Aaron Sorkin apparently couldn’t quite believe it.
The Oscar-winning writer and executive producer expressed shock when the topic of diversity and gender equity came up during the Writers Guild Festival in Hollywood over the weekend, according to Variety.
“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 get to make mediocre movies and can continue on?” Sorkin asked the audience during a moderated discussion.
According to Variety, “Sorkin asserted that Hollywood is a genuine meritocracy and that he was unaware of Hollywood’s existing diversity problem.”
He kept returning to the topic during a question-and-answer session with the audience: “You’re saying that if you are a woman or a person of color, you have to hit it out of the park in order to get another chance?” Then, after listing a handful of writers who are women and people of color – Lena Dunham, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele – he asked what he could do to help.
The lack of representation in front of the camera and behind the scenes has been one of the dominant questions looming over Hollywood in recent years. And it’s especially difficult to square Sorkin’s apparent ignorance of such disparities with his own body of work and all the criticism it’s prompted – criticism that he’s even directly addressed.
Sorkin, who has written shows and movies such as “The West Wing,” “The Social Network” and “The American President,” has been criticized as presenting narratives dominated by men and where women, as Salon wrote, are in “desperate need of rescue.”
When describing his forthcoming “Molly’s Game,” about a former skier-turned-underground poker master, Sorkin has said he writes his characters from his perspective, regardless of gender.
“Unless I’m actually writing about gender or unless it’s a romantic scene between a man and a woman, I’m really not paying that much attention to the fact that it’s a woman,” he said in 2015.
Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom” was panned by many critics; Vulture described it as “incredibly hostile toward women.”
“There is the Great Man, who is theoretically flawed, but really a primal truth-teller whom everyone should follow (or date),” wrote The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum. “There are brilliant, accomplished women who are also irrational, high-strung lunatics – the dames and muses who pop their eyes and throw jealous fits when not urging the Great Man on.”
Sorkin said in 2012 that while he respected such opinions, “I 100 percent disagree with it,” adding the women are “every bit the equals of the men, I think they are not just talked about as being good at their job, they are plainly good at their job.”
A 2014 episode about campus rape drew intense scrutiny as some felt it discredited rape accusers. And one of the show’s writers said Sorkin kicked her out of the writer’s room for protesting the plotline. Sorkin responded with disappointment that she aired her grievance so publicly, and expressing surprise at her criticism of the episode, as she “gave the new pages her enthusiastic support.”
“Most of the time the conflict on the show is about ideas, and frequently those conflicts stoke a lot of passionate debate in the days that follow a broadcast,” Sorkin told the New York Times about the backlash.
Sorkin provided his analysis of Hollywood’s woman problem in an email he wrote to a New York Times columnist that surfaced during the 2014 Sony hack. He took issue with “the idea that something like (the hit comedy film) Bridesmaids is seen as a fluke and that’s why we don’t see more movies like Bridesmaids. There’s an implication that studio heads have a stack of Bridesmaids-quality scripts on their desk that they’re not making and it’s just not true. The scripts aren’t there.” He then went on to connect the lack of such scripts to why he believed women’s roles in Hollywood have a lower “degree of difficulty” than men’s.
In another surfaced email to then-Sony co-chair Amy Pascal, Sorkin explained his skepticism that the studio would develop an adaptation of “Flash Boys” about the Wall Street executive Bradley Katsuyama. “The protagonist is Asian-American (actually Asian-Canadian) and there aren’t any Asian movie stars,” Sorkin wrote – a comment that drew fire in a broader debate about limited roles offered to Asian-Americans.
Diversity on screen is far from the commercial risk that industry reluctance may indicate. Projects with gender and racial diversity more reflective of America’s demographics actually perform better on average, according to a recent report from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
Still, according to that same report of top 2015 theatrical releases, only about 10 percent had nonwhite directors, and about 5 percent had nonwhite writers.
A different study from San Diego State University found that just 22 of the top 100 domestic-grossing films in 2015 had female protagonists, while 13 percent of all female characters in the top 2015 films were black.
And when films with female protagonists do get made, they tend to have smaller budgets and smaller distribution, according to Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, a site specializing in women in movies.
So now Sorkin appears to be finally aware that Hollywood simply doesn’t present as many opportunities to women and people of color. Better late than never?
Over the weekend, he said, “I do want to understand what someone like me can do. … But my thing has always been: ‘If you write it, they will come.’”