With the Academy Awards just around the corner, I thought I’d take a look at the major complaint dogging one of the frontrunners. If one criticism has been lobbed consistently towards the much ballyhooed The Social Network, it’s that Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay presents a misogynistic world where women are prey and their contributions are marginalized. Are these accusations fair, or is Mr Sorkin merely working in depths beyond the grasp of the critical public? We’ll see.
For the uninitiated, The Social Network details (with no small amount of liberties taken) the founding of Facebook, the world’s largest and most ubiquitous social networking website. Hence the title. Anyway, the plot focuses on the friendship between the two Harvard undergraduates most responsible for Facebook’s creation, and the various forces that would lead to the dissolution and destruction of their partnership. Along the way, women are hated, hunted, and belittled. Mark Zuckerburg spews vile on the internet about a girl that rejected him, Sean Parker seduces and traffics women like currency, and poor Eduardo Saverin is tortured by his psychotic girlfriend.
Indisputably, The Social Network features depictions of misogyny. Women are objectified and/or despised consistently by the film’s central characters. Merely presenting misogynistic characters, however, does not inherently make a film sexist. As Aaron Sorkin correctly pointed out in response to the complaints levied against him, depicting behaviour doesn’t mean such behaviour is condoned. Not every movie that presents a serial killer, for example, is a celebration of serial killing. The film resists glorifying the behaviour and attitudes of Zuckerberg and Parker, instead showering them in an ambivalent and unflattering light. Not only that, but Sorkin also tries to offer up a pair of characters who would seem to refute their attitudes: Marylin Delpy, an intelligent young lawyer defending Zuckerberg in his various suits, and Erica Albright, who despite being quite thinly drawn, at least gets to tell Zuckerberg off.
That being said, the misogyny in the Social Network is not limited to the beliefs and actions of its characters, but is inherent to the structure of the screenplay. Contributions to the inception of Facebook are marginalized and ignored by not only the characters, but the filmmakers themselves. Observe a throw-away piece of dialogue, where Saverin’s girlfriend Christy is casually accredited with setting up a meeting with Sean Parker, the creator of Napster and hero to Zuckerberg. However, the film makes no effort to explain how Christie set up such a meeting, or why on earth she would have a capacity to do so. Rather than shade with her with nuance and competence, the film prefers not to confuse the type in which it’s cast her: beguiling, irrational tormentor.
In latter scenes, Christy suddenly becomes the very bane of Saverin’s existence. She’s ungrateful for his gifts, accuses him of infidelity, and her moods swing wildly, one moment screaming at him, the next pouting that he’s leaving. Unlike Zuckerberg, Saverin is meant to be a sympathetic character, and an emotional access point for much of the audience. Though we can forgive and even commend the character of Albright for her treatment of former boyfriend Zuckerberg, Christy is cruel and malicious. Her lashing out at Saverin is just another injustice laid upon the poor boy’s head, and we are invited to hate her. Her harpe-like attacks play like ancient Evil Stepmother nonsense, a tired, ineffective cliche played out late in the game and without context to generate a little extra pity for a beleaguered hero.
Now in most cases, creators can hide behind the mask of historical fidelity. When Spike Lee accused Clint Eastwood of marginalizing the contributions of African Americans to various efforts in World War II, Eastwood countered with such an argument. “Well, that’s just how it happened.” is a perfectly acceptable defense if no woman made any notable contribution to Facebook’s success. However, Sorkin unfortunately preemptively burned that bridge in the build-up to the film’s release, quipping “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” By freely admitting to taking liberties with the facts, Sorkin and his fellow filmmakers must be prepared to take the brunt of the ethical implications of the events transpiring. They have shaped their universe as they see fit.
The Social Network, I think, certainly crosses a few lines in its attitudes and treatments of women. It’s one thing to depict a world that is not egalitarian. It’s another to suggest that such imbalance is warranted, and in using an arcane cliche of a character like Christy, that’s exactly what The Social Network ends up doing. Now does that nullify the film’s many other strengths, or negate the positive portrayals of women Sorkin attempted to insert? Does that make the dialogue any less crisp, or its story of betrayal between best friends any less poignant? Of course not. But it is incontrovertibly a flaw, and each viewer must decide for themselves whether or not it’s a fatal one.