Monday, October 4, 2010

If Women Had Invented Facebook, They Would Have Invented Facebook

WARNING: I guess some of what follows is spoilery, but I think that concept, besides being generally dumb, is inapplicable to this film.

It's exciting to see serious discussion pop up around the number one movie in America. 2010 may have been a weak year for film, but with Inception creating a national internet discourse and now The Social Network not only coming in at the top of the charts but spurring lots and lots of talk about gender roles and equality, the year is shaping up as a good one for people getting on on the discussion.


But it's weird to see so many people leap into the debate about women in The Social Network without actually taking the time to examine the movie itself. I'm reading lots of reactions online complaining about the lack of strong women in the film, but these seem like kneejerk responses and not thought-out critiques. I know there's a bit of a straw man argument going on here since I'm not responding to any particular complaints (although one screed from Jezebel is notable for being pointlessly shrill and without any seeming understanding of things like narrative, theme and subtext), but I believe that on a larger level The Social Network is actually about the things that people are decrying. Yes, Aaron Sorkin wrote a script totally intending to include lots of one dimensional, slutty women.

First it's important to understand what a movie that's based on a true story is. It's  not a documentary. It's not a fact by fact recitation of reality. It's an adaptation of reality, just as Spider-Man was an adaptation of a comic book. The reality gets, to some extent, molded and changed to fit not just the needs of drama but also the needs of the film's theme and meaning. There's a larger discussion to be had here about what's acceptable in these cases, but the fact is simple: The Social Network is a film that's a fictionalized account of a real story. And it's a fictionalized account intended to service Aaron Sorkin's vision not just of Mark Zuckerberg but of the modern world of internet boom billionaires and the meaning and context of social networking. 

So Sorkin takes facts and reality and bends them around a little bit to make points for himself. After all, he's just got two hours to tell not only an interesting story but also to explore themes and meanings behind that story. The big theme that drives the film is the concept of rejection as the fuel for ambition. The entire film is predicated on the concept that Mark Zuckerberg succeeds because he has been rejected. He starts Facemash because a girl has rejected him; when she rejects him a second time he throws himself deeper into his work to expand Facebook. He double crosses the Winklevosses because they represent everything that he views as rejecting him in society - handsome, athletic Aryans that come from money. And he pushes Facebook further because of his rejection by the final clubs, personified in his former best friend Eduardo. These are the things that motivate Zuckerberg, and they're the same things that motivate Sean Parker - the only person who doesn't reject Mark but rather brings him in. Parker started Napster because a girl he liked was dating someone else; later Facebook gets an important investment because Parker enlists Zuckerberg to give a fuck you to a venture capitalist who screwed him over. Again and again success is bred from rejection. 

It's important to note that The Social Network is bookmarked by two strong women, both of whom not only see through Zuckerberg, but who reject him entirely. The film leaves Zuckerberg a lonely Michael Corleone, with all the money and power in the world but unable to get the one thing he wants - Rooney Mara's character to like him. Rashida Jones's lawyer character and Rooney Mara's Erica Albright represent the women outside of Zuckerberg's world, and they're the women he yearns for but also sort of avoids. 

Yes, women are treated poorly in The Social Network, but that's on purpose. As Zuckerberg comes to the idea of Facemash, the site that is a precursor to Facebook, he considers comparing women to farm animals. That scene is intercut with shots of the Phoenix-  the prestigious final club to which the Winklevosses belong - busing women in to their party. They're literally transporting them like livestock, and that's how they're treated. The scenes of debauchery at the Phoenix party aren't meant to be titillating, they're meant to show the way that women are treated by these men. And the film posits that Zuckerberg shares the same feelings towards women - they're cattle - and only aspires to be let into the party where the women don't reject you anymore. 

And just in case you thought that the Phoenix was supposed to be taken seriously by you, the viewer, our intro to it is a frat boy telling the women how important the club is... while wearing a backwards baseball cap. The guy is a douchebag on sight, and it's obvious that his world is one of unqualified douchebaggery. Watching the scenes of women dancing and making out and thinking that the film is celebrating this business is a sign of an inability to read a film. The statements are clear, and the attitudes that men have towards women are clearer. They don't like women. 

Which leads to them surrounding themselves with sluts and bimbos. Sean Parker's womanizing isn't cool; in fact it's a touch desperate and sad, as he travels from bed to bed because he doesn't have a home. Parker not only surrounds himself with women he doesn't respect (look at how he treats the two bong hit girls in the Facebook house), he actually goes for younger, possibly underage girls. Parker is a creep. It would be actually weird if he had a strong woman at his side, or were interested in getting female programmers. This is the guy that Zuckerberg is drawn to because he sees Parker as the geek who has gotten bigger and cooler than the final clubs. 

Some people have objected to Eduardo's girlfriend, the crazy jealous Asian girl Christy. I suspect that her nationality is a nod to the fact that nerds simply love Asian women and culture, as well as a nod to the fact that Zuckerberg's real life girlfriend is Asian. But more than that, the character is a piece of subtext personified - she's a metaphor. Eduardo's story has him getting nothing but grief and pain from the cool thing that he started. Everything that comes from Facebook is poisoned, including his relationship - and it's all poisoned from the start, but he doesn't know it. Giving Christy more dimensions would utterly sabotage the point of the character, and totally undermine the thematic elements. Like the president of Harvard or Zuckerberg's roommates, the girlfriend is tertiary at best, and has a specific role to fulfill - a role that doesn't include a completely fleshed out life. The president of Harvard is just as cartoonish, but there are no school administrators getting up in arms about him. He exists to illustrate the way that everything in the Winklevosses lives is turning against them, and he fulfills that function and moves out of the film. 

The secret to The Social Network is that it's Revenge on the Nerds. Following a decade of geek chic, this film deconstructs our current nerd plutarchs and restores the most basic geek stereotypes. Zuckerberg and company aren't aspirational, they're pathetic. They're driven by pettiness and insecurity. They're socially retarded, and they surround themselves with lesser people they can dominate. Zuckerberg and Parker are creating the frat house they could never enter, and they're changing the rules of exclusivity so that it's all about being a coder and a hacker. They're not overcoming the establishment, they're becoming it. And in the end it leaves them unfulfilled and unhappy and alone and fucked up. The tragedy for Zuckerberg is that he secretly knows it; it's why the film has him ignoring all the sluts and skanks around him and only really being interested in the two strong women. Even the blowjob that he gets in the bathroom is completely upstaged by the simple sight of Erica Albright. This is all on purpose, and not an accident. Sorkin put the second Albright scene right after the bathroom blowjob to make a very specific point.

I haven't read The Accidental Billionaires or researched a ton about the real story of Mark Zuckerberg, so maybe there are strong women who were integral to the founding of Facebook. I would be interested in finding out about them, if they exist, but knowing what I do about computer programmers and nerds, I suspect that they sort of don't. There probably were other women in Zuckerberg's circle (he had met his current girlfriend by the time the film covers, although I don't know if he was actually dating her then), and there were probably gay people and more black people and even Indians who weren't angry little twerps, but filmmaking isn't about checking off inclusion boxes. Art is not about making sure the full spectrum of humanity is displayed. It's about telling a story and getting across ideas. Aaron Sorkin, for whatever reason, is attracted to boy's club atmospheres - the White House, sports TV, the military - but he almost always finds room to include strong women into his stories. The Social Network is no different. And it's important to note that since the film is told entirely in deposition flashback, that only Rashida Jones' character exists outside the influence of differing viewpoints. If there's any single character who speaks for the filmmakers, it is her, and her final judgment on Zuckerberg is clearly meant to be theirs.

(Thanks to the strong woman in my life, Lindsay Maher, for helping connect the dots between Facemash and the Phoenix club bus)

26 comments:

  1. There will be some who reject your thesis on the grounds that Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher are notoriously misogynistic, in interviews, in other works, set reports, etc.

    I'm not one of those people, but I know more than a few who subscribe to this notion.

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  2. That vin deisel mona lisa background will forever haunt me.

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  3. Excellent as always, and on this temporary place, the stern look of the Diesel only further underscores your point.

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  4. I think Eduardo's girlfriend also represents the stalker side of facebook. She gets angry that his status is set to single, for example.

    Overall, I agree with your thoughts on it, and I think it's made painfully clear by the ending of the film, Zuckerberg sending Erica a friend request and repeatedly hitting refresh. All of this was to impress her, the one girl, as far as the movie shows, that he knows who is smart, witty and strong.

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  5. Anon: agree completely about the girlfriend representing the stalking. See my original review of the film here: http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/25260/1/REVIEW-THE-SOCIAL-NETWORK-DEVIN039S-TAKE/Page1.html

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  6. Winklevii actually belonged to Porcellian

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  7. So the opening party is Porcellian or Phoenix? Seen it twice and can't remember.

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  8. That's great you explored the argument more.

    I agree Rashida Jones' exit line echoes the filmmakers' sentiment. Few others seem to think so. IMO, it's almost absolving what came before. Especially when paired with his humanizing "refreshing." I was left with the idea that we're meant to think he's not such a bad kid after all, just misunderstood (by himself included).

    I still disagree with you on Christy. Her lines could've been better written to make her less of a cartoon. If Sorkin had spent a few more hours on her dialogue, she could've still served her purpose as a metaphor (which I agree she does). She clearly had something going on for herself as she was a student at Harvard and bothered to go hear Bill Gates speak at the school and managed to turn from groupie to girlfriend. I don't think she's tertiary as she is present at the Parker dinner and for the "frozen account" phone call.

    Of course, Zuckerberg's GF is portrayed as smart as is Jones' lawyer and Zuck's female lawyer, but they are all dour downers in the grand scheme of things. The GF is an obstacle to Zuck in both of her scenes. Of course, that pays off richly for him in that his reaction fuels his future, but there's a negativity in the air in her portrayal. She says he'll be successful as a "computer person" and wishes him luck with this "video game." She doesn't "get it."

    As for the frat party girls, good call on labeling that a cattle call. As disturbing as that party sequence is, as well as other scenes with the underage girls, that shit is sadly real inside and outside of the Zuck/Parker world. I don't quibble with the filmmakers for including that. Them's the facts. It was just the relentless parade of women shown as dumb sluts that caused me to want to wash my brain after the film.

    Sidenote; Isn't it Revenge *of* the Nerds? Your "secret" paragraph noting that film is a very good summary of TSN.

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  9. Thank you so much for writing this! I hadn't actually made the connection between the Pheonix bus and Facemash yet, and it makes so much sense.
    Awesome article.
    As a girl who loved The Social Network and didn't find it offensive in the slightest, it is good to have some coherent justification for my viewpoints.

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  10. That's great you explored the argument more.

    I agree Rashida Jones' exit line echoes the filmmakers' sentiment. Few others seem to think so. IMO, it's almost absolving what came before. Especially when paired with his humanizing "refreshing." I was left with the idea that we're meant to think he's not such a bad kid after all, just misunderstood (by himself included).

    I still disagree with you on Christy. Her lines could've been better written to make her less of a cartoon. If Sorkin had spent a few more hours on her dialogue, she could've still served her purpose as a metaphor (which I agree she does). She clearly had something going on for herself as she was a student at Harvard and bothered to go hear Bill Gates speak at the school and managed to turn from groupie to girlfriend. I don't think she's tertiary as she is present at the Parker dinner and for the "frozen account" phone call.

    Of course, Zuckerberg's GF is portrayed as smart as is Jones' lawyer and Zuck's female lawyer, but they are all dour downers in the grand scheme of things. The GF is an obstacle to Zuck in both of her scenes. Of course, that pays off richly for him in that his reaction fuels his future, but there's a negativity in the air in her portrayal. She says he'll be successful as a "computer person" and wishes him luck with this "video game." She doesn't "get it."

    As for the frat party girls, good call on labeling that a cattle call. As disturbing as that party sequence is, as well as other scenes with the underage girls, that shit is sadly real inside and outside of the Zuck/Parker world. I don't quibble with the filmmakers for including that. Them's the facts. It was just the relentless parade of women shown as dumb sluts that caused me to want to wash my brain after the film.

    Sidenote; Isn't it Revenge *of* the Nerds? Your "secret" paragraph noting that film is a very good summary of TSN.

    Sincerely,
    Nictate

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  11. No, this is Revenge ON the Nerds. It's table turning on the geek chic revolution. Fincher and Sorkin aren't nerds in the traditional modern sense, and they're giving nerds a thrashing.

    I don't think that Jones' last line is forgiving Zuckerberg. It makes him much sadder, and the architect of his own pain.

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  13. Great piece. Loved it as well as the film. You're right that there are two separate issues going on here that people are trying to crush into one thing. In my opinion good storytelling/filmmaking has little to do with social justice and equality. More often than not, I think that they are almost completely opposed to each other.

    But just to play devil's advocate, I'll counter one of your points: that filmmaking is not about checking off inclusion boxes. You know that in Hollywood, it very much is about checking off certain boxes. Very often, they are the wrong insidious boxes that oppose progress. I think a lot of these issues that people have about this subject stem from the fact that if movies are gonna be about checking off inclusion boxes to attract a wide range of demographics, why not try to get people to change what those inclusions are?

    But once again, that is neither here nor there when it comes to discussing The Social Network as a great piece of art.

    And it was very clear that Jones' last line was meant to be worse. There's literally nothing ambiguous about that.

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  14. A little more devil's advocate...

    Is there anything to be said about the fact that the groupie/crazy slut role was given to an Asian-American actor while the two stronger female roles did not? Maybe I missed something, but those two characters seem like they could be cast colorblind.

    Seeing as how Zuckerberg has an Asian girlfriend in real life, Rooney Mara's character could've been cast Asian as well without contradicting the ideas and themes Sorkin and Fincher were going for.

    Either way, Rooney Mara's performance was great especially considering her short screentime, and Fincher clearly likes working with her enough to cast her in the Dragon Tattoo remake. So I'm not calling foul on anything here. I can simply see why someone else could feel that way.

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  15. What Jones' last line does is leave hope that he can change. He can savor his success while becoming a better human being.

    If this was a fictional story, the ending would be pathetic in that we'd be left with the character at his darkest hour. Since it is a real life story and we know that Zuckerberg has gone on to even greater success, wealth and fame, not to mention a long-term romantic relationship, it's hard for me to see how people walk away with the "pathetic" mindset.

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  16. My fiance and I watched this movie last night and we both really loved it. I didn't give a thought to anything sexist or racist about it, nor did she. So I was surprised to hear the twitter back-and-forwards about the sexism and racism that people found in it today... It seems almost juvenile in this age that people would complain that their crotch-identity wasn't represented to the highest degree. It's a movie for christ-sake... and on top of that, it makes sense. These guys surround themselves with women that are morons. They're out there. There are a lot of Douchey McDouchertons out there as well (some portrayed in this film!) that high-profile woman keep around. It just so happens that we have male leads, whom are geeks that don't get laid, and this type of unabashed groupie obsession is attractive to them because it's what they always wanted. And then they grow up (hopefully).

    Maybe a sequel should be made where Mark Zuckerberg's character loses everything and goes back to Alabama where he spent his childhood summers. There, he finds his former childhood love whom he'd forgotten about until just recently. They fight for awhile, but when Eduardo enters the scene to take her away from him, all gloves are off for Zuckerberg to finally understand love and the value it has in his heart.

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  17. Actually, the party that was going on through the montage near the beginning was at the Porcellian Club (Pretty sure). And Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss belong to the Porcellian as well. Great review however, you nailed it.

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  18. I found the "cattle-herding" sequence at the Phoenix club (crosscut with Zuckerberg creating Facemash) to be an interesting comment on how social networking can be and very often is a distinctly different experience for women than it is for men. At the heart of Facebook, I believe there's a lot of "who's hotter than who/who's looking hot right now" judgment and exhibitionism that happens, and women are the predominant victims of this trend (even while being willing participants).

    I very much liked the film, and I appreciate that you're entering into a discussion about women's roles in it.

    In regards to one of your central arguments (that the presence of these women being treated as objects is a larger comment on the central male characters' feelings about women), do you think that this has become somewhat of a fallback or commonly used argument? It seems that practically every time a masterfully made film comes out with visual objectification of (or violence toward) women, someone comes forward with some variation on the old standby: "The reason the filmmaker is showing this is to comment on how bad it is."

    I'm not necessarily saying your argument (if I'm interpreting it correctly) is lazy. But if your argument is accurate to the intentions of Fincher/Sorkin/whoever, is their concept lazy?

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  19. Nevertheless, the title of this blog post is condescending as hell. No one's asking for some two-bit power-girl figure to be inserted, they just thought it'd be nice if there were less lingering shots of drunk sluts by about 1/2. There would have still been plenty enough to go around.

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  20. Yes but it would have been to the detriment of the themese and ideas that Sorkin as a writer and Fincher as a director were playing with. They don't give a damn about being politically correct or satasfying every demographic, they're artists exploring themes and ideas and expressing those themes and ideas to the best of their abilities.

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  21. To clarify:

    The party montage at the beginning is the Phoenix; the Winklevoss twins belong to the Porcellian.

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  22. Hey Devin,

    Aaron Sorkin actually commented on this very issue on another blog. Check it out!

    http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2010/10/aaron-sorkin-responds-to-commenter-in.html

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  23. Pretty good analysis overall. But there's one thing: (White, male) nerds don't 'love' Asian women or culture -- they objectify them. Most nerds are terrified of strong women, so they want a stereotypically subservient she-thing to kick around, and all the anime and other horseshit they watch has broken their brains into believing Asian women are supposed to be that way.

    In TSN, it's significant that it's played as crowd-pleasing when the 'crazy, jealous' Asian girl is torn down and dumped, while all the other Asian women in the movie are portrayed as disposable trash. It has some... disturbing undertones.

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  24. Silicon Valley software engineerFebruary 4, 2011 at 3:47 PM

    For what it's worth, Anonymous, I'm a white male nerd, and I like strong women. Smart confident women make my heart flutter.

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