The Comfort Women of the Digital Industries: Asian Women in David Fincher's "The Social Network"

Curator's Note

David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) tells a story of the birth of the social media industry, exposing the labor behind the culture of digital participation. Fittingly, it is a narrative that is obsessed with identity, particularly class identity but equally racial and ethnic identity. The Social Network is also full of Asian women, a fact that has been noted by Roger Ebert, one of the few film critics who can be counted on to see people of color in popular cinema, both in their presence and their absence.   In his Chicago Sun-Times review Ebert notes how puzzling it is that the film depicts Asian women so promiscuously in both sense of the word—Christy and Alice, played by Brenda Song and Malese Jow, are depicted as sexually aggressive, approaching Mark and Eduardo during a lecture, asking them out for a drink, and eventually performing fellatio on Mark and Eduardo in adjoining stalls in a Cambridge pub bathroom—yet fails to give viewers a fuller picture of why they are so present yet so absent in this story of digital hypercapitalism.  Ebert writes "A subtext the movie never comments on is the omnipresence of attractive Asian women. Most of them are smart Harvard undergrads, two of them (allied with Sean) are Victoria’s Secret models, one (Christy, played by Brenda Song) is Eduardo’s girlfriend."  The film depicts Asian women as idle hands in the digital industry, valued and included only for their sexual labor as hypersexualized, exotic sirens.  Alice and Christy are present at a key scene during which Zuckerberg assigns positions within Facebook’s corporate hierarchy, but their offer to work at the fledgling company is rejected.  This depiction of Asian women as sexual partners to the new captains of digital industries conceals their key roles within these industries as non-sexual workers.  Asian women workers in China and Southeast Asia assembled the hardware that hosts our Facebook pages and the laptop computer that Zuckerberg used to produce Facebook’s code.  Depicting Asian women’s labor as sexual rather than technical obscures rather than exposes the workers of color who "make" social media.

Comments

Seth Perlow's picture

senses of "exposure"

 Thanks, Lisa, for this wonderful post. I particularly like how, near the end of your comments, you’re beginning to unpack the ways in which the hyper-sexualization and erotic exoticization of Asian women in fact obscures their presence as raced subjects—one wants to say, raced laborers. At least in the clips you show (and what I remember of the film), it seems that Christy and Alice are not portrayed as unintelligent or physically unable. Indeed, they’re Harvard students, and their sexual strategies seem shrewd from a certain standpoint. Yet you’re right that when they get sidelined by Mark’s division of labor, their sexual and gender performances help to obscure the racist divisions of labor already present in the industry Mark and his cohort are entering. It seems here that race acts as a kind of hinge: the women’s racial identities intensify the very sexualizing and exoticizing energies that help to obscure other, less convenient aspects of that very identity—that is, its position within an exploitive labor system.

Thanks again for a great contribution; I do hope to see more of this project in the future!

Caetlin Benson-Allott's picture

Idle Hands...

Hi Lisa,

I really appreciate your application of the historical construction of "comfort women" to the intersection of racism and sexism in The Social Network.  The whitewashing of Silicon Valley in this movie was also very troubling to me; I kept thinking of Chela Sandoval’s great "New Sciences" essay as I simultaneously wondered what happened to the Asian-American male interns Mark "hired" at Harvard who were evidently replaced by white Stanford co-eds at the Facebook offices.  There’s much more I’d like to say about that, but the question I want to ask you is about Christy’s psychic devolution over the course of the film, from a sexually-empowered (albeit, as you point out, narratively marginalized) college student upon first introduction to a neurotic pyromaniac in her last scene.  The social network doesn’t seem to do anyone any good in this movie (no one’s any happier for their interactions with it), but Christy certainly suffers the most.  She seems, to my eyes, to lose her mind as well as her self sufficiency.  Do you take this scene as evidence of her victimization, or could we read it as acting out against a patriarchal value system that pushes her into the role of comfort woman and leaves her with nothing to do?

Best wishes,

Caetlin

Aymar Jean Christian's picture

Criticizing/Reifying

I think you’ve hit on an interesting tension in the film, one between showing white male privilege and reifying it.

My first impression of the pretty terrible depiction of Asian women in the film — especially compared to the other two women played by Rashida Jones and Rooney Mara — was the movie was trying to mark these guys as bad guys, and that media empires are often founded by (misogynistic) bad guys. There’s a way to read the film as an exposition of (white, male, straight) elite privilege, a space where there’s not room for anyone else (one of Facebook’s founders is gay, but the story has little time for that detail either). The film’s dark atmosphere and its plethora of narcissistic jerks can be read as critical of everything the guys do, not only their attitudes towards women but also their choices in setting up Facebook and the site’s politics.

All that said, I’m not sure the film does a lot to promote that kind of reading, which is rather generous on my part. I doubt most viewers picked up on these depictions (as you mentioned, most critics chose to ignore it) and fewer still will ask: "hey, since these are Harvard gals, aren’t there a whole bunch of productive working Asian women we’re not seeing?"

Wonderful insights, as always.

Tavia Nyongo's picture

Limits of social realism?

I had this same conversation during the Golden Globes, in which I took the film to task for its unimaginative depictions of women. A friend held the view that the film was critiquing the culture of male privilege in tech start ups (and at Harvard!) and, further, felt that the movie was basically realistic in failing to represent strong female characters! Which raises a question: can you critique the cultural dominant through the mode of social realism that Sorkin favors? Or do you need some mode of exaggeration, satire, surrealism, something?

Aymar Jean Christian's picture

Exactly!

That’s exactly the question, and clearly there’s no right answer. Exaggeration is important. It brings into sharper focus problems otherwise hidden, because we don’t like to talk about them. Realism is necessary is lure people into the story.

What makes The Social Network so vexing is it is both realistic (as in a somewhat true story) and, for me, exaggerated — the copious sex and drugs, its overly articulated Sorkinesque dialogue and almost campy depiction of Harvard. But a number of viewers might miss its excesses and any (potential!) social message.

ethan tussey's picture

Asian Women and Cyber-Punk Fiction

I wanted to wait to respond to this interesting post till after I had the chance to see the Social Network so this afternoon I ran down to the local Redbox and rented the movie. After reading your post this morning my attention was drawn to the asian women that appear throughout the film. I very much agree with the point that you make that the focus on sexuality obscures the real labor of asian people in the production of digital culture. But I wonder if the choice to wallpaper the film with asian women had something to do with the legacy of cyber-punk fiction. For example, David Fincher’s moody nightclub’s reminded me of Chiba City from William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Gibson’s cyber-punk novels imagine a digital future characterized by a blend of asian and western culture. Perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to reflect this legacy without stopping to unpack its implications. In addition to the legacy of cyber-punk images, I noticed that the film reasserts many of the tropes of 80s and 90s digital production culture. Computer nerds versus jocks. "no-collar workers" versus suits. Endless workdays and open office floor plans. I am not offering this explanation as an excuse. I am just suggesting that asian women have become something of a convention in depictions of hacker/digital culture.

Lisa Nakamura's picture

excellent comments

Great comments, and I especially agree with Tavia and Aymar: the line between critique and "realism" may be hard to see.  Because I come from Silicon Valley, it is absolutely obvious to me that you cannot run a reasonable tech start up in California without hiring lots of Asians and Asian American of both genders to work at it.  Many of my asian female friends from high school now work as project managers at silicon valley companies and that’s why I wanted to write about this—the film has its head in the sand re: asian female labor in so many ways.  I have since found out that Priscilla Chan, Zuckberg’s girlfriend since college, worked at Facebook while she was at Harvard, so the film’s framing of Asian American women as outside the circuit of production is an active repression of what seems like an historical fact.  According to the Time Magazine article about Zuckerberg as man of the year, they met at a Jewish fraternity, which is where The Social Network depicts a key scene during which Eduardo speculates on the "connection" between Jewish men and Asian women.

Caetlin, I think that Christy’s devolution during the film is indeed really important.  It’s that bipolar image of the Oriental woman as both pliable and as a dragon lady.  

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