Let’s start with what we know. Aaron Sorkin writes to the liberal sweet spot. Morality tales of the good versus the ego-driven, the corrupt, the addicted. There’s always the “one good man,” who is somehow tortured, often by his father’s early treatment. (Think Jed Bartlett.) There is always a challenge to the integrity of this man. There are always supporting characters, many of whom are actually more moral than the protagonist. We on the left love these tales of trying to do right, the fight between our own best angels and worst demons. And when right triumphs…as it does, so often in Sorkin, as evil is paid back, sometimes in Sorkin, we rejoice and wish to live in this world.
What else do we know? Well, female protagonists are the rage. And Hollywood operates on trends, so this current trend may ride high and die rather than change anything, especially if men ride on and shape the trend.
We also know that Sorkin has never written a decent female protagonist, or a portrait of marriage or intimacy that resembles anything like, well, marriage or intimacy.
Enter Molly’s Game. Any intelligent writer is going to play to his strengths, so Sorkin chose a bio-pic in which this time it’s a good woman tortured by her relationship with a dominating father. He leaves the mother/daughter relationship almost completely alone, leaves the sisterhood and complexity of female relationships almost completely alone, and places his one good woman in the company of corrupt and addicted, even violent, men. His ability to probe her psyche is so limited that he resorts to two lazy writer crutches: constant use of voiceover and a psychiatrist father that gives his daughter a 3 minute session that changes her understanding of her life and her relationship with him.
Don’t get me wrong. Sorkin is writing to the same liberal sweet spot he always does, and we on the left are certainly tempted to take comfort in that, even if the FBI’s disregard of constitutional rights and the piggy-backing of the IRS on that disregard is nothing short of terrifying, considering the world in which we live. It’s a fast-paced (in spite of voiceover) movie. It’s not terrible. And it has Idris Elba, for whom I would seriously change teams, so there is that.
But let’s go beyond the usual liberal sweet spot into what’s truly disturbing about this movie and about Hollywood.
Men are writing female protagonists, and they are placing them in a male world, with little to no understanding of women’s lives. Molly Bloom–oh the irony of that name, given James Joyce’s fascination with a female character that never resulted in a true understanding of anything female–doesn’t reveal anything about women. She uses her wits, cunning and beauty to make a lot of money, but Sorkin doesn’t understand the cost of this, or the cost of the constant sexual offers, or the struggle to hold one’s own in this world. And then, when Molly gets beaten up, it’s not at all sexual. NOT. AT. ALL. The guy doesn’t even seem to get off on it. And you know, I just don’t believe that. Not in the world of “me, too.”
Molly’s Game is not a feminist movie. It foregrounds only one female character, and explores nothing about women’s lives, relationships (she doesn’t have a single boyfriend the 12 years the movie covers, let alone serious friendships with other women). How, then, can Sorkin still be the voice for the liberal sweet spot? His morality is getting a little boring for this viewer, and the use of voiceover to cover missing character development (including an addictive progression) is RIDICULOUS. Maybe we’re growing past what he has to offer.
Of course, Hollywood is not a place in which ideas like cultural appropriation really get air time. But this movie is gender appropriation, and the writer–and make no mistake, the writing is always the star in Sorkin, because it’s words, words, words, flying at you all the time, when the image could speak for itself if he’d let it–has been ridiculously lazy in his research about women, their lives, their psyches, how they feel and what they want. (Incidentally, there are courses on line on how to write a good female protagonist, and none of them challenge the idea that a one size fits all will never do what we need, which is to tell women’s stories in women’s voices and in artistic structures men haven’t invented.)
So my problem is this–while Molly’s Game isn’t a terrible movie in and of itself, it is, above all things, a hypocritical movie by a man with so much ego he glorifies his own writing in the use of voiceover and doesn’t do the intellectual work his own politics should require that he do. Because the liberal sweet spot should include feminism 101, shouldn’t it?
I know, I should be more tolerant, and the making of Wonder Woman (a woman surrounded by men after the first maybe 20 minutes…and, yes, written by a woman, but who cares), of the new Star Wars (best of the bunch, but still no real understanding), of the upcoming Ocean’s 8, must be steps toward something, right?
No. They are a danger. Men have written about women throughout history without understanding women…let alone queer women and women of color. Movies that offer women characters that are distorted by the male eye, or are men in women’s clothing (think Hemingway), are a false offering. For years I’ve read almost exclusively female, queer and authors of color in order to educate my own eye, and in order to not go feral crazy. I may take it upon myself to do the same with film. Because a film or tv series produced, written and directed by a woman about a woman tells a different story, comes from a different eye, and holds a much deeper understanding. Of the fact that women aren’t like men. (Oh, for the feminism of Fay Weldon and the UK, which is self-critical as well as critical of the patriarchy. Even Caryl Churchill writes about the wrong turn feminism makes when women think equality consists of being like men in a men’s world.)
Molly’s Game? Wait until it’s on Netflix if you’re hungry for the old Sorkin liberal sweet spot. And watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel now instead. It’s truly subversive in so many ways. And the writing’s better, the characters way deeper and more idiosynchratic. The morality is way more subtle and challenging. And it’s WRITTEN BY A WOMAN.
Sorry, Aaron. Grow more deeply into your obsessions and tell more of the truth. Like, write a main character who doesn’t understand women or intimacy, becomes aware of this, and learns to, and I’ll buy a ticket.