An opinion piece in The Daily Beast ignited a half-baked controversy in the blogosphere last October by taking The Social Network‘s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, to task. Writer Rebecca Davis O’Brien perceived the film as misogynist — or sexist, or something — complaining about the absence of strong female characters in the film. On that count, she is largely correct. The Social Network is about a group of young men inventing something that became fundamental to how people communicate online. But is that, by itself, indicative of some kind of unfairness toward women?
It’s not, actually. To her great credit, O’Brien did phone up some like-minded writers to get their take on the idea, and it seems to me that Elizabeth Wurtzel, she of Prozac Nation fame, took her gently to school, though I’m not sure O’Brien realized it. Wurtzel told her this: “What you see in the movie, the thing that’s bothering you, is that our culture, in its most powerful places, has gotten more sexist, because women are not in powerful positions in these places. And it’s our fault. I don’t know why women do this to ourselves. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are controlled by men. I think the movie just reflects what’s starting to happen.”
I’m not sure I agree that inequality in business and technology is the woman’s fault (and for some reason that’s the point O’Brien seizes on), but Wurtzel is absolutely right when she identifies the film as a reflection of sexism, rather than an avatar of it. Sorkin has written his main character as a terrible misogynist. And he hates him for it! The point of view is elucidated in the film’s widely lauded “Facemash” sequence, which shows Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) embarking on a soul-crushingly puerile and resolutely sexist endeavor, leveraging his hacker savvy to hijack the archived images of Harvard women and reduce them to their scores on a rough scale of fuckability. (At one point, he suggests comparing them to farm animals.)
Sorkin goes so far as to hang the whole film on Zuckerberg’s woman trouble, making a Rosebud key to his poor-little-rich-boy behavior out of his pined-after ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Erica basically dismantles him in the film’s opening conversation, as she extricates herself from the relationship, but he seems not even to notice. In the film’s final scene, it’s clear that he thinks, somehow, he still has a chance with her. Which is both hilarious and, somehow, not funny at all.
You can’t accuse Sorkin of trafficking in ambiguity. It’s pretty clear what he thinks of everyone involved. Characters wear their hearts on their sleeves. “Did you like being a pasty-faced geek?” Zuckerberg demands of best friend Eduardo Saverin [Andrew Garfield] at one point, underscoring for the umpteenth time the insecurity and social helplessness that, Sorkin seems to argue, drove Zuckerberg’s innovation. To explain Zuckerberg’s eventual decision to settle the lawsuits he faces from his former friends, Sorkin resorts to writing in a character who privately persuades Zuckerberg, by laying out the case against him, to cut his losses. That’s second-year associate Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), and, beyond the admirable Albright, she’s the closest the film comes to developing one of the strong women that O’Brien prizes. Ironically, she’s a terrible character, serving no other function but conspicuous exposition, patching up the gaps that Sorkin can’t think of a better way to fill. And of the women who choose to spend time with these up-and-coming masters of the universe, well, the screenwriter has little to offer them but scorn — they are shallow lovers for shallow men.
But The Social Network isn’t merely a faithful prestige-drama production of characters, courtroom drama, and rapid-fire dialogue written by a world-class Internet scold. There’s a real mischievousness to Fincher’s approach. In a way, I think as far as his oeuvre goes, The Social Network compares most directly with Fight Club. It’s characterized by the same kind of relentless narrative motion that propels this film forward, barely leaving the audience room to breathe. Erica tells Mark that going out with him is like dating a StairMaster, and watching this film is like that, too. Another way the two films are similar is that they’re both tales of misfit revolution and revenge. In Fight Club, Fincher didn’t necessarily defend terrorism — although, boy, could that movie never have been made post-9/11 — but he did tap into a vein of anarchic glee, suggesting the rush that might come from smashing up a new Bug, tossing a trash can through the front of the umpteenth Starbucks to gentrify your neighborhood, or blowing up the headquarters of the credit-card companies. (My god, those credit-card companies.)
Fincher makes films with disparate but immersive points of view. Think of the grisly John Doe-inflected awfulness of the world in Se7en, the way Panic Room suggested a contemporary siege mentality, the old-fashioned old-guy sentiment of Benjamin Button, or the period-obsessive, wee-hours nightmare that was Zodiac. Quoting Jezebel writer Anna Holmes, O’Brien’s article brings up the way The Social Network “lingers” on the bodies of its women, leveling it as apparent evidence for a claim of misogyny. What she’s actually identifying is an interesting disconnect in the film between Sorkin’s disapproving, get-off-my-lawn take on the Internet generation and Fincher’s apparent delight in some of their shenanigans. Casting Justin Timberlake as Napster co-founder Sean Parker and having him take gleeful credit for accelerating the decline of the record industry is a pretty slick joke about a huge generational (and fiscal) shift. Sorkin introduces him in a scene where he wakes up in the apartment of a young co-ed named Amy, but it was likely Fincher’s choice to have the girl wearing underwear with Stanford plastered across the ass and to keep her, lasciviously, in the frame for longer than was strictly necessary to make the geographic point.
What film in the Fincher oeuvre is that detail most reminiscent of? His early masterpiece, “Cradle of Love.” You know “Cradle of Love.” At least you do if you’re a boy of a certain age. That’s the 1990 Billy Idol music video in which Devon, a posh but naughty schoolgirl in a tiny skirt, seduces Stuart, a straitlaced yuppie type living in a too-perfect luxury apartment. While he pretends to concentrate on the screen of his Macintosh, where he’s planning an expensive wedding, she dances, kicking a high heel into his overdesigned fish tank, stripping off her blouse after spilling a no-doubt fine California red across it, and turning up the volume on his receiver so far that it literally knocks the chic mixed-media artwork off the walls. It’s a sex fantasy, sure, but at the end of the video a kid in a denim shirt and wifebeater with his leather jacket slung over his shoulder knocks on the door to take Devon away again, as if to say, “It’s not your world, Pops. You only get glimpses into it.”
Sure, I can see why the hollow sexiness of The Social Network rankles someone who’s constantly tuned in to seeing what a raw deal women generally get in Hollywood movies. But if you see the film as a dialectic between its director and its screenwriter, it rankles in a fascinating way. Fincher is faithfully executing Sorkin’s script, but he’s also taunting him. The characters of Zuckerberg and Parker are written by Sorkin as callow and socially helpless and emotionally stunted. But, Fincher counters with a sly look, gosh, they’re rich. Young. Good-looking, too.
It’s not that Fincher endorses the state of being rich. It’s that he recognizes its appeal and plays it against Sorkin’s disdain in a way that keeps the piece from feeling like a lecture. Don’t these kids look like they’re having a good time? That’s the crux of The Social Network. In large part, it’s a movie about terrible people being awful to one another. But from time to time, they do manage to have awesome amounts of fun. It’s their world, we only get glimpses inside it, and they wouldn’t trade places with you or me or anyone we know. Or Aaron Sorkin.