Aaron Sorkin is defending The Social Network's portrayal of women, saying it reflects the tech world's misogyny. Others have cited artistic license as in service of a larger critique. But where's the line between glamorizing a world and critiquing it?
Of all the forums available to Aaron Sorkin, he chose to reply to a comment on a TV writer's blog, essentially to say that he relied on the facts: that he quoted from Mark Zuckerberg's blog verbatim, just changing the name of a girl that he may or may not have actually been dating, the comments about farm animals, the creation of Facemash, which Sorkin said was "aimed... at the entire female population of Harvard." (Nevermind that men were also graded on the real life Facemash, that a single blog post in a fit of pique isn't necessarily indicative of someone's entire worldview, or that again, Zuckerberg had a serious girlfriend he started dating not much afterwards).
This is not only true of the real Zuckerberg, he says:
More generally, 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. The women they surround themselves with aren't women who challenge them (and frankly, no woman who could challenge them would be interested in being anywhere near them.)
I already spoke to the dissonance between the Harvard he describes and the one I knew; at least one woman in the other sphere in the film, Silicon Valley, objects to that world's portrayal too. In TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy also points out that Sorkin is directly contradicting his previous statements that he knew nothing about the real Facebook and was simply storytelling:
Either you are proud that you don't know a thing about the Internet, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and the world you wrote a movie about or you are simply the empty vessel here to tell the world a larger truth about Silicon Valley. Because so far, you seem to flip-flop based on the accusation.
In ten years in the Valley, I can count on one hand the times I've been hit on at a techy party or event– and even during those few occurrences the people apologized as soon as they realized I was married. I have never had an illicit proposition, I have never seen a girl stripping at a party, I have never seen giggling underage girls in panties doing bong hits as male programmers code. I have seen far less misogyny in this scene than I have during stints in New York, or nearly a dozen countries around the world where I've reported.
Judging from the comments on TechCrunch, Lacy is getting the same twisted reaction that surfaced in our own Social Network post: legions of self-described nerds descending to argue that they are in fact as misogynistic as the film suggests.
But let's put aside, for a minute, the idea of whether this is an accurate portrayal of Harvard or the tech scene. (Although I would argue that using real names and places in what is unusually close to real time is a choice in itself that invites this sort of speculation.) Is the artistic license being used in service of a critique or a sort of prescriptive endorsement? Or, even, on a baser level, the film's simple marketability, which Lacy also suggests?
If you take Sorkin at his word, the interpretation of Dana Stevens in Slate is true to his intentions: "To me, this filtering of the female characters through Mark's limited experience of them isn't sexism; it's good screenwriting," she wrote. The Social Network "is smarter about the way women circulate as objects of male competition, predation, and fantasy than it is about the motivations of individual female characters." That's a limitation of the film, she implies, but doesn't change its ultimate critique of that competition, predation, and fantasy.
But are casual viewers coming away from the film thinking, "Wow, I'm really troubled by the lack of a coherent character arc for Christy the psycho girlfriend"? Or do they think, how badass it would be to live the northern California version of Entourage, Victoria's Secret model in tow?
There is a way to represent sexism in a world, if that is one of your aims, without making it into a Public Service Announcement, and nothing makes that clearer than Mad Men, of which a historian recently wrote that it is "quite simply, one of the most historically accurate television series ever produced. And despite the rampant chauvinism of virtually all its male characters (and some of its female ones), it is also one of the most sympathetic to women."
The smoking and drinking and banter on Mad Men may seem glamorous and people may love dressing up like Joan Holloway, but not only does no one envy her lot, the circumscribed lives of the men in power around her are no picnic either. Even as Mad Men at times makes that milieu debonair, even the casual observer could see a lot of misery in it for men and women alike. A big part of that may be that Matt Weiner is obsessively accurate and also thoughtful, or that there are plenty of women in the writing room and the director's chair. And of course it's easier to pull this off in television, where characters are developed over a far longer stretch of time, and when discussing a different generation that is less likely to blog about its portrayal.
As a viewing experience, I enjoyed The Social Network. And any subsequent feedback that brings lots of people into a critical discussion of gender portrayals is cool with me, too. But let's not conflate the representation of sexism — accurate or exaggerated — with its critique.
Aaron Sorkin Responds To A Commenter On My Blog [Ken Levine Blog]
Related: Hearst Didn't Have A Sled Called Rosebud [Pandagon]
Is The Facebook Movie Sexist? [Slate]
Why Mad Men Is TV's Most Feminist Show [Washington Post]
Memo to Aaron Sorkin: You Invented this Angry Nerd Misogyny Too [Techcrunch]
Earlier: The Social Network, Where Women Never Have Ideas