Sunday, December 14, 2014

Criticism of The Newsroom... and the sexual assault conversation we can't have.

In his 1993 essay, E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, David Foster Wallace riffed on the futility of TV criticism. Simplified, his assertion was that no longer does anyone view a TV show and either enjoy it or not enjoy it. Instead, we "metawatch": we're watching ourselves watch. We have become conscious of what our entertainment choices say about us, so in effect we consciously decide what to like, as opposed to letting what we viscerally enjoy drive our choices.

The critical revolt against Aaron Sorkin and the penultimate episode of The Newsroom was swift and near-unanimous. But the degree of anger directed at a single episode of a television series feels outsized. Even if the criticisms are 100% valid... does it warrant this degree of righteous indignation? 

When you filter the critical response through the lens of Wallace's "metawatching", however, the response begins to make more sense, because Sorkin forced upon the viewer a conversation about sexual assault that no one, in any corner of the public discourse, wants to have. 

Acknowledging that the episode's story arc featuring Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) trying to talk a rape victim (Sarah Sutherland) out of going on TV may have even provoked thought means crossing an ideological Rubicon that no one is interested in stepping across willingly. Sorkin pushing that button and sneaking this conversation on us set off a wave of fury among generally-liberal Sorkinites and critics alike.

In the episode, Keefer, a news producer, is sent by his network to invite Mary, a college rape victim, to confront her alleged rapist on TV. The reason Mary is being invited is because she has started a website for anonymous rape victims to name those who assaulted them.

Don badly wants her not to do it, as he knows that the audience will tear her apart. Rather than finding the justice she seeks, she'll only be violated again.

What ensues is a debate between Don and Mary over the wisdom of her appearing on TV after the system did not give her justice, and the ethics of a website that can easily be used for revenge by anyone with a grudge - with risk-free anonymity.

From Don and Mary, we get a blunt, honest discussion of the difficulties rape victims face in seeking justice, and the ugliness they face if they take that fight public.  

The critical backlash against this story arc was pronounced.

Libby Hill, in her review for the A.V. Club, castigates Sorkin...
Sorkin thinks that women need protecting, especially if they have a target on their back. What he fails to realize is that every woman has a target on her back.
Hill objects to men thinking women need protecting... after spending the first half of her piece railing on how the system is not adequately protecting women!

Eric Thurm's review for Grantland is similarly indicative of the critical response. Thurm writes...

Others will write more in-depth about the reasons this story — in which Don attempts to convince a rape victim at Princeton not to go on the air and confront her rapist — is grotesque and anti-feminist. Suffice it to say that a middle-aged white man telling a collegiate rape victim how best to go about responding to her rape, without even actually having the young woman in the room, is atrocious. For all of Sorkin’s attempts to soft-pedal what he’s doing here — having Charlie yell that there’s an “epidemic” of collegiate sexual assault, and having Don repeatedly claim that he has the victim’s best interests at heart — there is just no way this could have worked. Sorkin’s dialogue is too artificial and singular to address real, emotional trauma, or to allow a victim room to have her voice be heard. 

"Grotesque".  "Anti-feminist." There is so much embedded in this passage.

For starters... we're calling Don "middle-aged"?  Sadoski is 38, and while his age is never overtly revealed in the show, his stylish dress and career path suggest he may be even younger, and at very least is not older. Characterizing Don as "middle aged" suggests Thurm is either seeing what he ideologically wants to see in Don, or is creating a straw man to validate a critical narrative. I'll give him credit for the former.

And viewing Don as merely an older man lecturing a young female rape victim on how to best pursue justice is unfair to Sorkin. Don is a skilled TV producer giving Mary an honest appraisal of what will happen when she appears on the show. Is he supposed to lie to her?

The number of sexual assault victims who see their cases never even make it to trial because a prosecutor tells them that they can't get a conviction is very much like the grim appraisal Don is giving Mary. Prosecutors often bear the brunt of our anger for the same reason Don takes it here: calling a difficult reality "grotesque" is far trickier than just slapping the label on a person.

The central value of our justice system is the "reasonable doubt" standard - the notion that it is better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted.

Of course, these numbers do not play out for any other crime. But the tragic truth is that these numbers DO play out for sexual assault, for the simple reason that in many if not most rapes, there is no physical evidence that will establish that sex was not consensual. Most rapes do come down to "he said/she said". 

Don believes Mary. Indeed, we all watch the scene unfold and believe Mary, so we feel what she feels when Don is just another person with power who will not help her find the justice she needs. 

Disturbingly - but unsurprisingly - viewer rage here is directed at Don (and Sorkin) because we still don't want to confront the reality that a reasonable doubt standard is going let the vast majority of rapists go free. We find Mary credible, just as we find most rape victims credible. But we can't do anything about it most the time.

So we shoot the messenger.

Thurm throws "anti-feminist" into the discussion, and this, too, is something we should explore. 

Ideology is important to the Wallace "metawatching" effect here. Todd VanDerWerff's review on read much like Thurm's Grantland piece...
Sorkin is a diehard liberal, but one with a conservative view of society. He wants freedom and equality for all, but do we have to agitate for it?

Wallace would point out that VanDerWerff is clearly aware of the ideological position that Sorkin has injected into the discourse, and thus is vetting the storyline for its author's ideology. Or, more to the point, VanDerWerff is searching for an ideological foundation for explaining away Sorkin's position.  

(To his credit, VanDerWerff was more willing to acknowledge the validity of even having the discussion than most other critics.)

"Anti-feminist", as Thurm called the story arc, implies a degree of misogyny on Sorkin's part. I would guess that this is what Thurm intended to convey here. However, the literal meaning of the term is probably more appropriate, as Sorkin's voice in the story arc does, indeed, stand opposed to the position of many feminists.

Many of the radical feminists in the blogosphere - think Amanda Marcotte, Kaili Joy Gray, and their ilk - approach any rape claim with the presumption of guilt. And in fairness to them, they aren't a part of the justice system. They are advocates. That's the role they choose to play.

However, in their shrill proclamations about "rape culture" and denouncement of anyone, be it a proscutor or Don Keefer, who delivers the ugly news on the prospects for justice, feminists make clear (without saying it in so many words) that they wish to cast aside the reasonable doubt standard for rape beacause of its inadequacy in achieving justice. They want an accusation to more or less be enough.

So what does Sorkin do? He puts the issue right there on the table, and forces those who share feminist ideology to stop dancing around what they want to say but know they can't.

Don confronts Mary with the likelihood that her website will be used as a weapon against innocent people, and amazingly, Mary comes right out and says: "I have weighed the cost-benefit."

Mary is willing to accept some innocents being taken down as collateral damage in the effort to scare college men out of committing sexual assault.

And Mary is allowed to feel this way. After all, she is a victim. But as Don points out to her: no matter how much he believes her (as we all do as we watch the story unfold)... he's not allowed to feel that way. Nor is the justice system.

A rape victim can say: I am OK if a few guilty men get taken down if we can get more of the guilty.

And in fiction, this conversation can be had openly.

But can you imagine someone like Marcotte or Gray - or an elected policy-maker - making such a statement on CNN? They cleary feel that way. But they know it's wrong, and know they can't say it.

Sorkin put the issue front and center and said: sorry, we're going to talk about this.

VanDerWerff believes that Sorkin is not letting the complexity of the issue speak for itself.  In fact, the opposite is true: he lets us see the entire debate - albeit in the voices of two characters who are probably both too eloquent to be fully believed. But while Don has to make a decision - there IS a plot here, after all - we get to see an evenly-matched tug-of-war between Don's (some would say cold) pragmatism and Mary's impassioned quest for justice and safety.

Many viewers, in their heart of hearts, are angry that Don was probably right, even if a good guy had to wear a black hat to settle this round.

Uncomfortable with what this would say about us, we rage against where Sorkin took us rather then acknowledge and confront an issue that may be morally unambiguous but is, in practical terms, a giant conundrum.

Anti-feminist? Absolutely. But let's not mistake feminism's righteousness with feminism always being right.

Those who were made very uncomfortable with last week's episode of The Newswoom:  you're right to be angry.

Just be angry at the right things.

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