It’s odd to write a review of The Social Network for a website whose target readership is women over forty when there are no significant women over forty in the film. In fact, there’s almost no one in the entire film over forty, save two lawyers, a bunch of regatta spectators, and Larry Summers–whose reputation with women is even worse than that of the film’s anti-hero, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Beyond that, the absence of geek women is disconcerting. Not until two-thirds through the film, when Facebook has actual offices in Silicon Valley, is there a hint that female software developers exist. None of the competitors on screen in the shotglass challenge—showing off their abilities to program while drinking vodka in order to get a summer internship at Facebook—were women.

When I left Silicon Valley in 2000, two years before Zuckerberg graduated high school, women were a minority in most tech companies, but a significant minority at least: roughly 20-30 percent, at all levels of responsibility. Nowhere did I see the glaring lack of serious tech babes that plagues The Social Network.

One tech blogger notes, “ The people who made this movie were able to make Hollywood actors look, act and talk like my male friends look, act and talk—even Justin Timberlake. I don’ t understand why they couldn’ t have done that with female Hollywood actors. Where are the women who look and act and talk like my friends? I don’t know anyone who has had an internship in a tech startup who went to work in a micro-miniskirt, slept with the boss and snorted coke all the time.”

Ah, creation myths…

Facebook, created under disputed circumstances detailed in the film and now valued at over $250 billion, has become far more than it was designed to be. In 2007, when I was making a brief attempt to teach middle school English, my students asked whether I was on MySpace, the original big daddy of social networking sites.

No, I told them, “but I’m on Facebook.”

“What’s Facebook?” they asked.

“It’s like MySpace for people who’ve gone to college.”

The college requirement is long gone, and those kids—now sophomores in high school—probably have Facebook pages of their own, alongside my mother and my nephew’s cat. Three years is a long time in a world where a company can be worth a quarter trillion dollars less than a decade after it was inspired by a drunken prank in a dorm room.

That prank, in which Zuckerberg copied the photos of Harvard women (and men, but the film doesn’t show that) from dormitory websites and put them online to be ranked against each other for hotness, sets the tone of tiny-balls-to-the-wall sexism that pervades The Social Network and has gotten screenwriter Aaron Sorkin called before the disciplinary board of public opinion.

“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,” wrote Sorkin last week in a comment on another screenwriter’s blog. But beyond the nerds, the entire environment at Harvard in 2003-04 looks more like Faber College from Animal House, the 1978 movie scripted by alumni of the Harvard Lampoon.

Outside the classroom, The Social Network’ s Harvard is a hard-drinking boys’ town where even the brew-guzzling elitist fraternities are subjugated by the centuries-old, all-male final clubs that bus in women from other schools for nights of debauchery. Any woman not smart enough to dump Zuckerberg is a mere party-girl prop, getting her knees dirty for the chance to marry into blue-blood or new-economy wealth. This is the world Aaron Sorkin inherited from Ben Mezrich, who wrote The Accidental Billionaires, the book on which The Social Network is based. (Mezrich also wrote Bringing Down the House—a book about the card-counting MIT blackjack team—which was similarly filled with booze, drugs, and sexual envy. It was adapted into the movie 21, and 21 star Kevin Spacey is one of the producers of The Social Network.)

Mezrich not only graduated Harvard in 1991, he took Sorkin (Syracuse ’83) on a legend-filled tour of the final clubs while Sorkin was writing the script. Two of them, the Phoenix and the Porcellian, the oldest of all Harvard clubs, are where the old-money Winkelvoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer, looking like an Aryan version of Brendan Fraser—and yes, the actor is that Armand Hammer’s great-grandson) and their partner Divya Narendra are struggling to create The Harvard Connection, a MySpace clone with that exclusive Harvard cachet, when they hear about Zuckerberg’s facemash prank and decide to hire him. Getting into the Phoenix, which buses in girls for “boxers and bras” parties, is a principal goal of Eduardo Saverin, Zuckerberg’s best friend and CFO of the fledgling Facebook. Saverin—Mezrich’s primary source for The Accidental Billionaires—is convinced throughout the film that Zuckerberg is jealous of him for having been invited to pledge the final club.

Years later, when Saverin is suing Zuckerberg for cutting him out of the company, and Narendra and “the Winkelvii” are suing him for stealing their idea, we finally get a strong female presence in the film. The Facebook creation myth is intercut throughout the film with scenes of the depositions in which Zuckerberg must face the reactions of the friends he betrayed and the friends he never had.

S averin’s lawyer, Gretchen (played by Denise Grayson, left), is the voice of moral disbelief who, beyond being unfazed by Zuckerberg’s nerdy literalism and self-centeredness bordering on Asperger’s, shows that it’s not tight focus on his work but amoral insensitivity to people and ethics that have landed Zuckerberg in the courts. The point is driven home by Marylin (Rashida Jones, right), the junior member of Zuckerberg’s defense team. Marylin’s a member of the Facebook generation, impressed by his technical achievements but not cowed by him in the least. When she speaks to him, some points actually get through. These women, created by Sorkin as composite characters from the very large legal teams on either side, are the only hint that Sorkin is the writer who gave us press secretary-cum-chief of staff C.J. Cregg, national security advisor Nancy McNally, and dozens of other brilliant, independent women on “The West Wing.” He created high expectations for women characters in The Social Network, and fell mightily short of them.

Gretchen and Marylin, along with Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfrend Erica Albright, serve an old Hollywood trope, as moral compasses in a man’s world. Sorkin was horrified by what Mezrich showed him at Harvard but he peeked through his fingers with a grin and made a movie that’s like the old Hays Code gangster films, which basically said, “this is a bad man, he is a very bad man, and look: he dies at the end.” Out of those movies came a generation of titillated theater-goers quoting George Raft and Jimmy Cagney.

Most real Harvard alumni don’t recognize the hyped-up movie world, just as most New York cops will say they never see as many dead bodies and explosions as you do in a season of Castle or CSI.

“Harvard, like many schools, is many places in one,” wrote WVFC contributor Tamar Bihari (Harvard ’83) when we asked for a comment. “Final clubs are a vestige of old Harvard, white upper crust ultra WASPy boys club bla bla bla. They felt irrelevant to me at the time, and that was decades ago now. I can’t believe anyone would fret about getting in. I dated two guys who were members, went to parties at the Spee Club and a party given by the Porc (Porcellian, the supposed cream of the crop). Big yawn, IMO. Boys trying to be stuffy men. Did it give them entree later on in life? Probably. Depends what your goals in life are, doesn’t it?”

Zuckerberg’s goal may have been to get into a final club, as Saverin claims; after all, he did graduate from Phillips Exeter, one of New England’s most exclusive prep schools. In the end, though, he dropped out of Harvard after moving to Silicon Valley, and the clubs eventually created Facebook pages. So did Sorkin and Mezrich, who have made Harvard, Stanford, and pretty much all of Silicon Valley look like a lake of beer shrouded by mists of pot smoke through which easy coeds can be seen if one bothers to look up from his computer screen.

Jezebel columnist Irin Carmon writes, “At Harvard a year ahead of Zuckerberg, I stopped attending parties at the clubs my sophomore year out of disgust (with a rant at one club’s president that I was tired of either being invisible or hit on in his club, which essentially ended with him hitting on me and me telling him to fuck off). But even I will allow that they were rarely, if ever, the tabletop-stripping, girl-on-girl-action harems the movie makes them out to be.”

“Rarely, if ever?” No comment.

Still, the reputation and exclusivity of the all-male clubs made them the subject of the final article in a four part series on sexual assault in the Harvard Crimson this May. Even now, Harvard’s Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response “is working on instituting sexual assault prevention training in every final club, but challenges remain in ensuring that every member is present for training. But some final clubs have agreed to make training mandatory for new members as of next year—a practice he hopes will become universal among the clubs.” One can only hope that the hype of The Social Network will at least make that one speculation become truth.

Until then, however, The Social Network‘s means of “exposing” the persistence of sexism in Harvard Square (and Silicon Valley) is, like its main character’s, to make itself even worse than the original problem.

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  • Haven’t seen the movie, have read the book « Elizabeth Willse: Freelance Writer October 18, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    […] Over at WVFC, Rachel Rawlings has a great review/social commentary about the movie, misogyny, and the real world, her real world, of women in tech. . […]

  • Kathleen Rawlings October 18, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you. You have spared me from yet another boring, inane movie. Kudos on a powerful review.