David Fincher’s “Facebook film” has been recently accused by some people [read: a lot of people] for being sexist. Aaron Sorkin has even had to make a public statement regarding it. Admittedly, I have not read said statement, mostly because I don’t think he needs to defend himself – I would never consider the film sexist in any way, and yes, that’s probably because I am a man.
True, the women of THE SOCIAL NETWORK have minimal parts, they scare and perturb our characters and are often delegated to shameless background effects wherein they are getting drunk, having sex, smoking pot or doing any other number of “amoral” activities. In fact, the depiction of women in this light is so nearly complete that it’s difficult not to sympathize with the sexist stigma that has been thrust upon the film. And yet, these naysayers seem to be completely ignoring that one, tiny, major factor that dispels the absolution of that depiction. More on that in a minute.
None of this is to say that these women are representative of all women everywhere. Far from it, in fact. Truth be told, they are not even the only gender to be depicted as amoral in the film: many of the peripheral men are equally if not more so. These amoral placeholders are caricatures, mere abstractions that are perceived by the characters as an idealistic state of affairs.
Indeed, despite any complaints to the contrary, these stereotypes do serve a purpose: it represents a lifestyle that the characters want, regardless of what the viewer may personally feel about it. This demoralized behavior is revered by the characters, an idealized, perhaps misguided goal; at least for a little while, anyway. It is Edouardo’s insane girlfriend that shatters this misconstrued notion of idealism and presents that fantasized and imagined social structure as fraudulent.
Yes, the film heavily covers the ground wherein women are represented as pure social idealism, but to stick to that perspective as the only point-of-view of the female gender in the film is to ignore the key motivation for the protagonist: his ex-girlfriend, Erica Albright. She is, for all we know and are given privy to, a seemingly composed and mature woman, existing on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the other female (and male) students littered across the film. To ignore her presence – which is felt continuously despite her minimal appearance – is to ignore the exception to the rule.
Let’s back up a bit and consider an archetypal representation of a character, whether they be male or female. The most important and well-known of these characters is Charles Foster Kane from the famous masterpiece CITIZEN KANE, whose character goes his entire life attempting to lash out at the world for one psychological reason or another (which is an entirely different discussion altogether) until he eventually creates a world of his own where people will have to play by his rules and he has all of the control.
Now, I don’t claim to say that this is exactly the same story as in NETWORK. There are similarities, yes, but that isn’t the main point. The point is that we are drawing a correlation from a character that has existed forever in fiction: the male protagonist with issues of power, of control and with the brilliance and wit to achieve whatever it is that he desires. This description fits Sorkin’s Zuckerberg – not to be confused with the real Zuckerberg – to a tee.
There is one main, gigantic difference, however: context. A framework. A timeframe. Charles Foster Kane did not begin to create his own little world until he was well into his life. He was middle-aged, possibly older: it took him a lifetime to begin to create and construct a world for himself.
We don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world of hyper-speed and hyper-space and hyper-everything. We live in a world where the potential for anything is within the reach of the fingertips of anybody, anywhere. Within the reach of kids no older than you or I. Within the reach of kids younger than you and I.
When Charles Foster Kane’s second wife leaves him, he tears the world to pieces. He smashes and breaks everything in his room, lumbering around in his apparent old age with all of the self-destructiveness and tendency towards tantrums as a child. He tears the world to pieces because, in being robbed of youth, he was denied the ability to grow up.
We don’t have those problems anymore. The creation and destruction of the world is within the grasp of kids who don’t need an emotional or psychological reason to have their maturity stunted; their maturity is already stunted because they haven’t matured yet. Aaron Sorkin’s Zuckerberg is jealous, greedy, socially inept and vengeful, as are most teenagers, or even students in the post-secondary level of education. There’s a reason that the Winklevoss twins are set up as this incredible dichotomy of gentleman-like behavior and knee-jerk, immature reaction.
With creation must come destruction, and Mark Zuckerberg is capable of both. He can create a world of social networking that connects millions of people across the world just as easily as he can destroy the only social world that he has in the real world. And he can do this because of all of his virtues and vices.
But Zuckerberg’s primary motivation (at least, what we are intended to believe is his primary motivation) exists because he is at the mercy of his emotional and hormonal maturity level. He starts and expands Facebook in order to get back at Erica, whom he feels he has something to prove to. He casts Edouardo out of the company because of his petty jealousy over his best friend’s acceptance into the Final Club that he wanted to get into.
Now, I don’t profess to claim that these vices are out of the reach of wiser, older men than Zuckerberg. Any person of any age is guilty of such sins. But these vices are amplified by the pain of puberty, an inevitable part of growing up: the world becomes at the mercy of every wave of testosterone of every brilliant boy with the will to change, to create, to destroy. Again, these vices are not limited to the male gender, although they are stereotypically associated as such. The female gender is just as capable of destruction as the male, though for the sake of this particular narrative it is necessary to counterpoint the protagonist’s gender against the opposing one.
Why does this matter? Again, let’s go back to Erica’s relationship to Zuckerberg.
The pubescent male gender – if we are to accept the stereotypical view of their self-destructive nature – is essentially a ticking time-bomb of hormonal action. Yes, I am over-generalizing, but I would rather over-generalize than miss the point through varied considerations. This time-bomb can create, can destroy, can alter and change the world around it. Every human being has this ability towards action, whether they be old or young, male or female; but it is the pubescent male that is the most volatile, the most prone towards surges of hormonal action and reaction, at least as far as archetypes and narratives are concerned.
What Fincher’s film does is show what happens when we’re not careful with how we treat the time-bomb. Yes, it’s easy to write it off because we essentially wound up on the creation end of the dichotomy: Facebook was made, no harm was done except to those immediately around Zuckerberg. But consider his first foray into viral networking, FaceMash: after his break-up with Erica, he decides to destroy and belittle the world of women as an act of vengeance. Yes, these are petty acts, but they are vague abstractions of what we’re capable of.
The film therefore becomes something of a horror story, a cautionary tale about contemporary society wherein the juxtaposition between emotional immaturity and intellectual superiority can be combined to shape the world to the whims of the rashness of youth. When every child who has yet to adequately mature out of the hellishness of puberty is given the power to touch the world, we will inevitably wind up with a few cases where destruction trumps creation.
Handle with care, lest we foolishly blow ourselves to smithereens.