a film; and that international audiences that are relied on for foreign financing just don't want to see very many female stars (Angelina Jolie is one exception that comes to mind).

    #3 - "Third, his comment implies that the scripts about men that are made are good scripts when we all know that most of the scripts about men are terrible."

    I don't think he was implying that. He said write a comedy as great as Bridesmaids and it will get made. Again, writing a great script is hard.

    You're also confusing a crummy movie with a crummy script. Shockingly, the first drafts of most projects, including 99% of specs, are really very good. And nobody sets out to make a bad film. The development process homogenizes things and makes them (often) stink. But there are a lot of really, really crappy movies that have great script drafts somewhere.

  • BYOBrain | May 16, 2014 5:41 PM

    How do explain why so many great female characters and franchises don't have any movies based on them since the end of their successful shows? Such as Wonder Woman, Xena, Buffy, or til recently Veronica Mars, which had to be fan-funded.

    Xena, for example, the producers/cast have wanted to make a movie for years, thousands of fans have been petitioning, but there is supposedly a "rights dispute" in which Universal control's the lion's share and have been content to keep it shelved and unresolved. For the past 13 years. How many fans do you see petitioning for another male action hero movie? NONE, because they don't have to! Hollywood churns movies out for them regardless of quality or a decent existing script. They come up with a half-azz character and then hire someone to write the script. An Antman movie is getting made before a standalone Wonder Woman, Xena, or Buffy movie. Soon, there'll be 5 Pirates of The Carribean movies, 3 Expendables, 3 Taken, 3 Ironman, countless Batman, Superman, The Hulk, and Spiderman movies. Yet how many ICONIC female action movies?

    1. Double standards: Do you think any studio would kill off a male action hero? In the rare event they did, they'd bring them back quickly and in great fashion? (Superman) Not Xena. Ratings also don't mean anything. Xena beat Hercules and Star Trek DS9 to be #1 in the first-run syndication. Yet, there's been plenty of Star Trek movies and 2 new Hercules movies in the past year.

    2. Female movies are being intentionally overlooked. 66yo Arnold Schwarzenegger was just in Sabotage (bombed) and is also making a new Terminator AND Conan The Barbarian movie, but Veronica Mars couldn't their low-budget movie made, they had to rely on fan-funding. It wasn't for lack of a decent script. It's sexism. These shows have great producers who of course have wanted to make a movie. Even a straight-to-dvd movie would be better than no movie at all, but female projects don't even rate that! Studios have no problem letting men of all ages star in and reprise action roles, but not women. They recast women over about 35 for the next unproven 20-something, or the elite two exceptions: ScarJo or Angelina. Hit up recent pics of Lucy Lawless compared to ALL of the many men who are 5-20yrs older than her playing action roles, but Universal won't make a Xena with her? A female icon from Battlestar Galactic and Spartacus, in addition to Xena. Thousands of fans petitioning. None of that matters. The studio doesn't even respond or acknowledge fan's efforts. Men would also write scripts for great female characters if the studio were making movies starring women, but they're not. That's how despicable studios are operating.
    There are several studies that show that studios haven't made any significant progress since the 1940's-50's in hiring women to work behind-the-scenes or on-camera.

  • JK | April 24, 2014 2:05 PMReply

    Where's Melissa Silverstein's screenplay?

  • Me | April 24, 2014 1:34 PMReply

    The conclusive points:

    "Firstly..." and "Secondly..." are assumptions. Let's not embroider them as widely held assumption that most reasonable people buy into. That's also an assumption. And while what he said may be some assumption as well--he's not reading those scripts or sitting in on every meeting--his are more credible.

    "Third..."--No, his comment suggests those sorts of movies make money. "Good", here, equals profit. He's not wrong. That doesn't mean female driven movies wouldn't or don't. Which leads to:

    "Fourth..."--No, he's saying if the decision-makers understand their female audience is largely picking which movies to spend money on, then they're producing movies with that in mind. Meaning: They're not averse to female-driven movies necessarily, as they're already catering (murkily) to that audience. The issue of equal representation is much more complex than black-and-white misogyny.

    So in actual conclusion: Let's chill. There are real systemic disadvantages for women and minorities in Hollywood. Let's focus on those.

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