10 October 2010
Here’s what I’ll take for granted for the rest of this piece: this is a tight, fascinating film about a Citizen Kane-type character capable of extraordinary brilliance, caustic wit, and whiplash-inducing revenge. As anti-heroes go, Jesse Eisenberg’s rendition of Mark Zuckerberg ranks up at the very top with Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II. You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard already that the writing is vintage-crisp Aaron Sorkin, the directing is vintage-creepy David Fincher, and (less discussed) the editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall makes it feel like an action movie rather than what might otherwise have been a ponderous, “Rashomon”-like multiple-viewpoint meditation. It’s great — a really good movie. But I want to talk about its depictions of manliness and women, which are alternately profound and utterly tossed off. Guess who gets tossed off? To cut to the chase: I think it’s more useful to think about this as a love story between men.
In his interview last week with Aaron Sorkin Stephen Colbert commended him on the opening scene, in which Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara), who is breaking up with him, have a conversation that’s more like a boxing match than a typical film conversation: they’re two exceptionally sharp and flinty characters, and she can’t stand him anymore. Yet, as Colbert noted with the kind of forthrightness we wish we’d see elsewhere, “The other ladies in the movie don’t have as much to say because they’re high or drunk or [bleep]ing guys in the bathroom. Why are there no other women of any substance in the movie?” In response, Sorkin hawed for a moment, then copped to it: “The other women are prizes.”
Colbert and Sorkin weren’t joking. As much as this breakup matters to the story, women in general are utterly objectified by these Harvard men, primarily serving to propel the story forward only when they prove to be crazy, underage, or appearing briefly to utter something true, as Rashida Jones’ character does near the end. (Sidebar: I maintain that last is more an example of the Magical Negro trope [as Spike Lee and Dave Chappelle have most brilliantly laid it out]; it’s no accident that Jones’ character is not just sexually unavailable to Zuckerberg but, famously, mixed-race: her real-life father is Quincy Jones.) To be clear, none of the objectification of women is criticized by the film; the fact that beautiful women throw themselves in the way of powerful men is portrayed as one of the natural by-products of a man’s arrival to popularity or status. The way the film treats women of Asian descent is especially abhorrent, using the cheapest stereotypes in the book. Women are forgettable, throwaway prizes, like a ribbon or a certificate or a trophy-ette one puts on a shelf. Granted, these are prizes one can [bleep] in the bathroom; the point is, what matters is the competition between men to get those prizes.
And that’s what I love about Fincher’s movies: as much as he often finesses his female characters, he’s brilliant when it comes to subtly tracing the alternately loving, eerie, homoerotic, or twisted aspects of men’s relationships with one another. I still think Fincher’s “Fight Club” (1999) remains one of the best analyses of 20th-century manhood we’ve got. Okay, an easy criticism here would be, “Great — yet another elaboration of manhood. We sure didn’t have enough of those.” Don’t worry: I’ll advance that criticism of a lot of those other films, but not this one. As much as I throw up my hands at its treatment of women, “The Social Network” is punctuated with moments that reveal Zuckerberg’s complex relationships with men, relationships that could appear in Eve Sedgwick’s formative, brilliant academic work, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, published back in the early 90s. Men’s relationships with each other are perhaps of primary importance, Sedgwick suggested, as it is there that men find their most likely access to both financial reward and prestige — but also to fraternal bonds that may matter just as much as material advancement. For part of the film, the main affective relationship is between Zuckerberg and his wealthy best friend from Harvard, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield); yet when Zuckerberg meets the power-prettyboy-Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a terrific casting decision), he falls just a little bit in love, and the chips fall from there. Tenured Radical calls Parker Zuckerberg’s “soul mate,” an utterly accurate depiction.
It’s no surprise that Zuckerberg struggles with a social life, as he seems inherently antisocial in an Asperger’s way. He wants more than anything to be “punched” to be a prospective member of one of Harvard’s prestigious final clubs; too bad he’s so unattractive on so many levels. (“Punched”! honestly. No one could invent material this apt.) Saverin, however, does get punched — prompting Zuckerberg to respond with an almost manic, nasty combination of derision and predictions of his ultimate failure to make the final cut. Those ugly personal qualities beg the question whether Zuckerberg is driven at least partly by revenge when, asked by an elite group of finals club men to create a social network website for them, Zuckerberg steals the idea and creates what he calls at first TheFacebook. He basically treats everyone as falling on a spectrum from stupid to objectionable; but when TheFacebook proves to be wildly popular and he’s getting pressured to find ways to make it profitable, Sean Parker appears to offer advice and direction for the young startup. Parker is eminently cool and easy with women, both things that Zuckerberg can envy from his lonely perch; more important, Parker articulates with exceptional clarity the college kid’s vague thoughts that hadn’t yet cohered into a game plan. It’s like a classic love story: Saverin hates the new guy, but Zuckerberg is willing to listen to every word, even when it leads to pushing Saverin out, and it’s that breakup that ultimately becomes the central tale in this story.
So it comes down to this: why does a film that says so many smart things about manliness and power have to rely on debasing women? Women are never irrelevant to the dramas between men; they help to remind love stories like this one that we’re not talking about homosexuality per se, or even a homoeroticism that any of its characters would recognize as such. “Fight Club” was much more explicit about the erotic bond between Jack (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Here, the erotic tones are covered over with triumphal uses of women as objects — affirmations of heterosexuality, yes, but affirmations that help to confirm emotional bonds between men.
On a different note, I asked my students this week if they were planning to see “The Social Network,” and one of whom exploded and said, “No way! There’s no way I’m giving that guy any more money!” He continued to insist, despite mild protests by his peers, that Zuckerberg would find a way to reap millions from it. I think he’s right.
Filed in 2010s films, Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher, Jesse Eisenberg, Rooney Mara, The curious case of women in film, The Social Network, Why feminism matters now
Tags: Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher, Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara, Stephen Colbert, The Social Network