In which Lindsay declares, “You know what’s better than a movie review? A feminist movie review.”
Language is a system of meaning that inherently excludes women. This concept (some call it “phallologocentrism”; I’ll give you a moment to break down the root words all by your smart self) is one of the main tenants of post-1970s feminist criticism, and if you’ve read so much as a page of the stuff it’s probably been drilled into your brain like a multiplication table. Of course I believe it, and of course I could list off a million times that I’ve come up with proof of it in my own reading and writing and speaking, but there are times when I still find this idea somewhat distant from my everyday experience. And I say that as someone who (for “fun”) occasionally reads books that contain the word phallologocentrism, so I can only imagine that the concept lacks a certain allure of immediacy to someone who doesn’t have much background in semiotics or feminist theory. None of us were actually around when language was created, after all.
But I’d venture to say that we were all around seven years ago, when Facebook was created. And if you weren’t (perhaps you were away on a Grateful Dead style pilgrimage, following the Justified/Stripped tour bus on its 45-city trek across North America), fret not. For David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin are here to bring you back to a simpler time, and to offer you a front row seat for a demonstration about how phallocentric systems of meaning are made. Ladies and gentlemen: The Social Network.
One of the most fascinating sequences of The Social Network occurs very early on, right after young Mark Zuckerberg has just been dumped by his fast-talking, Sorkin-witty girlfriend Erica. (“You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because your a geek,” she tells him. “And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” Misogynistic geeks of the world, take note.) Zuckerberg runs back to his dorm room, logs into Livejournal (seriously), and posts a few classy entries about Erica’s lowly educational pedigree and breast size. A few Heinekens later, still seething, Zuckerberg hacks into the online “facebooks” of the most exclusive social clubs at Harvard, downloads the photos of their members (but only the female members, mind you) and, in a triumphant reclamation of Good Will Hunting imagery, writes out an algorithm for a site that pits each of these photos side by side, inviting the viewer to choose “who’s hotter.” I watched this scene with a mixture of horror and awe. There is something flat-out staggering about the fact that the platform on which many of the world’s most powerful figures disseminate information and around which we plebs construct the basic meaning of our everyday lives (Shelly didn’t invite me to her PARTY but she made it a PUBLIC EVENT so it would show up in my newsfeed WTF FML) was birthed in a frenzy of post-adolescent Livejournal sexism.
Within a few hours of sending the link, the site goes viral — in the primitive, 2003 sense of the word, which means that 20,000 people access it in an hour and the whole Internet collapses under the weight of all that sweaty, fevered misogyny. There’s something equally horrific and awe-inspiring about that scene too: the best and brightest faces of Harvard illuminated by the glow of their computer screens, huddled in packs, grinning as they shout with split-second judgment, “The one on the left! The one on the left!” The scene demonstrates that Facebook’s very first instance of “going viral” also happened because it appealed to a kind of primal objectification that spoke to something in the shallowest recesses of human consciousness. By the time the film’s over, a lot more sordid things have befallen the men behind The Facebook (including an evening of very expensive tapas and cocktails over which Justin Timberlake, with devastating suavity, tells the undergrads to drop the “The” from their site’s moniker. If you’ll take note of the semantics of Canonball’s URL, you’ll see that just before our launch he advised us similarly. Thanks for picking up the tab on those appletinis, JT.), but by the end of the film I was still thinking about these two scenes, their metaphorical parallels with the creation of language, and the startling lucidity with which they show us how the semiotics of contemporary digital culture’s system of meaning is founded upon an exclusion and objectification of women.
Now, here’s the catch: I loved The Social Network, and I don’t know that I’ve seen another film this year that fascinated me as much as it did. I think it’s well written, well directed, well acted; I think it earns all of the Citizen Kane comparisons it tries so hard to evoke, if we adjust that statement according to the generational degradation that acknowledges that the Joseph Cotton of this film is, indeed, Justin Timberlake. But as male-centric as its plotline is, I don’t buy the flat criticism that, because it’s a film that depicts a lot of misogyny, it’s a misogynistic film and therefore as feminists we shouldn’t want anything to do with it — and we certainly shouldn’t admit that we liked it. To me, The Social Network is not so much a misogynistic film as it is a film that, intentionally or not (and given the choice, I’m going with “not”), puts a lucid and well-constructed mirror to a culture that is — despite what a lot of films would lead you to believe — still seeped in sexism. The most productive way of dealing with this film is not to dismiss it with the ol’ chastising finger-wag, but to recognize it as a fruitful point of discussion and an immediately relatable demonstration of how misogyny is still the basis of the semiotic systems that define our everyday lives.