“Well, it’s complicated for a lot of reasons”
This is a phrase uttered by Don Keefer, a cable producer and one of the stars of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, regarding a certain rape incident at a University. After watching the controversial penultimate episode for the series “Oh Shenandoah”, I’m not sure he truly understands the complexity of the situation or rape in general. In fact, it seems as if he’s driven by the goal of simplifying it as much as possible to follow a moral guideline that does not really apply to the issue presented here. The issue being the fact that a woman was raped at her university by two men after being heavily intoxicated, and in retaliation (and after effectively being ignored by the police) she created a website for others like her to anonymously post about their sexual assault experiences and accuse their attackers. Don’s news corporation (ACN) would like for him to track Mary (the rape victim) down and invite her onto one of their shows for a joint interview between her and one of the men she is accusing. Don, due to his reservations about the nature of this hypothetical joint interview, tracks down Mary and does everything he can to convince her not to go through with it only to fail; but he ends up stopping it from happening anyways when he lies about being unable to find her to his furious superiors. This series of events, the portrayal of Don, and the execution of the story itself is problematic for a number of reasons, but I feel those reasons got lost in a barrage of righteous indignation that came about in response to the writing.
The controversy surrounding this episode is coloured by the perception so many people have on Sorkin, and that perception is that he is a sexist man that writes about great men who condescend to naive women. Given his choice words on and off the set, that is not an unfounded position to have, but because of this, opinions of this episode are skewed. Instead of actually analyzing what is being said, most have decided to be moral gatekeepers and classified this episode as another in a long line of Sorkin “mansplaining” to women, but this time on rape. As a result, the message received by so many was that Sorkin was saying the words of a rapist mattered more than the words of a victimized woman for no reason other than women should just shut up and let men handle important things. The problem with that argument is that it supposes Aaron Sorkin is an idiot, when it is far more likely that he simply has a flawed perspective. That flawed outlook comes from a massive case of false equivalency with this case (and many others regarding rape).
Sorkin himself was the writer for this episode, so people are even more infuriated with the arguments used by Don in his attempt to dissuade Mary from agreeing to a joint interview with her alleged rapist (which came off as incredibly condescending); however, people should also consider that Sorkin also wrote the rebuttals to those arguments for Mary, and while he flounders in the end by clearly painting her “in the wrong” with her naive line about how she could “win this time”, he does discuss a very important aspect of rape stories that often go untouched. Through Mary, Sorkin discusses the irrational fear men have about rape accusations which causes officers to ignore victim testimony, which leaves rape kits unused, which has Don himself reluctant to interview Mary in a private location, and which often leads to many rapists walking free. Interestingly, Mary ties this fear to the insecurity many men have about women and the horrifying thoughts that often cross their minds. Men who merely think about sexually assaulting women are more likely to be empathetic to men who are accused of doing so because being accused of that very thing is something that terrifies them whenever they find themselves debating with themselves if it would be okay to take advantage of a clearly impaired woman. The fact that Sorkin brought up the idea that rapists receive protection from empathy that comes from an ugly and cowardice place tells me he understands more about this issue than most give him credit for. Where everything falls apart is with a separate plotline that occurs within the episode which leads to the false equivalence that ultimately destroys the credibility of his argument.
Within another plotline, ACN reporter Sloan Sabbath interviews a man in charge of an app that provides the locations to celebrities and allows users to comment on their actions. Disguised as a journalism app, it’s really a tool used to stalk people meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator. What’s worse is that the information is not fact checked and is often incorrect. Because the lowest common denominator are the people the app was meant to appeal to, its output is faulty and needlessly damaging to most parties involved. When Sloan eviscerates the man behind the app on live television, it appears as though Don is inspired to take action and lie to his superiors about being unable to find Mary for the planned joint interview. The implication is that to Don, an app that provides unchecked information about celebrities and their locations is no different from a website that allows people to accuse individuals of rape without process, which Don reasons could be used for malicious false accusations. At its core, this episode mostly speaks against media sensationalism and the desperate attempts being made to appeal to the dreaded “younger generation” (the joint interview was meant to appeal to young people in the first place). The main perspective that is advertised in this case is “innocent until proven guilty”, which is a maxim Don claims forces him to believe the words of a person who he admits to being “sketchy” and has “every reason to lie”. Don is portrayed as another of Sorkin’s “great men” who refuses to be blinded by the light of circumstances and vows to give the accused rapists a fair chance, just like with any other crime. But rape is not just any other crime.
The problematic false equivalence comes in the form of how Sorkin sees the relationship between perpetrator and suspect in the case of rape. Under Sorkin’s logic, Don is right to deny Mary her chance to tell her story on TV because her website is blindly destructive, and rape is a crime that should go through the same processes as any other. Rape unfortunately is already far beyond that. Rape absolutely must be treated differently because of its very nature, and because of the assumptions that come with it. If someone punches you in the gut and steals your wallet, no police officer is ever going to ask if you were intoxicated at the time, or ask if you were “absolutely sure you didn’t agree to something like that”, or if you are remembering things correctly; and no bystander is ever going to make a snide remark about the amount of clothing you were wearing at the time of the crime. Victim doubting and blaming on the level of rape cases, the social stigma associated with rape, and the emotionally charged nature of it make it impossible to equate it with other crimes. When victims of ipod theft are given more time and respect than people who are physically violated in the worst way (a subject Sorkin touches on in this very same episode), it’s intellectually dishonest to be arguing from a place of criminal and legal equality. You just cannot do that with rape, so when Don decides on taking away the victims agency by deciding for her on how she wants to tell her story, it’s incredibly wrongheaded. It’s her story, it’s her battle, no one else should be able to decide for her how she goes about fighting it. The last thing you want to do with a rape storyline is to remove agency from the victim of it.
“Oh Shenandoah”is an episode of The Newsroom that boldly faces the bitter reality of rape, but gets lost when it becomes part of the problem it presented. It acknowledges that rape is a complex issue, but it fails to understand the full depth of that complexity and as a result it takes this sophomoric “innocent until proven guilty” stance that is insultingly simplistic in the way it is presented. The questions of whose word should be treated with more weight in rape cases and if a site like the one Mary created to combat rapists is ethical or not, are serious points of discussion that require some deep thought, not some condescending explanation on what due process is. It’s no wonder so many of the criticisms on the episode are so unfocused, its frustrating in its naivety. In the end, it’s almost fitting that the outrage coming from the cluelessness displayed here (due to Sorkin’s inability to see the larger picture) is reminiscent of the way he often writes his female characters.