Aaron Sorkin Talks Sexism and The Social Network

by Melissa Silverstein on October 13, 2010

in Sexism

Just when I thought the conversation about women and The Social Network would fade away, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin took to the blogosphere in defense of his work.

He posted some thoughts in the comments section (in response to another women’s issue with the women in the movie) on writer Ken Levine’s blog.  It’s a very long and passionate response which brings up a whole new host of thoughts on the topic.

Here are some of the highlights:

It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie but you have to understand that that was the very specific world I was writing about.

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.

More generally, 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. They’re very angry that the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback instead of the men (boys) who are running the universe right now. The women they surround themselves with aren’t women who challenge them (and frankly, no woman who could challenge them would be interested in being anywhere near them.)

And this very disturbing attitude toward women isn’t just confined to the guys who can’t get dates.

I didn’t invent the “F–k Truck”, it’s real–and the men (boys) at the final clubs think it’s what they deserve for being who they are. (It’s only fair to note that the women–bussed in from other schools for the “hot” parties, wait on line to get on that bus without anyone pointing guns at their heads.)

These women–whether it’s the girls who are happy to take their clothes off and dance for the boys or Eduardo’s psycho-girlfriend are real. I mean REALLY real.

I wish I could go door to door and make this explanation/apology to any woman offended by the things you’ve pointed out but obviously that’s unrealistic so I thought the least I could do was speak directly to you.

Here are my thoughts in response.

I’m sure it’s true that there are some women willing to throw themselves at these guys.  The message we get is that the guys are not looking for relationships, especially woman who will be their equal or challenge their master of the universe stance in any way.  That doesn’t surprise me.

I love the line where Sorkin talks about how these guys are pissed about the fact that women still don’t see the tech guys as desirable, that “the cheerleader still wants to go out with the quarterback.”  What’s so interesting is that you could replace the “tech guys” with basically any male who populates Hollywood.  Yet, it seems that the guys who run Hollywood do seem to get the pretty girls (although it might be their second or third wives) because they don’t have the money the tech guys make when they start out in their careers.

Why I think this story is important to our culture is really what it says about women and men. If it is true as Sorkin and others affiliated with the film continue to repeat, then our culture is in serious trouble and this movie is Rorschach test for where we are and where we could be going.  It is also a real indicator of the continued growing backlash against women in society.  Let me be crystal clear here – I’m not saying that the film is a backlash film, I’m saying that the film reveals how infiltrated the backlash is in our society.

The movie reveals a world that some (ok, all except the masters of the universe with the power) had hoped had passed. We had hoped that the young men of today being educated at the most elite institutions which are training our future leaders, who who grew up in a world benefiting from feminism, would be different. But it seems that nothing is different.

And the young women who gladly participate at the parties with these students have assumed the roles assigned to them, trophy.  Yet in some perverted way these women think they are empowered by these relationships and lives they have staked out.  I thought we were over the days where young women just wanted to snag a guy from Harvard.  I thought that young women believed they were smart and capable enough to be the guys from Harvard themselves.

I know that there are guys at Harvard who are nothing like the men depicted in the film, and I know there are women who would never get on a fuck bus even if their life depended on it. The problem is that this misogynistic behavior is part of the culture of Harvard, especially the final clubs, that perpetuate and in many ways train these young men to believe they are better and smarter than women.

If the behavior felt like an aberration we would not be having this conversation. The fact that it seems like the norm is the problem. Wonder if Drew Faust — the first female president of Harvard — is thinking about this issue?

By Ken Levine

Here’s the rest of the blogosphere’s thoughts on Sorkin’s response:

Sorkin explains “Social Network” sexism
(Salon)

The Social Network Writer Aaron Sorkin Addresses the Woman Problem: Is His Explanation Enough? (EW)

Aaron Sorkin Addresses Claims of Misogyny in ‘Social Network’ (The Wrap)

Aaron Sorkin Would Like to Go Door-to-Door Apologizing for The Social Network’s Woman Problem (Vulture)

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jihad Punk 77 October 13, 2010 at 11:09 AM

“And the young women who gladly participate at the parties with these students have assumed the roles assigned to them, trophy. Yet in some perverted way these women think they are empowered by these relationships and lives they have staked out. I thought we were over the days where young women just wanted to snag a guy from Harvard. I thought that young women believed they were smart and capable enough to be the guys from Harvard themselves.”

This makes me think of these s0-called “women” who are so happy to mock and degrade female athletes by participating in the Lingerie Superbowl in order to titillate male viewers’ gaze and objectify themselves. And they think its empowering, when all it does is mock female athletes and makes women in sports look like a big f-cking joke. And you know what? It really pisses me off.

I agree with one of your sentences: the backlash against women in our society is getting worse.

Kai Jones October 13, 2010 at 11:35 AM

Sorkin still hasn’t addressed the issue of gaze and viewpoint. He presented his story from a particular viewpoint–that of the misogynist men he claims to be skewering. There’s no dilution of that viewpoint, there’s no acknowledgement that women don’t share that viewpoint (as there is on Mad Men). It’s not first person, is it? (I haven’t seen the movie). If it’s not first person then Sorkin is to blame for furthering the misogynist viewpoint rather than only portraying it.

Dana October 13, 2010 at 11:37 AM

“It is also a real indicator of the continued growing backlash against women in society. ”

I’m glad Sorkin responded. It’s frankly shocking how accepted it is to depict women in this manner. It’s almost as if the more women achieve in the real world, the worse their media image becomes.

The only time I have ever seen women or men behave as described above, is in Hollywood…no where else. I’m a director and I was offered work as a prostitute by a producer when I first started out.

chris October 13, 2010 at 12:25 PM

I think the issue many have here is that unfortunately there are going to be cinemagoers, mostly male, who’ll watch or have already watched the flick and thrill to the scenes of the girls partying for the attentions of Zuckerberg and Parker without actually getting the point Sorkin and Fincher have intended.

That’s the thing with the ‘male gaze’ and sometimes the female one when it comes to viewing movies or tv…the original context of a scene can be completely lost. Look at how, a decade ago, FIGHT CLUB was loved up by fanboys who seemed not to realise that the film was not endorsing it’s plot in the end.

Thomai in L.A. October 13, 2010 at 1:43 PM

Thank goodness he does NOT write for Mad Men!!!!!

Thomai in L.A. October 13, 2010 at 1:48 PM

If he wrote for Mad Men, would he use the same excuse and then write women on in apron’s, cleaning the home in heels and pearls, as sex toys who don’t get names, let alone developed as characters. The secretary would only bring coffee, answer the phone, have sex with the boss…again, she wouldn’t need a name.

I know a few “nerds” who would be very offended by his excuse.

takingitoutside October 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

I’ve already made my argument against this “apology” elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: Sorkin is, while apologizing, blaming other people for how his movie depicts women, and the simple fact is that Harvard was not that sexist at the time, the final clubs were not that sexist, even Zuckerberg is not that sexist. Sorkin keeps defending his film as though it’s nonfiction, but it’s heavily fictional! He tries to support himself by saying that he created two female lawyers, but how many actual women who contributed to Facebook did he ignore? Deleting many and replacing them with a few is not acceptable, let alone progressive.

His comments about the Fuck Truck are another example of him blaming other people – in this case, women – for his movie’s failures. The FT and a number of similar buses were created decades ago to give women at women’s colleges the opportunity to socialize with men. The transparent aim was finding husbands. The FT nickname came from students who recognized both how transparent the older generations were being and what those buses were really useful for. To act like ironically-nicknamed buses that have come to be equated with a way off of single-sex (which is to say, sexless) campuses are proof of scads of self-respecting women hoping like mad that they will get passed around as a blow job-giving trophy is absurd. I’m just sad that Sorkin’s fake history is getting so much play.

katie October 13, 2010 at 4:41 PM

I am actually shocked that Sorkin actually responded but perhaps at the end of the day it’s a positive sign that while this movie is drawing audiences, this issue continues to dominate the discussions and hype.

I can’t speak for Harvard. I went elsewhere and went to school ages ago but an observation in comparison to my generation, is that younger women today don’t really seem to understand the impact some of the choices and decisions they make will have. So many younger women I encounter are actually content to attend college and get married. So different than when I went when women seemed excited because there was so much opportunity open to us. It reminds me in a way of the film Mona Lisa Smile, where Julia Roberts character was trying to get her students to aspire to more, in the end they realized it but it didn’t really change anything. So ladies while things have changed, things have also stayed the same.

The problem IMO is outlined in Naomi Wolfe’s book The Beauty Myth. And it’s the media in all it’s forms that indirectly conspires to keep women in their place. Look at the fitness craze, you can never be fit or happy with your body, look at the cosmetics industry, you have to use them to make yourself beautiful and worthy, a Bachelor’s degree isn’t enough you now need a masters degree, and the lists go on and on. Look at the battles Hilary Clinton fought as a candidate for president. She’s a byotch but Obama is assertive. It’s the same old stereotypes getting played time and time again and this film exascerbates them.

THe only positive thing I will say about the film is that none of the men in the film IMO look or are characterized in any way flattering, in fact they all look either stupid, opportunistic, or selfish. In fact Mark Zuck…s GF and the female attorney are the most likable characters in the movie.

d October 13, 2010 at 6:13 PM

I was really on the fence about this – I came late to the conversation, and The Social Network was a film I just wasn’t interested in, no matter how well it may have been done.
It’s this response that really irks. But I am kind of glad for it, because it reveals the subtleties of gender prejudice.

takingitoutside touched upon this, but I wanted to emphasize it. First off, how about we stop calling it an f* truck? That’s not it’s name. One of the commenters (Katherine) in that thread discusses this:

“As an alumna of the school that funds the “F–k Truck” (otherwise known as the Wellesley College Senate Bus) the Truck might be appreciated by Harvard, BU and MIT frat boys alike, but it exists because sometimes a straight Wellesley woman just wants to have sex and the nearest eligible men are 12 miles away.”

She also makes an interesting point which I’ll refer to near the end, but self-respecting women would get on the senate bus, because the bus is NOT ABOUT THE GUYS. The Harvard Square stop is right by the T, as is at least one other stop. So does it stop at other colleges/frat row? Yes. But are there not may people who are getting on that bus to go other places? Of course! They could be visiting friends in town, going to clubs, going to see a movie, just taking advantage of being in a city, doing basically anything where they would need to travel off campus and not rely on either having a car or taking the commuter rail (which is slow and infrequent). And btw, it’s not like it’s a night bus only, it runs all weekend, so you could be taking it for all kinds of reasons.

The phrase is insufferably sexist, and to put it in the mouth of a sexist character in a film seems dead on. But then, to take it out of that context, and almost imply as he did with the “well, no one put a gun to their heads to get on the bus” – that the raison d’etre for the bus is to be this funnel for female flesh bothered me a lot. He didn’t even use the proper name in his note. Minor detail sure, but if he can exaggerate about something that I know about, then it makes me wonder what else he is twisting that I may not.

I also liked what Katherine said at the tail end of her post:

“I sincerely think it is not only possible but necessary for us to get over the belief that in order for men to learn that they do not automatically deserve to have sex with smart, sexy women that the women have to abdicate their own sexual agency unless they are in “ideal” romantic/sexual relationships. We all have to take responsibility, yes. But that responsibility does NOT include limiting your own natural behavior in order to tempt others to see and value you as a whole human being with equal worth to themselves.”

It’s the madonna/whore complex all over again. If they are portraying the pool of women I think they are, we are not talking about the proverbial “cheerleader”, unless of course they were also heads of student government, the valedictorian at graduation, or a vampire killer perhaps. :) These are women who went on to be execs, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. But if they want to be promiscuous on top of that, and engage in that behavior, why is that a greenlight for disparagement? Two people are engaging in these acts – they weren’t sniffing lines off their own stomaches.
And btw, does this work in reverse? Because of plenty of guys boarded these busses to go to their parties. Maybe it is an f* truck, but for the women, since technically they were funding it.

I don’t know if this movie will do it, in terms of sparking conversation. Maybe we need a few more. I do share your sadness Melissa. Tech fields are tough, since they are mainly male dominated, but I do think many professions are treating women better than they would have 30, 40, 50 years ago. What has not seemed to really change – at all – is the social dynamic between men and women, and that’s what movies touch on. And this still seems like it is the fantasy, regardless of whether we are talking about tech guys, construction guys, wall street guys, guys in gangs, etc. (and of course not all guys)

In fact, several years ago I stayed up late one night, and caught the tail end of a documentary about media. One of the professors who spoke talked what you all have referred to. He said as the society makes more progressive steps toward gender equality, the media images of women and men will become more stark, more stratified, and more unequal. And isn’t that exactly what we are seeing ?

I think he doth protest too much October 13, 2010 at 7:54 PM

I work in Hollywood and Sorkin is one of the most misogynistic and sexist men on the planet. He likes his girls to look like pole dancers. He is trapped in a madonna whore nightmare 24/7.
My boyfriend went to Harvard during this time and I went back and forth between NYU and there. It was not as aggressively sexist as Sorkin makes it out. That is exclusively his take on the material based on his experience in the 70′s at that age and his warped pov of women which hasn’t evolved. Why should it. Very few roles in Hollywood for women. Did Sorkin ever hire a woman to write on any of his shows? Or direct? Highly unlikely.
Boardwalk Empire, for example, uses the fact that women were oppressed during this time period (1920′s) to express a kind of misogyny that is close to Matt Weiner’s with Mad Men.
In the name of showing womens struggle the writer Terence Winter expresses his attraction to their oppression, especially in the pilot and second episode which was all I could watch.
Sorkin, Winter, Weiner are all hovering around the big 50.
I find men in their 20′s and 30′s in Hollywood far kinder and less angry and more aware than the old farts. I think there are generational issues at play as well of Sorkin’s lack of awareness of his own limitations and warped misogyny.

Paula October 13, 2010 at 9:09 PM

I believe that Sorkin meant no harm, and I appreciate the challenges of creating a master narrative on which to pin a story. That the master narrative he chose involved a Mark Zuckerberg that had hostile, misogynistic views toward women is unfortunate given that the real Mark Zuckerberg has been in a long-term relationship with the same woman for many years (a woman who, if the lack of negative press is any indication, is perfectly respectable) and has a woman second in command at his company.
I’ve not seen the movie yet. I’ve not read the source material on which the movie is loosely based. And I know nothing about the Real Zuckerberg beyond what I’ve read in the press since the movie’s release. As such, I’m reluctant to pass judgment. What I will say, though, is that we can all stand to look a little more closely at the subconscious assumptions that underly the choices we make as artists. I respect Sorkin’s desire to set the record straight and suspect that this controversy will prompt some soul searching of the kind that we are all called upon to do from time to time.

May the conversation continue.

cgeye October 14, 2010 at 3:53 AM

I’m not surprised that no one has said the word “Radcliffe” yet. The women’s college that used to be part of Harvard had women who studied with enough of the sexist clowns to *not* fall for their crap, thereby necessitating the Wellesley bus. Boys had to import talent that *didn’t* see them at breakfast with a hangover.

The issue isn’t women with low self-esteem; it’s the same old class issue of getting a girlfriend who can be controlled. Distance helps; poverty helps even more.

And recall that storytellers can tell as much about themselves as they do their subjects. I wouldn’t put it past anyone in the production team to have depicted the conditions they see women in the industry suffer every day. Yes, conditions become highly sexist when money and power come to undergraduates aspiring to rule Silicon Valley, where the rules are the same as Hollywood’s — but it’s easier to put the blame on callow Ivy Leaguers, innit?

napthia9 October 14, 2010 at 5:33 PM

Does Sorkin think it’s not offensive to suggest the female characters in The Social Network are different from the “bright women” criticizing the film? Because introducing the madonna/whore dichotomy doesn’t really help his case any.

Women's Voices for Change October 18, 2010 at 4:45 PM

To keep the conversation going, I just wanted to add our review by Rachel Rawlings – a woman with experience in tech:

http://womensvoicesforchange.org/%E2%80%9Cthe-social-network%E2%80%9D-a-geek-woman-responds-video.htm

Development Belle October 22, 2010 at 3:50 PM

That there are a number of socially inept, dysfunctional men who work in computing can hardly be news to anyone. What I object to is that the film presents these men as heroes, as people to be emulated. It is not enough for Sorkin to throw up his hands and say “I’m just telling it like it is”. That is an old and very tired excuse. Film and television are both powerful mediums and film and program makers must take responsibility for the product they put out into the world.

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