Women in “The Social Network” are “less prizes than they are props,” writes Rebecca Davis O’Brien at The Daily Beast, “buxom extras literally bussed in to fill the roles of doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys.” “What are we to do with a great film that makes women look so awful?” she asks, going on to target the film’s portrayal of Asian women and its “shots that linger on women’s bodies.” Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon claims that “Ultimately, the question becomes whether the film’s sexism is intentional and, if so, whether it accurately reflects reality.”
Does “The Social Network” have a problem with women? I wouldn’t say so, but its characters sure do. Are women underrepresented in the film? Sure. It’s a story about guys! Desperate, socially inept guys. It’s a cinematic sausage fest. Of the different arguments being floated on this topic, the one that I find the most troubling is voiced by O’Brien’s sarcastic “who wants a brilliant movie marred by some obligatory ‘strong lady’ type-casting?” Who wants a movie marred by obligatory casting of any sort?
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.
We don’t see women involved in the running of Facebook because we hardly see the company once it has actually become one, with an office and a more gender equitable mix of staffers, much less when it got around to hiring Sheryl Sandberg as COO in 2008. The film’s about Facebook’s dorm room origin story, not a treatise on the tech world at large. It’s about the gap between the pursuit of success and the pursuit of happiness.
We don’t see women around much in general in the film because our main characters have no idea how to meet or pursue or talk to them. The smart, grounded girl the film starts out with — Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright — walks out on the asshole she’s been dating after he simultaneously ignores and talks down to her. It’s an affirming moment, but we don’t go with her, because it’s the asshole that “The Social Network” is about.
Mark Zuckerberg, or at least the Mark Zuckerberg of the movie, embodied by Jesse Eisenberg, finds the seeds of his company in the type of obscurely vengeful thought we’ve all found consolation in at one time or another — “You’ll be sorry when I’m famous/dead/beautiful/successful/rich!” What’s tragic about Zuckerberg is that even as he builds the company that will become a part of the lives of half a billion people, that will make him the world’s youngest billionaire, he’s still just a closed-off workaholic who has trouble relating to people, and his ex isn’t going to come crawling back because of his achievements.
Zuckerberg starts the film off wanting to distinguish himself, beyond getting into Harvard — he wants to get into a final club “because they’re exclusive,” and, as an afterthought, “they’re fun and they lead to a better life.” He wants the trappings of success because he thinks, like membership in a final club, they somehow lead to love and happiness, but he doesn’t care about money and the people who seek him and Eduardo out because of Facebook’s rise are, unsurprisingly, parasitic and unstable — like Brenda Song’s Christy character, certainly, but also like Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker, the dot-com rock star who’s all hot air.
“The Social Network” doesn’t present a world in which women are all “gold-diggers, drunken floozies and that ‘bitch’ who got away,” it presents one in which those are pretty much the handful that cross the paths of our main characters, who do everything possible to meet girls except actually go out and meet them. That ridiculous party that’s juxtaposed with Mark’s assembling of Facemash.com isn’t meant to be a feasible depiction of what life in the final clubs is like — the members order in kegs of beer and kegs of ladies. It stands for everything Mark thinks he’s missing out on, the debaucherous good time the elite are surely having while he sits at home stewing in his own self-loathing. What would he even do if he was invited? He’d just sit in the corner with his laptop.