an open letter to aaron "sexist" sorkin
Dear Mr Sorkin,
I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time. The West Wing was genius, at least while you were at the helm. Sure, it was preachy and patronising sometimes, but your anger was (mostly) justifiable, your writing was sharp, and the humour was lightning-quick. (No-one I know will ever have a root canal — it will always be “woot canaw” to me.)
Not everyone loved Studio 60, but I really did (except for that two-part episode with John Goodman, which was elitist and condescending, but hey, nobody’s perfect.)
Some people have been saying for years that your portrayals of women lack nuance and diversity, place them as bystanders to the action as opposed to part of it, indulge in stereotypes, and make valid points about feminism in clumsy ways. And I can see why.
I still think CJ Cregg is a wonderful creation and I love that many of your female characters are educated professionals with interests besides a man; women whose conversations on several occasions pass the Bechdel test.
But you seem to have lobotomised almost every woman who came within a hundred yards of The Social Network script.
The majority of women in this movie are tech founder groupies, which I’m sure do exist (although I used to go out with a hardware engineer who worked with a lot of software engineers, and none of them ever seemed like the epitome of cool to me (or had girls throwing themselves at their feet.) Maybe it’s different when you go to Harvard.
Or maybe in real life, there are intelligent women who don’t exist purely as foils for men.
You left a comment on Ken Levine’s blog, in which you said:
“…I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people… 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.”
But you told New York Magazine:
“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”*
Why can’t that storytelling include real, flawed women who aren’t cardboard cut-outs?
If an exact recreation of events isn’t important to you, why not make up that one of the main characters, or the characters with some degree of power, is a woman? How about having some female Facebook employers who aren’t just pretty interns? Some code monkeys with breasts?
Or how about making a black woman the president of the university, rather than the president’s PA?
Not that there’s anything wrong with being an assistant. But there is something wrong with a world where women are only ever assistants. Or bystanders. Or objects.
The majority of women in this film are there to stand around and look pretty and blank, often in their underwear.
The film’s entire attitude to women can be summed up in the scene where two young women are are playing video games on the couch and one of the dude-bros (Sean Parker? I don’t remember; righteous indignation has wiped my memory) asks them who’s winning or what they’re playing or something really basic and they respond with, “We don’t know! We’re just shooting each other! Hee hee hee!”
And then there’s Eduardo’s girlfriend Christy (one of several beautiful and sexually forward Asian-American women to throw themselves at the boys: the ultimate status symbol, clearly).
She starts as a giggly Facebook groupie, is allowed to attend a business meeting in California where she shows herself up by incorrectly exaggerating the weight of a marlin, and ends up an overprotective sociopath, so jealous of “Silicon Valley Sluts” that she sets fire to Ed’s bed.
The only intelligent women in this film are the lawyers on Mark’s team, there to make him look like less of a misogynist for creating Facesmash [a site where people can vote on the relative pulchritudinousness of female Harvard students] due to his rage at being dumped by his “bitch” girlfriend. This girlfriend, Erica, exists only as the catalyst for Mark to set up his sexist site, which uses algorhythms which later form the basis of Facebook.
The things women drive men to do, eh?
Erica, a highly fictionalised version of a real person, is a sop to anyone who wants to accuse this movie of being deeply retrograde. She’s clever and quick-witted, sure, but she’s not allowed to be as clever as Zuckerberg.
“You go to B.U [Boston University],” Mark sneers at the start of the movie. (In real life, he dates a medical student — interesting that was a truth too far).
When Erica refuses to forgive Mark for blogging incendiary things about her, dismissing him with a: “Good luck with your… video game,” he looks like a wounded puppy. Are we supposed to imagine that all his success and money is a attempt to get her to love him?
Why else would the film end with Zuck hitting refresh on Facebook over and over, waiting to see if she’ll accept his friend request? Maybe we’re supposed to understand that his success means nothing without the woman he loves. But he never actually seems to love her in the brief time we see them together. He always seems more in love with his own ideas.
Trying to re-frame this as a love story seems spurious, and if it’s meant to make women’s hearts melt, it doesn’t.
For some reason, despite creating a character you’ve admitted is a misogynist, you get Rashida Jones’ Marilyn, another token “intelligent woman”, to let him off, telling him he’s not really an asshole, he just plays one on Facebook.
I guess because she’s a lawyer and makes some attempt to challenge him intellectually, feminists are supposed to be impressed.
I’d have been more impressed if she hadn’t been confused about the difference between 2200 hits and 22,000 hits, however.
Mark’s lawyer, on the other hand, is a strong and intelligent woman, but she only exists in service to Mark, like every other woman in his orbit.
The fact is, like the Harvard of eons ago, The Social Network is a boys’ club.
And I can’t help thinking you like it that way.
A writer who thinks people with vaginas make great characters, too.
Zadie Smith’s New York Times Book Review article about the Facebook generation is excellent. And nothing to do with women’s roles. (Phew!)