Note: this article was also posted on the official website for The Social Network.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.