Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg, Brenda Song, and Andrew Garfield in The Social Network

The Social Network is a fantastic film that’s miserable to women. Aside from the overt ways in which it depicts college-age young women as insane, fear-inspiring shrews or as vacuous, sexualized objects, the film’s resolutely male worldview is a disturbing window into the misogyny not just of Ivy League privilege, but of the upper echelons of capitalist entrepreneurship.

Written with terse, vivid dialogue by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) that captures the short-hand and urgency of a world of students wired to their computers searching for what Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) calls in the film “the next great invention,” The Social Network captures the kind of raucous Ivy League undergrad experience in which trashed dorm rooms are full of boys drinking beer and dreaming up multimillion dollar schemes (or looking at sexy “girls” on-line).

Simply by being at Harvard, Sorkin and director David Fincher (Benjamin Button) imply, these guys gain entr√©e to a world of serious money and power that has little to do with what they’re taught in class. The few scenes in which professors lecture are ridiculously staid and intentionally boring compared to the fast-paced thinking and scheming that happens elsewhere on campus, where Sorkin and Fincher clarify that the real benefits of a Harvard education are to be had.

Mark Zuckerberg (the terrific Jesse Eisenberg) is a whiz-kid with serious social problems. In the film’s first scene, he deeply offends his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), by obsessing about getting into one of the “final clubs” to which the most elite (mostly male) students at Harvard belong. The scene sets up everything we need to know about Zuckerberg: he’s a genius who aced his SATs; he’s a chauvinist about gender and class (he tells Erica surely she doesn’t have to study because she goes to Boston University); and he feels like an utter outsider because he’s a Jew at Harvard (which means he’s neither tall, nor athletic, nor blond, nor “cool,” which is what he most wants to be). By the scene’s end, Erica has emphatically dumped him because, as she announces, he’s also an asshole.

For a feminist spectator, what The Social Network communicates above all is the elite, exclusive, deeply male-oriented world of Ivy League and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. After Erica dumps him, Zuckerberg gets online to write demeaning blog posts about her anatomy, seeking his revenge in the most sophomoric ways. In a fit of pique, he also creates a website called “facemash.com,” on which people are invited to rate and rank images of Harvard women, whose photos he acquires by hacking into Harvard’s computer stores. Within hours, the site receives so much traffic it crashes the Harvard server.

Harvard men leer and call to each other to check out facemash, but Sorkin and Fincher include only one pair of women looking at the web page with dismay and anger. Their very brief scene demonstrates only that women were helpless in the face of the site’s viral power, and that their perspective is completely peripheral to the film at large.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film in which the “male gaze” has been so glorified and so gleefully promoted with so little real critique. Scene after scene demonstrates the traffic in women among Zuckerberg’s classmates and, later, his Facebook colleagues. A bus pulls up to the back entrance of one of Harvard’s final clubs to deliver 30 or so beautiful women as though they’re little more than kegs of beer. At the party, where everyone gets trashed on alcohol and drugs, the men smirk while the women make-out with one another for their titillation, or stand on tables to take their clothes off, or service the men sexually in not-so dark corners of the house.

At a campus lecture by Bill Gates, Zuckerberg and his roommate and erstwhile best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) are hit on by two Asian American women who recognize them as the founders of Facebook. They throw themselves at the two guys and give them blowjobs in a bar bathroom. Eduardo is delighted that he and Mark have “groupies”—the women are nothing but pretty faces, despite the fact that they’re also most likely Harvard undergrads with the brains and intellectual talent to be accepted to the school.

Eduardo continues to date, Christy Ling, his partner from that evening. She’s present the first time Eduardo and Zuckerberg meet Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the co-founder of Napster, in a scene that establishes Parker’s cultural capital and sees Christy matching Zuckerberg and Eduardo drink for exotic drink. She’s smart and quick, and understands Parker’s power and the allure of the big time he represents.

But inexplicably, the film turns Christy into a psychotic, controlling, predatory shrew who fulfills all the stereotypes of the Chinese dragon lady. Only under this film’s misogynist logic could she become so horrible. She shouts at Eduardo because he forgets to call her, and sets fire to a silk scarf he brings her from LA in a desperate attempt to appease her impossible demands. The film portrays Christy as a terrifying, irrational presence whom the reasonable, ethical Eduardo can’t contain.

Brenda Song plays Christy. On The Social Network’s official web site cast list (www.thesocialnetwork-movie.com), she’s named alongside her photo as a character, but the note includes no description and no actor’s bio. The male characters’ blurbs describe their relationships to the story, and the actors who play them are linked to the history of their own performance careers.

Likewise, Rooney Mara, as Erica, isn’t given a link to her career biography, although her character’s relationship to Zuckerberg is explained in a few short sentences. Why don’t these women actors deserve professional histories of their own? Is this evidence that the filmmakers think as much of their female performers as the male characters do of the women in the story?

When Zuckerberg forms a partnership with Parker, he moves his operations from Harvard to Palo Alto, where the women are portrayed as just as loose, easy, and disposable as they were in Cambridge. When Parker first appears in the film, he’s just had a one-night stand with a Stanford woman. We know she goes to Stanford because it’s written across her ass, on the tiny little briefs she wears when she gets out of bed. Her only purpose in the story is to introduce Parker to Facebook, even though she’s also witty, and quick, and a French major (which makes her entirely precious and impractical in Parker’s cutthroat capitalist world).

As Stacy, my stalwart film-going companion, notes, the scene is hateful because even smart, self-possessed women have no purpose in this movie other than to establish the credentials of the men. Aside from showing him her Facebook page, the scene’s only purpose is to show that Parker is smart enough to have sex with a brilliant Stanford girl.

When Parker and another girl knock on Zuckerberg’s door, surprised that he’s moved across the street from Parker in Palo Alto (a choice Zuckerberg makes quite intentionally), Zuckerberg tosses the guy a beer as he crosses through the kitchen. Parker catches it easily. Then the oh-so-chivalrous Zuckerberg tosses one to Parker’s girlfriend, and it hits the wall and breaks because she wasn’t expecting the bottle to come her way. He carelessly tosses her another one, which also shatters all over the floor.

The flummoxed young woman looks foolish and inept, through no fault of her own. It’s a short scene, but it concisely illustrates everything the characters—and, apparently, Sorkin and Fincher—think about women. Throughout The Social Network, the female characters serve purely as conduits for the men’s relationships or as adornments that represent the men’s successful professional lives.

When Parker seduces Zuckerberg with his fast talk of making billions of dollars and essentially ruling the world, Mark betrays Eduardo and throws in his lot with the narcissistic Napster king. Parker dates a Victoria’s Secret model, whose only role is to allow him to decorate himself. She also gives him an excuse to tell Zuckerberg how the lingerie company was founded, and how the man who created it sold himself short when the head of the Limited bought Victoria’s Secret and proceeded to make billions from the company. Parker’s paranoid, cautionary tales encourage Zuckerberg toward ever more mercenary heights of cutthroat business practices, leaving old friends like Eduardo and other Harvard colleagues in his wake.

Sorkin and Fincher aren’t interested in a character study so much as they are in a portrait of the times, a representation of the zeitgeist when a brilliant idea could careen into a huge personal fortune. But because Mark Zuckerberg is one of the most complicated hero-villains in the history of the movies, the screenwriter and director can’t help but psychologize his story. The founding of Facebook, according to their script, is fueled by Zuckerberg’s desire to make Erica notice him again, to make her realize that he’s a genius, not an asshole.

As the web site grows out of the confines of the Ivy League where it begins, he’s determined that one of the first universities to which it expands will be BU, where Erica goes to school. When he sees his ex- in a restaurant with her friends and approaches her to talk, Erica summarily and publicly rejects him again. That humiliation (rather than, say, greed), Sorkin and Fincher suggest, motivates Zuckerberg to expand his fame and fortune. The film ends with him sending Erica a friend request on Facebook, repeatedly clicking the enter key as he waits for a response.

Portraying Zuckerberg as a wounded Lothario is a cheap trick, when it’s clear from the rest of the story that capitalist invention is in fact driven by a world of connections facilitated by who you know and the clubs to which you belong. Women, in this schema, are interchangeable and disposable. In almost every scene, the continuous party happening in the background is populated with nubile, beautiful girls who are stoned out of their minds, giggling together, draped around one another on couches, or offering their bare midriffs up as tables on which their friends can snort coke. They’re mindless accessories of the most offensive sort. Only Erica is given any kind of story or psychology that lets us see her as something of a person. And even then, her story only serves to illustrate Zuckerberg’s.

The depositions Sorkin and Fincher intercut with the story of Facebook’s founding and triumph comment beautifully on the costs of Zuckerberg’s achievement. Eduardo sues Mark for bilking him out of his rightful share in the company they started together, and the preppie Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, onto whose body Hammer’s face was digitally imposed) and their friend, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), sue him for stealing their idea for Harvard Connection, a similar site meant to trade on the allure of a Harvard.edu address to create an exclusive social network. Flashing back to the beginning of the story, then ahead to the depositions in both law suits, allows the filmmakers to trace the consequences of what in the moment look like Zuckerberg’s capricious decisions.

The guy’s coldly supercilious, superior behavior at these depositions presents him as an unlikeable cad, but the flashbacks complicate our sympathies—or at least that’s their intent. Clear from Sorkin and Fincher’s film is that Zuckerberg felt very much an outsider at Harvard, a Jew among gentiles, overly invested in being accepted by a club that would never call him one of its own. The final clubs he longs to join, Zuckerberg says, determine your access to wealth and connections. That Eduardo is “punched” by a club to which he’ll most likely be accepted wounds Zuckerberg deeply (according to the film). Eduardo knows his friend is jealous, and supplies his own excuse: the clubs want him for “diversity,” since Eduardo is Brazilian (but most importantly, he’s fabulously wealthy). Eduardo is also Jewish and was raised in Miami, but his Latin American exoticism is what gets him through the door of exclusive privilege.

Despite his brilliance, Zuckerberg knows he’ll always be on the outside of real power, looking in, invited only as far as the “bike room” of the Winklevoss’s final club where they pitch him their idea for Harvard Connection and enlist his programming help. His “fuck you” attitude, demonstrated by his invariable costume of hoodies, t-shirts, and plastic Adidas flip-flops, doesn’t protect him from his ultimate exclusion and he knows it. Despite his fame, he’s forever consigned to be a wired, Jewish nerd. He can create the world’s largest, most powerful social network, but the girl he desires remains forever out of his grasp, refusing his own friend requests.

If the film wants us to pity the poor brilliant rich boy, it halfway succeeds. Eisenberg’s performance is focused and intense, minus the usual self-deprecating, nouveau-Woody Allen shtick for which he’s usually cast. Instead, his Zuckerberg is crafty and calculating, trading his best friend for entrance into the dot.com bubble that only a snake like Sean Parker can provide.

Eisenberg never wavers in Zuckerberg’s own self-righteous defense, but during the deposition scenes in which Eduardo relates his ex-friend’s betrayal, you can see hints of ruefulness play around Mark’s eyes. The Winklevoss twins are beneath his contempt, partly because he knows he’ll never be them, and his success will only ever nip at the heels of their inherited power and prestige. But Eduardo was his buddy, and his loss leaves Zuckerberg truly alone.

At the film’s end, the female law partner helping to defend Zuckerberg at the depositions tells him that he’s really not an asshole, but he’s trying hard to act like one. Her gesture toward solicitude barely registers. Zuckerberg asks her to dinner and she declines. He stays behind, tapping on his laptop in the law firm’s darkened conference room, trying to get Erica to respond to his friend request. That the female law associate has the last word, and that Eduardo’s lawyer is a woman, can’t balance out the film’s hateful view of women as only bodies, as sexual entertainment for white male power and privilege, with absolutely no agency of their own.

I most regret that The Social Network is good enough that it will be acclaimed in the 2010 awards season without enough critical ink spilled about how it demeans, degrades, and disposes of women. We need a feminist outcry to remind audiences that creating a good film is no excuse for being so patently gender-biased and offensive. A few scenes that pointedly criticized the misogynist atmosphere the film winds up authorizing would have gone a long way toward calling attention to the highly sexualized social scene in which smart college-age young women continue to navigate. At Princeton, just this kind of predatory behavior makes women into “things” whose only purpose is male entertainment and sexual gratification (see, for example, Caroline Kitchener's editorial, "Casanova on the Street," http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2010/10/6/26460/).

The Social Network isn’t quite smart enough or good enough to underline that Zuckerberg’s relationship with Parker is a homosocial bond, or that the women Parker brings to his parties are really his way of seducing his male friends by flaunting his hetero power. The film can’t come to terms with Zuckerberg and Eduardo’s love for one another, either. It can only align them in mutual glee as they revel in the enjoyment of blowjobs they receive in adjacent bathroom stalls by their Asian American female groupies. And as Stacy points out, how perfect that the rich Winklevoss boys are egotistical, identical twins. The environment is rife with homoeroticism, which is in so many ways the foundation of masculine privilege and power.

That’s the part of the social network on which Sorkin and Fincher fail to comment—perhaps because they’re enjoying its bounty themselves.

The Feminist Spectator

11 comments:

  1. I think you get this movie really, deeply wrong. Amongst other things, you completely ignore the various cinematic contexts.. the framing in which these moments are related. For example, the FaceMash sequence intercuts three different narrative strains-- Zuckerberg blogging, Zuckerberg creating facemash, and a house party at one of the finals clubs-- while lighting and scoring all three of them like a horror movie. We're not supposed to find what Zuckerberg does thrilling, we're supposed to find it repugnant.

    The film is built out of a series of moments that in other movies are presented as awesome, but time and time again it purposefully undercuts our enjoyment of them. Trent Reznor's score is a key part of this, as is Eisenberg's performance. This isn't a movie about how awesome it is to get rich, it's a movie about the interplay between exclusivity, misogyny and class privilege centered around a group of unlikeable characters. There's a reason why (for example) Jesse Eisenberg makes no attempt to ingratiate Mark Zuckerberg to the audience.

    It's a portrait of misogyny, and a rather subversive one at that, as it borrows all sorts of film tropes (the drunken party where hot girls make out with each other, the older man who bangs college chicks, the genius creative mind etc.) and deploys them in ways that turns them on their heads.

    What it also does, and this to me is what makes it far smarter and better crafted than you give it credit for, is show what people find that kind of behavior appealing. Why a lonely guy would want to go to that party. Why people would want to treat people the way the characters do in the film. That it has nuance, though, does not mean it's "horrible to women", it means its about people who are horrible to women.

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  2. Thanks for this, Isaac. I can see your point, but I still can't agree with it. I don't think the critique you see in the film reads clearly enough.

    Partly, for me, this is because Zuckerberg isn't a completely repugnant character. I felt the filmmakers sympathized with his Jewish outsiderness, and saw him as someone left by the door because of his ethnicity, which makes him rather desperate for the kind of success that comes via birthright to people like the Winklevoss twins.

    Eisenberg/Zuckerberg doesn't even really participate in the badly gendered behavior the film seems to me to depict with such glee, except for the sexual servicing in the bathroom stalls, where it's clear that Eduardo likes it better than he does.

    I agree that cinematically, the film is sophisticated and very well crafted--that's what makes it so terrific. But I don't see the comment on misogyny that you do through the editing or the sound track.

    Why is it, for example, that none of the reviews seem to say, "Boy, women get treated badly in that world, and how terrific that Sorkin and Fincher expose its rampant sexism." I've read very little in the public hosannas for this movie about how gender works through the story. If the film raised a debate about this issue, I'd be delighted.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Isaac. Happy to disagree. My best, jd

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  3. Thank you, Jill, for voicing so well what sickened me about this movie. I think you are right on in holding Sorkin and Fincher accountable for indulging in the sexism extant in the worlds of the characters rather than critiquing it. I too can appreciate that it is a slick, well-crafted film, but I was uneasy throughout the entire thing. The capper for me was the scene where Parker and Zuckerberg are ogling a female intern in the Google offices near the end of the film--I guess we were supposed to find that kind of cute or funny? The gender politics of this film are no better than what we get with Iron Man and I expected more from Sorkin. Thanks, Madge

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  4. Thanks for this. My friend pointed me to this entry after I'd written mine on the movie (I do subscribe, I'm just behind!). I especially like your point about the treatment of the female performers on the official website. I think I like the movie less than everyone else (though more than my blog might suggest - I decided to balance out the positive criticism rather than try and be balanced myself!)

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  5. What would be the larger social implication for the consumption of Facebook as a social network service if women have been so badly represented in a movie about its creation? I am seriously thinking about this! Why would I as a woman want to support such insensitive entrepreneurship from Silicon Valley?

    It's ironic and no doubt a good sign that we are using Google's blog application to discuss Facebook itself as a social network! Google has its own social network called Orkut but not many seem to be aware of it.

    I'm currently doing research on gender and communications for a graduate level paper. Thanks Prof. Dolan for your seasoned, feminist insights. As a younger Canadian baby-boomer in Toronto, Canada, I prefer comedy with a little romance for entertainment such as "Red" with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren.

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  6. You state that the scene in which Zuckerberg tosses a beer at a women and she drops it is meant to highlight the helplessness of women and their vapid role in the life of the male protagonists.

    In reality, you're just viewing this entire movie through a radically feminist perspective, so radical in fact that you can't entertain any possibilities that butt heads with your own narrative of the movie.

    The point of that scene is to give a slightly humorous slightly pathetic example of Zuckerberg's lack of any social awareness. There is no larger misogynistic context of the women in that scene.

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  7. James, thanks for this post. I think we disagree about how that scene reads (which is fine--I actually CAN entertain different readings that don't align with my own).

    I do think it's possible to see that scene, and all the others that marginalize and demean the film's women, as representations of Zuckerman's haplessness and social ineptitude.

    But from where I sit (which is definitely on the feminist side of the house, though I'm not sure how "radical" it is), in addition to making him look socially stupid, it makes the women look like accessories, playthings in a very male-driven, male-oriented world.

    I appreciate your post--you're not the only one who disagrees with me about this!

    My best, jd

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  8. I think what Isaac and James both miss here is that the message that is INTENDED and the message that is RECEIVED from a text/film/artwork are entirely different things. A film can, despite its best intentions, promote ideas it doesn't intend to. Secondly, there is no value in good intentions if they don't carry through--if they are not received. And clearly Jill, myself, and the others who've commented all did not receive the messages you suggest the film intends to convey. Thirdly, one can mostly only ever hypothesise about what was intended by things like the score, lighting, etc. Even when the film-makers share their supposed intentions with us, say, in interviews, we can only give them the benefit of the doubt. Author John Marsden talks about finishing his first novel completely, then suddenly realising that the text unconsciously plays out some of his personal issues--it totally took him by surprise. Messages aren't just subtly encoded in artworks, their subtly encoded in us! From us, by us! We are none of us perfectly self-aware. Our subjectivity seeps into the art we create, and it colours our reading of a text. Yes, Jill's subjective positioning is feminist. So's mine. But it's hypocritical to accuse a feminist reading of being biased, when the same could be said of your reading. I wonder, in particular, about James' subjective positioning, given the vehemence with which he accuses others of being unable to 'entertain any possibilities that butt heads with your own narrative of the movie'--a case of projection if ever I saw one! The point is, Jill has painstakingly 'entertained' the signs and signifiers in this movie, and provided a very detailed reading, which you're free to challenge. But you, on the other hand, provide no evidence. Only your gut response. Which is coloured by YOUR biases and subjectivity.

    Great piece, Jill :)

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  9. Sorry if the truth hurts. Women in the west have sadly become exactly as you described: "...insane, fear-inspiring shrews or as vacuous and sexualized objects."

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  10. I just watched The Social Network last night, and my immediate reaction was "Where is the feminist critique of this horribly misogynist movie?" I was thrilled to search this morning and find your comments, which sound as if you and I had sat down last night following my viewing and discussed the film!
    I am particularly proud to note your Princeton affiliation (I'm an alumna).

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  11. Thanks for this, dms (glad you're a Princeton alumna, too). The responses to this particular post on this particular movie have been pretty polarized, and unfortunately, mostly around gender. I had to reject a comment recently that was long and frankly vicious in response to my feminist reading. I'm happy for disagreement (see some of the comments above) but not for ad hominem attacks. All best, jd

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