Fun with juxtapositions: Guess what I was doing right before I left the house to go see “The Social Network”? I was reading about the Duke University woman who gained instant infamy by having a private joke about her sex life leaked onto the internet. I was struck by how overt the double standard was in this case; young men use bragging about conquests (with often way more derogatory commentary about their partners) as a way to score points with friends all the time. I’m sure many elaborately document it for these purposes. But they don’t get dragged on TV to apologize.
Then I go to see “The Social Network”, and the opening scene is an apparently true-to-life story of Mark Zuckerberg blogging horrible things about a woman because she dumped him, and his creating of Facemash, which was a “hot or not” kind of site that got him in some trouble with the school board. Marc and I were annoyed as fuck at the idea that 22,000 hits would crash all of Harvard’s servers, which is a) ridiculous and b) turns out that it never happened. But that Sorkin and Fincher decided to tack that on points to what I think the movie was trying to say about this incident. In the movie, unlike real life, the focus in his disciplinary hearings was on the fact that he breached Harvard security and crashed Harvard servers. He isn’t punished in any way for making misogynist sport out of his fellow students, even though this is objectively the worst thing that he did.
I was already thinking about double standards, and subsequently I was intrigued by the juxtaposition. Owen creates an intentionally private joke about her sex life that implicates no one but the direct parties involved, and she’s publicly shamed. In this scene, we see a man do something much worse—publicly humiliating a woman for dumping him and taking his anger out on basically all women—and he ends up becoming a billionaire.
There’s all sorts of caveats you can attach to this, of course. The Zuckerberg thing is fictionalized and his financial success was built on something else entirely. But it was still one that made obvious to me what I think was subtle to a lot of people in the audience, which is that the filmmakers are pointing you in a direction of being appalled that Zuckerberg got away with treating women so shabbily.
There’s a tendency for smart people to watch TV shows and movies, ignore the thoughts that are inspired in us, and instead focus on what we believe the lowest common denominator is getting from a film. And then we hold the filmmakers accountable for the way we believe the lowest common denominator would react instead of thinking that perhaps our reactions were the point. I think “The Social Network” has definitely created this problem, especially when it comes to women’s role in all this. In the movie, smart, capable women are pushed to the sidelines and the main characters—the various men who created and fought over the ownership of Facebook—surround themselves with bimbos. And this is aggressively portrayed; at one point, two women in the room ask if they can help on a Facebook-related project, and they’re told they have nothing to contribute (insinuation: you are here to provide orgasms and shut up). This was the contradictory reactions that arose in me:
My honest feeling about this: “This makes these guys look like assholes and nimrods. They try a little too hard to prove that they’re Real Men, and in doing so, they deliberately use women as props. There are a lot of men actually like this in the world, and a lot of media aimed at glamorizing a world where genuinely relating to women is treated as emasculating. But watching these characters, I feel like they’re pathetic because they can’t actually cope with women who do anything but play the bimbo role.”
My attempt at reading what the lowest common denominator thinks: “Cool. I wish hot bitches would just shut up and fuck me, too.”
You often see people who make the mistake of arguing that portraying equals endorsing, which means that they disregard the discomfort they feel when, say, misogyny is portrayed onscreen. They assume straightaway that their discomfort is wholly theirs, and that the filmmakers didn’t intend to provoke their discomfort. I’ve even made this assumption myself, and have to watch for it. You even see this interpretation when it comes to something like “Mad Men”, where it couldn’t be more obvious that they’re hoping you suck your teeth when the characters do something really sexist or racist. And when it comes to “The Social Network”, I’m seeing a lot of people assume that the filmmakers had no intention whatsoever of making you question the misogyny they portray onscreen. The evidence for this is a lack of Strong Female Characters that are central to the story.
Here is why I think that it’s wrong to think that Sorkin and Fincher are trying to do anything but make you uncomfortable with the casual misogyny of the main characters in the movie: it bugs the shit out of everyone who sees it. If they didn’t intend to make a movie that was interrogating toxic masculinity and its effect on women, they managed to make a movie where that theme is the main one that everyone who leaves the theater appears to be discussing. At a certain point, the thing that is most notable about “The Social Network” might just be the thing that the movie is about. Or at least one of the things.
It’s not like there aren’t Strong Female Characters in “The Social Network”. They’re there, but they are mostly hinted at, and one thing they have in common is that they find Mark Zuckerberg and his buddies repulsive. The one character we see ingratiating herself into their group is openly portrayed as obsessive and probably mentally ill. The conclusion the audience reaches—and I suspect this was the point—was that women who have their shit together know well enough to stay far the fuck away from these guys. And in case that point wasn’t clear enough, the opening and closing scenes involve Zuckerberg interacting with these women. Or, more to the point, being basically shoved off by them.
Indeed, the last scene in the movie is so powerful, I realized, because it was all focused on two things whose absence is most keenly felt throughout this entire movie about Facebook: women who aren’t bimbos and a human being interacting with Facebook in a way that indicates why it took off like it did. Up until the last scene, we hear people talk about Facebook. We see it pulled up on screen. But we never actually see anyone use Facebook. It’s not because watching people use software is boring, either. We have tons of scenes of people coding, and we actually see more shots of someone interacting with the Harvard website and with LiveJournal than we do people actually using Facebook. I think that the lampshade that’s hung on this for people who didn’t notice it was the scene where Eduardo Saverin admits he doesn’t know how to update his profile on Facebook.
Thinking about this, I realized that this is a possible read on the film. It’s about a lot of things: corporate intrigue, clashes between men, etc. But it’s a movie that’s very much about absence, about what’s not there as much as what is there.
I made a list of the three most important things that motivate the character of Mark Zuckerberg that get almost no real attention onscreen: Facebook itself, smart women, and the final clubs. We get little hints of those things, but they’re mainly portrayed in ways that emphasize the shutting out of Mark: he can’t walk past the bicycle club at the Porcellian, every interaction with a woman that’s not a bimbo results in her walking away from him after dressing him down, and when we see him interact with the site he built as a user, it’s only because he can’t get Erica to be his Facebook friend. Also, Mark is shown having one real friend in the world and the entire movie is about him pushing that man out of his life. There is little to no doubt that we’re supposed to view the character of Mark Zuckerberg as a man who may have billions of dollars, but whose life is void. And this is driven home by a final scene where he, the founder of Facebook, can’t even get the woman who dumped him to be his Facebook friend. I think the absence of certain things onscreen was a deliberate choice made to reflect the absence of those things in his life.
That’s a whole lot of Rosebuds, in other words.
I suppose you could be angry about the lack of Strong Female Characters in a movie that is making a statement about misogyny, arguing that there’s such a lack of good female roles that directors and writers who oppose sexism need to put their efforts into creating those roles. And that’s a good point, but that suffers from the problem of holding a single movie accountable for all other movies. From a strictly artistic standpoint, it’s an interesting choice to try to represent absence through absence. Most of the time, it’s represented by presence. Most directors would try to drive home the lack of a woman in this character’s life by spending more time on his relationship before snatching it away. Or they would try to portray his eagerness to get into a final club by showing more than an insubstantial, dialogue-free, dreamy scene that could be taken either for how the club actually is, or how Mark imagines that it is. It’s fascinating to me that the reason that Sean Parker is able to tempt Mark to follow him is because of absence—Parker is a hero to Zuckerberg because he created two websites that were litigated out of existence. What’s not there is more relevant than what is.