Sunday, October 17, 2010

Smart kids = boys

What I liked best about The Social Network (a/k/a "the Facebook movie") was its vivid portrait of smart kids creating and tackling an intellectual challenge: the energy, the enthusiasm, and the sheer geekiness of it all. In some ways, the movie felt like a response to my plea, last month, for more cinematic depictions of the life of the mind. I'm not a computer programmer or an entrepreneur, but I have been a college student, and the movie captured what it's like to be a nerdy obsessive surrounded by other obsessives. The scene near the beginning where Zuckerberg creates "Facemash" in a late-night blitz while his friends egg him on, as well as the later coding competition where a bunch of students at computers throw back shots of alcohol after every line of code written, both felt perfect to me. They reminded me of my own college experience (minus the coding and company-founding parts).

But the movie's authenticity only goes so far. As several commenters have noted, women, with the exception of the girlfriend who dumps Zuckerberg before the opening credits, exist in the movie only as groupies or psycho-sluts. I don't have a problem with the presence of a few two-dimensional floozies or even some gratuitous--and, I'm pretty sure, wildly inaccurate--scenes set at parties in Harvard's final clubs where the women strip to their underwear and make out with each other for the delectation of the male partiers. I mean, those scenes are lame, but whatever: women occasionally do that shit, and probably sometimes even at Harvard.

What I have a problem with is that there are no other women. Maybe it's too much to expect a Hollywood movie to show women who are as rumpled and nerdy as many of the men (although last time I checked, on actual college campuses unwashed hair and sweatpants know no gender). But surely there could be a cute smart girl or two? A pretty female coder? A Facebook employee who's not just a jailbait intern-groupie?

I didn't go to Harvard, so I could be totally wrong here, but in my years at Harvard-but-for-the-architecture, there were lots of smart women. Some of them were damn hot, too, and went to frat parties and may have worn spiky heels and low-cut blouses and tons of eyeliner. . . one night a week. But the rest of the time they were wearing jeans and glasses and setting the curve in their organic chemistry classes. Or staying up until two a.m. every night editing the school paper.

I'm mostly inured to the crappy depictions of women in movies; I say little hand-wavy things like, "well, the female characters are sappy and sucky--but it's still a great film." But perhaps because I've been thinking about depictions of the intellectual life in movies, or perhaps because I went to not-Harvard and felt that I recognized so much of the intellectual culture and nerd-energy of The Social Network, the portrayal of women in this movie (a movie that I mostly liked) really pissed me off.

Or maybe it's just that my college roommate got married last weekend, and in the days preceding my going to see Sorkin's movie I'd been thinking fond thoughts about her and the five other women I lived with freshman year. So since this is my goddamn blog, I'm going to tell you about those five women. None of them is a Mark Zuckerberg, but they all had obsessions, talents, and flashes of inspiration--not to mention feverish all-nighters or all-weekenders where they put together major projects--that are basically consonant with the way the movie depicts him and his exclusively male friends.

My roommates majored in Economics, Anthropology, French, Biology, and Physics & Philosophy (a double major). One went on to get an M.A. as a Fulbright Scholar and to work first in consulting, then for a famine relief organization, and is now the department head at a major British corporation. Another went to library science school and then became the director of a public library--where she's recently received some unsought national attention as a defender of the First Amendment. The third got both American and French law degrees and practiced law in France before becoming a jazz songwriter and vocalist, based in New York; she has a couple of albums out now. The fourth is a labor activist, and her work on behalf of illegal immigrant sweatshop workers was recently featured on PBS. The fifth got a Ph.D. in physics and is now on the tenure track at our alma mater. They were--and are--smart, fun, and hilarious.

And I can't help but ask: where are their undergraduate selves in movies about college life? Where are their adult selves, for that matter?


medieval woman said...

Holy Shit, Flave - all of you ladies - and I do include you in this - are all so smart and wildly successful! I had to have one of my college roommates arrested when she freaked out and tried to strangle me. She was expelled from school the next year for having another freak out on a study abroad in Ireland. After that, I lived alone with two cats until TD...

*ahem* - sorry for the vent...

FLG said...

Did you see this?

Flavia said...

FLG: dude, I linked to it in this post. It's pretty great.

And/but funnily enough, the blog it comes from is run almost entirely by people I knew in college. However, I don't really read it (I found the chart via Andrew Sullivan), in part because I'm kinda over group blogs with no or just one token woman among their dozen or so writers.

And MW: I got lucky, indeed--my actual roommate and I roomed together for all four years, and we stayed close to two of our other suitemates throughout college, and to this day (the other two suitemates I've only recently reconnected with on Facebook). But though we got lucky in the sanity/compatibility department, I think they're pretty representative of the women I went to college with. They kick ass.

(And you know, I'm not usually all, "sisters are doin' it for themselves!" But that movie obviously hit somewhere close to home.)

Sisyphus said...

So true, and boo!

I don't think any of my roommates (or actual friends) made it to some sort of "exciting" level of jobs stuff yet, but, you know, I have several friends who are doctors, one runs the organics lab for a chem company, a person stringing for AP, an elementary school teacher, a high school teacher, a middle manager for an AIDS nonprofit --- smart and funny people, yo, who are hard workers doing interesting work even if they can't really be described in exciting ways.

Psycgirl said...

I read a response from Sorkin (maybe on his webpage?) where he basically agreed with the one-sided portrayal of women in the movie, but noted that that was Zuckerberg's experience and attitude toward women, based on his journals or something used to help write the movie... (which is still pretty disturbing, don't get me wrong!)

Flavia said...


I didn't mean to imply that only women whose jobs sound impressive count as impressive--and I'm not sure all my former suitemates themselves see their careers in the rather glamorous ways I've painted them here (though everything I've written is true). But goddamn it, they (like your friends) ARE impressive!

Flavia said...


Yeah, I've read Sorkin's response, and I don't buy it. He claims, for example, that the girl-on-girl action in the final clubs is meant to be Zuckerberg's fantasy of what those clubs are like, but the film doesn't remotely suggest that. Moreover, the character Zuckerberg seems mostly uninterested in the sexual perks that come along with being an entrepreneur: he's barely interested in the bathroom blow-job he gets talked into, and he doesn't attend the panty-dropping one million member party in Palo Alto. (This is also narratively problematic: given these things, I don't really get his motivation at various points.)

The real Zuckerberg also has close female friends and trusted female coworkers, and the real "facemash" included both men and women--rather than just women, as in the movie version. I'm not saying he's not a misogynist or didn't behave like one at various points; I have no way of knowing. But the movie absolutely is not critiquing or satirizing misogyny. It's perpetuating it.

Withywindle said...

Keeping in mind that part of what's going on [I say not yet having seen the movie] is that it's Hollywooders writing about the world and assuming it's like Hollywood, and I gather Hollywood has a powerful filter to keep out women who are rumpled & competent.* It's difficult for these blind men to describe an elephant.

* Not assuming that Harvard CS geekdom is a ladies' paradise, just assuming it's gotta be better than Hollywood.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Withywindle has an excellent point I think, and several details of the movie he has yet to see bear him out. (I'm thinking especially of the scene set at the Final Club party which features a tuxedoed bouncer with a bluetooth, a la Sunset Strip, and the stripper-y antics that Flavia mentions. That's really more 90210 than 02138.)

The way the undergraduate women dress and the dialogue Sorkin gives them, by which I mean DOES NOT GIVE THEM, makes much more sense to me as a depiction of Hollywood than as a depiction of Harvard.