‘The Social Network': Stop Calling it Sexist

Dear feminists: Can we please stop arguing how sexist The Social Network is? Signed, a fellow feminist.

I hadn’t even seen the movie yet when I came across an article on Jezebel’s homepage, entitled: “The Social Network, Where Women Never Have Ideas.” Sounded pretty brutal. And then soon after, I noticed an onslaught of similar accusations aimed at the filmmakers.

Trust me, I am extremely sensitive to representations of women and minorities in film and television (and how these representations in media reflect our culture and society), but The Social Network? Virtual feminists, you’re barking up the wrong tree on this one. Is it a good example of feminism in film? Probably not. But I think it deserves more credit than it’s getting in that arena.

There are two ways to view this: 1) The film is a biopic about Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, and a bunch of other dudes who want his money for various reasons; thus, it doesn’t seem to leave much room for strong, female characters; and 2) The film actually does have a few strong female characters, but they’re overlooked because of a few scenes filled with lingerie-clad drunk girls at a frat party and many scenes filled with nerdy dudes.

My viewing of this film combined these two notions: I say, The Social Network is a film that – as a biopic – didn’t seem to allow much room for strong female characters, but it did anyway with a few very important scenes.

I love a good opening scene, and this film definitely has one. From the first few seconds, you are drawn into quick and ultimately harsh dialogue between Zuckerberg (played by the fitting Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica (played by Rooney Mara). One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know, Zuckerberg thinks he’s far superior to Erica because he goes to Harvard and she to BU (just one example.) Needless to say, she calls it off then and there.

Am I crazy, or did anyone else read this scene positively in terms of female character? Erica does not seem dwarfed or dominated by Zuckerberg to me at all – in fact, she comes out the winner, the one with the harsh last word. If anything, her observance of Zuckerberg and his true motives and thought processes only makes him look bad as he sits babbling on and on at lightning speed. More importantly, Erica makes the audience aware of something very crucial in the first few minutes of the movie: that is, Zuckerberg is socially inept, especially when it comes to women. She walks away, in my eyes, looking valiant – on a crusade to call out pretentious, insecure nerdy assholes everywhere…If you will.

And in a movie about the latter type of people (insecure, nerdy asshole males), why would there be a surplus of strong female characters surrounding them? To me, it has been made clear in the first few minutes of The Social Network that this is frankly not a movie about men and women forming mutually respectful relationships. It’s a movie about Mark Zuckerberg and his failure to communicate with others, and yet how he goes on to become the founder of what would become a true reinvention of the way our generation communicates with one another. As for the lack of communication and connection skills with women, it’s unfortunate for Zuckerberg; it’s not unfortunate for the women involved. At no point do I remember the film making me feel that I should think otherwise.

As Aaron Sorkin – screenwriter of the film and the one carrying the weight of most sexist allegations – said in an interview with Stephen Colbert:

I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. 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. The women they surround themselves with aren’t women who challenge them (and frankly, no woman who could challenge them would be interested in being anywhere near them.)

This makes sense to me, and it made sense even before I had time to think about sexism and feminism in the context of this movie.

The other female character I appreciated (and yes, the only other truly strong female character, as the third main female was made out to be the “hot, psycho girl”) – is Marilyn, a law intern who sits in on the legal battles, played by the versatile Rashida Jones. She might not say much, but again, she is observant. And like Erica, Marilyn seems to elicit a rare sense of respect and curiosity from Zuckerberg. (He spends a few more scenes in the film seeking Erica’s approval long after their breakup, and his seeking of approval seemed almost sincere.) The film ends on a solid note, which is without a doubt due to Marilyn’s dialogue with Zuckerberg, and the theme of “asshole-ness” comes back again. Like Erica, she questions Zuckerberg about his inner self, and thus, he questions himself for once.

Though brief, the appearances made by the two strong female characters are essential. Meaning, the movie would not be the same without them. The movie would be weaker. Because as bookends to the beginning and end of the film, both women stop to make Zuckerberg (and the audience) think, “Is he really an asshole or not?” I sat back and said “huh” thoughtfully to myself as the credits rolled. The whole story is based around the creator of Facebook and all the people who were out to get a piece of him for various reasons. But no lawyers in a room or vengeful former best friends seemed to make Zuckerberg pause and wonder about his true self for one moment. Only these two women in the film had this effect on him. Or at least, their words and observations had a stronger effect on him than anyone else’s.

So while there were sexist representations of women undoubtedly, let’s not forget the female characters who added positively to the story. Sure, it’s a film about a bunch of pretentious, nerdy guys. But women played a vital role that should not go overlooked. And unfortunately it seems that for many feminists, it did.