The Social Network has turned out to be the rare pop cultural phenomenon that is everything we hoped it would be. Smart, riveting, and very much of our time, it provides endless fodder for intellectual dissection and further exploration. The fact that it has become so all-engrossing, however, makes one glaring fact about it all the more disturbing: Its downright appalling depiction of women.
I want to recommend this film unequivocally to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it’s hard to get past its female problem. I get that it’s ostensibly non-fiction. I know there aren’t a heck of a lot of female computer science majors, period — women make up about 15 percent of top university classes in the subject, according to some estimates — and I know that regardless of percentages, it’s a fact that no women were involved in founding Facebook. And it would be nothing short of condescending for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who, as The Daily Beast points out, acknowledged the problem in an interview with Stephen Colbert) and director David Fincher to have concocted some fictional spunky-girl nerd character or a wise female comp sci professor in an attempt to make their film more female-friendly.
But the way the women who do exist in the film are depicted is horrendous, like, ’50s-level sexist — if this were fiction, the snubs would be inexcusable. The shiniest example of female-dom is Rooney Mara’s idealized-woman-figure Erica Albright, who dumps anti-hero Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and, in a way, inspires him to start the company that eventually takes over the world. When Mark blogs nastily about her breast size and works out his rage at her by inventing “Facemash,” a viral hit allowing Harvard students to compare the hotness of co-eds on campus (before first considering comparing them to farm animals), it’s noted in the movie that this does not make him popular with female students. But that all seems to change once he invents the wildly popular Facebook. Then, we’re treated to a sequence in which a girl named Christy Lee (played by Suite Life of Zack & Cody‘s Brenda Song, in her I’m-not-a-kid-star-anymore moment) and her friend approach Zuckerberg and his business partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), because they’re the guys who made “the Facebook.” Oral sex in a public restroom ensues before Zuckerberg — inspired by a tense run-in with Erica — decides to expand the company. As he hands out orders back in his dorm room to his programming buddies, the girls look on blankly, until finally asking if there’s anything they can do to help — and being pointedly turned down, the floozy jokes of the otherwise geeky scene. Christy Lee will steal her most memorable moment on screen by setting something on fire, the ultimate crazy girlfriend.
From there, women in the movie are reduced to set pieces, gyrating, nearly naked scenery at parties, bimbo potheads, and mini-skirt-wearing interns meant to denote how far Zuckerberg has risen from his dorky beginnings. At one point, his mentor, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) brings a Victoria’s Secret model along as his date, and her major function is to demand shots if the boys insist on talking about icky business stuff. Perhaps the most nuanced female character in the film is the object of Sean’s one-night-stand who happens to first introduce him to Facebook. At least she seemed to give him a run for his wits as she questioned whether he remembered her name or not — even if she was ultimately blown away to find out he’d founded Napster.
Without sifting through the backstories of Zuckerberg and company for strong female figures, it’s hard to know what the filmmakers could have done differently while still hewing to some version of the truth. And it’s clear that they’re showing us, for better or worse, how women function in these particular boys’ worlds, which, apparently, is as objects to be conquered with fame and fortune. The Social Network certainly provides, if nothing else, strong evidence that we still need feminism, that we need to inundate boys with it in particular — and that we need to nurture math and science skills in girls more than ever before, so they have as good a chance at changing the world as these guys did.