Acclaimed TV and Film writer Aaron Sorkin has won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, four Prime-Time Emmys (Emmies?), and pretty much every other award that is given to people who write things. He’s been in the film and television industry for decades as a show-runner, executive producer, film producer, soon to be a film director, and one funny cameo on 30 Rock. The bulk of his work has been on TV, where he’s overseen the writers rooms on four shows. Such credentials might indicate a hard-earned understanding of what it means to be a writer in Hollywood.
Well, that would be wrong. Over the weekend, Aaron Sorkin attended the Writers Guild Festival of the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood. And while he was there, Sorkin discovered, apparently for the first time, that women and people of color do not have equal opportunities to white male writers like himself.
According to Chelsea Battle at Variety, Sorkin asked the audience, with actual sincerity: “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 [white men] get to make mediocre movies and can continue on?”
Battle wrote that Sorkin was in “disbelief” at the notion of discrimination in film and television, and he “asserted that Hollywood is a genuine meritocracy and that he was unaware of Hollywood’s existing diversity problem.”
It’s tempting to make a ‘hey Sorkin! Did you know water is wet?’ joke here, but I cannot muster the humor. This admission from one of Hollywood’s favorite writers is stunning, almost to the point of disbelief.
Even the most cursory reflection on the creative involvement of the film and TV industry reveals a diversity problem. Anyone who consumes any level of news regarding that industry has read that Hollywood has a diversity problem. How does it happen that Aaron Sorkin can not know what is so obvious?
The answer seems to be that for men like Aaron Sorkin, there is no reason to know.
To look upon the landscape of film and TV industry contributors and to conclude that it is simply merit-based reveals just how insulated from reality it is possible to be if you are a rich, white, celebrated writer like Aaron Sorkin. The “You’re telling me…” question is the definition of white privilege.
And that insulation from reality is exactly the reason that Hollywood has a diversity problem. It could not possibly occur to Aaron Sorkin that he has benefited from a system that engages in preferential treatment of white men. Because successful white men in Hollywood have very little reason to tune their attention to the lives of others.
In the mind of Sorkin, apparently, Hollywood is a meritocracy, and he is better than the rest. That line of thinking gets ugly really quickly, if you spend a minute to put the two claims together. Claiming meritocracy for a system that prefers white men over women and people of color is a way to ensure that discrimination continues without any need to reflect upon the discrimination that created that system in the first place.
Sorkin has often written heroic white men who are brilliant, yet misunderstood by the plebeian masses that surround his heroes. That he has not thought about what it means to be in any other circumstance but his own is really not that surprising. His created worlds are liberal fantasy meritocracies, where the most intelligent (sounding) person is at the top, and that man’s need drives the value of everyone around him.
Wonder where Sorkin gets that idea?
To his credit, Sorkin did ask the audience how he could help fix this system, saying, “I do want to understand what someone like me can do … but my thing has always been: ‘If you write it, they will come.’ “