AARON SORKIN’S PRETEND FEMINISM
Last year when I wrote about the subtle misogyny in Queen’s Gambit, I drew attention to the fact that it was written and directed by a man. I did this not only because it made the project what it was, but because misogyny in Hollywood is alive and well. Female protagonists are a trend, and Hollywood follows trends to make profits, but the same white male screenwriters are often still writing female protagonists and BIPOC. This season, we have West Side Story, with Tony Kushner and Stephen Spielberg at the helm (I haven’t seen it, but hate that two white guys are leading this story) and we have Being the Ricardos with Aaron Sorkin’s always heavy intellectual hand.
I like to be fair, so there’s a can’t miss on how good a writer Aaron Sorkin is. His facility with language combines clever wit and rhythm with the lyrical. He also really knows how to lean into the liberal sweet spot; these two talents have made his career. He’s known for being very demanding about his words being said perfectly; his language and writing are always the star of anything he makes. This just isn’t enough any more, and probably never should have been.
Because you also can’t miss that he understands exactly zero about intimacy and women. And though he almost always includes an alcoholic character in his work, in Being the Ricardos he doesn’t understand the alcoholic marriage, either. He makes a point of showing both sides to the Ricardo marriage. He makes Lucille Ball proud of Desi Arnaz’s control of the business decisions (I had always understood Desi Arnaz to be a control freak undermining his wife’s career). Sorkin leans so hard on how great their partnership was that you almost want to say, hey, infidelity, what’s the big deal, Lucille? Let the guy have his fun. Culturally, he’s been taught he’s entitled, so build his ego, bow to his decisions because he’s great in every other way. He just lies, cheats, never spends time with you and feels emasculated by your genius. (I’m not even sold on monogamy, but I still think the relational perspective of this film is bullshit.)
Lucille Ball was a comic genius. The absolute best scenes are when she fixes the comedy and you get to see it. That’s bio information and it’s great. However, Sorkin’s pretend feminism shows up in the portrait of Lucille as brilliant (but controlling) and willing to do anything to hold onto her marriage (build Desi’s ego, make sure Desi is okay with her leadership) until she gets the truth about his affairs and then abruptly ends it. This is mixed with a superficial idea of how women support each other — Lucy’s treatment of other women is less than loyal, though she expects loyalty. She needs it explained to her how other women experience sexism. Her ambition and her caring about what’s funny are given explicit preference (implying her genius was value-free.) Lucille gets support and advice about Desi from a man, not the women. (And he represents Desi’s point-of-view, so a white guy gives the Latinx perspective.) However much this may be taken from the biography, the impression it creates it so muddied. Sorkin doesn’t know how women talk to each other or how they betray each other, so he can’t make us care about women’s friendships or ache for their failings. I ended up feeling that Lucille Ball had no real friends.
Sorkin also doesn’t seem to know how married couples with alcoholism and infidelity fight with each other. Lucy and Desi say the same things over and over again with no progression in stakes or understanding for the audience. This is a marriage that is ENDING. Between two people that scream, yell and have passionate sex. Sorkin tells us this — but do we see a screaming fight? More and more devolving into the darker side of intimacy and addiction? No. Lucille Ball just gets more and more needy. (Puke.) Sorkin’s lack of emotional intelligence and depth gets masked by intellectual dialogue about issues (the McCarthy hearings in particular). While this won our hearts in the very idealized West Wing, I am SO OVER IT.
Perhaps the worst line in the movie is, “A man dies a little inside when someone calls him old.” This line is spoken by William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) comparing his lot in life with that of Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda). Fake feminism in this case is a VERY kind way to express Sorkin’s world view. Leaning again into intellectual point/counterpoint, Sorkin is speaking through the character to say, hey, men don’t have it so great either. His SOUL dies a little when someone says he’s old. HIS SOUL.
Since male actors get an extra 20 years on their career over most female actors, comparing the ageism men face with sexism is privilege at its finest. Men’s feelings get hurt and that’s equal to women NOT BEING ABLE TO WORK. (The pay gap never gets covered in this movie but I could still add AND GETTING PAID LESS WHEN THEY DO.)
Beyond the superficiality of Sorkin’s world view and easy liberalism is the tone of the movie itself. It’s a drama about a comedy; that’s just super hard to pull off and ends up being weird. I kept expecting Nicole Kidman to be funny — she’s an excellent actor both dramatically and comedically — and mostly she wasn’t. It’s like the movie didn’t know what it wanted to be or even what its subject was. How the McCarthy hearings tore Hollywood apart? The dramatic marriage of the Ricardos that never explored the emotional drama? (Did Desi want Lucille to quit acting? Was he acting out? How did he feel that she’d fought for him to have an opportunity that racism prevented?) The making of the Lucille Ball show? Lucy’s career? All of these are covered superficially, but what I ended up with was a few facts about the Ricardos (mostly that I knew already, but painted with Sorkin’s very idealized brush), a reminder that Desi Arnaz faced racism (why does the movie open with Lucille Ball correcting his English and being racist and then make her the ultimate ally?) and some of info on how the show was made. Also, apparently, that women had it tough, but really not that tough and men had it tough, too, and we should really always see both sides.
Aaron, life is hard. Your comparisons are bullshit. Even your liberal sweet spot ideals are passe now. Grow a little, for Christsakes.
This isn’t a movie I’d recommend. The actors are great, but the material is so flawed it was really kind of blah, even without the sexism. And Sorkin painting the Ricardos as true partners with a slight problem of infidelity is so offensive.
The missed opportunity is in the innovation of interspersing the bio-pic scenes with the realization of the Ball’s comic genius. If it had truly been her movie, exploring her genius, it could have been incredible. I would also have loved to see the movie focus on the friendships between Lucille Ball and the other women — not idealized, but with an understanding of the time and how women supported (oh, the way straight white women support each other and then back-bite) each other and didn’t. Think of the work of Caryl Churchill or Fay Weldon with their biting criticism of women who become like men in their ambition.
I used to like Sorkin’s work because I was so hungry for writing about values and morality. In a country and culture that so often leans toward materialism and privilege, that has taught the world our pop culture and our fast food and fast life, I wanted a reminder of the fight for freedom and justice, so I forgave the terrible portrayals of women and relationships, the superficial inclusion of LGBTQ peeps and BIPOC. I was a white liberal whose radical leanings hadn’t yet exploded…but now the world has moved past Sorkin’s world view as I have, and it’s always good to remember that a superficial liberalism undermines any real change by asking nothing beyond a soft feel good (aren’t we caring because we disagree with injustice). Being the Ricardos is another example of this…and that when the successful white men who dominate in Hollywood write women and POC, they do it badly and superficially.