Brow Beat

Aaron Sorkin Shocked to Discover Hollywood Might Not Be a Gender- and Race-Blind Meritocracy

Sorkin at the Academy Awards in 2011, where he won for Best Adapted Screenplay, a category in which nominees that year were 80 percent male and 100 percent white.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

In a scene that could have come straight from an Aaron Sorkin script, a middle-aged white guy had a revelation onstage at a Q&A on Saturday. The name of that middle-aged white guy? Aaron Sorkin. According to Variety, Sorkin—appearing at the Writers Guild Festival at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Los Angeles—was shocked, shocked to discover that Hollywood has a problem with diversity. The Academy Award–winning screenwriter behind The Newsroom reportedly reacted with disbelief when asked about the challenges women and people of color face in the film industry.

“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?” the creator of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip asked the audience, apparently rhetorically. He then went on to claim ignorance of Hollywood’s diversity problem, and it seems the word meritocracy was used, since moderator Elvis Mitchell suggested he’d confused the word with meretricious. “You’re saying that if you’re a woman or person of color, you have to hit it out of the park in order to have another chance?” Sorkin later added.

The answer to both of his questions, incidentally, is a resounding yes. Will McAvoy on Sorkin’s The Newsroom was fond of spouting statistics at Q&A’s, so here are a few. The most recent study from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that in the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2016, only 13 percent of the screenwriters and 7 percent of the directors were women. Meanwhile, another study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that, for a representative sample of 109 films and 305 TV shows from 2014, only 12.7 percent of film directors were nonwhite, with similar numbers for broadcast, cable, and streaming televison. Another Annenberg study found that, yes, women directors get fewer opportunities to make big films—about one per decade for the top-grossing female directors. And it’s not exactly a secret that women and people of color are less likely to get hired to make a second film, so much so that the Sundance Institute has an entire program devoted to supporting second-time filmmakers, especially women and minorities. Sorkin might have heard of these issues, because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looked into the matter in 2015 and is reportedly in settlement talks with the studios over the glaring inequality.

So how did Aaron Sorkin—ostensibly more keyed in to Hollywood than the average person who hasn’t been working in film and television since the early 1990s—miss the issue? There are two possibilities, neither of which is particularly flattering: Either Sorkin genuinely believed until Saturday that the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male industry he works in is the product of a true meritocracy, and women and people of color are just worse at making movies, or, as MTV News’ Molly Lambert suggested on Twitter, it’s advantageous for him to ignore what’s right in front of his face.

Variety describes Sorkin as being “genuinely troubled by his lack of awareness,” noting that he asked the audience, “What can I do [to help?] … my thing has always been, ‘if you write it, they will come.’ ” Will the newly radicalized Sorkin set off on a “mission to civilize” Hollywood, now that he’s learned that it’s not the greatest industry in the world? While we wait, breathlessly, to find out, here’s the opening scene of The Newsroom: