This month I went to see David Fincher’s film The Social Network. It’s won a number of awards and there is much to admire. I particularly enjoyed the fact that an audience has to work hard to unravel the complex motivations of its main characters. This is a film where there is no obvious good and baddie – and it is all the better for that.
But if the psychological portrayal of the people who started facebook is rounded, the film’s gender politics are not.
I appreciate that part of the film’s strategy is to uncover a world in which boys will be boys – and to be fair there is some come-uppance for the lamentable attempt to rate women as objects on the first face mash site Mark Zuckerberg creates. There are plenty of fun scenes such as the one where Zuckerberg and chums crash-land, drunk, from a zip-wire into a swimming-pool.
But what are we to make of the scene where the boys are wired in to their computers building facebook, while on a sofa in their midst two young women giggle helplessly in a state of near-undress? As if to re-enforce the gender stereotyping, Zuckerberg asks if the girls are enjoying themselves mindlessly watching television, while in the same breath exhorting the boys to go the extra mile. Women, it seems, are for decoration while the real work is done by the men.
And what abut the scene where two female students latch on to the now famous Zuckerberg and his pal Eduardo Saverin and proceed to initiate sex with them? This might have been liberatory – women making the first moves – except that the editing turns the women into vampires by emphasising the efficiency and ruthlessness with which they carry out out their mission. If we are left in any doubt that these women are anything other than predatory, we only have to wait. One of them turns out to be so possessive her behavior verges on paranoia. She makes Saverin’s life a misery and finally sets fire to his college room.
Then there is the party to celebrate facebook’s millionth client. What is particularly disappointing about this episode is that the only woman programmer in the film is shown snorting drugs from the table-top of another woman’s torso. ‘Shall I take off my bra?’ table-top asks, while Napster creator Shawn Fanning looks on. It might almost be a tableau by Allen Jones (see photo at top of this post).
True, Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend reappears to remind him there are alternatives, and there’s an intelligent young woman lawyer at Zuckerberg’s hearing. But these are peripheral figures. For most of the film, it’s as if decades of feminism never happened.
I saw the film one weekend afternoon and the only other people watching were young teenagers. They were attracted, no doubt, by the reference to what (if my young teenage son and his friends are anything to go by) is likely to be their favourite networking site.
I worry about the story these young people were given. I’m sure there was a great deal of sexism in the early days of facebook – and I’m not asking the director to change history. But did Fincher need to pile up all that gratuitous sexist cliché?
As it is, the message those teenagers will take away from watching The Social Network, is that women were only involved in the development of this planet-changing phenomenon in the most regressive of ways: as sex-toys, predators or (at best) the still, small voice of men’s consciences.