On The Face That Launched a Thousand Clicks, Or What The Social Network Isn’t About

Dear CF,

I had decided not to see The Social Network on the grounds that, having read forty or so discussions and reviews, I could give you a reasonably accurate rundown of the whole movie (though nowhere near as good as this brilliant Taiwanese one-minute version—thanks Balk!). I knew about the last five minutes, during which people claimed you suddenly felt for Teh Zuck (I didn’t). I knew about the first five minutes, wherein a woman, Muse-like, starts the angry hate-based manfire from which all brilliant things come. And I knew about the middle five minutes, in which there emerged a consensus that Teh Zuck has Asperger’s and is also Citizen Kane.

Having seen it, I can ask, with Natalia Vargas-Cooper, “So why is this entirely forgettable procedural lawsuit movie being hailed as THE SECOND COMING?” I can agree with Sasha Frere-Jones that “There is no take on this era. There is no take on the internet.” I can also agree, with Jim Emerson (h/t), that the first scene “becomes a fascinating back-and-forth about communication in code, and the infinite ways it can misfire.” All these things are true.

However, this is not a review of The Social Network. Like the Winkelvosses, I’ve come too late. The race has been run, the reviews are in. This is a smart one. Sample view: “The Social Network is, at heart, a conservative morality tale. Zuckerberg is the anti-underdog.” This is not. Sample view: “Fincher formulates the arena in which these combatants will draw weapons and fight. Sorkin merely provides the swords, sharpened and honed for an unbelievably literate battle.”

Throw in a couple of action figures (in suits) and you’d have yourself the (paperwork) version of Gladiator. Except that Mark and Eduardo’s accounts, which keep threatening to diverge into dueling narratives, never do: their interpretations of what happened accord in every single respect. Perjury zingers notwithstanding, My Best Friend’s Wedding has way more dissensus than this movie.

What that second review overlooks is that this isn’t a movie about combat, not really; it’s a film about alliances. The Winkelvosses and Narendra. Zuckerberg and Saverin. Zuckerberg and Parker. If we want to address the social network this movie is really about, let’s talk about the boys’ clubs whose multiple formations lie at the film’s heart.

Looked at through this lens (here, speaking of lenses, is a great overview on how Fincher achieved the really “collegiate” lowlit feel of the film), a particularly interesting moment comes when Zuckerberg assigns roles to all the people in the room. When the two Asian women ask if there’s anything they can do, Zuckerberg says, his eyes already dead with disinterest (Eisenberg does that so well): “No.”

Fair enough! the viewer thinks. What can they bring to the table? What have they ever done?

It bears mentioning, at this juncture, that these willing bimbettes, so adept at makeup, arson and blow jobs, got into Harvard, an institution whose status as brainiac petri dish the movie stresses and blurs at will, depending—as far as I can tell—on gender. As the Harvard male partakes of, assumes and/or challenges Harvard’s centers of power, the Harvard female good-naturedly sucks his dick. This is, I think, what Elissa Bassist is getting at in her delicious diatribe (Sample view: “There was so much testosterone in the movie that I feel fucked six ways sideways.”) If Zuck and Co. are accidental billionaires, Alice and Christy’s admissions to Harvard are just as accidental.

That’s a lot of accidents. The skeptical observer might wonder whether, well, more research is required.

Let’s go back to that moment, when Zuckerberg is busy assigning jobs, and do a quick thought experiment. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that these women are actual Harvard students. If we provisionally accept the (apparently self-evident) fact that Alice and Christy know nothing about programming—or anything else—they might nevertheless have access to social (or financial!) capital that Teh Zuck would find useful. They might, in short, have Winkelvossian networks of their own.

The movie skips right over that possibility. Not, I’ll hasten to add, because it wasn’t “true.” Precious little in the movie is true—Facemash, for instance, was a system for rating both men and women. Alice and Christy are sugary inventions. The real question, and the point where it becomes tricky to separate the misogyny of the storytellers from the misogyny of the story told, is this: whose inventions are they? Can their absurd existence be chalked up somehow to Mark Zuckerberg’s terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad misanthropic misogyny?

Yes! Sorkin-Fincher defenders will argue. They’re inessential but useful foils who show Zuckerberg being the insensitive douche he is (and must be). Alice and Christy develop the character—how a man treats women is one of the ways Hollywood loves to measure his growth. True to form, that scene illuminates Mark’s failings (and the lady’s bitchiness eventually returns the favor, showcasing Eduardo’s virtue as his house burns down around him).

The problem with that argument is that it concedes, as its first premise, that these two women are the way they are, not because of any “real-life” exigencies, but because the film insists (in spite of the facts) on constructing a narrative of American coming-to-power that perversely writes stupid women into the story and smart women out of it.

I’m belaboring this point—that the stupid/crazy ladies are artificial constructs—because of how successfully the film defends its choices on the shifting sands of “good storytelling” and the even shiftier grounds of “truth.” The biopic, as a genre, confers this double-edged protection. In every discussion I’ve seen of the gender politics in the film, someone always points out that NO WOMEN WERE INVOLVED IN THE FOUNDING OF FACEBOOOK. GET OVER IT.

The next relevant question is, well, why the hell not?

In one sense, that’s easy to answer: because they didn’t. Mark did the programming. Women didn’t. Q.E.D. But I’d suggest that the more interesting answer—in a moment when truth and storytelling perhaps converge—lies in that scene, when the women offer their help and are politely refused. Consider sweet fictional Eduardo, the hapless CFO, who has so little to recommend him. His algorithm aside, what he brings to the endeavor is enthusiasm, money, some social capital from his association with the Phoenix, and an above-average intelligence. There’s no good reason why our invented Alice and Christy wouldn’t have those same qualities (these bimbettes spend their free time watching Bill Gates, after all). Their offer of help contains as much innate “value” as Eduardo’s (they might even have rich parents too). Yet Eduardo is asked to be part of the company, and they are not. That the film’s propulsive engine obliterates the very possibility of their inclusion is, in a strange way, what I find most interesting about it. Once the creators decided to make a smart woman the catalyst for Facebook’s creation, there was no room for a Facebook creation-story, however counterfactual, that would have women as members.

I’m not actually proposing that The Social Network should have been an updated version of Woolf’s Shakespeare’s sister, complete with imaginary female cofounder. What I’m suggesting is that the movie could have resisted Photoshopping in Shakespeare’s crazy sexpots and Erica Albright (a.k.a. The Plot Device That Sparked A “Revolution”). Facebook’s history, if we can call it that with any seriousness, was substantially distorted so as to reflect a misogynist non-reality. That’s a peculiar intervention, and it deserves scrutiny.

Why, in this post-whatever age, disillusioned as we are and surrounded by fallen heroes, does a movie actively (and absurdly, given the foregoing conditions) modeled on Citizen Kane needs to reduce its protagonist’s motivations to sex?

A lamentable blindness underlies the decision to superimpose that cliched revenge narrative onto a complex story—all the more lamentable since Eduardo Saverin seems to have been less angelic and more savvy in real life than he was in the film. But that portrayal leads, as many blind spots do, to an interesting and quite accidental revelation about (sigh) “the way we live now.” What the movie suggests (still, in 2010, because we’re talking now not about the events of the plot but about that plot’s construction), is that boys’ clubs persist not because of something as overt and ugly as woman-hating, but simply because for many men, a Venn diagram of their  social and professional networks reveals an intersection populated exclusively—and without malice aforethought—by men.

I’ve observed the beginnings of this trend in my capacity as amateur anthropologist among many of my own “social networks,” and I know you have too: how many times have the men of your acquaintance launched into long monologues about their pet obsessions? How many times have you patiently listened as the other men in your circle boisterously debate them? And how many times, when you chime into the fun, are you politely listened to and mumblingly agreed with before they turn back to each other, eager as wrestling puppies? Why is this? Why the courtesy, the dismissal, the fleeting surprise that you, too, can be funny? And why, when one of the women starts on a similar monologue, do the gentlemen start a side conversation? What is with this subset of amiable but flighty males who only have ears for each other—and who only, in consequence, have real intellectual regard for their fellow dudes? It’s a fascinating pattern, and The Social Network shows how easily those nebulous social habits can slip (“by accident”) into professional networks.

I hasten to add that this is a gross generalization and isn’t true of all my guy friends—luckily for me, many of them have either the good manners or the real interest to hear me out and argue back. But the Boys’ Club is a sufficiently robust effect, especially in group settings, that many of my female friends have noticed it in their “networks” too.

The men in these different circles are emphatically not Zuckerbergs. That’s what makes it all so scary. No one *really* minds being tuned out. I like the monologues enough that I’ll put up with them, even if I don’t insist on making them hear mine. But when a film like this describes how power structures develop via the painstaking legal review of conversations in a dorm, it suddenly seems true that our social performances are auditions for professional appointments—and that we ladies aren’t doing much auditioning.

Not being a sociologist, I don’t know how to explain this. On the boys’ side, I’m sure some of it has something to do with a good-hearted avoidance of unintended sexual tension. A heated debate is pretty easily suffused with anger and/or adrenaline, and neither is easy for heterosex friendships to navigate. Especially in a group, where flirtations are likely to be noticed. We’ve all had moments when we’ve really gotten into it with someone, and it’s all very exciting. (This is the magic of college.) It’s also a dangerous feeling because it’s so, well, open and promiscuous. Maybe the boys comfortably engage with each other for the usual homosocial reasons: post-college, older, wiser, they’ll forgo the thrill, worried that the debate frisson will be misconstrued as something else.

Perhaps some part of it is an odd byproduct of feminism? Since the ladies have a right to express their opinions unshackled by patriarchal structures, it’s impolitic to tell them to their faces when you think they’re full of shit? Disappointing, since that’s obviously counterproductive and not remotely conducive to actual equality, but we’re many of us Hobbesians, rehearsing what we think are the expected behaviors.

Whatever it is, I want to think harder about how to push past this because a life bereft of intellectual conversations with men is not a life I’m particularly anxious to live. (And, while I’m being honest, I’m bored of this—bored of having to think about the gap, bored of spending so much energy on the weird interference that gender creates, which gets in the way of actual conversation. But until it goes away or I figure out how to scrap it, I guess I’ll have to keep being bored.)

The explanations above probably coexist with the uglier possibility that these boy-clubs are actually only interested in each other. While we’re thinking about the drama of code, think about how much programming we have. Many men of our generation are still wired to regard only the stories that feature male protagonists as worth seeing, reading or thinking about. They grew up watching He-man, not She-ra. Many feel that female-centric stories are simply not their job. They are, as one good friend of mine put it, the “wrong demographic.” How small a step it really is, from that position, to accept the corollary that women’s ideas are “not their job” either. (This is the problem with the TEDWomen conference.) Ugly as this possibility is, let’s face its likelihood squarely: it’s not so hard to give into the message, hammered into us all since infancy, that philosophical greatness is gendered. Not so difficult to accept that male unpleasantness is powerful, and that female unpleasantness is impotent or evil (frequently both). It’s not much of a stretch, with the social training we all get, to believe, in your heart of hearts, as a politically-correct, polite and “evolved” person, that it’s still the thoughts of men that change the world.

Worst-case scenario: our offers of help, like our challenges, and our ideas, are translated, via that sexist Babelfish we all carry, into a language other than Alpha-Programmer-BoyBrain-Awesomescript. Into Alice-Christyhood, in fact. There’s some evidence this happens. Think back to college: how many times did a boy repeat a comment you made (earlier, to lukewarm effect) and get praised for his smarts? How many times, as an adult, have men taken an idea of yours and presented it, without even knowing they didn’t think of it, as their own? This is why TSN felt dull to me: most women have been Winkelvosses several times over and it would never occur to us to sue.

(I should add, parenthetically, that I’m not convinced the Winkelvosses had much of a case anyway: Facebook is just a neater, more exclusive version of Myspace, so that lawsuit, along with the notion that Zuckerberg, on top of being a brilliant programmer, is some kind of Promethean inventor, is hyperinflated. The movie’s claim that Mark invented “Relationship Status” is one MySpace Tom might want to contest.)

In her review, Elissa Bassist says of the woman problem, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s apathy.” That’s right, I think. So is this:

In his essay “The Crack Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” One could, for example, want a penis and want to be so far away from one at the same time. The men behind the movie and the movement: their confidence, their determination, their ego; I was with them. But of course, if The Social Network’s point of view is correct, I can never be with them. I’m someone who dreams as big as Zuckerberg but lacks the penis required for social revolution. Women are there to blow the dick, excite the dick, but not wield the dick.

Bassist was obviously excited and inspired against her will by the film; she describes this as a kind of rape, even while she admits she was sort of willing. I didn’t fall under the spell, and I’m relieved I didn’t, being something of an Olympian when it comes to the mental gymnastics she describes. When it comes to being entertained, I’m a pretty easy sell. I can’t count the number of times I’ve hated myself a little for getting swept up in a good story, even while I understood and resented my own exclusion. (Ironic, isn’t it, that this is an apt statement of Mark’s problem.) Our appetites betray us, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself unseduced and faintly bored by much of the film—it was fine but too long, and the Winkelvoss arc did decent symbolic work but fell flat at the level of pure story.

Still, the curious thing about talking about all this in terms of programming is thinking about how difficult it is to deprogram yourself once someone has modified your code. In a movie about communication, the biggest irony is that, for all of its language and machine-gun Sorkinese, no one can actually hear.

9 Responses to On The Face That Launched a Thousand Clicks, Or What The Social Network Isn’t About

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  2. bungars says:

    I love this un-review. I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I’ve heard, the big dilemma is, did he do it to impress a girl? And Zuckerberg the man is maintaining (along with buddies of his I seem keep meeting) that he didn’t do it for a girl, no sir. He did NOT do this to impress a girl. I keep thinking, well, even that would be something! In other words, the fact that the Harvard set find it horrifying to countenance that someone would do something, God forbid! to impress a girl! seems to me perhaps even more insidious than doing something in order to get laid… in other words, and I say this hesitatingly, unsure that I am ready to commit to this position, women from the POV of these men are in a middle zone, where they have lost the sexual power they once possessed, but have yet to gain any intellectual recognition. This is something that Alan Sorkin finds unthinkable–of COURSE he did it to impress a girl!– which makes me think this is a generational thing. What think you?

  3. Carla Fran says:

    Both levels here are so interesting, and bring up what bothered me about Sorkin’s defense of simply portraying misogyny: is it a portrait that works against or for the problem? As for conversations with men, the ideas of coding and presets are helpful for keeping me out of my kneejerk pissed off reactions to getting written off, and it is also why we can’t get bored of dealing with this–parsing these subtle and loud differences and imbalances seems to me the only way to have access to the power they hold and get some of it and rebalance. I think we have to keep talking, even if the dudes tune us out. What if Alice and Christy, who were dismissed, were able to call it out if not to Zuck, then at least in their own networking and future ventures. (I haven’t seen the movie, maybe they do?).
    Right now I am virtually attending the Spark Summit (sparksummit.com), all about how women are portrayed in media. It’s for young girls, but the overall sense is savviness and the ability to call shenanigans on portrayal undoes the reality of those potrayals, and how the dudes need to learn this savviness too.

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  5. nate van til says:

    I don’t find it ironic that “for all of its language and machine-gun Sorkinese, no one can actually hear.”

    The point of that kind of machine-gun speech is to have an agenda and get as many of your bullet points as possible to hit what you think is your target. Not to listen. I find almost all televised American discourse is the sound of no one listening. And a lot of the few who appear to be listening have a programmed narrative already installed, into which they fit everything they hear, like Reality Show producers.

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful post, about which I have a few essays worth of thoughts of my own.

  6. Pingback: A Thousand Ways to be Pissed Off: The Green Hornet « Millicent and Carla Fran

  7. The other thing about Alice and Christy is that they are not just sugary inventions — by virtue of their race, their being two of them, their disposableness and one of them being a psycho, they look a lot like a malicious attack on a real person. Here Wikipedia on Zuck’s “personal life”:

    At a party put on by his fraternity during his sophomore year, Zuckerberg met Priscilla Chan, who subsequently became his girlfriend.[1] In September 2010, Chan, now a medical student, moved into Zuckerberg’s rented Palo Alto house.[1] Zuckerberg studies Mandarin Chinese every day, and the couple visited China in December 2010.[15][16]

    Why so much implicit vitriol by Sorkin against Priscilla Chan? Possibly because her existence, and the fact that she and her now-hubby seem to have gotten together before Facemash (along with the fact that saintly victim Eduardo wasn’t actually a close friend of Zuckerberg’s, and ended up with 5% of Facebook) is deeply inconvenient for the whole lonely-Citizen-Kane-chooses-obessions-over-people meme?

  8. (It occurs to me that that Wikipedia quote makes it sound like Chan could have vanished and reemerged in 2010 once he was rich and famous, which wouldn’t undermine Sorkin’s account; but the original New Yorker article cited has: “Chan, whom he has been dating, with a brief interruption, since 2003″…)

  9. peacay says:

    That’s a brilliant piece of writing. I mean. Srsly.

    Thank you. I really needed to hear it too. It doesn’t matter how nice or charming or enlightened or intelligent a guy is, he needs to hear a woman’s POV on gender topics because he ALWAYS has blind spots. And I mean that about myself of course, it’s just easier on the soul to leave it one-step removed in the telling. ;- )

    Sorkin is the player most at fault. IMHO.

    I had lots more to say. But I won’t. I keep writing and rewriting and it just reads like crap. I did see Eisenberg in Adventureland the other day and it was Mark Zuckerberg again! And here was me thinking he was some sort of acting genius or the somesuch. No. He’s just a bit nerdly himself.

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