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More on Sexism And The Social Network

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Since I saw the picture this weekend, I thought I’d add some thought’s to Charli’s excellent post below. I should say at the outset that although I’ve been an Aaron Sorkin detractor since before critics still thought Studio 60 was a work of genius, I should say at the outset that The Social Network was…an excellent movie. I could cop out and give all the credit to Fincher, an outstanding if very uneven talent, but the script was in fact very strong. The story emphasizes Sorkin’s talents while minimizing his weaknesses — he was born to write the instant classic Larry Summers sequence, and plenty of scenes within this absorbing, well-paced film are almost as good.

On the issue at hand, I think it’s worth distinguishing between two critiques. There were some nagging weaknesses — in addition to Charli’s links, see Tracy Clark-Flory — related to the movie and its portrayal of women. In particular (whether they actually happened or not) the final club party out of a Katy Perry song and the “groupies” at the Bill Gates lecture feel like fratboyish Ben Mezrich embellishments, and the movie would have been better off without them.

On the other hand, to echo Dana Stevens it’s very important to not pin the misogyny of the characters on the filmmakers. Starting but by no means ending with Erica Albright’s much-quoted kissoff, Sorkin and Fincher take a clearly critical stance towards Zuckerberg’s contempt for women. To what extent the portrayal of Zuckerberg is accurate I have no idea (and given that this is a fiction film I don’t think it matters), but the implicit critique the film provides of it is actually one if its strengths.

…via the comments, Aaron Sorkin himself responds to criticisms, and again I don’t think he’s rationalizing.   The portrayal of misogynist characters in The Social Network is no more a celebration of misogyny than Mad Men is a celebration of sexual harassment, glass ceilings, workplace alcoholism, etc.

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  • I hated Studio 60 but I did enjoy The Social Network. The sexism in the movie, to me, simply reflected the sexism in the culture the movie portrayed. There are a lot of “isms” in this film – sexism, elitism, ageism, you name it. The whole premise is that these young computer geeks came in and overturned the elite business establishment nurtured in the halls of privilege at Harvard, where who you know is more important than what you know. Lawrence Summers brushing off the idea that Zuckerberg has created anything worthwhile, worth suing over, worth devoting an ounce of his precious time to … that overriding message, that the old guard was put on notice by these young kids who are now billionaires … that’s what I loved about the film.

    And if the sexism is still as prevalent among the young guns as it is among the old guard, well, that’s a pretty powerful message too.

    One of my favorite Sorkin scripts is “The Farnsworth Invention,” the story about the invention of the television. I saw it on Broadway a couple years ago. Excellent play, would make a fabulous movie.

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  • Oscar Leroy

    “There were some nagging weaknesses — see Tracy Clark-Flory ”

    Okay. Tracy’s article mentions Sheryl Sandberg as a woman who plays a key role at Facebook, but she joined the company two years ago. I haven’t seen this movie, but does it cover that time period? If not, why complain that it doesn’t mention Sheryl Sandberg?

  • vernonlee

    FYI – Aaron Sorkin left an interesting response to a comment about sexist portrayals of women on Ken Levine’s blog. Worth checking out.

    http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2010/10/aaron-sorkin-responds-to-commenter-in.html

  • Mr. Trend

    Sorkin was also on Colbert Report last week, and Colbert brought this up, making a similar point that women were portrayed that way not out of personal misogyny, but out of how the main characters treated women. Charli may be right below that other books find Zuckerberg was far from the misogynist the film suggests, but given that Fincher and Sorkin drew on another book that suggests otherwise, I don’t really think you can fault Sorkin for anti-woman attitudes himself for this.

  • Bill Murray

    The filmmakers apparently changed quite a bit of other things, so they couldn’t have changed this?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Because this is something they wanted to say? It might be possible to make an interesting movie about a gender egalitarian internet startup, but it would be a different movie, and choosing to make the former isn’t sexist unless the movie takes an approving view of the characters…which it doesn’t.

  • Ed

    The portrayal of misogynist characters in The Social Network is no more a celebration of misogyny than Mad Men is a celebration of sexual harassment, glass ceilings, workplace alcoholism, etc.

    It’s not always that simple, though. Mad Men is in some ways about getting a frisson from seeing all of those things in the raw. Not having seen The Social Network yet I won’t judge, but it is possible to present sexism and misogyny in such a way that it’s “officially” condemnatory and yet there is a sense that the moviemakers are also getting off on it and allowing their viewers to do so, too. It’s a fine line.

    • lemmy caution

      “There is talk that many Vietnam films are anitwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrte the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim. But actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Staion and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real First ****. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar – the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.” -Jarhead

  • Jonathan

    I’ve always felt that Mad Men, and shows like it, were celebrations of racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I know. I was appalled to read that some universities assign pro-murder tracts like Hamlet, or pro-terrorism books like The Possessed.

  • Bloix

    1) You don’t know anything about Zuckerberg? Read the New Yorker profile (Sept 20).
    2) The movie is not a “work of fiction.” It makes explicit claims of literal truth, and then chooses to present important events untruthfully.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The movie is not a “work of fiction.”

      This is simply erroneous.

      makes explicit claims of literal truth

      Please to be citing.

      • norbizness
        • Scott Lemieux

          For those who don’t know Norbiz and don’t clink the link, I will note that Sorkin isn’t actually saying this.

      • Anonymous

        The movie is about a real person, Mark Zuckerberg, and his interactions with other real people, Eduardo Savarin, Sean Parker (the real inventor of Napster), Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (who really did come in second at the Henley), and others, at real places, including Harvard University (and its real institutions, like the Porcellian Club, and its real president, Larry Summers), about the creation of a real company, Facebook. It chronicles the events that resulted in two real lawsuits, and gives us written on-screen post-scripts about the real results of those real lawsuits. These and other facets of verisimilitude (such as the casting of actors who closely resemble the real people) are explicit claims to literal truth.

        You can’t provide truthful accounts of actual events except for a handful of aspects of those events and claim you’re writing “fiction.” The assertion that the film-makers can say any nasty thing they want about their fictional creation, “Mark Zuckerberg,” is not genuinely worthy of anyone’s consideration.

        What happened here is obvious enough: the film-makers didn’t think the true story had enough Hollywood appeal, so they decided they needed a pat, Hollywood-style ironic twist. This movie is Rosebud all over again. Boy Genius Zuckerberg, who is driven to create a tool to facilitate social interaction, is isolated and alone. He helps others connect but he himself can’t connect! How ironic!

        But that’s a lie. The real Zuckerberg has real friends and is in a long-term stable relationship with a real woman, and has been since before he got started on Facebook. So the whole motivation thing is a falsification. It’s there to pander to the viewer: maybe I don’t have $8 billion, but I have a girlfriend!

        Not to mention the swinish misogyny of the movie. But it’s worth pointing out that the real Zuckerberg’s real girlfriend, a medical student, is Chinese-American. Compare that with the film’s flippantly racist and sexist treatment of its “fictional” Chinese-American women characters. The film-makers erased from the story a young woman of intelligence, character, and independence, and replaced her with a couple of floozies. How is that defensible?

        • Anonymous

          I second this 100%

        • bob mcmanus

          Third it 75%

          I wonder if Scott thinks there is any limit to what Sorkin could have done in this fictional movie?

          Could Sorkin have had Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, murder a few people in a back alley?

          Legally, you can probably get away with anything, under the Larry Flynt ruling. I say probably, because this film is not as clearly satire as Larry’s cartoon.

          Morally, ethically, I think I am appalled by what Sorkin has done.

          • Ed

            Just saw the movie. Fourthed, 75%.

            Not to mention the swinish misogyny of the movie.

            I came in with what I hoped was an open mind on the subject and….wow. And of course we must have as many scenes as possible with young things in their scanties. Sean Parker made them do it!

        • I was taken aback by this sentence: “To what extent the portrayal of Zuckerberg is accurate I have no idea (and given that this is a fiction film I don’t think it matters),…”

          I was a bit amazed that Scott could state explicitly in one breath that the movie is simultaneously
          1. about a real live person with a name
          2. yet claim the movie’s accuracy is not relevant because it was a “fiction film.”

          Yes it’s not critical in the big picture of the history of the universe but it strikes me a unfair (at least) to Zuckerberg and accuracy counts if you make a movie about real people with real names. By way of comparison, consider producing a movie about Scott Limieux and then showing him in the movie as a legal advisor to George W Bush.

  • Bloix

    Oh dear. I didn’t mean to be “Anonymous.” I meant to be “Bloix.” (the first Anonymous, that is. Anonymous #2 is another anonymous entirely. I haven’t yet fallen to the level of seconding myself.)

  • Scott Lemieux

    are explicit claims to literal truth.

    This is really silly. The Informant! used real names and hewed relatively closely to the Eichenwald book, but it was not (and was not presented as) “the literal truth.” Nobody thinks that War and Peace is “the literal truth.” The genre of fiction based on true events is a common one, and it’s not the same as non-fiction.

    the swinish misogyny of the movie.

    Again, this is just the variant of aesthetic Stalinism that holds that portraying something is to celebrate it, unless perhaps another character reads a position paper condemning it (like they might on a Sorkin TV show.) I take no position on whether Mark Zuckerberg is as misogynist as “Mark Zuckerberg”, but the movie clearly takes a critical stance towards “Zuckerberg’s” misogyny.

    • “I take no position on whether Mark Zuckerberg is as misogynist as “Mark Zuckerberg”, but the movie clearly takes a critical stance towards “Zuckerberg’s” misogyny.”

      Strikes me as absurd to make a movie about a guy named Zuckerberg and then make a “better story.” Why not do a “better story” in the first place and not use his name?

      I think it’s just not fair to Zuckerberg and then also by way of the viewing public.

      And It’s silly to use War and Peace as a comparison — the people in the book were long dead when Tolstoy wrote. Zuckerberg is very much alive.

  • bob mcmanus

    The best discussion of these issues of fiction I have encountered to this point is going on over at Pandagon. One mentions that Nixon as portrayed being interviewed by Frost is not the same Nixon that met Kirsten Dunst, and we have different standards for each.

    Obviously there is a complicated line here, and artistic license must be granted.

    But I have to say I have absolutely no respect for anyone who says there is no line, no standards that depend on how you describe your artistic work(as fact, based on fact, fictionalized, satire, etc), and that an entirely purportedly representational Nixon/Frost could have quietly ended with Richard Nixon admitting to Frost that he killed Bobby Kennedy and Lemieux would have no problem with it at all.

    • Scott Lemieux

      1)I thank you for bringing up Frost/Nixon, an even better example of the transparently obvious fact that works of fiction aren’t purporting to represent the “literal truth” even if they use names and as based on actual specific events.

      2)Well, having Nixon admit to killing RFK would be bad because it would almost certainly be an aesthetic failure — it’s not something either Nixon or “Nixon” would say, so it would just make the whole play/film look silly. As a slander of Nixon, it wouldn’t bother me, because…it would be silly, and indeed it would just underline the fact that “Nixon” isn’t Nixon. So I don’t see the “ethical” problem here.

  • Bloix

    War and Peace is an early example of mixed fiction and reality, in that its main characters are fictional but they operate in the real world of Napoleon and the Czar, who themselves have parts to play. But they are bit players and we understand that Tolstoy’s contemptuous portrayal of their inner lives is not intended as literal truth.

    There is of course fiction that mixes fictional and real people more intimately than War and Peace does. My own favorite example is the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. These books are an interweaving of the stories of two people – the fictional character, Billy Prior, and the real person, WHR Rivers – and Barker has been scrupulously careful in her portrayal of Rivers while imagining an inner life for him that is as compelling as that of her fictional character, Prior.

    If you believe in the concepts of literary honesty and ethical obligation to real people (living or dead), as Barker does, it’s important in this kind of writing that the author strives to portray the characters of the real people as accurately as possible, even as she invents situations and dialog for them.

    Frost/Nixon is a different kind of story altogether. It’s explicitly a dramatization of real events. This is a form that is related to the non-fiction novel and the new journalism pioneered by Truman Capote and Gay Talese and Norman Mailer, a kind of writing that’s got all sorts of ethical minefields associated with it but still can convey valuable insights.

    And in the film version of this kind of work, we take a step further away from reality in that we know we are not watching a documentary, that we are seeing actors and that the dialog is written by screenwriters. Because of the limitations of time and the conventions of narrative form, events and characters have to be simplified, compressed, re-ordered. But we expect that what we are seeing is an effort to give the film-makers’ best understanding of an underlying truth about the characters and the events. Frost/Nixon made that effort.

    Work that doesn’t attempt to do that – work like “Hillary: The Movie” or “JFK” – is propaganda. It’s dishonest.

    If an artist doesn’t want to try to meet the ethical demands inherent in making a work about real people, there’s a simple alternative: use fictional characters based on real people, as in “The Ghost Writer” or “Wall Street” (the original).

    But here, the film-makers wanted to capitalize on the compelling story of the real Mark Zuckerberg, but they didn’t want to tell the true story of the real Mark Zuckerberg. The pretended to be making a Frost/Nixon but they had no intention of doing so honestly. Instead, they decided to tell a Hollywood tale that incorporated pre-conceived cliches about lonely geeks and air-head girls and arrogant jocks.

    And so they produced a very well-made piece of hack work. It’s a dishonest work and defending it as “fiction” is pure apologetics.

    • “…the film-makers wanted to capitalize on the compelling story of the real Mark Zuckerberg, but they didn’t want to tell the true story of the real Mark Zuckerberg.”

      Nicely put; and I agree with you.

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