Sorkin’s Game: How “The Social Network” surprisingly succeeds in its take on women

The Social Network Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. (Sony)

David Fincher’s Facebook drama remains a bright spot in Aaron Sorkin’s filmography in how it skewers male entitlement.

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Scripted in an uncharacteristically no-frills way by Aaron Sorkin and deftly directed by David Fincher, The Social Network, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week, stands out as one of the most remarkable films of 2010. A movie about Facebook as it was didn’t sound particularly groundbreaking or even interesting at the time. But given its performances, plotting, pacing, and propulsive score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, it deserves all the accolades it received and then some. (The Oscar loss to The King’s Speech remains a travesty.)

There’s much to praise in The Social Network, including Jesse Eisenberg’s unvarnished portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg’s Mark is caustic, mouthy, and largely unemotional. He’s also juvenile, a part of the character Sorkin and Eisenberg created that doesn’t get discussed enough. In fact, the element that could have been the movie’s most problematic—Mark’s view of women and how the script reflects it—ends up being one of its most impressive achievements.

Sorkin’s track record of characterizing women is spotty. C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) on The West Wing is the best kind of Strong Female Character: brilliant, witty, self-sufficient, and multilayered. But Sorkin is just as likely to write a skewed version of one of his exes as he is a C. J. The Social Network is a radically different playground from both The West Wing and Studio 60 (in which Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes was an exaggerated take on Kristin Chenoweth).

The Social Network

Instead of writing from a third-person perspective informed by his own opinions, Sorkin depicts women through this version of Mark’s eyes. Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who dumps him in the film’s opening scene, is the woman who scorns him, the one who got away and remains desirable because of her unattainability. Christy Lee (Brenda Snow) is a mostly clueless classmate who seduces his onetime business partner and reinforces the axiom that “women be crazy.” And Marylin Delpi (Rashida Jones), one of the lawyers representing Mark in Eduardo Saverin’s (Andrew Garfield) lawsuit against him, is a voice of reason to which Mark most likely won’t listen.

Mark’s opinions of Erica and Christy are colored by his own superiority complex. He dismisses the quality of Erica’s education and pays no mind to Christy beyond listening to Eduardo, his one-time best friend and business partner, call her nuts. Mark himself has very few interactions with Christy, so what we know of her is how she interacts with Eduardo. As a result, it’s up to the viewer to decide if Eduardo is a reliable narrator. Christy setting a small fire in Saverin’s hotel room comes out of nowhere, as does her crazed demeanor in the preceding scene. The movie frames Eduardo as the voice of reason many times, but here that doesn’t entirely hold up.

[T]he element that could have been the movie’s most problematic—Mark’s view of women and how the script reflects it—ends up being one of its most impressive achievements.

When it comes to Marylin, though, it’s hard to gauge what Mark is thinking. When she delivers what might be the film’s best line to him—“You’re not an asshole, Mark, you’re just trying so hard to be”—Mark’s expression shifts, but only for a moment. It’s the only time he seems to both critically examine and value something a woman says. Then he looks back at his laptop, requests Erica as a friend on Facebook, and refreshes repeatedly as The Beatles’ “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” plays.

It’s a perfect moment in an expertly made movie. It doesn’t make Mark a hero. It makes Mark someone who craves human connection, who may be on the way to acknowledging he made a mistake with his treatment of Erica. It turns him into someone who could take the radical step of listening to other people, even women. It’s a stark contrast with his earlier behavior, and it’s so subtle, so quick, that it’s easy to miss.

That’s the greatest trick The Social Network plays. It could have been so much louder than it is. And yes, sometimes people shout at each other across conference room tables, but that’s the closest thing we get to catastrophe here. The art of the film is in the details, both directorially and narratively. The lens through which the film views women isn’t the first thing you’ll notice, but it’s certainly something that will stick with you if you’re looking.

The Social Network Trailer:

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