The Woman Problem: What Political Animals' Susan Berg Could Teach the Newsroom Ladies
Carla Gugino, Emily Mortimer
"The first rule of being a female journalist," political reporter Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) tells a younger female colleague in the third episode of USA's miniseries Political Animals, "[is] if you s--- where you eat, don't cry about it. ... You want to be taken seriously? Take yourself seriously."
This single line of dialogue makes it clear that there's a much-needed crossover episode hidden in the summer TV lineup. Could Susan please take a temporary consulting gig in New York and talk some professional sense into the women of The Newsroom?
On Political Animals, Susan plays sexual politics as well as she does actual politics, never becoming flustered or intimidated by the men around her. There's never any doubt that Susan is on equal footing with her male boss and friend with benefits Alex (Dan Futterman), even down to the way the shots are framed — with Susan often leaning over Alex's desk as he's seated, and not the other way around.
And while Susan prioritizes work, the character avoids falling into the trap of being presented as desexualized or unfeeling. Gugino's breakout episode, "The Woman Problem" (might Sorkin consider borrowing this to rename his entire show?), brings this into focus. "You remember our first night in Monterrey?" Alex asks in a wistful post-coital moment. "Yeah, the night [presidential candidate] Garcetti named his transition team," Susan responds, without blinking an eye. "You remember the politics, and I remember how beautiful you looked," Alex tells her. "You don't need love the way you need your work."
Would that The Newsroom's women had the same attitude — or at least placed the two on equal footing. Aaron Sorkin's HBO series has faced critical backlash since it premiered for its portrayal of women, and rightfully so. Condescending at best and misogynistic at worst, Sorkin's depiction of the female characters on The Newsroom is far more offensive than in any of his previous shows (paging C.J. Cregg!). At this point, despite the show's inclusion of several women in positions of power, even Snooki & J-Woww is doing more for the advancement of feminism.
It was The Newsroom's fifth episode, "Amen," that really took gold in the Cringe Olympics. The hour featured one wince-worthy moment after another, from Maggie (Alison Pill) walking into glass doors around her crush, Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), to Emily Mortimer's Mackenzie not recognizing the ethical dubiousness of having her boyfriend appear repeatedly on the cable news show she produces.
In one horror show of a scene, Mackenzie — a supposedly savvy executive producer whose resume includes being a foreign war correspondent — is so distracted by the failure of her relationship with Will (Jeff Daniels) three years prior that, during an economics lesson from a colleague (financial reporter Sloan, played by Olivia Munn), she has a breakdown more befitting a character on a teen soap than a woman of her supposed professional standing. (Let's not even address the believability of a person in Mackenzie's position not knowing how to balance a checkbook, much less the difference between investment and commercial banks, to begin with.) She interrupts Sloan's breakdown of the Glass-Steagall Act to gripe, "I can't seem to stop hurting Will."
As Sloan tries in vain to explain the law's economic after-effects, the following exchange occurs:
Sloan: "You know what happened next?"
MacKenzie (blubbering into a glass of wine): "We cheated on the perfect guy with a guy who dumped us."
Had Susan Berg been in Sloan's position at that moment, there's no doubt she would have swiftly slapped MacKenzie across the face and told her to get it together.
In the next episode, "Bullies," it's Sloan herself who falls victim to Sorkin's flailmongering. First, she misinterprets a work-related comment from her boss to be a criticism of her weight. Later, upon meeting Will's bulky new bodyguard, she gushes, "Wow. Can I tap your chest?" (She does, and then giggles like a schoolgirl). Just to hammer the point home, after Sloan breaches basic journalistic ethics and makes a critical error on the air, Sorkin's script has her male superiors calling her "Girl" for the rest of the episode. (And while Sloan rightfully yells at her boss at one point for using the pejorative, when she later "needs wisdom," she blows off MacKenzie in favor of Will.)
And then there's Maggie. Though Pill isn't entirely off the hook here, Sorkin needs to either decide that he's going to use her character strictly for comic relief and drop any Working Girl earnestness, or simply put Maggie (and the audience) out of her misery entirely. Last week's Osama bin Laden episode featured an excruciating sequence about the tired Maggie/Jim/Maggie's roommate love triangle in an otherwise strong hour. The biggest story of the year can wait; Maggie's having a boy crisis. That sound you hear is Nellie Bly doing somersaults in her grave.
Yes, professional women have love lives. And they're messy. But as Berg proves, those issues can take a backseat, rather than becoming a plot point for half a season. Oh, to be a fly on the wall if Susan Berg ever did get the chance to teach the ladies of "News Night" a thing or two about balancing their personal and professional lives — a concept they're less familiar with than, well, the Glass-Steagall Act. But on second thought, they would probably be too wrapped up in the drama of their love lives to pay much attention to what she had to say.