What Aaron Sorkin, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey Learned From Their Internet Critics
Aaron Sorkin's acceptance speech at this weekend's Oscars ceremony ran long; long enough, in fact, for a listener to notice one of the oddest things about it. That is: Sorkin, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for his Social Network script, shared some of the credit for his award. He ran through the thank-yous, both expected and unexpected; he thanked director David Fincher, he thanked star Jesse Eisenberg, he thanked his researcher and his assistant and his press representative. But he also included the following: "This [screenplay] is an adaptation of a book by Ben Mezrich, so I'm accepting this on his behalf as well." Which, if you have been paying close attention to the story of Aaron Sorkin, seems to show that he has perhaps learned something from the Internet in the past 10 years.
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The Social Network is the story of Mark Zuckerberg, who took to the Internet with a dynamite idea and was promptly accused of stealing it. Ten years ago, when Sorkin was running The West Wing, he found himself embroiled in a controversy of its own, also revolving around accusations that he had taken undue credit for others' work. It could have been minor: Sorkin, who claimed that he wrote every episode of The West Wing himself, didn't mention his co-writerhref> Rick Cleveland when he accepted an Emmy for the episode "In Excelsis Deo" in 2000 (Cleveland was standing directly behind him at the time). Sorkin, unfortunately, managed to throw gasoline on the fire by openly attacking Cleveland on the West Wing forums at Television Without Pity. Fans accused Sorkin spotlight-hogging, credit-stealing, callousness; Sorkin responded by claiming that Rick Cleveland had done no actual work on the episode, and that Sorkin had written the entire story and script himself. Which didn't exactly help him, given that the episode was in fact based on the death of Cleveland's father.
Things got ugly. Cleveland responded. Sorkin apologized, and swore not to post on the website any more. This is when Sorkin, Internet casualty, became a digital innovator himself: He was the first person in history to write an hour-long television episode about a man who is offended by an Internet message board. "The U.S. Poet Laureate," which aired in March 2002, played like a blow-by-blow re-enactment of Sorkin's history with the TWoP forums: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman discovers a message board dedicated to his policy and general dreaminess (well, the character was basedhref> on Rahm Emanuelhref>). Josh is shocked to find that this message board is not entirely composed of praise. He posts a "correction," and the other users call him arrogant. He then posts a series of increasingly unhinged and unprofessional messages, which end abruptly when a colleague tells him someone will be assigned the task of making sure he doesn't post on the site ever again. The story's close adherence to the Sorkin's history made the characters' remarks about the mentally unstable, muu-muu wearing, chain-smoking losers who read or worked on such sites all the more vicious.
Today, this sort of thing happens all the time. It's part of the fun of being a television fan; nothing is as interesting as those moments when the writer-to-viewer relationship goes sour. The Internet is full of harsh criticism; no public person can avoid it. But when a show's creator choose to address his critics—whether it's done generously or spitefully, with a wink or with brass knuckles—it seems to show more about the underlying process of the creator than anything else.
Consider the approach taken by a fellow progressive icon, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, when Jezebel writer Irin Carmon criticizedhref> his show for its low number of female cast members and writers, and the questionable credentials of new hire Olivia Munn. Just as Sorkin's wordy, defensive self-righteousness was undeniably Sorkinesque, Stewart's approach was pure Stewart: "Jezebel thinks I'm a sexist prickhref>," Stewart moaned, and that was that.
Unlike Sorkin, he didn't engage his critics on their turf. He also didn't address their criticism. Stewart's massively likable persona is a key part of The Daily Show. We roll our eyes in sympathy when he moans, get angry when he rants; liberals are used to considering his enemies our own, because they often are. So if Jon Stewart seems hurt by the accusation of "sexism," what else is there to say? The Internet hurt his feelings. The Internet must be wrong.
In that moment, Stewart's power was exposed as primarily emotional, not argumentative. If you were a left-wing viewer who tended to agree that there should be more women on the show, it was possible to see—just for a second—exactly why conservatives disliked him so much. When he manipulated the audience to boo your issues, his charm rang hollow.
Both The West Wing and The Daily Show are fundamentally political, didactic shows. They both make a big deal out of compassion. It's strange, then, that Tina Fey's 30 Rock—which is a detached, cerebral show, more interested in punchlines than in messages or morals—managed to deal with its critics more generously and thoughtfully than either one.
The most recent episode, "TGS Hates Women," was a whirlwhind of allusions and shifting loyalties. Liz Lemon discovers a post on feminist blog JoanofSnark.com (a pitch-perfect parody of Jezebel) alleging that her sketch comedy show "hates women" (cue montage of jokes about how periods make women bad at their jobs, all written by Liz), and is dismayed. She then hires a comic endorsed by JoanofSnark—baby-voiced cleavage bomb Abby Flynn—and detests her. And from there the episode is just women debating how to be a woman, and whether women inevitably hate each other, from every possible angle.
The episode managed to mock both Jezebel's Daily Show post and the idea of hiring Abby Flynn for her "energy"—which directly reinforced Carmon's points about hiring frequently bikini-clad Olivia Munn as a Daily Show correspondent. It seemed to slap back at last year's "Tina Fey Backlashhref>," in which several feminist bloggers (of which I was one) criticized Liz Lemon and/or Tina Fey for their narrow, judgmental vision of feminism. But then it implied that Liz Lemon's version of feminism might indeed be narrow, judgmental, and hurtful to women who are not Liz Lemon. At times, it seemed to be backing Emily Gould's critiquehref> of Jezebel and/or feminism as an outlet for politically approved female jealousy of conventionally pretty women. At other times, it seemed to be crying out for young women to stop relying on their looks and start cultivating their talents. Any philosophy the show seemed to embrace, it later contradicted. The only certainty was confusion. "Perhaps correct; definitely exhausting," ran the tagline for JoanofSnark. This could also stand as an apt review of the episode.
The show took every possible side, but it took them all seriously. As a Fey critic, I cringed when Liz Lemon mentioned reading a "really cool feminist blog." I was anticipating punishment. What I got was a startlingly accurate take on my side of the argument, and an exceedingly smart refutation of it. By the second viewing of the episode, what I focused on was the fact that Liz Lemon called a feminist blog "really cool." What I noticed were the opening lines of the episode: "Wonderful news, non-famouses! I made the Internet!" Internet critics are no longer muu-muu clad denizens of a freakish underworld; they're simply part of being A Famous, for good or ill.
And so, we come again to the heart-warming tale of Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin. When The Social Network was released, the Internet accused him of sexism. This is a charge that has dogged Sorkin since his West Wing days. Last time around, he went on another message-board offensive,href> telling people not to watch the show anymore if they didn't appreciate his gender politics. This time, he was thoughtful: "You have to understandhref> that that was the very specific world I was writing about... I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people." His vehicle for leaving the message? A blog comment, of course. Some things never change.