“The Social Network” discussion thread

On the previous post, I led with an intro about The Social Network:

I feel odd blogging about a movie I haven’t seen, I want to get that out of the way. But a lot of women I trust are telling me that the movie The Social Network (a dramatisation of the founding of Facebook, script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by David Fincher) is infuriatingly sexist. Men made Facebook entirely, apparently, and women granted them sexual favours for it. As is the natural order! (See the Melissa Silverstein and Laurie Penny links in our last spam for this.)

I went on to make a more general point about geek history. But I figure a lot of people may want to talk about the movie itself. Here’s a discussion thread for you. Have you seen it? Were you bothered? Are you intending to see it or boycotting it? Have you seen additional feminist critique of it?

35 thoughts on ““The Social Network” discussion thread

  1. pfctdayelise

    Is the movie sexist, or is it just accurately depicting a depressingly sexist reality? I haven’t seen it yet, I think I probably will, but if Zuckerberg lived in a bubble that didn’t really include women, isn’t that an indictment on him and that culture rather than the film?

    1. Angela

      I think about this a lot. I don’t think that filmmakers considered women at all when making this film (and so many others), which does make the movie sexist. I feel that if they were merely depicting a sexist culture, they might at least offer passing commentary or reference to that fact.

      I feel as though we let a lot of things slide based on “oh, that’s just the way culture is” when really, culture is the problem.

    2. Meg

      I think that the filmmakers would still have a responsibility to show it in a certain light. The Social Network isn’t an attempt at being a message-free documentary; it’s a drama that adds its own spin to things. If it points out a huge amount of sexism and tries to spin it in a positive way, or just lets it sit there to stew, that’s a failure on the filmmakers’ part and indicates their own sexism. It’s not okay to make a movie that points out bigotry in a person and their subculture, but paints it as edgy and cool so that it’s easier to send a tidy message about what a hero he is ’cause he made a popular website and is totes rich now. This is the vibe I get from the promos for the movie, && why I’ve chosen not to waste a dollar on it.

      1. Jha

        I saw the movie and it didn’t seem to paint sexism as a good thing at all, but more of a tthing that just happens in university. The whole sexed-up Asian girlfriend was totally overdone, and only served to develope the male character Eduardo than anything else.

        And it’s definitely sexist in how there are just about ZERO female characters of interest. Considering that they’re already fictionalizing a lot of stuff, you’d think it wouldn’t be a stretch of imagination to add in some female characters that broke the mold of secondary eye-candy.

        Especially seeing how Zuckerberg’s girlfriend, with whom he appears to have a pretty unproblematic relationship with, got wholly erased. I’m not willing to believe that there was no way to write her into the story in a meaningful way. Instead, we have an ex-girlfriend who, I guess, is acquitted quite well, but still, she’s still a spur and motivation for the Zuckerberg character.

    3. Mary Post author

      I don’t want to do too much “I haven’t seen it but…” posting but a Californian friend reviewed it in a locked location, and says that it visually represents Facebook development as a nearly 100% male activity (in terms of casting of extras), even after the dev team was larger and in reality contained women.

      That’s on top of the valid point that making an approving (or gushing?) film about that culture is not a neutral commentary on it.

      1. pfctdayelise

        @Mary Ah, OK. Good to have data that it actually is an inaccurate portrayal.

        IHSIB from the reviews I’ve read I didn’t get the impression it was approving or gushing — I got the impression that Zuckerberg comes out looking like an asshole.

        Anyway maybe I’ll actually watch it and then offer a slighly more informed opinion :)

      2. tiferet

        I will make another post, unlocked, later this week. The original post was locked (if it’s me you’re talking about, which I probably shouldn’t assume) because I was trying to sort out how much I actually liked this appallingly sexist movie vs how much I hated the sexism in it and enjoyed the fact that I went to see it with friends who were making in-jokes, &c. :) The second post will, I think, mostly be pretty condemnatory, and the navel gazing will be mostly removed, although I did enjoy the movie–mostly because I’d read about it on Jezebel first and been braced for the ugly shit so I could sit there with my friends who are all LiveJournal geeks and giggle at the stuff that was actually funny/nostalgic.

  2. Restructure!

    Additional critique: Groupies, Sexed-Up Asians, Vengeful Sluts, And Feminist Killjoys – Meet The Women Of The Social Network

    “This movie also showed this guy who really felt he should be on top and had this hostility to women,” Richardson said. “Nerds in movies are usually portrayed as really lovable underdogs. In reality, there’s a strong sexist element to programming.”

    There’s nothing sexist about programming, but they probably mean (computer) geek culture.

    Elizabeth Wurtzel, Harvard class of 1989, said she doesn’t remember Harvard as being misogynistic but that the film does illustrate a problem with modern women: They’re opting out of high-power jobs.

    “What you see in the movie, the thing that’s bothering you,” Wurtzel, lawyer and author of Prozac Nation, among other books, told me, “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 don’t agree with the “opting out” concept, but moving on.

    The Social Network draws a parallel between final clubs and early Facebook. Perhaps in attempting to illustrate the gender divisions and inequalities at Harvard—which the film implies were part of the inspiration for thefacebook.com—Sorkin and Fincher deliberately portrayed women through the eyes of the male antiheroes.

    If this was the case, Holmes suggested, they might have offered more criticism of the gender dynamic, rather than letting art imitate bigotry. “You also have to ask—well, are they using shots that linger on women’s bodies because that’s the way these male characters look at women, or because its cinematic eye candy?”

  3. Kaonashi

    This makes me think of the criticism I hear from certain male geeks who feel they’ve first been ignored by women when they learned programming, and then when some geeks harnessed their powers and gained power, money and popularity, women suddenly became attracted to them, or at least their power and money. There’s a tendency to use individual examples of being ignored or being seen as attractive later as really prejudiced, bitter and sexist generalizations about women.

    I’ve heard variations this from quite a few male geek acquaintances, and it’s really hard to break through their prejudice. I think there are real, serious issues about masculinity here, but a lot of these guys blame women and feminists instead of thinking critically about the gender roles that put but themselves and the women into this mess. I guess I should see the film first, but it does seem to be based a bit on this line of thinking. Maybe it’s even more common among male geeks than I thought.

    1. Tiferet

      There are 2 things I always want to say to guys who make these complaints:

      1) If you want to live in a world where women aren’t more interested in you when you have more money and power than other men have, help us work to create a world where women’s quality of life, financial health and social status aren’t strongly affected by the financial status and social status of the men they date, if they date men. I’d like to say that I don’t consider a man’s financial health when I’m thinking about whether or not I’d like to go out with him (or a woman’s for that matter)…but the truth is, I’ve been dragged into other people’s financial trouble too often, and I can no longer afford to do that.

      2) Is it just maybe possible that in the process of acquiring more money and power after achieving something tangible, you also picked up some social skills and learned how to dress yourself, talk to people, and have conversations that are not about your work a little bit better than you did before? Because I know that happens to me when I level up in the workplace.

  4. Alice

    First of all, it is encouraging to find many respectful, alternate-t0-mainstream views converging in one thread. I was a bit tired of reading about the little nerd that needed to be loved. Nothing to add besides I know my share of immature geeks as well as enlightened ones and you would think they could use the artistic license to create a more accurate portrayal of geek culture in general.

  5. Mary Post author

    Amanda Marcotte has a largely positive review, arguing that the filmmakers intended to condemn the misogyny of Zuckerberg’s circle by portraying it so vividly.

    There’s a tendency for smart people to watch TV shows and movies, ignore the thoughts that are inspired in us, and instead focus on what we believe the lowest common denominator is getting from a film. And then we hold the filmmakers accountable for the way we believe the lowest common denominator would react instead of thinking that perhaps our reactions were the point…

    You often see people who make the mistake of arguing that portraying equals endorsing, which means that they disregard the discomfort they feel when, say, misogyny is portrayed onscreen. They assume straightaway that their discomfort is wholly theirs, and that the filmmakers didn’t intend to provoke their discomfort….

    Here is why I think that it’s wrong to think that Sorkin and Fincher are trying to do anything but make you uncomfortable with the casual misogyny of the main characters in the movie: it bugs the shit out of everyone who sees it. If they didn’t intend to make a movie that was interrogating toxic masculinity and its effect on women, they managed to make a movie where that theme is the main one that everyone who leaves the theater appears to be discussing…

    1. Sean

      I have to admit, if extras were cast exclusively male, this seems a likelier case. But it’s a tough call.

    2. Tiferet

      I think it’s perfectly valid to say that if something in a film bugs the shit out of almost everyone who sees it, the writers/producers intended to condemn it by depicting it so vividly. I’ve done that one myself in my writing.

      And if it were TRUE I might not even have a problem with it. But there’s the fact that Mark Zuckerberg has a sister who works for Facebook and a long-term girlfriend and that women have apparently been involved with Facebook for quite a while.

      My problem with this movie isn’t that it allegedly glorifies misogyny by depicting it in a vivid manner–it’s that it purports to be a fact-based story in which all the real women who were actually part of that story have been erased from existence and the ones who have been included in the story are all drug-crazed and promiscuous and technically untalented. And that people who see it are going to think that our world here in California is exactly like that. And it’s not at all, and I don’t want young women to be grossed out and turned off by it and to think there’s no place here for them, and I don’t want young men to see it and think that they have to be pathetic, misogynist social rejects in order to be successful, either.

  6. Restructure!

    My perception of the movie was coloured by the fact that I already read some critical reviews of it beforehand, so I will concentrate on what has not already been said. I know Sorkin intended it to be critical of Zuckerberg, but I’m not sure if he succeeded, since the audience is diverse. There are at least two interpretations of the movie: one is anti-geek and critical of male geek misogyny (the probably intended reading), and the other empathizes with Zuckerberg from the misogynist male geek gaze (this is probably the unintended reading). We know from studies on Stephen Colbert that conservatives do not read him as satire; people tend to read characters in a way that confirms their beliefs.

    Unfortunately, out of all the main characters, I identified with the Zuckerberg character the most, and the second is probably Sean Parker. The other main characters are a pair of extremely wealthy, blond, attractive, buff, over-privileged, Harvard men jocks; and Eduardo Saverin, the economics major who keeps trying to put ads on ‘thefacebook.com’ soon after the site launched and started to gain a huge momentum.

    In the beginning, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend Erica tells him (paraphrased), “You will go on in life thinking that girls are rejecting you because you are a nerd. This won’t be true. They will reject you because you are an asshole.” We know from this that Sorkin might have intended to separate being a geek from being an asshole, but then the rest of the movie seems to suggest that geeks are necessarily assholes, probably coming from Sorkin’s implicit anti-geek bias.

    Zuckerberg makes references to PHP, wget, emacs, and Perl scripts. He pluralizes “Winklevoss” as “Winklevi”. In my mind, I was cheering for the emacs name-drop, but then I remembered that Zuckerberg was the sexist, and I wasn’t supposed to identify with him. This happened a lot throughout the movie. There is no one else to identify with except the geeks (Zuckerberg and Sean Parker), since I really can’t identify with the wealthy jocks or the economics major who wants to put ads, which would definitely kill the whole project.

    If we take the perspective that the movie is critical of Zuckerberg, then a lot of the ‘criticisms’ are reinforcing stereotypes about (male) geeks being socially inept and unsuccessful with women. I really don’t think it’s productive to dehumanize people who happen to be introverted and socially awkward, since being introverted and socially awkward has nothing to do with misogyny. Geek misogyny is not a result of women being an “advanced social skill”. I think the movie conflates the two, which helps nothing.

    1. Tiferet

      Yeah, I agree with this. In fact one of the reasons I enjoyed the movie even while getting pissed off at the misogyny is that holy shit there was a movie in it where people used language like emacs and wget and all that correctly and actually did code and did the hyperfocusing thing. I went with a bunch of ex-LiveJournal folks and we were giggling over the page mockup and trying to remember if that was the site scheme they were using that year (it sort of was, only they vastly simplified the update page and left off the menus from that site scheme that I hated because they aggravated my bad wrist).

      If I didn’t know that the whole “Zuckerberg has no family and friends and no love in his life” thing was complete and utter fantastical bullshit, I would have totally sympathised with him in the movie and as it is I kind of badly want Parker/Zuckerberg cracky slash, but not badly enough to sit down and write any.

    2. jon

      Great points (and a fantastic thread in general). Larry Lessig’s response to the movie is a good indication of how Sorkin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg comes across to a lot of guys: “Zuckerberg is a rightful hero of our time. I want my kids to admire him.” Really?

      In Aaron Sorkin’s response to tarazza on Ken Levine’s blog, he talks about what he was trying to do with the portrayal of misogyny. It’d be great to try to engage him in discussion here … is anybody friends with him on Facebook?


      1. Restructure!

        I am no longer impressed by Sorkin’s realistic portrayal of geeks. It turns out the fictional Zuckerberg’s narration of his hacking was taken verbatim from real Zuckerberg’s blog. Also, real Zuckerberg really did call them the Winklevi/Winklevii.

        If facemash rated both men and women, then why is Zuckerberg the sexist, instead of Sorkin? Sorkin is the one who erased female geeks (see tiferet’s post), and inserted fictional misogyny based on geek stereotypes, instead of doing research on real geek misogyny.

        1. jon

          To me it was interesting that Sorkin’s comments didn’t respond to the examples of erasing women from his story, or the way he changed the reality of Facemash.

          In terms of geek portrayal, well, he lifted the right dialog from Zuckerberg, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Jenna Wortham has a bunch of perspectives on the way the startup feel was portrayed in Hey, That’s Me Up On That Screen (in the “Fashion and Style” section!). I very much agree with your points above though that it reinforces negative stereotypes about geek behavior in an unhelpful way.

  7. Sean

    I am asking this out of naivety and not to be dismissive. I will preface by saying I know absolutely nothing about the history of facebook and I have yet to actually put forth the effort to read up on its development:

    How were women integral to its development?

    I ask simply because I assume that women were involved in a relatively meaningful light, else The Social Network surely would have been irrelevant to the original article’s subject matter. At this point, I’m really curious as to what role women played, particularly because I’m always eager to educate myself.

    By the time I get a reply, I’m certain I’ll have given researching it the good college try, but I’d like to hear an answer nonetheless. The story as it’s been portrayed over time is such that Mark Zuckerberg pulled it off nigh by his lonesome. Any reply is desired/appreciated.

    Also, I should note that I haven’t seen the movie, but from how people seem to be describing it, there was a woefully anaemic presence of women apart from “eye-candy.” If that’s the case, casting the film likely adhered to the more stereotypical as opposed to the actual. When people think of programming, they generally ignore women almost entirely as having a part, if only because that’s how popular culture portrays it.

    I suppose the most sexist element isn’t the lack of female characters so much as a presence of female characters that serve only to demean their gender. Oy… Too much wine to be thinking thoughts.

    To reiterate: Can anyone tell me in which ways women have proved themselves a wholly relevant part of the development of Facebook? In my mind this reflects potentially differing degrees of sexism. If there were women who proved an integral part, then clearly there should have been female characters closer to the forefront of the story whereas otherwise, there should at the very least have been extras cast to accurately represent the female programmers who took part in the project.

    1. Restructure!

      If there were women who proved an integral part, then clearly there should have been female characters closer to the forefront of the story whereas otherwise, there should at the very least have been extras cast to accurately represent the female programmers who took part in the project.

      I don’t know the real history of Facebook; I only saw the movie. In the movie, when they first hire a handful of interns, they appear to be all male. After they get an angel investor and get a proper office with many employees, female employees are shown (and the one who has a brief speaking role is ogled at).

    2. Tiferet

      I am not intimately acquainted with the history of Facebook, but you can do a few minutes’ research on Google and learn that Mark Zuckerberg’s had a consistent girlfriend (Priscilla Chan) since 2003, that his sister Randi is deeply involved with the site and holds a major position in the corporation, and that there is also a woman named Sheryl Sandberg who holds an important position. I’m too tired to go and look up their titles, but my point is kind of that you could do it yourself without too much trouble.

  8. Restructure!

    Interesting comment at Racialicious by Di Di:

    I don’t feel that Aaron Sorkin actually has a good history of writing female characters. He has created strong, powerful, and talented women before (CJ from the West Wing, as you mention, also Dana on Sports Night and Harriet on Studio 60) but these women are portrayed as good at their jobs and idiots in their personal lives. They don’t know what’s good for them. They don’t recognize that the perfect man is right in front of them, and they subject poor Mr. Right to endless foolish behavior — like stupidly dating the wrong gay right in front of him. Sometimes I feel like these women are stand-ins for the women who didn’t recognize or appreciate Sorkin’s affection for them in the past. He really plays into the worst Nice Guy fantasies.

    At the same time, his shows include female characters who are portrayed as clueless about their jobs, as well — sweet and earnest, but constantly missing the point (like on West Wing, Donna never understanding anything until Josh explained it… the Laurens… other secretaries also seemed to need the men to explain everything…)

    So I actually think he has a history of sexist writing, and putting women in important jobs doesn’t change that.

  9. Restructure!

    In The Social Network, Mr. Narenda is played by a white actor, but he’s actually of Indian descent (via Racialicious).

    Given the movie is at least loosely based on the Facebook story, there is an Indian character that plays an integral role in the narrative: Divya Narendra, a Harvard student who tussled with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg.

    An Indian doesn’t play Mr. Narendra in the movie. Instead, he is played by Max Minghella, who has Italian, Scottish and Chinese ancestry, according to his Wikipedia profile posted on http://www.maxminghella.com/


    But The Social Network is a movie based on real people. Mr. Narendra is of Indian descent. In an interview, he said he was “initially surprised to see a white actor play him on screen.”

    (Also, Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg’s long-term girlfriend, was erased from the film.)

    This reminds me how the MIT Blackjack team in 21 was led by white people, but in reality, they were led by Asian Americans. (I have not seen this film.) Hollywood has a history of erasing Asians and replacing them with white people, even when they tell histories based on real life events.

    Maybe that’s why people think that if it’s really good, white men did it, and that women and people of colour have never and will never do anything of value.

  10. Lukas

    Loving catching up on the discussion here. I feel like the last geek to see this movie! Anyway, finally caught it this weekend right after having read bell hooks’ Where We Stand: Class Matters. So tonight I have class on the brain in amounts slightly higher than gender/race (though as always I am happy with the commenters so far and what they have been pointing out).

    So what I found frustrating during the film was the whole “Mark doesn’t care about money” “Someone needs to watch out for him” thing. A lot of the press about Facebook is quick to point out the valuation of FB being in the billions and the movie was dripping elite upper class folks out the seams. Why was Mark Zuckerberg portrayed as some kind of classless hero in his flip-flops, needing only $1000 to make this billion dollar dream come true when in fact in real life he went to fancy school, and also continued to HARVARD, with double doctor parents. I don’t have any ideas right now, I’m still trying to absorb my experience of reading about the deepening gap between the haves/have nots in this culture while spending 2 hours watching a bunch of boys make money and act like that’s the coolest thing in the world.

    What I did come away with though is that while a person (in this case a privileged, young, white guy) can make an impact on the way the social networks of our online lives work by drawing us all to the site to beat all sites, even if it’s like “crack” and you can’t stop checking it a bunch of times a day, it cannot help you be a good friend or give you more genuine connections in your life.

    1. Mary Post author

      I feel like the last geek to see this movie!

      You want to watch the geocentricism here (don’t worry, minor error). It hasn’t been released in Australia or a whole bunch of other markets yet.

  11. Restructure!

    Mark Zuckerberg tells the biggest Difference Between “The Social Network” And what actually happened

    In The Social Network, a movie about the founding of Facebook, a fictional Mark Zuckerberg builds the site in order to impress a girl and gain social notoriety.

    Speaking at Y-combinator event over the weekend, the real Mark Zuckerberg said that the biggest difference between the movie and real life stems from the fact that movie-makers “can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”

  12. Addie


    I have to say, I was hoping for a more nuanced discussion on GF… in particular, more contribution early on in the discussion from people who had actually seen the film. (Restructure, your comments were fantastic.) That said, it sounds like most people had the same issues with the film before seeing it that I did. It was not marketed to the female geek by any means, and I wouldn’t have watched it if I wasn’t part of an “adaptation book club” that watches movies based on books.

    I watched it last night and it blew my mind. I really wasn’t expecting that, given all of the reading I have been doing about the film and its problems with sexism. I’m willing to accept that it’s a good film precisely because its message is so nuanced; it’s making several scathing criticisms on multiple levels, in particular about misogyny and elitism. The film’s Zuckerberg is somewhere on the spectrum in both of these respects; in some areas you cheer for him, and in others you resent him, and I think that’s part of the point.

    I think the film was at its weakest when resorting to tropes to convey an idea of glamour, sexiness, and being among the elite. I shouted “bullshit” at the screen throughout the film at the utterly unrealistic portrayal of college life (especially at prestigious institutions) and life in the Valley (where, in my experience, even interesting people have a hard time not being boring). I didn’t expect to agree with the reviews that said the misogyny was amplified so to make a point about the sexism of the characters – instead of saying that the movie was sexist in general – but I did, when I was done watching. That said? There was a hell of a lot of sexist noise added by the filmmakers following the aforementioned tropes. The contrast they were trying to paint with those tropes (the “real life” experiences that Zuckerberg’s character, in particular, was checked out of for much of the film because he was too wrapped up in his project) could have been a lot more sophisticated.

    Here’s some insight that should be really helpful, though. The source material for this film is an EXTREMELY problematic book called “The Accidental Billionaires” that should never have been given the label “non-fiction” because it is, at best, a piece of yellow journalism. It is rife with issues. I tried to read the book for my book club, and by page 52 I had to give up. I literally have never hated a book with such passion as intensity as this one. It was absolutely infuriating on so many levels (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6326920-the-accidental-billionaires has a lot of reviews that can do the work for me), but it definitely informed my view of the film, which was “this is meant to be taken as a fiction based upon a very small skeleton of fact.” In particular, since Zuckerberg refused to cooperate with the author of “The Accidental Billionaires”, he is the biggest blank slate of all of the players in this story, and I think Sorkin (and more importantly Jesse Eisenberg) took a wise route in how they decided to fill in the details.

    I didn’t see Zuckerberg as the real Zuckerberg throughout the film. Instead I saw him as the epitome of the male programmer archetype, including both the good and the bad. So I pumped my fist when he made scathing zingers, voiced his programmer’s idealism and regard for entrenched systems that are past their time, etc. I smiled with familiarity at the portrayal of the moment an idea takes root and hyper-focus on a project kicks in; how the rest of the world fades out. I also winced – with incredible, aching familiarity – when he was a total asshole, dismissed or disregarded the people he was supposed to care about, and used the Internet as a means to channel his insecurities. He was everything that is utterly right and utterly wrong with programmer culture – in particular, the white male programmer culture – put on screen. It was weird to see a world I know so intimately displayed in such an accurate way for a mass audience. But in all honesty, I think the intent is that we’re supposed to feel conflicted about the Zuckerberg character by the end of the film, and we’re supposed to view the fictional liberties that the film takes as efforts to underscore a greater point (although making facemash single-gender and other such simplifications still pissed me off.)

    Also, one thing I haven’t seen pointed out anywhere yet – although the initial programmers for Facebook are definitely all portrayed as male, to an extent that did border on unrealistic (but not wholly unbelievable), there’s a scene where Mark is in a CS class at Harvard that is realistic in its sparse attendance (at a time when I was also in college and watched my department halve in size – a phenomenon that was occurring everywhere) but kind of took me aback with its number of female students. That was no CS class I ever attended. Kind of an odd, but welcome, contrast to the portrayal of women in the rest of the film.

    So yes – I think the film is flawed in many respects – but it was enormously stirring, especially for me as a programmer (my non-programmer friends were not nearly as floored because they missed those familiar bits that resonated with me), and I’m excited to see it getting such attention and discussion and especially criticism. IMHO, Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg is what makes the film work, and it’s an incredibly skilled picture of the male programmer archetype. Jezebel had a post a couple days ago about “Why Programming is Cool Again” (http://jezebel.com/5667829/why-programming-is-hip-again-hint-its-not-the-bong-hits), and it’s refreshing to see this kind of discussion happening in more “mainstream” forums.

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