The Newsroom: “Oh Shenandoah”

The Newsroom: “Oh Shenandoah”

Oh brother

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Thomas Sadoski
Thomas Sadoski
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The Newsroom

"Oh Shenandoah"

Season 3 , Episode 5

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Just over a year ago, a press conference took place announcing that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was being cleared of the sexual assault charges levied against him. The press conference itself was strangely celebratory, considering it was not convened by Winston or his attorneys. Though cleared of legal ramification, Winston continues to defend himself against these claims in civil court and through his university. Florida State is currently conducting a hearing to determine whether or not Winston’s actions violated the school’s code of conduct. Throughout these events, Winston’s lawyer, who has categorized the proceedings as “a shakedown,” has insisted on repeatedly tweeting the name of Winston’s accuser, each time putting her in the direct line of fire for people with passionate feelings about sports, women, and rape. This week, Winston also called being accused of rape as vicious a crime as rape.

Nine days after the original press conference, Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy. He remains the top quarterback candidate for the 2015 NFL draft. Though he may not graduate from Florida State, he will persevere.

His accuser is still seeking justice. Her path forward in life is unclear, but what’s certain is that she’ll spend the rest of her life branded with a scarlet “A” upon her breast: Accuser.

That’s the word splashed across headlines all week. There are dozens of accusers coming forward to break their silence about what they say Bill Cosby did to them. Rolling Stone tried to coerce an accuser in a collegiate rape scandal into telling her story, before hanging her out to dry when their methods were questioned and discrepancies alleged. Currently, that woman is having her identity revealed and her personal information spread across the Internet for daring to accuse. The burden of proof has shifted, and suddenly, the issue is not about if someone was raped, but rather about whether or not that person has any right to accuse someone of raping them. There are arbitrary limitations placed on such things. Has too much time passed? Were the police called immediately? Did they fight? Did they scream? Why didn’t they bite? Were there witnesses? What were they wearing? What were they drinking? What were they saying? What was their sexual history? What exactly could they have done to stop someone else from violating them? And, more importantly, why didn’t they do it?

In a country with hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits languishing in evidence lockers, there is no true justice for victims of sexual assault. Even Aaron Sorkin knows that. He said as much in this week’s episode of The Newsroom. He’s sorry that rape victims aren’t given their due by police or campus authorities or district attorneys. But since they aren’t, he’d really prefer they shut up about it.

At least that’s the conclusion one draws from an episode that features Don meeting with a rape victim (rape accuser) Mary and telling her that her grassroots website, built so that victims of both sexual assault and institutional neglect can trade information and construct a safer world for each other, was really no different from pornography fueled entirely by jealous exes seeking revenge. And that, because there was the potential for someone to misuse said website, she shouldn’t encourage such behavior. You can’t get justice from the courts. You shouldn’t get justice from the court of public opinion. As such, please stop talking.

The problem with rape is ultimately that no one can ever truly prove something that comes down to, “he said/she said.” Because of that, because Don is a journalist and feels a moral imperative to abide by “innocent until proven guilty” and despite him admitting that the other party was sketchy and had everything to hide, he has to believe him in the face of Mary’s accusations. He has to believe him. A woman saying “No,” and getting raped means less than a man saying, “No, I didn’t rape her.” Don goes on to say that the boys could be punished too, with a lack of future prospects, thanks to online accusations. Losing entrance to Stanford Medical or the interest of NFL scouts because Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand that the NFL only cares about someone assaulting a woman if it’s caught on tape and, even then, not until that tape is leaked to the public.

Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand who the victim is. He doesn’t understand how empathy works. And he, as a rich, powerful, white man in the United States, doesn’t understand that he is among the most privileged people in the world. “Oh Shenandoah” tries to assuage our ill-feelings about rape by rampantly defending the rights of famous people from paparazzi, because the complaints of Erin Andrews demand to be heard and validated. This wouldn’t be so troubling if we hadn’t just seen an anonymous college student tracked to her dorm room through rudimentary journalistic stalking and questioned about her rape before being told she shouldn’t tell the world who violated her. Sorkin thinks that women need protecting, especially if they have a target on their back. What he fails to realize is that every woman has a target on her back.

Or maybe he does realize that, and that’s how he justifies his ever-present idea that women need to be saved from themselves by men who know better. Maybe that’s why, ultimately, Don reports back to Charlie that he wasn’t able to find the college student, undermining her willingness, nay, anticipation at being able to have her voice heard. No, Don thought that wasn’t a good idea, and that she was only opening herself up for more hurt, so he took it upon himself to opt out for her, regardless of what she wanted.

That wasn’t for Don to decide anymore than it’s for Jameis Winston’s lawyer to decide or a random Internet troll to decide. If a woman wants to face off against her attackers, that’s her choice. And if she chooses to try and retain some privacy, that’s her choice, too. Mary wanted to tell her story. Don thought it unwise. By undermining her decision, the storyline devolves into just another example of The Newsroom having a man determine the moral absolute at the cost of a woman’s agency.

It’s this casual dehumanization that runs throughout “Oh Shenandoah” that really ensures that the episode is one of the worst episodes of television in recent memory. From the indifferent acknowledgement that Will McAvoy really does look down his nose at those of a lower class than him, to Sloan’s off-hand realization that she hasn’t given the new tech guy a chance in the wake of Neal’s absence which she promptly uses as as a setup to embarrass him publicly to the shallowly opportunistic Russian newlyweds who demand the clothes from a man’s back because money and travel weren’t enough. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t believe that basic humanity is a given. He thinks it’s something that’s earned on your paycheck and subsequently doled out to you by your betters.

Maybe humanity isn’t absolute, but Aaron Sorkin is a man who has built his entire career on characters who are fundamentally right and true in the face of an untrue world, while perpetually glossing over the ways in which they are just as flawed and shitty as the rest of us. The fact that he does so while paying lip service to their shittiness is even more egregious. There is no room for nuance. No room for complexity. There is only Aaron Sorkin’s truth and your decision to be with him or against him.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome to stray observations, where we get a chance to talk about the other five plot lines mashed into that complete shitstorm of an episode.
  • Oh, good, Will has a ghost dad hanging out with him in jail. How fun and not at all laughable. It is definitely not a ridiculous premise made worse by being jammed in an already overstuffed episode.
  • Oh, great, Maggie and Jim are trapped in the most romantic place in the world, the Moscow airport, supposedly to track Edward Snowden but more likely just to fall in love as the sad little puppet characters they are. Jim is still awful. Maggie is still easily swayed by Jim, who is awful. They kiss, and the waves of revulsion, they are suffocating.
  • Sloan got an opportunity to be crafty and awesome this episode but for the shittiest reasons possible. This renegade do-gooder stuff is very inspiring. If only the characters were so inspired to protect people outside of the 1 percent. But it was really cool for her to shame someone who was actually making money for the company by throwing how much (little) he made in his face.
  • Don. Ugh. Don.
  • The informant blew her brains out on the steps of the Justice Department but whatever about her, we’re really just happy that this means Will can come home! Yay Will!
  • And Charlie, poor Charlie. Charlie is the first person in the history of the universe that when people say, “He’s in a better place,” it’s actually true, only because he’s free of the garbage fire that is this show.
  • What is with the terrible music to end the last two episodes? Song choice, good. Artist choice, so very bad.
  • This is how I assume Aaron Sorkin feels about the Internet.