Blog Post

The Social Network: Is it a Men's Movie?

When The Social Network was prescreened in Durham at the Carolina Theater in September, the Sony publicist called and asked if I would serve as host, introducing Aaron Sorkin (the writer), Jessie Eisenberg (the actor who played Mark Zuckerberg), and Armie Hammer (who played both twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss).  It was a delightful evening, with the legendary writer and these two actors all turning out to be generous, modest, and dedicated to their craft and to the movie.  No one knew at the time that The Social Network would be #1 at the box office and stay there a while.  No one knew what the critical response would be.   But our test audience was entirely engrossed and engaged and the Q and A was fascinating.


I thought it was a little ironic that I was asked to do the Q and A because I'm not a big watcher of narrative tv or movies.  So I did my homework and did some research on the writer and the actors before the screening.   The universal comment about Aaron Sorkin is that he is meticulous, researches endlessly, and is a real craftsman, especially famous for dialogue.  Even to someone who doesn't spend a lot of time watching TV, that was instantly clear.   What an ear!   In the Q and A it came out that a normal script for a movie this length would be 125 pages but his was over 150 pages.   The rapid-fire delivery was part of the edgy mood of the film, and the director kept everyone to the pace, timing their speech with a stop watch to keep it tight, on target, rapid-fire.


After my introductions, Sorkin said a few words as did the actors and then they all walked outside as we watched.   But Sorkin came back into the theater half a dozen times or so during the screening.  I was on the aisle, near the front, and I could watch him watching.  More than once, I had the uncomfortable sensation that he was watching me.   The movie ended.  The Q and A went well.   And after, as we were all shaking hands, I asked him what that was about, why he was watching my reaction in particular.  He told me that he'd asked the publicist to find a person in the area to do the Q and A who was an expert in social media.  And then he watched to see my reactions, to see where I looked engrossed, where skeptical, where I might be confused or put off.  He said he'd Google'd me so knew I wrote a lot about social media and society so he was particularly interested in my reaction to some of the social relations in the movie.   The writer of the film had Googled the person who, that night, happened to be hosting his Q and A? I laughed that I knew he was famous for doing a lot of research as he prepared to write a script---but that was a bit excessive!  He muttered there was no such thing as excessive when it comes to research and he was delighted I liked the movie.  Needless to say, my admiration for tireless research (I am an academic after all!) is boundless and Sorkin is now way up there in my book.


After the movie, Anna Rose Beck, our HASTAC intern and a brilliant Duke alum in biomedical engineering who is also embarking on her career to be a music writer and singer, and some of my female students as well as some of the guys in the class and my husband too said, they liked the movie, but they were really bothered by the misogyny.   I wondered if that was attributable to Sorkin or to the world he was portraying.   I noted that, in the years since I was interested in going into AI as a girl, decades, rather than the number of women in computer science rising, it has gone down in the U.S.  In fact, of all majors, computer science in the U.S. has the lowest number of females, under ten percent at most universities.  Anna's field of biomedical engineering, on the other hand, has a large number of women and medical schools now turn out more female than male doctors.   But computer science is still a male bastion.   We debated that.   Zuckerberg himself has a long-time girlfriend (not in the movie) who is a computer programmer too.   His closest associate at Facebook is a woman nearly twenty years his senior. 


But the world in the movie contains only one or two smart, decent women in a world of caddish, juvenile men and the bimbos attracted to them.   That cannot be good for the future of social media and technology!  Especially since women outnumber men as users of social media.   This has to change.   And our conversation that night turned to how realistic Sorkin was in his research.   Coincidentally, the next day, my agent received a message from Korea's most prominent publisher of books on technology.  They were interested in purchasing translation rights to my forthcoming book, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Ways We Live, Work, and Learn, about new ways of thinking for a digital age.  To convince us they were the right publisher to translate the book into Korean, they sent us a full, long list of all the technology books in English they translated.   There was not a single book--not one--by a woman author on the whole list.


We may not like the misogyny in the movie but I suspect Sorkin had his research right about the world he was portraying.  If we don't like that, let's do something about it!






Cathy, I saw a recent exchange on a blog review of The Social Network where a commenter raised the issue of misogyny in the film, and Aaron Sorkin replied to the commenter. If you hadn't seen this, I thought you might find it interesting.


best regards,

Steve Burnett


Thanks for posting that, Steve.  Now I admire Sorkin even more.  I was sure, from the comments he made at our screening, that he was being descriptive, not prescriptive, and critical of the misogyny, not relishing it.   


Interestingly, I had dinner on Monday night with a friend of Mark Zuckerberg's who said he is actually far less misogynistic than he seems in that movie.  She likes him and his long-time computer science girlfriend a lot.   That doesn't change the atmosphere of misogyny either.   And, btw, my friend who admires Mark is no pushover.  She's known Sean Parker, cofounder of Napster, portrayed as a real sleazebag in The Social Network, and thinks he pretty much deserves to be portrayed in the callow, misogynistic way Justin Timberlake portrayed him.)   


Thanks so much for writing!


Maybe not now...


You'll be interested in the Girls in Tech interview of Twitter CEO Evan Williams by Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times.

Ev talks about hiring women into Twitter (less than 300 employees total) and how Google hires more women than most tech places -- especially engineers. (about 3 minutes in).

Maybe we need a Girls in Tech for the Triangle and/or Southeast as a way to work locally and get larger impact.



Brilliant idea!!   Thanks so much, Paul.  I heard you did the Q and A with the same group at the Carolina prescreening. 


Yup, I was and in an interesting position in many ways. I knew, for example, that Zuck was and had been in a long term relationship and so thought the representation of Asian women in particular by Sorkin was crass. Sean Parker might be a party animal, but while I loved the dramatic presentation of that character I knew that Parker's tenacity and protective moves on the part of the founders was and is essential to what Facebook is today. I knew little of Eduardo except that the story was largely from his viewpoint and that his role in Facebook as we know it was minimal beyond Harvard.

In other words, I had to suspend belief a lot to enjoy the theatrical story telling. That storytelling from Sorkin and Fincher and the actors including Timberlake, Eisenberg and, especially as I look back, Hammer was amazing. It was nonetheless theatre. Neat, tiddy and brought home on time. Startups rarely share any of those qualities. Yet while the characters may not have been true to the named real life models, they were true to the characteristic members of many startups

BTW Sorkin says he doesn't use social networks; he knows his car has a carburetor but that he can't point to it He can't point to the carburator because his car is most likely fuel injected. He knows his drama but not his tech ;->

Sorkin, Hammer and Eisenberg were wonderful on the Q&A. The UNC students had great questions -- and gave each of them hugs.


The friend I had dinner with this week said she enjoyed the movie but, yes, pure theater.   And none of the guys at our prescreening said they used Facebook . . .   One of my Asian American feminist students felt the inclusion of the particularly trashy Asian American women was borderline racist, esp given that Zuck's actual girlfriend is Asian American, a computer geek, very serious and intelligent and, purportedly, a great gal---the kind of gal quite scarce in the movie.