I’m of two minds on the ongoing “Is The Social Network sexist?” debate. Seeing as how it’s based on a true story, and misogyny is one of Movie Mark Zuckerberg’s traits (I cannot speak to Real Mark Zuckerberg, and henceforth “Zuckerberg” will refer to the cinematic version unless otherwise noted), I’m not going to argue that the movie should’ve been stuffed with awesome female characters. Much as I love to complain about the dearth of interesting female roles in mainstream American cinema, even I don’t believe that a story must necessarily include strong women or else be condemned as sexist. At the same time, there’s little to love about the way females are depicted when they do appear in the film, and it’s not always clear that it’s just the characters who are sexist. (Spoilers for The Social Network follow, although considering it’s based on a well-known true story I’m not sure how much I could really ruin…)
“It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin himself responded to the sexism question yesterday in Ken Levine’s blog. First of all, kudos to him for taking the discussion seriously instead of just getting defensive or simply ignoring it. However, his argument seems to boil down to “But it’s all real, I was just trying to be accurate, I swear.” And you know what? I’m not buying it. As a screenwriter, it’s Sorkin’s prerogative, his job really, to embellish or edit the truth as he sees fit, and that’s exactly what he does. Great. But he can’t then turn around and argue that his movie can’t be sexist because he’s just trying to be true to life. It was a decision to make Zuckerberg as sexist as he is, it was a decision to include the Fuck Truck and the Victoria’s Secret groupies, and I wish Sorkin would own up to that instead of arguing that events as portrayed in the movie are just plain old truth. It’s an especially disingenuous defense in light of the fact that Real Zuckerberg had a girlfriend during most of the events depicted in the movie. In fact, they’re still together. Does that mean Real Zuckerberg isn’t sexist? Would Movie Priscilla Chan have been a welcome feminist influence? Look, for all I know, Real Zuckerberg makes Mel Gibson look like Gloria Steinem and Real Priscilla Chan is a bitch from hell. But knowing such a significant part of Real Zuckerberg’s life was omitted in the cinematic adaptation suggests that Sorkin’s portrayal of Movie Zuckerberg as an unequivocally bitter, lonely man is probably somewhat simplistic, and perhaps also that Sorkin could’ve included a strong female presence if he’d wanted to.
Revenge of the nerds
Not that I’m upset Sorkin wrote Zuckerberg with a strong sexist streak. It’s an interesting character detail that fits with the narrative Sorkin’s chosen. And Sorkin is very aware of how problematic Zuckerberg’s (and his friends’) attitude is:
More generally, I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now. The women they surround themselves with aren’t women who challenge them (and frankly, no woman who could challenge them would be interested in being anywhere near them.)
Zuckerberg’s misogyny– and misanthropy, really– is painted as a big flaw that leads to his being alone and unhappy, and his guide to the soulless world of elite clubs and fast women is his deeply fucked up colleague Sean Parker. In some ways, The Social Network’s angry, woman-hating nerd is a refreshing change of pace from the more insidious sexism of, say, those romcoms where you’re supposed to believe that the self-absorbed jerk somehow deserves the intelligent hottie at the end. But Sorkin’s point is lost if the audience doesn’t understand that Zuckerberg is sexist, and that the unpleasant depictions of femininity seen in the movie are an artistic decision, not an objective reality.
In defense of Fuck Trucks and slutty college coeds
It’s apparent from the very first minutes of the film that Zuckerberg has issues with women, as evidenced by his treatment of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and his reaction to their breakup. There’s also the first final club party sequence, which represents what Zuckerberg thinks he wants out of life: prestige, acceptance, bitches, and hoes (completely irrelevant tangent: You know that not-entirely-necessary comma after “bitches”? It’s called a Harvard comma). The camera, reflecting Zuckerberg’s viewpoint, loves to linger on shots of superhot women slutting it up for rich, successful men, whether at final club parties or Facebook celebrations. I get that much of this leering is to show how Zuckerberg sees women, so I’m not entirely against it. And if the final club bash seems sensationalized, hey– for one thing, it’s Hollywood, and for another, I absolutely believe that this is how Zuckerberg would’ve imagined those shindigs. I won’t protest that it’s wildly inaccurate, either. Slutty college girls are a fact of university life, as are slutty college boys, and I mean that in the most sex-positive way possible. And that Fuck Truck? It’s definitely sexified for the big screen, but it’s not wholly made-up; my alma mater also had a “Fuck Bus” that connected our campus to the women’s colleges nearby. (We weren’t clever enough to come up with the more poetic “Fuck Truck,” but I guess that’s just the kind of brilliance you only see at Harvard.) Point being: The sexed-up depictions of young women have at least some basis in reality and, more importantly, they make sense for Zuckerberg’s perspective.
Marilyn, Erica, & Christy
However, there’s a fine line between indulging in misogyny to get inside a character’s head and indulging it for its own sake, and it’s not always obvious where that line is. Zuckerberg may be the asshole who sees women as props or prizes, but there isn’t a whole lot in the film to suggest he’s wrong, either. Sorkin does offer a more positive view of femaleness in the form two characters: Marilyn, part of Zuckerberg’s legal team; and Erica, Movie Zuckerberg’s levelheaded ex. Whether they’re actually successful at neutralizing the misogyny is debatable. They’re not badly written– Erica, in particular, gets one beautifully incisive kiss-off line that I’m saving for the next time I hear a “nice guy” whining about his inability to score chicks– but isn’t much substance to them. Erica is more symbol than person, and Marilyn isn’t given enough time or space to demonstrate any sort of personality. In the end, they’re two minor counterexamples standing against a veritable sea of strung out, tarted up Barbies bimbo clones.
Moreover, the other significant-ish female character, Christy, is the ultimate strung out, tarted up bimbo clone, and a complete psycho to boot. She throws herself at Eduardo and, later, sits around dumbly while the boys create Facebook around her. Then in the middle of the film, she suddenly becomes an insane person who calls Eduardo a million times a day, sets his bed on fire, and then wonders why he doesn’t love her. Is she mentally ill, or are we missing a colossal chunk of character development? Without that answer, Christy’s erratic behavior invites us to assume that bitches be crazy just because that’s how bitches are. And either way, it’s an incredibly shallow portrayal of one of the few female characters who figure into the story. Contrast this to a major male character who’s portrayed in a mainly negative light– Sean Parker. It’s obvious there’s something off about him, and as it turns out, he’s an unhinged druggie and all-around jerk. But at every point, he remains recognizably human. We at least understand what makes him tick, even if what makes him tick is an overblown ego and a generous dose of cocaine.
A better way?
Because it’s based in fact, I’m not advocating that Sorkin invent a close female sidekick for Zuckerberg, or rewrite the Winklevosses to be female, simply for the sake of making it more “equal.” That would be unreasonable. But even with Erica and Marilyn tilting the scale, sane, non-skanky women are definitely the exception to the rule in The Social Network. I wonder if some subtle additions might have helped balance the misogynistic tone– a female competitor for the internship, for example, or a female programmer at the Bill Gates talk, or a female Facebook employee who doesn’t end up stripping down so Sean Parker can snort coke off her tits. The tech industry may be something of a boys’ club, but I don’t believe minor adjustments like this are so dramatically unrealistic that they would’ve ruined the film. Slipping in a few female extras who don’t fit Zuckerberg’s narrow-minded notions would’ve made Marilyn and Erica seem less like anomalies and more like part of a larger framework of competent, reasonable women. Of course, I’m not a filmmaker and I can’t say for certain how these adjustments would’ve affected the film as a whole. But I think they could’ve been a quiet way to emphasize that it’s Zuckerberg that’s the problem, not the women of Harvard or Silicon Valley, without distracting from the main character or the story at hand.
Whose misogyny is it, anyway?
As I see it, whether The Social Network is sexist depends heavily on how much of the film’s misogynist slant you attribute to Movie Zuckerberg’s perspective, and how much of it you think comes from Sorkin’s or Fincher’s. There’s no question that the film is full of “groupies, sexed-up Asians, vengeful sluts, and feminist killjoys,” but it seems reasonable to the extent that it’s the character’s attitude– and I believe most of it is. I also appreciate that sexism is not seen as a positive trait (it’s more common than you’d want to think), and that Sorkin at least tries to show examples of women who don’t fit these awful stereotypes. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering how a Movie Priscilla might have shifted the balance, and I wish the film had done more in general to present the sexism as Mark’s attitude and not unembellished fact. There’s also the fact that The Social Network is part of a greater culture that regularly demeans women to the level of prizes or props. Whatever Sorkin’s intentions, Zuckerberg’s attitude may not read as a problem to all viewers. In those cases, seeing these stereotypes reflected on the big screen would serve to perpetuate them instead of argue against them.
But you know? For a movie about an arrogant, sexist jerk, it’s not so bad. This is not a feminist film, and it doesn’t need to be. But an acknowledgment that the treatment of women as objects and prizes is problematic is a step in the right direction. So in the end, the question of whether or not The Social Network is sexist is not as simple as black or white. But then again, neither is anything else in the film.