What does it say about Aaron Sorkin and writer Mandy Stadtmiller that when he called her “a brilliant and funny woman in the body of an idiot,” she had no apparent objection? Nothing much worse than what Sorkin and Stadtmiller will readily say about themselves, whether in lightly fictionalized or Internet confessional form.
Here’s the story, as recounted by Stadtmiller in a chatty, self-deprecating piece on xoJane: As a New York Post gossip writer, she slipped her card to the screenwriter at a 2010 Harvard Club event for his film "The Social Network." He emailed her before she left the party, and on one of their couple of dates, he was horrified to discover she was planning a “takedown piece” on a Real Housewife. If you’ve seen "The Newsroom," you know where this ends – with Hope Davis playing a gossip columnist whom Sorkin carefully described to Stadtmiller as “‘Bad Mandy’ (as opposed to real Mandy).”
What initially telegraphs as a, well, Sorkin “takedown piece," unspools as something more. “Gee, come to think of it, revealing completely private conversations I really don't have any right whatsoever to reveal is pretty ... wow. Self-fulfilling. I am being Bad Mandy,” Stadtmiller writes, but then adds, “But, you know. The Internet. Besides, if someone uses me in his writing, doesn't it seem fair that I use him in my own?”
It’s a fair point. She describes their relationship as fairly transactional from the start – she has twice asked him about her writing for "The Newsroom" – and he was charmingly transparent (according to emails she shares in the piece) about using her as a character. On the one hand, it’s generally creepy to publish personal correspondence without stated mutual consent, and Sorkin, unlike Stadtmiller, didn’t publicly name names; on the other hand, his side of the deal involves far more money, visibility and public affirmation.
Mostly, I was struck, reading Stadtmiller’s piece and emails, how both correspondents are jocularly, verbosely self-aware about their limitations. “I got preachy and condescending (so unusual for me),” Sorkin writes in his email about the moment that inspired the gossip columnist character. He recently insisted that the protagonist of "The Newsroom," who is preachy and condescending, is not based on himself, and that we are supposed to know said protagonist is not a hero because “we present Will’s mission to civilize as something, first of all, that people roll their eyes at, and second, that always blows up in his face. Hubris on this show is always punished.” It’s debatable whether that’s true of the show generally, though in this specific incident, Davis’ character throws her drink at the jerk.
In real life, Sorkin says, “instead of being insulted, defensive or telling me to go fuck myself, [Stadtmiller] said that you understood completely but that it was your job.” And Sorkin is a sought-after writer who is probably getting a card slipped to him by someone young and attractive this very minute, moralistic lecturing TK.
But Stadtmiller, whose chosen platform rewards brutal honesty, even self-immolation, does him one better on that particular front. She calls herself “a preening sycophant” and “a big gnarly faker. I get rewarded for it, obviously. I get raises. And dates. With powerful men. But it's gross. I am a gross person who is fake when I am fake.” Having preempted the worst and seemingly accurate criticism of her, she’s rewarded with adulatory sympathy in the comments. (“Didn’t we all come hear to read real things written by real people who REALLY OWN THEIR SHIT?”)
In any case, this is the pinnacle of educated, impotent narcissism: Knowing and narrating in precise terms your foibles, then doing basically nothing about it. Sure, flaws are a baseline for more entertaining copy, but when you're basically recasting your personal life again and again, it has its limits. "The Newsroom" has been occasion to see how in Sorkin’s work, doing the same thing again and again doesn’t make for particularly interesting viewing.