by Doctor Science
The "Best/Worst Movies of 2010" lists are popping up all over, and "The Social Network" is on a lot of them. Here's the review I drafted when it came out: dusted off, completed, and edited.
I went to see The Social Network the second weekend it was out -- the 10:40AM Saturday show at the googlePlex, because that's only $6 instead of $10 or more. Afterward, the group who'd gone sat around and talked about it: did you like it, did you not like it. When it came around to my turn, I couldn't really say "thumbs up" or "thumbs down". I can only say: "it's complicated".
On the one hand, there's the unmistakable zip of Aaron Sorkin dialogue: snappy, but with the sound of real people actually talking, not just characters expositioning. On the other hand, the story that's presented isn't as close to the real events as it's trying to seem. On the other other hand, there are important aspects to the way historic events were broken apart and re-assembled to make the movie, especially the way women are included (or not). And on the fourth hand, I can see things in the movie -- about Facebook, and about the way we live now -- that Sorkin and David Fincher (the director) may not have realized they were putting in, but that are there nonetheless.
In a nutshell: The Social Network uses some historical documents, but it's not a documentary; it references historical events, but it's not historical fiction. It's in the genre known as RPF, for Real Person Fic -- along with, say, The Beatles' movies, especially A Hard Day's Night.
Detailed and comprehensive spoilers behind the cut, along with several embedded videos.
The Social Network tells the story of the birth of Facebook as intensely misogynistic. In the opening scene, Movie!Mark Zuckerberg  arrogantly insults his girlfriend, who breaks up with him saying that women won't reject him because he's a nerd, but because he's an asshole. In the closing scene, a woman lawyer tells him that he's going to have to settle a lawsuit rather than risk putting him in front of a jury, and says "you're not an asshole, you're just trying to be one". In between, Movie!Mark and his friends consistently act like assholes toward women, who are aggressively marginalized, treated as trophies or appendages or annoyances -- but never as actual people.
Sorkin has said that the misogyny in the movie isn't his fault:
that was the very specific world I was writing about. ... 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. ... Facebook was born during a night of incredibly 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.This pattern continues throughout the movie: women are never shown doing any of the work on Facebook, either early on at Harvard, or later in Silicon Valley. Young women "interns" are around to bring drinks, use drugs, play games, and look pretty; movie!Mark and his friend movie!Eduardo Saverin get cute Asian-American groupies, but they're useless and superficial. Movie!Eduardo's Asian groupie becomes his girlfriend, and eventually gets weird, possessive and scary-crazy.
In contrast, most of movie!Mark's emotional energy is given to his male associates, especially movie!Eduardo and movie!Sean Parker, the latter played by Justin Timberlake. One of the people I saw the movie with is college-age (quite embarrassed to be going at such an uncool time of day, when only the fogeys were in the theaters), and she found Timberlake's presence distracting, because his face is so familiar compared to the other actors'. My fellow fogeys weren't distracted, because they don't know from Justin Timberlake. To me, it was a brilliant piece of casting, because Sean Parker -- founder of Napster -- was a Silicon Valley rockstar compared to movie!Mark and his friends. Timberlake's star quality makes it easy to believe that movie!Mark would be swayed by movie!Sean, in comparison to movie!Eduardo (played by Andrew Garfield).
The emotional center of "The Social Network" is a nearly-romantic homosocial melodrama: slick, sophisticated, womanizing movie!Sean points movie!Mark toward Silicon Valley success, while movie!Eduardo gives what the audience can clearly see is bad advice, but with true friendship and melting brown eyes. In the end, movie!Mark has broken ties with both and can't even get his original girlfriend to "friend" him on Facebook -- only his billions will keep him company. *sob*
Now, there's nothing inherently implausible about Internet entrepreneurs being misogynistic -- quite the contrary. But once you start looking at the historical record, Sorkin's picture doesn't seem to reflect Facebook or the real Mark Zuckerberg.
For instance, "Facemash", the predecessor to Facebook, didn't compare *women* to each other (or to farm animals), it used pictures of male *and* female Harvard students; no animals were involved. Women, especially Zuckerberg's sister, worked at building Facebook from the early days.
Most cringe-worthy to me, is that real!Mark has been with his girlfriend Priscilla Chan since before Facebook began. Movie!Mark and movie!Eduardo, at a party at their Jewish frat, talk about much Jewish guys like them like Asian women -- because they're smart but "not Jewish!" -- and later get involved with the "Facebook groupies" in a way that strikes a lot of people as fetishistic. In other words, the real Asian-American woman in Zuckerberg's life -- intelligent, devoted, and ambitious in her own right (she's now in medical school), as well as beautiful -- has been erased, and caricatures put in, instead. Since Zuckerberg and Chan actually met at a Jewish frat party, the "Jewish men like Asian women!" conversation may well have happened in real life -- but been less about a fetish, and more about a real cultural compatibility between people of different backgrounds.
However much Sorkin may claim to have based his script on the actual events, he admits that
I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling-- and the genre of his story is Real Person Fic. I don't read much RPF myself -- it tends to make me uncomfortable unless the people in question are dead, or the situation is wildly implausible (e.g. they visit Narnia, they're attacked by zombies). But I know enough to see that the way Sorkin puts "The Social Network" together is the way RPF writers work. They look at celebrities, admit that they can't know what these people are "really" like or what "really" goes on in their heads, and use them almost as action figures to tell the stories they feel like telling. The truth is not what they're after -- story-telling is. Just like Sorkin.
This explains one of the points that struck Mark Zuckerberg himself about the movie:
It's interesting what they focussed on getting right. Like, every single shirt and fleece that I had in that movie is actually a shirt or fleece that I own.This is what I mean by using celebrities as action figures in RPF: the look is very important, the visual connection between the celebrity's image and the characters in the story. The personalities and the plot the RPF writer presents are fictional, but the corroborative details are often made as close to reality as possible. And that's exactly what Sorkin did in "The Social Network": kept the details of names, education, clothing, location, and used the Real People action figures to tell an Aaron Sorkin story.
I find it hilariously ironic that Aaron Sorkin wrote a kind of fanfiction about people on the Internet, given his fraught relationship with fandom in the past. Briefly, in 2001-02 Sorkin not only read The West Wing message boards at Television Without Pity, he posted on them. He seems to have been particularly piqued at the discussions of sexism in TWW, and his experiences at TWOP are assumed to have sparked TWW episode "U.S. Poet Laureate", in which, as a friend of mine put it:
Josh Lyman discovers a web community devoted to him and his work, and then foolishly finds that they are wrong on the internet and tries to enter the forum discussions to set them straight. Only to fail to meet the etiquette of the group and end up arguing with the mod, whom he deems to be a sad control-freak woman with fascist tendencies and no real life. Moral of the story: people on the internet are crazy women and you'd best not waste time arguing with them, because they won't listen toMark Zuckerberg is bemused at the way Sorkin (and Hollywood in general) miss what he sees as the point of his own story:
The thing that I think is most thematically interesting that they got wrong is that the whole frame of the movie, the way it starts, is that I'm with this girl -- who doesn't exist in real life -- who dumps me, which has happened in real life a lot -- and they frame it as if, the whole reason for making Facebook and for building something was because I wanted to get girls, or wanted to get into some kind of social institution. And the reality for people who actually know me, is that I've been dating the same girl since before I started Facebook, so obviously that's not a part of it .. it's such a big mismatch, between the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley, building stuff. They just can't wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.If you want to see it and you squint, you can catch glimpses of people building something because they like building in "The Social Network". There are important algorithms, guys typing head-down in the code, small technical references that even mean something. But I can also see a story about how Facebook grew (as opposed to "was built") in the movie that Sorkin and Fincher may not even be consciously aware of having put in, especially since it cuts at right angles to the homosocial romance plot they've got going.
The movie shows Facebook's code being built by men, but the Facebook *network* being built by women. In three plot-critical cases, men find out about Facebook from women who are already using it: movie!Divya Narendra finds out from women who are killing time during choral auditions, the movie!Winklevoss brothers find out in England from a man whose daughter uses it, and Movie!Sean Parker finds out from a Stanford student one-night stand. This is quite accurate, IMHO: in "real life", women are trained to develop and nurture social networks of friends and family, and this carries over to internet social networking, where women outnumber men pretty consistently. When Zuckerberg et al. built Facebook, whether they knew it or not they were building something *for women*. I find it striking that the business story movie!Sean tells movie!Mark (when he takes him out to the bondage-themed club in the Tenderloin) is about Victoria's Secret -- another business that sells to women.
When people like Roger Ebert call "The Social Network" one of the year's 10 best films, I don't even know if they're seeing the same movie I'm seeing. Ebert says the actors and filmmakers
harmoniously create not only a story but a world view, showing how Zuckerberg is hopeless at personal relationships but instinctively projects himself into a virtual world and brings 500 million others behind him. "The Social Network" clarifies a process that some believe (and others fear) is creating a new mind-set.I can't say whether "The Social Network" is one of the best of the year or not -- I didn't see even 10 new movies -- but I don't see it showing a (single) worldview or clarifying a process. It's *complicated*.
 The exclamation point ! infix is used in fandom to refer to the defining quality of a character in a particular episode or work, as though they were action figures with special accessories. I remember it being used in X-Files fandom in the mid-90s, where Action!Scully was much admired.