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Sexism and The Social Network (and Justin Timberlake, for kicks)

Julia Armfield explores the accusations of sexism behind the autumn's biggest movie

At the Golden Globes earlier this month, The Social Network won a grand total of four major awards, and no one laughed. Accepting his Best Screenplay award, for his movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of Facebook, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin expressed his thanks to “all the female nominees tonight for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that elite is not a bad word, it’s an aspirational one. Honey, look around, smart girls have more fun, and you’re one of them.” Now, let’s lay aside, for the moment, the fact that I found watching The Social Network about as pleasurable as getting mugged outside Cyberdog and let us, instead, turn our attention to the raging debate over what many have attested to be the inescapable sexism of the movie in question, before we allow that statement to just slip on by.

On October 4th, Irin Carmon published an article on the popular women’s website Jezebel, entitled “The Social Network, where women never have ideas”. Responding to the movie’s phenomenal weekend success on first release, Carmon hit out at what she labeled Sorkin’s representation of “a fictional Harvard as crudely misogynistic as Hollywood…and a world in which the best a woman can hope for is to have her rejection create as meaningful a legacy”. It cannot be denied that she has a point. Women, in The Social Network, seem to fall into one of three categories; the vacuous groupies (because Facebook is just so hot), the vengeful sluts and the dumpy killjoys. Shrieking girlfriends set fire to scarves, drab chicks dump their patently brilliant boyfriends and random girls make out with each other for the pleasure of their male onlookers like that’s what you always do when you’re a Harvard undergrad and you’ve got undergrad stuff to be getting on with. As Katey Rich argued on the website CinemaBlend: “Rashida Jones’s lawyer character is a strong female, yes, but she’s also a cipher charged with awkwardly saying the movie’s theme out loud” – certainly not the smart girl having fun that Sorkin apparently advocates. Throughout The Social Network, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends serve as little more than disposable elements of a masculine power-trip. Women may be the catalysts or even, at times, the voices of reason, but never anything even approaching powerful or productive. As Carmon argues: “Hollywood’s solution to Facebook’s unsexy creation story was familiar: Add women as sluts, stalkers, or ballbusters. With very few exceptions, girls don’t even know how to properly play video games or get high off a bong, and they’re gold-diggers or humiliating bitches, and they certainly never come up with anything of value on their own.”.

Sorkin’s response, not to this article in particular, but to a similar accusation made on the website of TV blogger Ken Levine, was characteristically astute. Choosing, perhaps wisely (perhaps even sincerely) to avoid outright denial, Sorkin explained that he was “writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people.”. Writing in the comments section of Levine’s blog, he stated that, “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.” Now, here, it might quite easily be argued that Sorkin, too, has a point. Besides being drawn from life and so, presumably, representing women only as they ever actually were during the depicted events, The Social Network is also presented in subjective flashback; effectively casting almost everything played out before us as a highly coloured and unreliable recollection of various central (male) characters. Sorkin’s response, too, implies a degree of authorial intent, suggesting that whatever the movie might decide to depict by way of lesbian makeouts and blowjobs in the toilets (because again, Facebook is just so hot) is actually meant to be taken as commentary on the misogyny of Zuckerberg and his friends, if not, indeed, the entire Facebook generation. Fair point, I will give him that.

All the same, it’s sometimes difficult to get away from the fact that Sorkin’s various responses to allegations of sexism, intelligent though they universally are, have nonetheless been sudden enough to seem disingenuous at best. To start with, Sorkin cannot claim total innocence on the grounds that his movie is taken from true events, since he has openly admitted to changing various aspects of Zuckerberg’s life, including his having had a girlfriend since 2003. Additionally, it must be questioned why, if this movie is meant to be taken as a damning indictment of the misogyny of the Facebook generation, it was sold so explicitly on sex? I don’t know if anyone saw the trailers, but it does seem to me to be cynical, if not downright disingenuous of Sorkin to draw in his audience with trailers featuring a lot of men talking in algorithms whilst girls wander around in their pants, if what he’s actually advertising is an entirely non-sexist movie. Call me idealistic, but I find it a little hypocritical for Sorkin to claim he’s making a didactic movie in which the Facebook generation are presented as inherently misogynistic, whilst making money off that very sensibility at the same time. And if an indictment of misogyny was what Sorkin had always intended to create, why didn’t he tell us that until people started getting pissed? Similarly, I have yet to fathom exactly why, if Sorkin truly wanted to present Zuckerberg and his friends as damnable misogynists, he would cast two such likeable actors (and Justin Timberlake, although there, I’d probably be asking why anyway) as his leads? Leads who, I might add, are depicted creating the website FaceMash, where male students could iteratively compare the attractiveness of campus girls. Of course, this is all fairly subjective, and personally, I find Jesse Eisenberg about as attractive as that mutant guy off The Goonies, but the fact remains that casting him as Zuckerberg and an overly coiffed Andrew Garfield as his friend Eduardo was inescapably calculated to draw positive attention, however apparently negatively their characters might have been drawn.

“Facebook”, Sorkin claims, “was born during a night of incredible misogyny. It was a revenge stunt, aimed first at the woman who’d most recently broken [Zuckerberg’s] heart…and then at the entire female population of Harvard.”. Fair enough, if only I could believe that that was originally how this movie was intended to be taken. The problem, at the end of all this, is that The Social Network is a movie which claims verisimilitude as its ultimate get-out clause, but then changes too much for us to really credit this. Women are reduced to sluts or bores, Harvard to a kind of pimped out men’s club and even Zuckerberg’s own achievements are reduced to a kind of insane sexist hate-crime against his ex-girlfriend, purely by virtue of Sorkin’s writing.

Oh and also, it has Justin Timberlake in it. So, you know, no.

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