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Social Network sexism

The Social Network poster. Jesse Eisenberg's face text superimposed YOU DON'T GET TO 500 MILLION FRIENDS WITHOUT MAKING A FEW ENEMIES.The Social Network is an excellent film, meaningful, relevant, and very entertaining, with sharp dialogue, beautiful direction, and a stellar and practically all male cast. Oh yeah, that.

The film follows an interesting pattern I’ve noticed in other work by contemporary male filmmakers (Inception as an example) – it offers compelling insight into sexism while also displaying a sexist perspective in its storytelling.

The film focuses on a new generation of powerful rich white men with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, as its lead. Zuckerberg and his friends/coworkers/enemies are actively antifeminist. After getting dumped Zuckerberg creates a website where people can compare and vote on the hotness of Harvard women. The site’s popularity and the ensuing backlash ups Zuckerberg’s cache and positions him to create Facebook. It also presents the first example of an interesting relationship with organizers: Zuckerberg uses the negative reaction of campus feminists to his advantage, but he also thinks that apologizing to them should mean the sexism of his website is no longer an issue.

Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin has a similar reaction when his inappropriate behavior with a chicken resurfaces during a deposition: he apologized to the campus animal rights group so the issue should be over. These guys treat organizers as a chance for attention and public forgiveness. Zuckerberg really doesn’t care that his attitude towards women is dehumanizing. This is complicated by the fact that he is an incredibly gifted programmer but lacks almost any social skills. But he still surrounds himself with male collaborators who he even occasionally respects and admires.

Which brings me to the gender problem of the film itself. There are almost no female characters in this movie. Sure, there are women on the screen to look at – as Roger Ebert mentions in his excellent review:

A subtext the movie never comments on is the omnipresence of attractive Asian women.

Of course there’s a racial element to the objectification. Yes, the lack of developed female characters absolutely stems from the fact the male leads don’t have real relationships with women, and, well, all the leads are male. But it’s not helped by a script that paints more than a few of these “attractive Asian women” as pretty standard stereotypes: whore, ditz, hysterical.

There are two women who bookend the film and are actually depicted as intelligent: Erica, who dumps Zuckerberg in the opening scene, and a lawyer played by Rashida Jones who closes the film. However, in a film about men who are computer geniuses but clueless about human interaction both these women display emotional intelligence. I was reminded of Ellen Page’s character in Inception. As Courtney wrote about that film:

It was hard not to notice that the only female member of the team, played by Ellen Page, is also the one who is the most emotionally-attuned, and charged with holding the lead male, played by Leo DeCaprio, responsible for his subconscious desires and emotional recklessness.

Erica and Zuckerberg’s lawyer both offer the male lead some insight into how people think and feel and then leave. That’s it. And those are the most developed women in the film.

The Social Network really is an extraordinarily good film, one I’m planning to run out and see again soon. But it certainly brings to light some frustrating sexism.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    I may see it, eventually, but I can see unapologetic sexism and narcissism any time I want on television. All the movie reminds me is that amorality and rampant egocentric attitudes are valuable commodities to making money.

  • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    At first I was thinking that it’s our generations’ “Wall Street.” You know, with corrupt people that are supposed to be the protagonists and a culture of wealth, corruption, and greed. Zuckerberg does remind me of some guys with Aspergers Syndrome: socially inept, unable to comprehend other’s feelings, and very vocal about their intelligence, yet can’t really grasp the reality outside their own worlds. Whereas most girls I know with the same Syndrome (myself included), tend to want to please people and try to blend in. Mostly social conditioning. Well Ebert’s review was through and excellent. But what are Justin Timberlake and Brenda Song doing here?

  • http://feministing.com/members/gretchen/ Gretchen Sisson

    I think it’s important to remember that this is a fictional movie about nonfictional people. When you say “Zuckerberg and his friends/coworkers/enemies are actively antifeminist,” you’re talking about Mark-Zuckerberg-the-character not Mark-Zuckerberg-the-real-person. If the film is sexist, that may be more Aaron Sorkin’s doing that Mark Zuckerberg’s.

    Oh, and in real like, Facemash had pictures of both men and women. A trivial point? Probably, but it does change the context of the site, and provides (I think) some insight into the type of characters the movie was trying to portray.

  • okra

    The female and ethnic minority characters and extras in this film weren’t just stereotypically potrayed…the screen *oozed* misogyny and ethnic (esp. East Asian) caricature.

    It destroyed my pleasure in an otherwise excellent movie.

    Out of dozens of female characters and nameless but prominently displayed extras, only three (3) appeared capable of holding a coherent conversation or doing anything that didn’t involve drugs, booze, stripping, dancing, crazed sex with casual acquaintances, or gratuitously having their arse shown off in skimpy panties while their male sex partner is carefully hidden by a bedsheet:

    (1) the ex-girlfriend Erica (early 20s);
    (2) the blonde middle-aged attorney holding the deposition
    (3) the young attorney (mid-to late 20s) played by Rashida Jones

    #1 was shown as essentiallly intelligent but was saddled with the god-awful and played-out storyline of being the biotchy ex-girlfriend whose rejection inspires the Hero to excel.

    #3 was shown as essentially intelligent, but as a passive young female second-year attorney who, unlike her powerful male bosses, tries to softly chat up and make an emotional connection with the client.

    #2 was the only woman in the whole film shown as active, powerful, and in full control of herself and others. And guess what? As per centuries of Western literary tradition, she was middle-aged. Western lit and culture have long “allowed” older women to demonstrate characteristics deemed unaccpetable in young women who are invariably defined by their reproductive capacities. When the age for reproduction wanes, so too do some of the strictures on women’s behavior and potential for authority.

    To boot, at least half a dozen female characters were shown as interns, secretaries, or hostesses…and I don’t just mean at Facebook, but in the Harvard offices and restaurants, as well.

    By contrast, out of dozens of male characters and prominently displayed extras, almost every one to a man was shown as, variously: intelligent, mentally active, physically active, creative, driven, or ambitious. There were several men who started their own business or were trying to. There were jerks who were clever in their jerkiness. There were friends helping or hurting each other. There were Harvard students who were excellent with computers. There was a male president of Harvard with his Black female assistant sitting quietly in his shadow while he held court with male students (incidentally, in real life this prez got in trouble for making sexist comments about women’s capabilities in math and science).There were a-hole heads of secret societies who took an active role in hazing people, demonstrating authority and power while doing so.

    In other words…

    Women were shown “being.” Men were shown “doing.”

    Is this characteristic of Hollywood? Sadly, yes.

    Of real life? Sadly, yes.

    Does that make it excusable in this picture? Nope. Don’t come crying to viewers, “But Johnny skipped class, too, Ma!” The screenwriter of this film, as talented as he is, had responsbility over his script, and the result was befouled beyond redemption.

    And I haven’t even touched on the intersection of misogyny with racism in the portrayal of East Asian women.

    Shame. Could have been a great movie.

    As it is, it’s cringeworthy.

    –Okra

  • http://feministing.com/members/selfrescuingprincess/ Emily

    I was watching The Colbert Report the other day, and Colbert was interviewing the director, and he mentioned the fact that there were no strong, intelligent women in the film. “The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high or drunk or blowing guys in the bathroom. Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?” The directer, Aaron Sorkin, says “That’s a fair question” and then talks about the lawyer, played by Rashida Jones (as mentioned in the article) and says that the other women are “prizes.” The kind of women that Mark Zuckerburg hung around with weren’t exactly of much substance, sincee he was mad that a smart woman dumped him and broke his heart. But anyway, I thought it was cool that Colbert would mention that.