The Sexism Network? Aaron Sorkin Responds

There has been much discussion over the past month about every aspect of The Social Network (my review here). In addition to the varying array of praise it has received, many have also critiqued its interpretation of the “facebook creation myth” as well as the film’s portrayal of women. Some of the criticisms are justified, others are not, but I’d like to address the latter.

Aaron Sorkin, Ladies and Gentlemen

On Tuesday, Aaron Sorkin defended his script from the criticism leveled at him in regards to the portrayal of women in the film. He responded on the blog of Emmy-winning writer Kevin Levine.

Here is what Sorkin writes:

Believe me, I get it. It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie but you have to understand that that was the very specific world I was writing about. Women are both prizes an equal. Mark’s blogging that we hear in voiceover as he drinks, hacks, creates Facemash and dreams of the kind of party he’s sure he’s missing, came directly from Mark’s blog. With the exception of doing some cuts and tightening (and I can promise you that nothing that I cut would have changed your perception of the people or the trajectory of the story by even an inch) I used Mark’s blog verbatim. Mark said, “Erica Albright’s a bitch” (Erica isn’t her real name–I changed three names in the movie when there was no need to embarrass anyone further), “Do you think that’s because all B.U. girls are bitches?” Facebook was born during a night of incredible misogyny. The idea of comparing women to farm animals, and then to each other, based on their looks and then publicly ranking them.

It was a revenge stunt, aimed first at the woman who’d most recently broke his heart (who should get some kind of medal for not breaking his head) and then at the entire female population of Harvard.

More generally, I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. These aren’t the cuddly nerds we made movies about in the 80’s. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now. 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.)

And this very disturbing attitude toward women isn’t just confined to the guys who can’t get dates.

I didn’t invent the “F–k Truck”, it’s real–and the men (boys) at the final clubs think it’s what they deserve for being who they are. (It’s only fair to note that the women–bussed in from other schools for the “hot” parties, wait on line to get on that bus without anyone pointing guns at their heads.)

These women–whether it’s the girls who are happy to take their clothes off and dance for the boys or Eduardo’s psycho-girlfriend are real. I mean REALLY real. (In the case of Christy, Eduardo’s girlfriend so beautifully played by Brenda Song, I conflated two characters–again I hope you’ll trust me that doing that did nothing to alter our take on the events. Christy was the second of three characters whose name I changed.)

I invented two characters–one was Rashida Jones’s “Marylin”, the youngest lawyer on the team and a far cry from the other women we see in the movie. She’s plainly serious, competent and, when asked, has no problem speaking the truth as she sees it to Mark. The other was Gretchen, Eduardo’s lawyer (in reality there was a large team of litigators who all took turns deposing witnesses but I wanted us to become familiar with just one person–a woman, who, again, is nobody’s trophy).

And Rooney Mara’s Erica’s a class act.

I wish I could go door to door and make this explanation/apology to any woman offended by the things you’ve pointed out but obviously that’s unrealistic so I thought the least I could do was speak directly to you.

I definitely agree with Sorkin’s point of view here. I do not think that The Social Network is trying to convey a message that is misogynistic. The much-reviled Final Club party scene happens concurrently with Zuckerberg’s coding for Facemash, though what the film does not make clear is whether or not the party scene is something he is “imagining” or if this is actually happening elsewhere at Harvard.

For one, Sorkin is not a writer with a misogynistic history. I would put The West Wing’s Donna Moss at the top of the list for strong female characters of the last decade. She was not only the heart and soul of that show, but was also written as incredibly strong woman (Alison Janey’s CJ Cregg was no slouch either).

I find that with the exception of Eduardo Saverin’s girlfriend (who is merely a character that represents how these young men see the women they supposedly want to be with), The Social Network‘s female characters are very strong women. Sorkin himself notes Saverin’s lawyer, but I think more important to this is Rooney Mara’s character of Erica Albright.

Sorkin states that her name was changed for the film, although not much is truly known about her other than her name as mentioned by Zuckerberg on his blog posts. These posts were subsequently used almost verbatim as narration for the third sequence of the film. This leads me to believe she is almost a complete fabrication by Sorkin, and actually provides his voice for the film.

Erica Albright only appears three times in the film, and is not mentioned much beyond that. She appears in the crucial opening scene, delivering  the line that sets up a central theme of the film. While breaking up with Mark she tells him, “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a geek. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

Erica appears moments after Mark and Eduardo have a particularly lascivious encounter with their new “love” interests in a bathroom bar. Mark spots her across the room and goes to talk to her. At first it seems that he means to apologize, but she shuts him down, reminding him of what he had written on his blog, the permanent nature of things written online, and informs him that he has done more damage to her than a simple apology can fix. This is definitely depicted as a turning point in the film, as Mark then decides to immediately expand Thefacebook to other schools–including Erica’s. The film obviously insinuates that Mark wants to impress her or something, although he seems to not really know what that might accomplish.

While Erica does not appear again in the film after that, her Facebook page does take center stage in the final scene in the movie. Importantly, the last line of dialogue is uttered by the young female lawyer Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones). Her remark echoes Erica’s criticism, as she says to Mark, “You’re not an asshole Mark, you’re just trying too hard to be one.” It is important to note that not only is she echoing the exact same sentiment as Erica in the film’s opening, but Sorkin states above that she is one of two characters who were entirely fabricated for the film.

If anything, The Social Network is a critique of a culture Aaron Sorkin views to be misogynistic, not an endorsement of one. Hollywood does have a problem with strong females, but The Social Network is not a symptom of the disease.

(However, I find Adam Quigley’s comments at Slashfilm also to be highly salient. Quigley states that though he does not find The Social Network to be misogynist, he finds Sorkin’s comments to be troubling because of how nonchalantly he treats his subjects).

—-This is Jill. I just wanted to weigh in a little on this topic, because I am a female and gosh darn it I just can’t pass up the opportunity to do some feminazi-ranting. Just kidding. Ryan makes the point that Sorkin doesn’t try to be misogynistic, he is merely representing a culture that appears to be. I don’t think anyone assumes it was Sorkin’s goal to be misogynistic. I think the bigger issue is the complete lack of female character developement. Erica and Marilyn are one-dimensional characters (no matter how delicious their few line of dialogue are). One could argue that if Sorkin did fabricate characters for the means of storytelling, why not develop Erica’s character more? The audience already knows this part of Zuckerberg’s life is not true (he was already with his longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan). I would’ve been able to stomach the scenes of topless dancing and bathroom stall shenanigans if there was something to counterbalance it. Regardless of the criticism leveled at this film, I enjoyed it immensely. We all wish some things could be handled differently sometimes.