By the time Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s The Social Network opened Friday, smitten reviewers and pundits had already proclaimed the film as the second coming of Citizen Kane, extolling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, director Fincher, and writer Sorkin as modern prophets. This movie, we’ve been told, not only reflects its era, but will shape it.
Amid the frenzy, Stephen Colbert asked what others have also observed: What about “the ladies in the film”? In his interview with Sorkin on Sept. 30, Colbert mentioned Erica, Zuckerberg’s “super smart” (ex-)girlfriend, played by Rooney Mara, then said, mischievously: “The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say, because they’re high or drunk or [bleep]ing some guys in the bathroom. Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?”
“That’s a fair question,” Sorkin replied, pointing out the “one other woman,” the young lawyer played by Rashida Jones. “The other women are prizes, basically,” Sorkin said, later adding: “The women in this particular story who are prizes, it really doesn’t speak to the entire female population of Harvard, this is just the people who are populating this story.”
It’s hard not to enjoy The Social Network. It is an impressive film: crisp, beautiful, kinetic, with humor as dark as its lighting.
But Colbert was right. Women in the movie—apart from the lawyer and Erica, who sets the stage and disappears—are less prizes than they are props, buxom extras literally bussed in to fill the roles of doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys. They are foils for the male characters, who in turn are cruel or indifferent to them. (In a somewhat ironic turn of events, former Harvard President Larry Summers is perhaps the only man in the movie portrayed both as solicitous and respectful of a woman’s opinion.)
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• Full coverage and reviews of The Social NetworkComplaining about misogyny in modern blockbuster cinema is about as productive as lamenting Facebook’s grip on our society. But what is the state of things if a film that keeps women on the outer circles of male innovation enjoys such critical acclaim; indeed, is heralded as the “defining” story of our age? What are we to do with a great film that makes women look so awful?
“It seemed to me that women in this film are mostly liabilities,” said Anna Holmes, a writer and founding editor of the women’s website Jezebel. “They cause problems for the men.”
What are we to do with a great film that makes women look so awful?
“It’s a man’s world sort of movie,” Holmes told me Friday. “There’s a certain pacing to it, an excitement about money, the male relationships with one another. I also think it reflects the way a lot of young men regard females.”
As I watched the film, I found myself laughing out loud at the women. From the girls trucked into the Phoenix Club in the film’s opening scenes to the groupies giggling about their inability to play videogames, it seemed that the film set girls up as some joke on the state of womankind. Maybe the joke was on me?
The Social Network lampoons Asian women, in particular. We first meet Brenda Song’s character, Harvard co-ed Christy, when she throws her cleavage at newly successful (and, ohmigod, final club member!) Eduardo Saverin. A few minutes later, she’s giving him oral sex in a public restroom. Afterward, Christy and her friend sit uselessly on a couch while the men plot the expansion of Facebook. This isn’t the only time in the movie when two girls are drunk and irrelevant on a peripheral sofa.
Then, inexplicably and suddenly, Christy becomes mad with jealousy. Near the climax of the film, Christy lights a scarf on fire in Eduardo’s apartment, then turns and asks, doe-eyed, if he’s leaving her. What this scene contributes to the film’s development is beyond me—unless Sorkin is trying to explain why Harvard’s all-male final clubs won’t let women become members: We might all be vindictive pyromaniacs.
Kartina Richardson, a filmmaker and writer, described this scene to me as “really the only cheap move on the movie’s part—here’s the erratic hyper-sexed Asian woman totally obsessed with her white Harvard man.”
“This movie also showed this guy who really felt he should be on top and had this hostility to women,” Richardson said. “Nerds in movies are usually portrayed as really lovable underdogs. In reality, there’s a strong sexist element to programming.”
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Harvard class of 1989, said she doesn’t remember Harvard as being misogynistic but that the film does illustrate a problem with modern women: They’re opting out of high-power jobs.
“What you see in the movie, the thing that’s bothering you,” Wurtzel, lawyer and author of Prozac Nation, among other books, told me, “is that our culture, in its most powerful places, has gotten more sexist, because women are not in powerful positions in these places. And it’s our fault. I don’t know why women do this to ourselves. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are controlled by men. I think the movie just reflects what’s starting to happen.”
The Social Network draws a parallel between final clubs and early Facebook. Perhaps in attempting to illustrate the gender divisions and inequalities at Harvard—which the film implies were part of the inspiration for thefacebook.com—Sorkin and Fincher deliberately portrayed women through the eyes of the male antiheroes.
If this was the case, Holmes suggested, they might have offered more criticism of the gender dynamic, rather than letting art imitate bigotry. “You also have to ask—well, are they using shots that linger on women’s bodies because that’s the way these male characters look at women, or because its cinematic eye candy?”
Aaron Sorkin can write some pretty badass female roles: C.J. Cregg of The West Wing is an enduring favorite, along with the women of A Few Good Men and Sports Night. At Harvard, Zuckerberg had female friends. Was there no room in this film for a good female character, or was Sorkin trying to make a point about where women fall in the world of male ambition? Said Holmes: “You can have a movie about a rock band with groupies and still humanize the groupies.” And there are plenty of films with no female characters at all that are not misogynistic.
If a movie gives aesthetic pleasure, if it entertains, critics tend not to consider the portrayal of women and ignore those who cry foul. Hey, this is art! And who wants a brilliant movie marred by some obligatory “strong lady” type-casting? Most reviews have sounded like this one, from the New York Post, which called the film “a timeless and compelling story that speaks volumes about the way we live today.”
Compelling? Absolutely. Timeless? I guess we’ll see. I’m just not sure it’s a movie that defines my generation. Maybe just half of it.
Rebecca Davis O'Brien is a writer based in New York City. She served as an associate managing editor and columnist at the Harvard Crimson and has written for The New York Times, Parade, and Forbes.com, among other publications. Her first book (working title: The King's English), a memoir of her two years working at a boarding school in Jordan, will be published by Algonquin Books in 2011.