If only Lars von Trier had made a movie about Facebook. Then there would actually be fewer complaints about the supposed misogyny and sexism involved. Because it would be expected from him, I think. But just as I’ll always argue with people against the claim that Von Trier is anti-women, I must now also make the case against charges that “The Social Network” and those who made it are anti- or at least ignorant of the female sex. If you read any movie site on the net you’ve no doubt seen at least one article or post or comment addressing the film’s apparent “woman problem,” how there aren’t enough of them and that the few female characters in the movie are stereotypes, over-sexualized, one-note, prizes, fantasies, props, underused, underdeveloped, etc. In some, the complaints extend to even calling “The Social Network” racist and potentially homophobic in addition to sexist. Once again, I’m saddened to see so many people misunderstanding how movies — no, narrative stories in general — work.
The antigay angle isn’t getting nearly as much attention, which might be an issue in itself. In fact, I only barely saw one mention this week, through a mailing list I subscribe to, about how Facebook co-founder (and later Obama campaign social marketing wiz) Chris Hughes is gay yet is not represented as such on screen (as portrayed by actor Patrick Mapel). The specific complaint also noted that he ogled women right along with his roommates, though I don’t recall this being exactly the case nor do I find it necessarily impossible for a gay man to look at or admire women or participate in their objectification. I will say that the significance of Facebook as being potentially initially a gay-friendly site, while other times deemed a homophobic site, as well as its connection to the concept of coming out online, is a disappointing omission from the film. The recent interview with Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker puts some subjective focus on the unintentional complication the site’s “interested in” section may have/had for some gays in this regard. Of course, Zuckerberg seemed — and this was likely also true for the actual consultants for the film — to be unaware of the matter.
As for the racism, this seems to be aligned primarily to the sexism issue, as the complaint is narrowed to how Asian women specifically are portrayed in the movie. First off, the character in question, Christy (Brenda Song), does not go crazy because she’s Asian. If her character was white it wouldn’t be a problem, and the scene where she goes all batshit arsonist on boyfriend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) is pretty much your standard dramatic way of depicting, with heavy exaggeration, the seeming power of the “relationship status” element of Facebook (anyone, guy or girl, who took too long changing from “single” to “in a relationship” knows what I mean). It’s hardly meant to represent an ethic or gender group as a whole.
But the source material for “The Social Network,” “Accidental Billionaires,” was written by the same guy who gave us the book adapted into “21,” a film very guilty of whitening its central characters. Perhaps we should be happy the cast was not similarly converted. Of course, there aren’t really any black people in the film, but that’s likely of the same reasoning for why there are so few significant female parts. They just weren’t in the scope of this story, especially from the perception of those telling it. Meanwhile, non-Jewish whites are also given a slight shaft, but you know there is probably nothing to that, not even underlying the scene between Larry Summers and the WASP poster children, the Winklevoss twins. I think the only real acknowledgment of the main characters even being Jewish is via the Alpha Epsilon Pi party, during which there is the following conversation (as written in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay):
This wasn’t invented for the movie, as you can see in Ben Mezrich’s version in “Accidental Billionaires,” though the algorithm part is mentioned more as something generally occupying the minds of these smart, outsider Jewish students:
Now, is such a statement racist? Sexist? And if you do think Eduardo Saverin is racist or sexist for saying so, does that make either Mezrich or Sorkin’s retelling equally offensive? Or are these depictions merely a reflection of how Saverin and his (very young, let’s not forget) friends both talked amongst one another and maybe even genuinely viewed women and other races at that time (if not also now)? Filmmakers often get criticized for being thought aligned with the abhorrent actions and mentalities of their characters, especially their protagonists. Just ask D.W. Griffith. Or, more currently, Von Trier. But haven’t we had enough works that confuse or put some needed logic into the issue? Something like “American Psycho” is more easily called misogynistic when it’s a book written by a man (Bret Easton Ellis), but what about when it’s a film directed by a woman (Mary Harron)? Either way, it’s a story about the mind of a misogynistic individual, and that doesn’t make the work or its creator classifiable as the same.
So finally I will address the sexism complaints, though I think I’ve made my point enough, and every other intelligent writer out there has already made the same defense: “The Social Network” is told through the minds of men (via their deposition testimony or interviews with Mezrich or Sorkin, or just as a cinematic, admittedly “Rashomon”-influenced narrative logic) who don’t quite understand or respect the opposite sex. And that’s simply represented in the film. We’re supposed to be looking at a story from a certain perspective that has certain perceptions and misconceptions about women, as well as about themselves. I’m one of the few people who dislike the opening scene, but I at least love when Erica (Rooney Mara) tells Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) that girls will dislike him for being an asshole, not because he’s a geek. It perfectly bookends the film, along with a similar bit of wisdom from Rashida Jones’ character at the end.
And following the opening scene, the film further, in a juxtaposition montage, compares/contrasts the misogyny of alpha males versus the misogyny of geeks, who mistakenly tend to think themselves the better brand of guy. We could stand to have more works like this that call nerds out as being just as guilty of objectifying women (as if decades of comic book and video game art weren’t obvious enough evidence). Especially with Judd Apatow being simultaneously reigned king of comedy and a god among geeks. Not that I’m hypocritically attacking Apatow so much as his characters. But his movies, in addition to their protagonists, are often more misguided in their attitudes towards women than they seem to be thinking (I do commend Martin Starr, by the way, for coming out of the Apatow machine and then being another such knowing incarnation of geek misogyny in “Party Down”). Yet they still at least try to be smarter about gender than their peers and predecessors. I don’t know if Sorkin means to be making a commentary on the matter or if it’s accidental, but it does so, and I actually salute “The Social Network” for being better for women than most of its contemporaries.
Now, some other responses to the complaints heard round the film blog water cooler:
There are also charges of misogyny, most notably and predictably from Jezebel, which charges (not unreasonably) that, the real Zuckerberg is apparently not a ragingly sexist dickhead, so why would Sorkin turn his world into a frat boy’s fantasy viewed by an equally insensitive outsider? The answer here’s pretty much the same as above: the opening montage, cutting back and forth between Zuckerberg’s unalluring drunken night of coding Facemash and his imagined fantasies of non-stop, on-demand hedonism for the rich and privileged points out just how out of touch he is about how to get what he wants. He gets all the sex and easy acclaim, but always imagines something better somewhere else — sex fantasies whose realization in the film are reserved exclusively for the nerds.
Could Sorkin and Fincher have come up with a better way to portray women? Of course they could have. Is the depiction of Asian women as sexed-up, one-note, batsh*t women ridiculous and unnecessary? Of course. These are not points I’d disagree with. It is lazy to fall back on these stereotypes, and beneath Sorkin and Fincher’s talent. I don’t think every movie needs to pass the Bechdel test. But why are the women so crappy? They’re not even “people,” really, except for Erica (Rooney Mara), who rightfully calls out Zuckerberg for the asshole he is. On the other hand, one might also argue that other background characters like the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) are equally one note.
The suggestion that Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher had an obligation to insert a token “strong lady” character in order to make their film more demographically friendly or underline how their own intentions are separate from their characters is condescending to audiences. The film world still leans incredibly toward male perspectives, male characters and male audiences, and the way to fix that is by supporting and encouraging women making and working in movies, not by implying the need for an artificial quota of “go girl”ness.
Without sifting through the backstories of Zuckerberg and company for strong female figures, it’s hard to know what the filmmakers could have done differently while still hewing to some version of the truth. And it’s clear that they’re showing us, for better or worse, how women function in these particular boys’ worlds, which, apparently, is as objects to be conquered with fame and fortune. The Social Network certainly provides, if nothing else, strong evidence that we still need feminism, that we need to inundate boys with it in particular — and that we need to nurture math and science skills in girls more than ever before, so they have as good a chance at changing the world as these guys did.
Finally, the girl in her panties who sleeps with Sean Parker is, I believe, a Standford student. She’s no dumb slut. She slept with him; who wouldn’t at that age? Just because women have sex with men does not make them sluts. Women should be afforded the same sexual freedom and choices men have. I’m not prepared to ditch a couple of decades of feminism for this misguided notion that smart women don’t have sex.
True, there are a lot of girls throwing themselves at these boys. That is the only way to illustrate that being the guy who invented TheFacebook is like being a rock star. The point is well taken, and it’s not Hollywood’s fault. Is it a misogynist view? Sure. But they’re saying, with their film, not that all college girls are slutty hoes, but that these young dumb dudes SAW women that way. It is a perception and an interpretation. It is the unreliable narrator.