A white guy invented Facebook. But in Mark Zuckerberg's real-life world, women did more than give blowjobs, and black people said more than "Is this guy bothering you?" So why does The Social Network so badly want to pretend otherwise?
The Social Network was the weekend's number one movie, a feat that probably would not have been attained by a movie that tried to be "true." Hollywood's solution to Facebook's unsexy creation story was familiar: Add women as sluts, stalkers, or ballbusters. With very few exceptions, girls don't even know how to properly play video games or get high off a bong, and they're gold-diggers or humiliating bitches, and they certainly never come up with anything of value on their own. The result is a fictional Harvard as crudely misogynistic as Hollywood — which, thankfully, it actually wasn't — and a world in which the best a woman can hope for is to have her rejection create as meaningful a legacy. (And we're not the only ones who noticed.)
Self-appointed factcheckers have already descended on the movie, some tiresome and some illuminating, and here's my contribution. To everyone who says this is not about whether it's "true" or not because it's about good storytelling: It's not interesting that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher changed the "reality," but it is interesting how and why they did. A movie like The Social Network that slavishly strives for some forms of verisimilitude (the way the Quincy House website looked in 2003, the scratchy couches in the common rooms, lines Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his blog) and blithely departs from others is making a choice both about the world it wants to see and the world it thinks will sell.
That mostly comes down to sex as the motivator for all things — specifically, and more or less exclusively, men who want to have sex with women, who usually won't let them unless they're rich or row crew. Never mind that no one has shown any evidence that Mark Zuckerberg's sleepless coding was an elaborate form of sexual revenge,* or that in real life, he has had a serious girlfriend since 2003, which includes the time when the movie was set. That would make it hard to show Asian girls blowing him and his friend because Facebook was so cool!
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In real life, plenty of members of Zuckerberg's inner circle are and were gay men. And Facebook's current success has also been predicated on the hard work of women Zuckerberg trusts, including COO Sheryl Sandberg (also a Harvard grad, profiled in The Times today) and his sister.
The final clubs that the movie presents as the driving forces of social life at Harvard were and are fundamentally and functionally misogynistic, relics of a time when women couldn't own property and gained access to elite spaces based on either pedigree or sex appeal. At Harvard a year ahead of Zuckerberg, I stopped attending parties at the clubs my sophomore year out of disgust (with a rant at one club's president that I was tired of either being invisible or hit on in his club, which essentially ended with him hitting on me and me telling him to fuck off). But even I will allow that they were rarely, if ever, the tabletop-stripping, girl-on-girl-action harems the movie makes them out to be. And by the way, you would never know from the movie that The Phoenix, the club Eduardo Saverin belongs to, was the most racially and ethnically diverse one of the lot.
Also, and this is important, no one believes Zuckerberg gave a shit about those clubs. In his world of choice, the computer science one, women may have been few, and maybe some of the guys there resented them, or fetishized Asian women. Maybe for some of them, what Zuckerberg's (fictional) ex-girlfriend says is true, that they were "going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a geek. ...[but] it'll be because you're an asshole."
But it's doing Zuckerberg himself a disservice to reduce his creativity and problem-solving to a sort of digital hate fuck.
He lived, and lives, in a world where, even if women were scarce in computer science classes, they were achieving as brilliantly as the men around them, in a Harvard that was driven more by extracurricular accomplishment than it was by the old-boy network, even if the old boys haven't had their last gasp.
That world had its problems, but I never thought it was driven by simultaneous desire and contempt for women. The fictional Mark Zuckerberg starts Facemash, a site where girls can be cruelly judged on their looks, the only thing they're good for. In real life, Facemash was criticized by groups representing women of color, but it was also equal opportunity judgment: It had men and women on it, which you'd never know from the movie. The real life Sean Parker may be a womanizer, but unlike the character played by Justin Timberlake, he didn't find out about Facebook from a nubile co-ed in Stanford panties who was thrilled to find out she'd scored with a Silicon Valley celeb — he found out about it from his roommate's girlfriend.
It makes you wonder why the filmmakers tried so hard to create a world so hostile and diminishing to women, where — aside from a small character for real-life Harvard grad Rashida Jones that seems to have been designed to preempt criticism — the choices are being a stern bitch (like the ones in the administrative board hearings) or dropping your panties at the sight of power. I don't know from personal experience, but that sounds a lot more like Hollywood.
* Update: Yes, real-life Zuckerberg was mad at an unnamed "bitch" that first night — I stand corrected. But that seems to have been a moment's rage, as opposed to a years-long motivator, and the rest of it stands.
Related: The Social Network's Female Props [The Daily Beast]
Mark Zuckerberg's Most Valuable Friend [NYT]
You Can't Handle The Veritas [Slate]
With A Little Help From His Friends [Vanity Fair]
What's True in the Facebook Movie [The Daily Beast]