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Steve Jobs and the Triumph of the Work Wife

Aaron Sorkin’s new film unwittingly reveals how male and female workplace relationships have changed for the better.

Universal Pictures
“Why haven’t we slept together?” Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) asks his marketing director and confidante, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), before one of the dramatic product launches that frame the movie named for him. Joanna, without missing a beat, gives her reply: “Because I’m not in love with you.” Steve nods. They leave the matter at that.

In one sense, the exchange is classic Aaron Sorkin: snappy, revealing, fraught both despite and because of its nonchalance. It’s also a notably asexual discussion about sex: The CEO’s question to the woman the movie frames as his Marketing Director Friday isn’t a come-on, really; it’s simply an intellectual wondering. If relationships are operating systems, Steve wants to understand this one a little bit better. And Joanna, for her part, helps him to do that. The two haven’t slept together not just because she has decided against it, she suggests, but because sex was never a possibility in the first place. Because, though the two love each other, they’re not in love.

Which is another way of saying that Joanna, in Steve Jobs, is the work wife. In her, Sorkin has created a character who is, in many ways, Jobs’s equal—or, well, as equal as anyone could possibly hope to be to Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs. There is respect between them. There is partnership between them. But there is no sex.

Joanna is not, to be clear, a great cinematic figure. She is—like literally every other character in Steve Jobs, arguably including Jobs himself—an extremely eloquent stick figure. (The real Joanna Hoffman, who joined Apple as the fifth hire for Jobs’s beloved Macintosh team in 1980, was a relatively minor character in Steve Jobs, the Walter Isaacson book the movie was based on. Sorkin’s decision to amplify her role in Jobs’s life was based, it seems, on a desire for narrative impact more than a fealty to history.) We are never given an explanation for why she has Jobs’s ear in a way that other people—including Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak—don’t. We’re never told (or shown) her motivation for serving, at the low points as well as the high of his career, as Jobs’s “right-hand woman.”

Instead, Joanna exists, in Steve Jobs’s aggressively hermetic universe, mostly as a classic foil to the film’s eponymous inventor: She’s the yin to his yang, the human to his automaton. (“Do you want to try being reasonable,” she asks him, in an accent only mildly inflected with her native Polish, “just to see what it feels like?”) Joanna is there, in theater after theater, to remind Steve that he, too, is in possession of that classic Sorkenian preoccupation: “better angels.” She is there to reprimand and cajole him into some semblance of human decency. She is his Manic Pixie Moral Compass.

And yet. The flip side of being a foil is the fact that there’s a flip side at all. There’s an inherent equality to the tension between Steve and Joanna in all this, an inherent balance that blends Newtonian physics and that even older of things: human camaraderie. A big part of the equilibrium they maintain throughout the movie, through all the clashes and the inevitable compromises, stems from the very thing Joanna points out to Steve: Their relationship is, both implicitly and deliberately, platonic. Their defining tautology—they have not slept together because they would never sleep together—keeps them, as an operating system, stable.

It’s been a favorite pastime of critics—and an extremely legitimate one—to point out the sexist streaks of Sorkin’s work, a body partially populated with women who exist to be admired, to be accessorized, to be agents of absolution for men. It’s not that the members of Sorkin’s sisterhood aren’t, individually, compelling characters; the general problem is, instead, that their physics are off—these women orbit around men whose gravitational pull is greater than theirs could ever hope to be. Sydney in The American President, whose happy ending involves keeping her high-powered boyfriend at the expense of her high-powered job. Donna in The West Wing, an assistant who is great at her job, the show suggests, in part because of her fawnish crush on her assistee. Harriet in Studio 60. Dana in Sports Night. MacKenzie in The Newsroom. Pretty much every single woman in The Social Network.
There are explanations for that (the environmental fact, for example, that most of Sorkin’s works are set in male-dominated locations and institutions, whether they be the military or the West Wing or a Hollywood writer’s room). And there are notable exceptions to it, as well. Jo in A Few Good Men. Marylin in The Social Network. C.J. in The West Wing.
And Joanna is, in her way, another exception. She is, in Steve Jobs, neither absent nor accessorized. She is not melodramatic. She is not self-sacrificial. As the Right-Hand Woman to Jobs’s Great Man, she embodies the very thing that can be one of the most compelling aspects of Sorkin’s writing: his understanding of the delicate dynamics that make for effective creative partnerships. He seems fascinated, in particular, by vertical relationships—the president and the chief of staff, the news director and the anchor, the editor and the writer—made horizontal through the flattening forces of mutual respect. Andy Shepherd and A.J. MacInerney. Dan Rydell and Casey McCall. Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale. Josiah Bartlet and Leo McGarry. The West Wing introduced many Americans to the notion that the chief of staff can, when truly respected by the president, be the second-most powerful person in American politics. The Newsroom was an object lesson in the sausage-making that makes TV news what it is (and is not).
Joanna Hoffman is, for Steve Jobs, that powerful employee-equal. She is as much of a “trusted confidante” as his narcissism will allow. Which is significant—not just for Sorkin’s work, but for, in some sense, the moment Sorkin is writing for. It speaks to a time when women are gaining a semblance of equality in the workplace. (Sheryl Sandberg has explained the dearth of female executives in part by the fact that male executives resist mentoring younger women, preferring to focus on men not because they’re more promising, but because they present less of a risk of misunderstood intentions.) It speaks to a time when horizontal relationships are becoming increasingly normalized within offices. (The “collaborative workspace”!) It speaks to a time defined culturally by online dating, and by later-in-life marriages, and by the fact that many young people are choosing—or, more often, settling for—gigs over careers. A time when “the office” isn’t what it used to be. And a time when office relationships that extend beyond the platonic are the taboo more than they’re the norm.
Compare the Steve/Joanna relationship to the relationship between, say, Mad Men’s Don Draper and pretty much any of his secretaries. (Even with Peggy—the closest thing Don, or the show, had to a work wife—the show’s writers hinted at the possibility of sex between them.) That sexual tension was served, like so many straight-up martinis, around the office may have been an element of the aggressive historical irony the show specialized in, but the sex-at-work ethos neither started nor ended with Mad Men’s televised Madison Avenue. A healthy portion of the sitcoms and series that have been on TV in the last decades have indulged in office-set sexual tension, and indeed treated that tension as a premise of many of their melodramas. Moonlighting. Cheers. Grey’s Anatomy. And on and on. Will they or won’t they? we asked, breathlessly. That the “they” in question were co-workers was not, at the time, considered​ problematic.
The current crop of shows and movies—not exclusively, certainly, but noticeably—are rejecting that premise. They’re treating work, and the office it’s conducted in, instead as a kind of sacred space that offers refuge from the assorted dramas of family life. In place of Draperian dalliances, we’re getting the cross-generational camaraderie of Jules and Ben in The Intern. The frenemied machinations of Gretchen and Sam in You’re the Worst. Even the cutthroat craftsmanship of reality shows like Top Chef and Project Runway.
And also: the work-marriage of Steve Jobs. And we’re getting, through it, the logical extreme of the moment’s preoccupation with work-life balance: work that comes at the expense of family. Work that is, like a Mac or an iPod, pure in its design aesthetic. In his review, my colleague Chris Orr mentioned an especially strange omission in the film: For some of the later scenes, the scenes that followed Jobs’s unveiling of the iMac, the real-life Jobs was married. Not (just) work-married, but actually married. Steve Jobs no mention of that. Jobs’s marriage was, for Sorkin—another artist who appreciates the aesthetic power of simplicity—perhaps too inconvenient a detail. Families, Sorkin argues again and again, complicate things. Sex complicates things. Compromise complicates things. If you want to put a dent in the universe, Steve Jobs suggests, the best you can hope for is a partner who will understand all that—and who will offer loyalty, honesty, and,when it’s required, a good hammer.