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In Defense of The Social Network: Movie demonizes sexism, doesn’t glamorize it.

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October 13th, 2010 at 11:59 am

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Fiction vs. reality: Eisenberg and Zuckerberg.

First things first: I’m in the business of paying close attention to roles of women in film and TV, both behind and in front of the camera. I also really enjoyed The Social Network, David Fincher’s biopic of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

Critics in the blogosphere claim the movie is everything from racist and sexist to homophobic (Indiewire states that Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is gay, and that isn’t represented in the film). TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy vocally protests Sorkin’s depiction of tech geeks, saying even though she’s worked in Silicon Valley for ten years, she’s never encountered this level of sexism. Jezebel.com’s Irin Carmon bemoans its lack of dynamic female characters, while others hate the way it glosses over gay characters and its fetishism of Asian women.

In The Social Network, there are only a few memorable roles for women—and this is what most of the feminist blogs take issue with. Certainly, Fincher is notorious for making what I refer to as “dude movies.” Se7en and Fight Club both feature women (Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy, respectively) as prizes–something either bizarrely attractive or wholesomely pretty to come home to–while men are the dynamic characters. The Social Network certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, which requires 1) two female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. And yes, that’s certainly a problem. However, Sorkin maintains (and I understood from watching the movie) that he wrote the film in such a way to demonize misogyny–not to glamorize it.

Rooney Mara as Erica, one of the movie’s only strong women.

It’s unclear what sort of roles women played in the real creation of Facebook. Women certainly don’t play a huge role in The Social Network, but women frame it (much as they do Fight Club and Se7en). According to Gawker, Zuckerberg really was pissed off at an unnamed woman when he created rating site Facemash. In The Social Network this woman is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Mara’s role sets the stage, then closes the curtain on the whole film. She doesn’t play a big part throughout, but she definitely gets the best lines. Her honesty in the face of Zuckerberg’s pretension and bitterness is his saving grace—and by the end of the movie it appears he realizes it. (Mara made such an impact on Fincher during filming that he recently awarded her the much-desired role of Lisbeth Salander in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)

It’s rumored that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin consulted with Harvard grad Natalie Portman to understand the goings-on at the elite institution around 2003. Sorkin allegedly researched Zuckerberg with such depth that the writer knew what kind of beer the guy was drinking when he created Harvard rating site Facemash in a haze of resentful intoxication. Suffice to say, it appears Sorkin did his homework. The Social Network is based on The Accidental Billionaires, a book by Ben Mezrich, who also allegedly whitewashed the Asian characters in the book behind 21, a movie about MIT card counters who took Vegas casinos by storm.

Crazy lady #1: Brenda Song as Christy.

In The Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg and co-founder Eduardo Saverin covet Asian women, and the movie portrays this too. The film’s second major female character is definitely unsavory. Saverin’s girlfriend Christy (Asian actress Brenda Song) is a paranoid, stalker type who sets a fire on his bed. Christy’s race isn’t important here, though. Her particular brand of crazy applies to both genders and all races, I think. In the “unfavorable female characters” category, we’ll go ahead and include Sean Parker’s Stanford-panties clad hookup, the girls who can’t seem to figure out how to smoke a bong right, early Facebook interns, and a Victoria’s Secret model. Yes, these are unpleasant, static little roles. But if Sorkin is being honest, he didn’t fudge them. The writer responded on Monday to accusations of sexism,

“These women–whether it’s the girls who are happy to take their clothes off and dance for the boys or Eduardo’s psycho-girlfriend are real. I mean REALLY real. (In the case of Christy, Eduardo’s girlfriend so beautifully played by Brenda Song, I conflated two characters–again I hope you’ll trust me that doing that did nothing to alter our take on the events. Christy was the second of three characters whose name I changed).”

The movie’s last major female character is Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), a lawyer overseeing Zuckerberg’s case. Delpy is, like Erica Alright, smart and honest. Delpy’s final line in the film mirrors Albright’s opening scene. Erica says to Mark, “You’ll think people hate you because you’re a geek, but it’ll be because you’re an asshole.” Delpy laments, “You’re not an asshole, Mark, but you’re trying so hard to be.” Sorkin writes,

“I invented two characters–one was Rashida Jones’s ‘Marylin’, the youngest lawyer on the team and a far cry from the other women we see in the movie. She’s plainly serious, competent and, when asked, has no problem speaking the truth as she sees it to Mark. The other was Gretchen, Eduardo’s lawyer (in reality there was a large team of litigators who all took turns deposing witnesses but I wanted us to become familiar with just one person–a woman, who, again, is nobody’s trophy.”

If indeed this is true, Sorkin only invented the stronger female characters in the film. He purposely built the script around the wise, incisive words of the very women Zuckerberg seems to resent.

A movie set in one room with these four guys would be pretty boring.

The fact remains: The Social Network isn’t a documentary. It’s a Hollywood production about a man who undoubtedly changed the world at a young age. It’s also a movie that takes place largely in Harvard dorm rooms where a bunch of dudes sat hunched at computers drinking beer and writing code. In other words, the real story is probably quite tedious—so Mezrich and Sorkin spun it. This particular spin, which is wholly about how much Zuckerberg and Parker resent women, seems to be what makes bloggers angry.

But what’s most important here is that Sorkin used women’s roles not to encourage those behaviors, but to point out that misogyny is alive and well in the technology industry…and on college campuses around the world. Sorkin writes,

“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).”

TechCrunch’s Lacy may not have encountered this, but chances are she’s been working with consummate professionals, not college kids.

The film industry is still run by white men, and movies cater to this. Dynamic, intelligent, female characters in Hollywood film are sadly few and far between (here’s a handy-dandy “Strong Female Character” flowchart for writers). The Social Network won’t change history when it comes to women’s roles in film, but at the very least it’s inspiring discussion about women in film, women in Hollywood, and women in technology.

Love him or hate him, Zuckerberg undoubtedly changed the world.

Of course, like the film industry, the technological sphere is still basically in the hands of (you guessed it) white men. Sorkin and Fincher didn’t set out to demean women or to whitewash a story (though perhaps Mezrich did). Neither, it seems, did they nefariously strive to make yet another movie that uses women as scenery and/or trophies. I believe they meant to make a movie that points to the basic flaws in American culture—namely, the way we reward misogyny, especially in the technology industry. The end result is a good film with brilliant acting on the parts of both men and women. It’s a movie framed by strong women, about misogynistic nerds who end up miserable and alone: there’s no glamor here. As far as this female critic is concerned, Sorkin and Fincher did it right.

Links:
Sorkin’s response to accusations of sexism on Ken Levine’s blog.
Jezebel.com: The Social Network, where women never have ideas.
Jezebel.com: The Social Network’s Angry Nerd Misogyny.
TechCrunch: Sarah Lacy on Sorkin’s inventions.
Overthinkingit.com’s Strong Female Character Flowchart.

All photos copyright their original owners.

  • Ben

    Ok, first of all the book’s name is The Accidental Billionaires (not millionaires). Second. in Bringing Down the House, the book, most of the characters are indeed asian, as they were in real life. The girl was indeed caucasian. Jeff Ma, who is renamed Kevin Lewis in the book, is non-ethnic at his own request, as at the time he was trying to hide his identity. In the movie, three quarters of the team is in fact played by asian actors. The Micky character is based on a composite of three men, two of whom were indeed white.

    As for The Social Network and The Accidental Billionaires, this is a true story. Mark Zuckerberg actually did created a website to rate women on their hotness, and he did contemplate comparing them to farm animals. If there is any perceived misogyny in the story, it is because that was how it played out in real life. Mark and Eduardo and Dustin and Sean and Chris created Facebook. The winklevoss twins claimed he stole it from them. Would you have liked us to invent female characters to make this more palatable?

    Anyway, glad you enjoyed the movie, and best wishes.

    Ben

  • Julia Rhodes

    Apologies for the title mix-up. It has been changed. I was merely responding to the vocal critics out there, some of whom also attacked both books.

    There’s certainly no getting around the fact that white men created Facebook. I’m not among the few who would have preferred the writers invent female characters to make the story more all-encompassing. On the contrary, I think it’s better the way it is–as I wrote in the article, the movie doesn’t gloss over or glamorize these guys’ resentment toward women.

    Thanks for your comment, Ben.

  • Muffy

    Anyone who claims the TSN is sexist is full of crap. No one in the film is portrayed as a saint! No female is forced to do anything in the film. Women have their own minds. The film would really be unrealistic if it did not feature Groupies/Gold Diggers. When women call men bad names, it’s you go girl. But when men call women bad names, it’s he hate women. I’m sorry the female characters aren’t portrayed as Mother Teresa types. I’m sorry men don’t respect every Hooker they meet. Feminism has become joke.

  • Vidmius

    Don’t be sorry mate, the movie is a masterpiece because it doesn’t have a main women characters in it. If it would have, it would only be another Sex and the City.

  • kait

    It’s all very well saying he included these drug-obsessed scantily clab women to show what a sexist view the nerds had of them… but really, how did the film in any way depict that that view was wrong? The female characters really do seem like airheads, golddiggers, and appear erm, morally unsound. They are completely dehuminised. How does this prove a point? By the end of the film I was furious with the portrayal of women, and then when I read the writers excuse I openly laughed. Perhaps if he had shown through the film that the geeks’ opinions of these women was wrong it would have different. But he didn’t. Instead the women in the movie only seemed to prove that the geeks’ view was right. As for the two stronger women, neither played a major and both represented an apparent minority of “thinking” women. I personally felt like walking out of the film as yet another women took her top off.

  • Julia Rhodes

    Kait,

    The last shots of the movie depict Zuckerberg continually refreshing Erica Albright’s Facebook page, waiting to see if she’ll accept his friend request. Fincher placed over this shot the title card basically stating that Zuckerberg is one of the richest people in the world. And yet? He’s pathetic. He treated everyone around him terribly–most notably Erica–and he’s paying for it. Somehow we doubt she’ll accept his request. I certainly wouldn’t.

    The expressions on Saverin’s and Zuckerberg’s faces throughout the trial sequences are pretty indicative of how miserable they both are with the outcome. Sean Parker ended up in jail, ranting maniacally to Zuckerberg on the phone, after that coke-fueled party bust. The movie depicts women in a sexist way because, according to Sorkin and Mezrich (who commented above), those are the actual roles women played. If that’s true, then to create new roles for women would’ve been changing the story pretty drastically.

    These guys may have gotten rich, but the movie never shows them parading around with ladies in bikinis on yachts, rap-video style, or getting laid all the time. It shows them as the miserable, pathetic jerks they are. That’s how the movie showed sexism is wrong.

  • Rose

    What I am wondering is this: How could anyone stand the music for more than 15 minutes? I just left the theatre, the muscles in my neck have still not recovered a half hour later.

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