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Aaron Sorkin’s America: Politics, Trauma, and the Liberal Genius

Gray, Samantha (2020) Aaron Sorkin’s America: Politics, Trauma, and the Liberal Genius. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis demonstrates that, across his body of work, Aaron Sorkin constructs an American cultural imaginary that foregrounds ideas of intelligence and community, areas of his writing that have typically been neglected in existing scholarship. Scholarship on Sorkin’s work has tended to focus on The West Wing (1999-2006), which is arguably the most critically successful to date. However, I argue that the rest of Sorkin’s oeuvre just as overtly demonstrates notions of honour and decency that are forefront in the America that he has constructed, and that any examination of his writing should also take into consideration his films and other, critically neglected television series. Alongside a critical re-evaluation of The West Wing, this thesis pays particular attention to Sorkin’s television series Sports Night (1998-2000), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) and The Newsroom (2012-2014); and his screenplays, including The Social Network (2010) and Steve Jobs (2015), and directorial debut with Molly’s Game (2017). This thesis is divided into eight thematic chapters, examining notions of civic duty and journalistic responsibility; education, intelligence and elitism; the newly identified character type of the Liberal Genius; individual and national trauma; family and relationships; and religion and Republicanism. The thesis not only identifies the continued reoccurrence of these themes throughout Sorkin’s work, but engages with their presence in American life and popular culture more broadly, such as the changing role of the genius from the Founding Fathers to contemporary television series. This thesis also examines how Sorkin’s engagements run counter to more traditional media responses to, among others, intellect, journalistic practice and political action, to avoid more reactionary stances in favour of a measured representation. Through identification of different themes and characters in Sorkin’s work, this thesis argues that he has constructed a fantasy of America that presents a return to an earlier idealism in which intelligent and civic minded individuals, regardless of the industry in which they work, have a responsibility to come together in order to make nation a better place.

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