Colleen Claes

Colleen Claes
Chicago, Illinois, USA
January 08
Freelance Writer
I'm a freelance writer and blogger when I'm not working 9 to 5. I graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in film and screenwriting. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of media (usually film) and culture. I've contributed to as the Chicago Cult Classics Examiner and have been interviewed by USA Today for my film expertise. I write at a few other places (both for myself and other people), which you find below My Links.

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Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 21, 2010 10:30AM

'The Social Network': Stop Calling it Sexist

Rate: 15 Flag
social network

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.

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If anything, the continued conversations about sexism and the movie might cause people to realize that the atmosphere of that sector of business IS very sexist, which I think keeps getting missed by focusing on the movie as being the problem rather than being the vehicle for pointing out the problem.
I agree with that as well, which is what Sorkin has been trying to say in his defense this whole time. It makes sense to me, but I still find people attacking the film for being sexist and having no excuses, apparently.
A lot of it was fabricated, so who knows?
I didn't think the movie was sexist. Sensationalistic to the max, but not sexist. It's just that the world of super-nerd computer jockies IS pretty much a sausage fest, so the movie, which depicts activities in said world, shares in the testosterone-drenched joy of it all. Maybe that's the confusion. Rated.
Thanks for your insight; I'm looking forward to seeing the movie soon. This is an interesting analysis!
Cogent analysis... and now I'm off to the film!
Thanks for reading and for your opinions!
Rated. You nailed it. The charges of sexism are a knee-jerk reaction. There's a difference between telling a story about a group of boy-men who are misogynist and telling a misogynist story.
Didn't know a thing about the movie, but want to see it after reading this.
I enjoyed the movie, and thought that the crudest and crummiest behavior of Zuckerberg and pals - the hottest girl contest, for example - worked to show them as, well, crude and crummy and immature. I also liked the crazy-jealous girlfriend who tried to set Eduardo's bed on fire. She might not be a great role model, but she was memorable.
I'm put in mind of some of the reaction to Woody Allen's 'Manhattan' when it appeared: the slam was that a film w such a title w no minority major characters was, de facto, flawed, if not racist. I never felt that way.
Great piece. R.
think this is fairly well thought out & reasoned. however, you need to look at the negative portrayals, you're really glossing over them. the bipolar chick is a pivotal character. she asks at one point " is there anything we can do?" and zuckerberg says, "no". a very sexist moment. like a young boys club-- elitist. but elitist like the clubs that zuckerberg was trying to get into. which were themselves sexist-- shipping in women on buses like cattle. examined by the bouncers outside for, admission based on, apparently, beauty, or as they say in hollywood, "f*ckability". [from the Lword]. and what about the bipolar chick setting the scarf on fire? and then afterwards acting like nothing was wrong? and giving a BJ in a bathroom stall? ugh. in my opinion its rather difficult to say if this is a commentary on the characters in the movie or if the writing is sexist. I tend to think that *both* the writer and characters are sexist. they mashed in this way. ps see my blog for a post with many links on facebook movie incl several commentaries on sexism
the point in the movie when zuckerberg invents the "left or right" girl picture game-- phenomenal. deserves a lot of deeper analysis. notice how the scenes show the males react completely differently than the females. the males are fascinated, think its hilarious, addicted immediately. the females are put off, annoyed, disgusted. to me, this is a stark portrayal of evolutionary psychology. but in a way that is not sexist, exactly. are the boys sexist in the scene? it seems easy to paint them as the villains. but how is their response anything than what is to be expected based on milllenia of sexual selection? same for the girls? to me this shows a intersection of cutting edge technology and ancient human nature. the results can be messy. just like the founding of facebook. facebook is continuing to explore this "tipping point". reminds me of the old question. what happens when an irresistable force meets an immovable object?
so, I think feminists have a right to be angry at the movie, but only to the degree that it depicts real human nature, ugly warts and all, quite accurately. feminists need to ask why real humans behave the way they do in the movie. the move is probably too close to comfort for most people to accept. its not a puff piece. its not a hatchet job. it depicts why people really do the things they do, and why they are motivated to do x,y,z. not thru altruistic idealism. at least not most of the time. revenge, resentment, sexual urges, elitist, etcetera.... its all there in the movie. the movie is crawling with subterranean psychology. what jung calls the Shadow. but yet its still invisible to the public who stares at it in the face, uncomprendingly. thats exactly the nature of the Shadow.
Be careful when you wrestle with monsters, lest you thereby become one. For, if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you.
-- Friedrich Nietsche
lets look at zuckerbergs punishment for his "left-or-right" game. to him it seemed like a harmless prank. it was almost like a scientific experiment. he was focused on the code, and how fast he could build the system. he was interested in the way it went viral. they emailed the link to a few friends. "the question is, who will they send it to?" it was *designed* to go viral. his experiment succeeded. cyberspace bypassed the centuries-old hierarchy built up by the school. this tension is also seen in the way the "twins" attempt to approach the whole situation through ancient, stultifying codes of conduct/honor. but look at the price zuckerberg paid for his experiment, which he probably did not regard as sexist. 6month academic probation. a lot of timeconsuming hearings. very bad publicity/public enmity. did the lawyer cost him money? probably. what a ridiculous distraction. so if he was sexist in building this game, which I would argue he wasnt in his intentions, he paid a serious penalty/price for his impulsiveness and lack of discretion.
is the movie about sexism? probably. but its also highly about *lookism*.... something academics would be able to grasp. in fact I expect a lot of forthcoming academic dissection/analysis of this movie as happened with eg the Matrix. its perfectly suited for it.
the opening scene established Zuckerberg as clueless around women and socially maladroit. a kind of apparent loner in the middle of a highly social arena. he walks alone through the campus, not interacting with anyone. there is lots of colorful activity around him, but he's oblivious to it, but its as if he's isolated, in his own world. even while he is with his roommates, he's focused on his code, barely interacting with them, barely plugged into their world. he creates his own world in cyberspace & lives in it.
the opening scene shows he pays a heavy penalty for his momentary sexism. his girlfriend says later she believes his comments on the internet are "written in ink, not in pencil". she refuses to talk to him. it would seem, the punishment could possibly be more harsh than the crime. who is not guilty of offhand remarks on blogs or facebook? there are lots of women who would have ignored his comments or thought them laughable. it seems, he brushed up against a hardcore feminist, and payed a strong penalty.
"men are from mars, women are from venus". or as the ancients figured out thousands of yrs ago, its all about yin & yang. is a movie about yin & yang sexist? what is the sound of one hand clapping? :p
Last month I went to a presentation about HTML5 and did a head count of all the heads in front of me that were clearly identifiable by gender. Of course, this depends on my judgment as far as what is "clearly identifiable by gender" but my tally was that the crowd was 78% male, 22% female. I don't know why this is, but it's one of the gender "traditions" that hasn't been very successfully challenged.

My take on the opening sequence in The Social Network, is that it serves as a tidy exposition of Mark Zuckerberg's obsession with the scale of things. His calculation is that membership in a Final Club would allow the both of them better opportunities. I'm sure his character thought it generous to extend these benefits to girlfriend Erica, and must have been perplexed at her reaction.

The other standing gender "tradition" that I haven't yet been able to understand fully, is why teenage females don't start rock bands. The band thing is still a guy thing. Dunno why that is.

My own review of The Social Network is here on Open Salon too, and comes from an alternate universe from your review, which, by the way, I really enjoyed reading and thinking about.


Scale and scalability -- my "review" of The Social Network:
Gundrum, Claes, et al:

I so agree with you, and I’m really tired of feminists misunderstanding the nature of literary criticism. First, there’s such a thing called character development. This is Mark Zuckerberg, says the artist. He is obsessive, socially inept, self-absorbed and amoral. So what kind of woman would be attracted to a character like him? Someone hip, cool, intelligent and "authentic" like Erica? If so would she stick around? Or would this character be surrounded by empty-headed, vapid "inauthentic" women like the Asian girl? Given who he is in this work, the kind of women in his world would be consistent with his characterization. Another example is Mad Men. Feminists deride Don Draper for choosing Megan over Faye. But given who Draper is, a product of an emotionally stunted childhood, filled with profound self-loathing and unable to develop an authentic self, he would prefer a Megan over a Faye. To judge that this is necessarily a weakness is not the point. Is the character consistent is the question. If he is, then the writer has succeeded. That’s how to judge if a piece of work succeeds or not. They ought not to judge it on the basis of what the character should do or should have done but if the circumstances surrounding him and his actions are consistent with who he is as he is drawn. To wish otherwise is to judge the writer for not writing the story they wish he had. At which point the writer can very well say, this is my story, not yours. I’m the story-teller, not you.

Besides, how many feminists would find Austen limited and facile because all she does is write about women desperately seeking husbands rather than creating women characters pursuing a degree in Oxford or running for public office or fighting for women’s rights. How silly is that.
kalayaan48-- I agree. jane austen is way overrated, and her portrayal of desperate [unmarried] housewives is sexist and worse, tedious.... :p there was a funny post on jane austen on here awhile back, "jane austen is way overrated" haha