Aaron Sorkin's Elite Smart Girls (or Lack Thereof)

Curator's Note

Almost immediately after its release, The Social Network came under fire for its limiting and misogynistic portrayals of women. Most harsh were writers for Jezebel, The Daily Beast, and EW who identified the film’s female characters as set pieces, "nearly naked scenery at parties, bimbo potheads, and mini-skirt-wearing interns." By the time the Golden Globes rolled around, such grumbling had mostly died down, the hubbub shifting instead to the two-horse Best Picture race between said Facebook movie and The King’s Speech. As a result, the "vengeful sluts and feminist killjoys" scattered throughout The Social Network no longer occupied the forefront of viewers’ minds—that is, until the film’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, took center stage.

In his acceptance speech for Best Screenplay, Sorkin (understandably) thanks The Social Network’s distributors, producers, director, and cast. But the last 15 seconds, he devotes to the evening’s Best Actress nominees and his 11-year-old daughter: "I want to thank all the female nominees tonight for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that eliteis not a bad word; it’s an aspirational one. Honey, look around. Smart girls have more fun, and you’re one of them."

Sorkin’s shout-out to the industry’s "elite smart girls" (apparently represented by Natalie Portman whose visage is crosscut with shots of Sorkin) diverges from the remainder of his speech; thus, it seems odd and out of place, an incongruity which ultimately led viewers to examine the screenwriter’s intent. While some interpreted Sorkin’s words as empowering, a devoted father emphasizing intellect over beauty and body shape, many viewers read the statement as a weak act of contrition, a screenwriter trying to apologize for The Social Network’s one-dimensional female characters or lack thereof. For example, Christopher Watson believes Sorkin was just "trying to get his feminism card reinstated." Similarly, Melissa Silverstein calls the speech "disingenuous," adding that Sorkin shouldn’t have to use "other strong women in the room to compensate for the sexism in his film" (see also Vulture, several folks on Twitter).

Unquestionably, The Social Network features some women as "sluts, stalkers, and ballbusters," but in the context of narrative/character motivation, are there theoretically valid reasons for this? Furthermore, what do we make of all the complex, feminist female characters that fill the remainder of Sorkin’s oeuvre (The West Wing, Studio 60, Sports Night, The American President, A Few Good Men)?

Comments

Kelli Marshall's picture

Aaron Sorkin on Ken Levine's Blog

Two kind readers have directed me to a post on Ken Levine’s blog, "Aaron Sorkin Responds to a Commenter on My Blog." In brief, the female commenter writes, "I also loved The Social Network, except for one thing—the lack of a decent portrayal of women." Sorkin responds, "I was writing about a very angry and deeply misogynistic group of people. […] 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.)" Something to keep in mind perhaps… (Thanks, Faye Woods and gogoartqueen.)

 

Pamela Ingleton's picture

Sorkin and women

Thanks for an engaging post, Kelli. I was really glad to see someone tackle the "female question" with regards to The Social Network, and I appreciate that you have done so without adopting the "Where’s Waldo?" method of feminist criticism (i.e. there’s a negative depiction of a female! there’s another! and another!). Approaching it instead by way of Sorkin’s bizarre and perhaps ridiculous segue in his Globe acceptance speech was an inspired choice and an important one: as I recall, watching the telecast with a friend, we both couldn’t help but wonder, "Did his agent tell him to say that?"

I think the question of female representation in the film is perhaps more complicated than some of the criticisms suggest. While I can’t help but shake my head at a clearly tacked-on character like that played by Rashida Jones (a weak effort to insert a female voice into the narrative, a voice that ended up sounding pseudo-maternal, like an aw-shucks, advice-giving babysitter), I am also always a little concerned by criticisms based on such painfully straightforward math as blow job = slut (aren’t these assumptions also the sort of thing we should be challenging?). 

I do to some degree accept the argument that a certain kind of world—or at least a certain kind of vision of a certain kind of world (our glimpses of the hallowed "final clubs," after all, may be more of a filmic slip into the mind of what Zuckerberg thinks a final club looks like)—is being portrayed here, and with a purpose; the film, perhaps, expects us to be concerned by the lack of breadth of female representation, both within and without the film. Zuckerberg’s original Facebook team was a bunch of boys, and this has been the case for many—though certainly not all—social media start-ups.

This argument is complicated, of course, by the "true" story haunting its margins, and the simple fact that, while building the Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was actually in a relationship with the same woman he is dating now. In other words, maybe the real issue here is why Sorkin (and Ben Mezrich, to a certain extent, who similarly frames his narrative with the Erica Albright encounter) felt his social media origin myth needed a battle of the sexes to sustain and inform it?

Kelli Marshall's picture

Yep, a Boy's Club Indeed

Thanks, Pamela. I agree with you on many counts. Although I tried to steer clear of my own opinions in the post, I guess I can share them down here, right? =)

I actually have no problem with The Social Network. While it was not my favorite film of 2010, I thought it was well-made, superbly edited, and surprisingly fascinating (a movie about Facebook? Zzzzzz). Moreover, the female characters (or lack thereof) did not bother me in the least. Indeed, as you imply above, I buy the world as "a boy’s club" of which intelligent female students would likely want no part.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Rossend Sanchez-Baro's picture

Thanks for your post, Kelli.

Thanks for your post, Kelli. I agree with you.

Sometimes, critics say Sorkin writes female characters as if they were men. Maybe that’s because Sorkin creates strong female characters and has a predilection for screwball comedy dynamics (à la His Girl Friday). Male and female characters have constant dialectical fights in Sorkin’s work, fight for power indeed, that’s part of his narrative style. Besides, with Sorkin, everything’s always about male friendship and women are always off the circle.

Despite it all, Sorkin admits he has some difficulties to create female characters. But sometimes feminity imposes itself. Just see Jordan McDeere in Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip. Amanda Peet’s real pregnancy totally changed her character.

 

Kelli Marshall's picture

Screwball Comedies and Peet in Studio 60

Thanks for reading and commenting, Rossend. Hmmm, Sorkin and screwball comedy dynamics: interesting. Will have to think on that further…

Also, re: Peet’s character shift in Studio 60, I don’t recall that. How was she portrayed originally? And then how did she change?  Thanks!

PS. Your English is so much better than my Spanish will ever be. =)

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