The arrival of The Social Network in theaters last week was like the arrival of sweater weather (in New York, at least). After the flashy, insubstantial sundress movies of summer, here was finally an excuse to put on something with weight and texture, something that might actually last! All week the online communities whose invention the film explores (and, to some degree, critiques) have crackled with conversations, debates, and all-out fights about whether David Fincher's movie is any good, what it's trying to say, and whether it's wrong or right about both the prickly founder of Facebook and the virtual global empire he created.
One of the most persistent Social Network conversations has been about the role of women in the movie. One fact is indisputable: There aren't many. Of course, there's Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), the Fair-Isle-sweater-wearing BU student (See? Sweaters!) who breaks up with Zuckerberg in the opening scene and reappears briefly thrice after that—twice in the flesh, once virtually. And Christy (Brenda Song), the Asian-American groupie who, along with her friend Alice, offers bathroom-stall blow jobs to Zuckerberg and his friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), and who later becomes Eduardo's girlfriend. Other than that, most of the women in the movie are peripheral, nearly silent figures of fantasy: the busful of coeds who disembark at a Harvard "final club" party of MTV-level debauchery. The Victoria's Secret model who Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Machiavellian founder of Napster, takes to a nightclub. The giggling, possibly underaged bimbos who do bong hits and play video games on the couch of Zuckerberg's summer rental in Palo Alto, Calif.
And yet it's women and all that women seem, to these young men, to promise and withhold—not just sex but approbation, companionship, belonging—that fuels the male protagonists' frenzies of coding, rowing, and venture-capital-soliciting. The title of Allison Willmore's piece on IFC.com, "The Homosocial Network," nails it. "Homosocial" may not be a term that Aaron Sorkin would throw around himself, but it's a concept he clearly knows something about.
Whichever side you take, there's a lot that's worth reading and watching on this subject: Irin Carmon at Jezebel, Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon, even Stephen Colbert needling Aaron Sorkin on The Colbert Report: "Can I ask you about the ladies?" On the whole I tend to agree with Willmore, who concedes that the movie is "a cinematic sausage fest" while defending it against charges of sexism: "Does The Social Network have a problem with women? I wouldn't say so, but its characters sure do."
But after a second viewing of the film—during which I admired its crisp, economical storytelling as much as I did the first time, maybe more—I was struck by the extent to which the movie explicitly grapples with the question of sexism. I wouldn't call this a feminist movie by any stretch—it's much more preoccupied with male friendship than with relationships between men and women. But Sorkin's implicit humanist critique of the Internet (which many younger viewers find fuddy-duddyish) extends to include a critique of the boys' club that online communication helps enable.
Erica's dumping of Mark in the first scene triggers an all-night drunk coding frenzy that gives rise to Facemash, a site that allows viewers to rank the comparative "hotness" of Harvard girls. The key lesson Mark takes away from the site's wild success (before it's taken down by the college authorities) is that "people want to look at pictures of people they know." "You can see hot girls all over the Internet," he assures Eduardo. But if you've seen this movie you know everything Mark Zuckerberg says has a subtext, usually an unpleasant one, and here the subtext is: You can see hot girls all over the Internet, but it's no fun to insult them unless you know them.
To me, this filtering of the female characters through Mark's limited experience of them isn't sexism; it's good screenwriting. And the insults go both ways: In addition to Erica's devastating parting crack in that first scene ("You'll go through life thinking girls don't like you because you're a nerd ... it'll be because you're an asshole"*), there's the anonymous girl who causes Mark to flee computer class by passing him a note that reads "u dick." Later, when Mark is hauled before college authorities to atone for Facemash, Eduardo complains: "Why do you always do everything possible to ensure that girls hate us?"
Mark is constantly undermining everyone in the film (especially Eduardo), but his putdowns of women have a different, condescending edge. "Is there anything we can do to help?" Christy asks as she and Alice sit in on an otherwise all-male Facebook strategy session. Mark looks at her for a second in confusion, as though a figurine on a shelf had started speaking, then brusquely responds, "No." A socially autistic savant who regards all human relationships as purely transactional, Mark lacks the skill to disguise his need for either Eduardo's seed money or Alice's blow job (which we witness only through a closed bathroom stall—in a smart directorial detail, Mark is never shown physically relating to any woman).
The critics of The Social Network's "woman problem" do point out one weakness I also mention in my original review of the film: The women's roles, on the whole, are less well-developed than the men's. By that I don't mean that the female characters are less nice people—no one in The Social Network, with the occasional exception of Eduardo Saverin, is nice—but that their character arcs are flimsily constructed. This isn't a problem in the case of Erica, whose personality emerges quite clearly in the course of her two speaking scenes. But it is a problem for Christy, who goes from sexually available tech groupie to psycho arsonist girlfriend without enough scenes in between to provide connecting fiber. (The writer Rebecca Davis O'Brien found Christy to be an Asian-American stereotype, a reading that never occurred to me while watching: Neither the opportunistic seduction of powerful men nor the melodramatic burning of silk scarves seem like ethnically specific behaviors.)
The Social Network presents an odd paradox in its vision of the war between the sexes (which, like all the conflict in this movie, is a real war, brutal and unattenuated). It's smarter about the way women circulate as objects of male competition, predation, and fantasy than it is about the motivations of individual female characters. The film's "women problem" doesn't lie in the fact that many of the women in it (with the exception of Erica Albright and the lawyer played by Rashida Jones) are shallow, self-serving jerks—so are most of the men. But any film capable of putting on-screen as complex and fascinating a jerk as Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg should be smart enough to do the same for the ladies.
Correction, March 2, 2011: This article originally misquoted the movie. Erica said, "... girls don't like you because you're a nerd," not "girls don't like you because you're a tech geek." (Return to the corrected sentence.)