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Last Saturday, numb from an afternoon spent in Lamont, I agreed to accompany a friend to an evening screening of “The Social Network.” It was, admittedly, a reluctant assent. Facebook and I have long maintained a love-hate relationship: Lately, strained by an onslaught of fake friend requests—all with foreign names and porn-star-worthy physiques—it’s tended toward the latter. The prospect of willingly watching my perennial, and much resented, time-suck blown-up and bloated on the big screen was, needless to say, unattractive.
Yet, five hours privy to the ambient rhythm of other people’s productivity—pages turning, mousepads clicking, keyboards pounding with purpose—had weakened my resolve. My midday caffeine-high nearing a critical low, the hype began to sound more and more convincing: Maybe Aaron Sorkin’s pet project really was the next “Citizen Kane.” Never mind the overwrought trailer or Justin Timberlake’s 'N Sync-era curls: Two-hours of Hollywood-induced escapism was doctor’s orders.
Maybe it was my impossible polyester chair, seeped in competing odors of fake butter and orange soda, or the running commentary of the prepubescent gaggle to my right. But the movie—this season’s undoubted critical darling—left me underwhelmed, irked even. For all of its attention to Harvard’s idiosyncrasies—the white-walled aesthetics of River house dorms, the throw-back Quincy House website, the lack of “business” majors—the university it depicted bore comically scant resemblance to the one I currently attended. Rather than offering a nuanced portrayal of social life under the Crimson, the film reduced Harvard to the palest of stereotypes. Here was the marginalized, unscrupulous Jew outwitting the über-entitled WASP upper-class, who (predictably) turned to “Daddy” for backup. The Winklevosses were exemplars of the white-male establishment: aggressively aristocratic “gentlemen of Harvard” with square-jaws and J. Press sportcoats. Zuckerberg was a petulant, vengeful Shylock, reincarnated for the digital era: This time, he got his pound of flesh—and the blood to boot. Hadn’t I heard this story before?
Worse than the film’s classist and religious clichés was its depiction of Harvard women—most of whom, oddly enough, were Asian. Take, for example, Christy, a promiscuous co-ed gleaned from Orientalist lore. The film features Christy in three modes: sexual fetish, bathroom-stall blowjob dispenser, and crazed pyromaniac-bitch—each of which seem decidedly extraneous to the film’s plot. Discounting Christie’s equally indiscriminate sidekick, Alice, all of the film’s memorable females hail from somewhere other than Harvard. Busload of busty, Ecstasy-equipped models? Check. Lithe Stanford gamine? Check. Painfully insipid, Silicon-Valley couch surfers? Double check. Harvard men—or, at least, an elite subset of them—may have the prerogative to party, but Harvard’s women, it seems, aren’t either hot or uninhibited enough to make it past the bouncer.
Grilling Sorkin about “the ladies in the film,” Stephen Colbert cut straight to the point: excepting Erica Albright, Zuckerberg’s “super smart” ex-girlfriend, the script lacks “women of substance”—they’re all too busy getting drunk, taking hits, and putting various things in their mouths to get a word in edgewise. This despite the fact that Harvard houses some of the most accomplished female students and scholars in the world. Bumbling his response, Sorkin noted “one other” unfrivolous woman—Rashida L. Jones '97, herself a Harvard alumna—and proceeded to class the rest of the film’s females as “prizes”: circulating sex-objects that can be bought with enough money, power, or social prestige. He trailed his insight with a self-exculpating addendum: “It [the film] really doesn’t speak to the entire female population of Harvard, this is just the people who are populating this story.” So, all Harvard men save for computer science concentrators and final club members view women as more than walking vaginas? Thanks Sorkin, I was worried for a second!
At least to current Harvard students, “The Social Network’s” repeated scenes of intoxicated depravity—culled from some “Animal-House”-meets-hip-New-York-club wet dream—serve as a not-so-subtle disclosure that Sorkin’s narrative attends more to fiction than fact. This Sorkin readily admits: as he stated in an interview with New York Magazine, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling”—a confession which still has Zuckerberg’s defenders fuming. Erotic imaginings aside, what Sorkin delivers is an overly-literalist reading of everything an outsider might think Harvard would be: a bastion of old-boy entitlement and self-indulgent seersucker—“Mad Men” stripped of everyone over twenty-two. Thirty-odd years of affirmative action be damned: Sorkin wants his bike room with bikes in it.
Hollywood’s penchant for stereotypes—be they gender, class, faith, or race-based—comes as no surprise. Fiction, moreover, is certainly within Sorkin’s right: Few would argue that every film based on a real-world personage need be documentary. At issue, ultimately, is not so much whether the film is fact or fantastic projection—that is clear enough—but why a narrative so comically trite has been so widely hailed as the “defining” parable of our generation. Is the zeitgeist of today’s twenty-somethings really encapsulated by an interrogation, as New York puts it, of the various modalities of asshole-dom?
Facebook is a compelling phenomenon, one that seems to uniquely sum up and judge postmodern existence. Yet, if critics want a commentary on being-in-the-digital-age, they should look to the website itself, not Sorkin’s gratuitous origin myth. Ten minutes spent scanning through strangers’ forgotten albums yields more about us moderns’ uniquely alienated, painfully self-conscious existence than Sorkin’s flattened film manages in one-hundred-twenty.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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