The Social Network isn't sexist - it's just anti-nerd

[Spoiler alert, etc!]

The Social Network, after five weeks in theatres, is still at the forefront of heated popular discussion on the film’s accuracy, meaning and implications. Central to this discussion is the question, first raised by Stephen Colbert: is it sexist?

The film, which depicts the rise of Facebook as akin to the trajectory of a rock & roll band – complete with sex, booze and underage girls snorting cocaine in their underwear – is definitely filled with more T&A than one might expect. And it’s true that the movie’s strong female characters, Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright and Rashida Jones’s lady lawyer, probably only occupy the screen for a grand total of eight minutes.

But the media’s cries of sexism, especially those coming from normally-awesome feminist blog Jezebel, seem to be knee-jerk reactions that expose a pretty basic inability to read a film. It should be obvious that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is not glamorizing the sexism of his male characters. He is portraying misogyny as the lonely, desperate behaviour of young men who are rejected by strong women at every turn.

Then the question is not whether the movie is sexist, but whether the movie’s portrayal of rampant sexism in the technology industry is fair. In depicting the nerds that brought us social networking as disdainful and dismissive of women, as motivated by rejection and fears of male inadequacy, does the Social Network reduce nerd ambition to revenge?

The opening scene features smart, sweater-wearing college student Erica Albright, a Strong Female Character, dumping Zuckerberg after he insults her education and implies that her success will only ever be a by-product of his achievements.

“You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd,” she tells him. “And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.”

But the movie really does conflate the two categories. Nerd and asshole are one and the same in the universe of the Social Network, a world where the programmers are as sexist as the jocks, and the motivation for every line of late-night code can be boiled down to a desire for inclusion in the frat-boy world that has rejected them.

As Sorkin put it, “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.”

Gone are the days of Revenge of the Nerds, when viewers were invited to cheer on their beloved geeks and their sexist conquests. Now that computer nerds are no longer the underdog, their apparent hunger for wealth, power and token women is portrayed just as critically as in movies about investment bankers or venture capitalists.

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999) was the first-wave Social Network in a lot of ways. Depicting the rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and the rise of the personal computer, the movie took a piece of technology that North Americans use every day and creeped everyone out by putting a face and a story behind it. Jobs and Gates are not presented as such colossal dicks as Zuckerberg, but the story is still filled with plenty of betrayal and greed.

So why would movies turn against nerds? Don’t we all love our computers? Yes, perhaps a little too much. Filmmakers have come to see the stories behind technology as the defining metaphors of our time.

Apparently, filmmakers see the digital age as being fueled by anti-social, even psychopathic, behaviour – suggesting the techno-phobic suspicion that the tools designed to enhance our communication may actually do the opposite.

In the media rounds for the film, Sorkin has been outspoken about his disdain for online communication.

“Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality,” he told Colbert. When asked by another interviewer why he chose to write the script, Sorkin admitted he had no idea why he said ‘yes.’

Clearly, this film never had any chance of being a love letter to Facebook.

In a story set in Harvard and Silicon Valley, the old world-new world dichotomies must have been impossible for Sorkin to resist. In the film, a major motivation for Zuckerberg to develop his social networking site is to outperform the Winkelvoss brothers, who symbolically stand for white privilege, old money and athletic perfection.

He delves even deeper into expanding Facebook when rejected by the “finals clubs,” centuries-old Harvard organizations depicted in the film as debauched havens of flowing liquor and girl-on-girl action.

It’s true that nerds experience a great deal of social rejection, and this can shape them into incredibly angry, narcissistic little people, as Zuckerberg was portrayed.

He wore the evidence of bullying and constant rejection in every conversation, from his overreaction to Erica’s benign questioning about the finals clubs, to his jealous comment that Eduardo’s acceptance to the Phoenix club was probably just “a diversity thing.”

Yet is it believable that someone so visionary would be so occupied with frat-boy elitism? Are the motivational priorities of computer science whizzes really just to win women as prizes and to be hailed as the alpha male by a culture that has rejected them?

Well, maybe sometimes. A few clicks around the internet certainly introduces you to a few nerds of this caliber. Rejected by girls at school and outcast by people less intelligent than them, nerds can become very misogynistic and use the internet as a forum to voice their anger.

But the internet is also a den of racism and homophobia. And it’s full of brilliant people and ideas too. It’s basically like taking the entire spectrum of human behaviour and mixing it together – unfortunately, the worst aspects of humanity often rise to the top.

Zuckerberg’s Facemash website is Sorkin’s metaphor for the misogyny of the internet. The site compared pictures of girls from schools in the area, going viral within hours and bringing Zuckerberg tons of attention and success early on.

But the site also gave ample reason for women to reject him. During a computer science class, a girl passes him a note that says “U Dick.” Eduardo voices the frustrations of nerds everywhere when he says, “Why do you do everything possible to ensure girls hate us?”

Girls are offended by Facemash, but at the same time are willing to line up for buses that will herd them up like cattle to finals club parties, at which they will be objectified and compared in much the same way. The irony is crushing to Zuckerberg, who seems doomed at that point to always be rejected by women and the old world of Harvard alike.

But the frat-boy culture denied to Zuckerberg is simply picked up and moved to Silicon Valley. Instead of fully rejecting the attitudes of the elite, as many young techies do, the visionaries in this story idolize the sexism, greed and snobbery of the finals clubs and transport it to their new locale.

Sean Parker, the inventor of Napster, is a walking emblem for internet success in Sorkin’s script. Shallow, drug-addled and paranoid, Parker seems as empty as his success – which is intangible, because he lost the court battle for Napster and actually has very little to his name. In no way is Sorkin attempting to glamorize Parker or the world he represents.

Athough Zuckerberg seems enamored with Parker and is impressed by his Victoria’s Secret arm candy, the film never really shows Zucks participating in any of this drug and sex-fuelled romping. Even after receiving a bathroom blow job by a random girl in a restaurant, he immediately spots Erica Albright and tries to reconcile with her.

This isn’t to say Zuckerberg isn’t portrayed as a sexist prick – he totally is portrayed that way – but at the same time he is clearly desperate for an intelligent woman to acknowledge and validate him.

A lot has been made of the fact that Zuckerberg may have met and started dating his long-term girlfriend during the time period of the movie, and that her exclusion makes him seem lonelier and more vengeful than he really was. Or of the fact that Facemash compared men and women, or that the Phoenix was the most ethnically diverse finals club on campus.

Whatever. Too much criticism stumbles into this territory. A movie “based on a true story” is not obligated to fact as much as everyone seems to think.

I don’t know if Zuckerberg really idolized the finals clubs, or how much of his ambition was personally fueled by rejection and feelings of inferiority. I do know that he really did call a girl a “bitch” and compare women to farm animals on his blog when he was drunk and 19.

But the realism of the story is beside the point. Biopics are not documentaries, and writers take liberties with reality in order to explore themes and ideas. So rather than pick apart the factual basis of the story, viewers should question whether the themes and ideas have any kernels of truth in them.

In presenting young computer science nerds as essentially misogynistic, angry and lonely, does Sorkin betray his subject matter because of his personal distaste for the internet and social networking? Or does the Social Network accurately reflect the antisocial tendencies of our age?

The final line of the film is spoken by Rashida Jones, who plays the other Independent Woman who rejects Zuckerberg. “You’re not an asshole, Mark,” she says. “You’re just trying so hard to be.”

Zuckerberg has bought in to the sexist, greed-driven world embodied by Napster creator Sean Parker and Silicon Valley, sacrificing his friends and would-be girlfriend in the process.

Obvious dramatic irony alert: he does this all to create a technology that theoretically facilitates human interaction. The film closes as he repeatedly refreshes his computer screen to see if Erica Albright has accepted his friend request.

This is ultimately Sorkin’s point: that the digital world isn’t bringing us any closer. It’s just making it possible for nerds like Mark to gather “friends” on a computer screen at the expense of his real-life relationships.

//Laura Kane, Columnist

Laura Kane is a grammatically reliable UBC-attending contributor to the Courier, who has been watching movies since before George Lucas was ruining them. It’s actually quite possible that she’s seen every movie ever made by a human. All of these things made her the genuinely ideal candidate for a film columnist.

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