What's the worst thing about The Social Network? (Hint: it ain't Zuckerberg)

The Social Network, aka The Facebook Movie, fails the Bechdel test.

Rebecca Davis O'Brien writes about the film's "female props" in The Daily Beast:

Women in the movie (...) are less prizes than they are props, buxom extras literally bussed in to fill the roles of doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys. They are foils for the male characters, who in turn are cruel or indifferent to them.

Because if there's one place where women can get even less of a fair shake than in Silicon Valley, it's... Hollywood.

(via Esther Dyson)


  1. I know one of the real-life girls who was involved with the nascent The Facebook crowd and she’s not a doting groupie, vengeful slut or dumpy, feminist killjoy.

    She’s more of a gold-digging tease.

    Can’t they get ANYTHING right in the movies?

  2. I feel like that’s probably a conscious choice. It seems like the male characters almost all actually see women that way.

  3. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t write interesting female roles, does he? I can think of none outstanding from Studio 60, West Wing, or Sports Night. They were all about two guys bantering with some other guys around, and an occasional smart woman, too smart and too good for whichever loser was in hopeless love with her.

    1. I disagree completely with regard to Aaron Sorkin’s characters in the West Wing. CJ Cregg fails your test, obviously, since you clearly wrote the bit about “too smart” women with her in mind. But she’s a very interesting character nonetheless, and my female West Wing fans all love her. Donna Moss, Abbey Bartlet, Amy Gardner, Debbie Fiderer, Ainsley Hayes…wait, this is just getting silly. There are tons of interesting female characters, all very varied, who even (gasp!) talk to each other at times. If the cast is a bit male-dominated, it’s only because American politics IS male-dominated.

      I think the reason The Social Network fails in this regard is because it’s a movie about a bunch of guys, which is presumably being true to reality given that one of the main plot points is about how socially inept they all are. And as Enrique points out above, the male characters are generally not likable, and aren’t supposed to be, so their poor treatment of women is kind of the point.

      1. Anna Deavere Smith as Nancy McNally was my favorite character on that show. She was the National security Advisor, FFS!

    2. How much of Studio 60 did you watch? Amanda Peet’s character truly saved many episodes from being what you described. The character stood strong and stable amidst the show’s and network’s, the role was written with the driest deadpan wit and Peet delivered it well. Her shortcomings however represented what was wrong with the whole show. Underdeveloped and flip-flopping plots could have been a product of the knowledge that the show might not ever last?

      Overall Studio 60 was far easier to take seriously than Sports Night. I really wish the former lasted a little longer to deal with all the issues properly instead of just devoting an episode or two before moving onto another catastrophe. Not even close to the pace and trajectory that West Wing had.

    3. Are you kidding? This seems like a blanket statement that has no basis whatsoever in fact.

      Have you ever seen Sports Night? Felicity Huffman’s character Dana was the the most awesome thing about that show (among many, many awesome things). It also included great female roles played by Sabrina Lloyd, Brenda Strong, Teri Polo and Paula Marshal.

      How about Abbie (Stockard Channing), CJ (Allison Janney), Amy (Mary Louis Parker), or Dona (Janel Moloney) from the West Wing? There were great, complex women in some of the smaller roles too: Mary McCormack, Kristin Chenoweth, Emily Proctor…

      How about Harriett (Sarah Paulson), Mary (Kari Matchett) from Studio 60?

  4. Were the male characters portrayed positively at all either? As far as I could tell, none of the main characters in the film were redeeming either.

    I loved the movie, for the record.

  5. All I remember from the trailer was some Asian girl looming over a guy and purring ‘Oh, you invented Facebook?!” before slobbering on him. That bit really just made me want to write the whole thing off as sensational geexploitation.

    1. The really funny thing is that the Asian girl is a Disney princess. Going from playing an Asian Bimbo on Suite Life on Deck to this is quite a jump.

  6. Well that’s depressing. Hopefully the movie at least reveals Facebook’s horrible track record w.r.t. privacy and ethics.

  7. they are props, buxom extras literally bussed in to fill the roles of doting groupies, vengeful sluts, or dumpy, feminist killjoys.

    Of the three, vengeful sluts are way more fun at parties.

    1. Oh please. That’s a totally lame rationalization. Also, RTFA: that argument is deftly skewered in the linked-to piece.

      Take Mad Men, for instance: women certainly didn’t enjoy equality in the environment portrayed in that TV series. But I’m a big fan of Mad Men, in part because it includes number of interesting, complicated, three-dimensional female characters. Do those characters run companies or, I don’t know, run around bra-less? No way. They exist in an environment that treated them as second-class humans, but these characters are complex. Joan, Peggy, Faye, even Sally — these women are anything but props.

      Don’t get me wrong. I support Sorkin’s right to make whatever movie he wants. And there’s obviously an audience for the film exactly as it was made.

      I’m not advocating that the film be banned or boycotted. I just agree with the linked-to writer who believes that it does not represent her experience of this world.

      1. “Oh please”

        Well, at least the ironically dismissive tone taken about my statement (read my original post as too glib, perhaps?) seemed to mellow by the end of your reply. I did originally RTFA, thank you, and just re-read it to make certain I didn’t miss something and still evidently came away with an entirely different take. Far from “skewering” my point, its a far more balanced and diplomatic piece than your response seems to give it credit for…


        “It’s a man’s world sort of movie,” Holmes told me Friday. “There’s a certain pacing to it, an excitement about money, the male relationships with one another. I also think it reflects the way a lot of young men regard females.”

        Too true. As the AD and CD at more than one dot com and a few startups, I can tell you the shame is that a lot of engineers and developers (truth be told the vast majority of which are indeed men… still) can supplement their awkwardness and embarrassment with women with plenty of misogynistic behavior.


        “This movie also showed this guy who really felt he should be on top and had this hostility to women,” Richardson said. “Nerds in movies are usually portrayed as really lovable underdogs. In reality, there’s a strong sexist element to programming.”

        Bingo, see above. In my experience that is a direct result of the fact that there are so few women in that world from school right into the workplace and as a result lot of those guys have hardly any real world experience with the opposite sex outside of their immediate family.


        “Elizabeth Wurtzel, Harvard class of 1989, said she doesn’t remember Harvard as being misogynistic but that the film does illustrate a problem with modern women: They’re opting out of high-power jobs.”

        There is a lot more of that shocking evenhandedness in the article but I just wanted to make the point that the article is not quite the clear cut indictment you make it out to be as it is a lament.

        Further, to my original post: to expect a film specifically about an anti-social (or at the very least socially awkward and oblivious), self-absorbed, anti-hero engineering nerd and his similarly aligned cohorts to see women as anything more than objects of nerd desire seems like an act of willful wall wailing or outright ignorance of that unfortunate world.

        So, if you are disagreeing with the artistic choices that are made that is certainly one thing (no argument here, the women are cartoons in this portrayal), but couching a reference to the Bechdel Test in a post with a title that is implying a judgement on the quality of the movie based on that benchmark (something, I would like to point out that TFA seems to take pains NOT to do) seems to be a misfire and a misapplication of the sexism barometer. If the terms of the test don’t apply to the subject matter of course its going to fail.

        I agree that Mad Men is a great example of strong female characters existing in a universe of prejudice, but I also think that they have the luxury of the TV format to slowly lay it out in glorious detail. Assuming you have been watching the show since the beginning, you may remember that the first half of the first season didn’t portray women as strong at all. Quite the opposite. Joan the 1D sex kitten, Peggy as the bashful easily cowed new girl, Midge as the lusty siren, Betty’s melancholy and sickliness… the TV format allows those characters room to evolve and evince a complexity that is rare in movies. I’m sure it can and has been done, but to think that The Social Network is that vehicle is missing the point IMO.

        I also think you do a disservice to the presumed statistical, trending intent of the test in its application here. Although I will say that from Lisa’s original post a ways back I remember Up being one of the movies featured in their litany of test failures. To me that’s a much more terrifying and sinister failure of the test… I’m serious. If the trend is that kids movies can’t have strong female leads that talk to one another I don’t think that is healthy at all and sets up very poor expectations from girls of what their presumed roles are to be…

    2. This was exactly the thought that I had when the previous Bechdel Test post was made months ago. The video they linked to mentioned Milk. If it was based on a true story about a gay activist’s life, why should it have to pass the test?

      I imagine Zuck sees most people as non-playing characters, regardless of gender.

  8. Films usually only have a limited number of complex characters with actual depth and character. Generally the other roles are filled by simplistic archetypes serving simple purposes. Apparently there are 2 smart and sound women in the film, one’s a lawyer and the other is Zuckerbergs girlfriend at the start of the film. Maybe this can serve as an inspirational story to all the doting groupies, vengeful sluts, and dumpy feminist killjoys out there.

  9. That “some Asian girl” is Brenda Song, who is pretty big in under-18 circles. (i.e. the future) — I imagine we’ll be seeing more of her.

  10. So… what about the most popular scene of the movie where Zuckerberg has his infamous breakup with Erica Albright? That character had far more focus on her then the jealous bimbo… then there’s Marylin Delpy who wraps up the story?

    They have more depth then the rest of the cast put together.

  11. Sorkin defenders, you have to admit though that the luridness of many of the scenes felt a lot like forced Hollywood silliness. Even one of Facebook’s founders said as much:

    Facebook programmer Dustin Moskovitz called the film a “dramatization of history … it is interesting to see my past rewritten in a way that emphasizes things that didn’t matter,” he said. According to Moskovitz, “A lot of exciting things happened in 2004, but mostly we just worked a lot and stressed out about things; the version in the trailer seems a lot more exciting, so I’m just going to choose to remember that we drank ourselves silly and had a lot of sex with coeds.”

    If the real story didn’t have major female players, that’s not Sorkin’s fault. But parading around a bunch of irrelevant bimbos is. For every Erica Albright in that film there’s five table dancers, which seems a questionable ratio.

  12. I’ve met Zuckerberg, I went to Ardsley highschool, and I can’t imagine any of this movie happening other than the part about the Winklevoss’ – Zuckerberg was just oblivious. He was a bit of a loser, and if he was smart he sure didn’t hang out with kids who were. This movie might be wrong in many of it’s portrayal of Zuckerberg, but it’s also wrong in it’s portrayal of the women at Harvard and around him. Harvard women DO NOT look that good, and I can’t imagine that there were ANY girls involved in early Facebook.

  13. maybe Hollywood realized the real story was so boring and geeky that even geeks wouldn’t go see it. So they solved the problem by adding some “buxom bimbos”, which is one of their standard fixes. It was either that or add explosions and foreign terrorists.

  14. Hey, I’m writing a script about freewheeling hijinks at a Cisco Networking Academy in upstate NY. It’s going to have it all: keg stands, RADIUS server hacking, furries, structured cabling, cute asian exchange students, a mysterious loner from the wrong side of the tracks, a touching tribute to Jon Postel, sophmores reading Carlos Casteneda, a third-act tragic death (by halon inhalation) and a deep dive in to BGP AS-path prepending.

    And when I say BGP AS-path prepending, I really mean boning.

    Any takers? Radia Perlman gets a cameo.

  15. Sorkin specifically wrote the movie that way, to have this women as 2D ornaments. It supports his themes of “sex as sole motivator of global progress” and lets the only person immune to the Zuckerberg bullshit storm, Erica, stand out. That their last face to face encounter takes place right after the bathroom blowjob scene is specific. I think Devin Faraci echoed similar thoughts.

    Marylin Delpy pretty much boils it all down, both the factual accuracy of the book and movie and the role of women in it: 85% exaggeration, 15% perjury. Ever listen to a grandstanding semi-autobiographical speech from an inebriated testosterone factory? Dumb, buxom women and incredible success in the face of overwhelming idiocy, a classic genius narrative. Anyone writing this off as another exercise in the Sorkin boys-club obsession missed this, CJ Craig, Ainsley Hayes, Jordan McDeere, Erica Albright.

    Who is really writing off the strong women?

  16. The role of the women in the movie didn’t really bother me- well, except for the crazed girlfriend- because I did interpret it as a consequence of the characters’ (loathsome) views.

    I’m usually fairly sensitive to these things. Others may feel differently. But that’s just my feeling on the subject.

  17. Ugh, seriously? This is too bad. I will definitely still see it, and I have heard great things, but this is just too bad.

    I wouldn’t be so disappointed when movies fail the test if it wasn’t such a majority of the ones that do. To flip the coin, men, would you not complain if the majority of movies featured fleshed out women but very few and cardboard male characters, with no names, who only talk to each other about women?

    It’s just sad that, as a woman, I am given so few human females characters to relate to. I have to relate to male protagonists.

  18. I’m a little baffled by all the commenters who are so quick to point out how wrong the Bechdel test is or how it doesn’t apply etc. It’s subjective. Alison Bechdel came up with it as a way to observe how women in general are portrayed in hollywood films. The part that makes it interesting is not each individual movie analyzed separately – but as aggregate. In general, it’s fairly safe to say that female characters are not as well developed and are not given as much depth as male characters in major Hollywood films. Is this true for all films? No. Is this a generalization? Yes. Is it an indictment of you if you enjoyed the film? No. Is the same thing true of how LGBT folk, people of color, people with disabilities are represented? Absolutely.

    Does this make me a doting groupie, vengeful slut or dumpy feminist killjoy? That’s probably subjective too. :)

  19. Wow. Amazing people are defending the movie’s portrayal when it doesn’t take a genius to realize what a “Boy’s Club” a lot of dot-com start-ups are.

    And in a tangental anecdote I was in a food cart line in front of a female extra in “The Social Network.” Overheard her telling her friend about her “role” in the film. Preface by saying, I respect actors who are starting out and do extra work, but it’s still hilarious to hear them explain their non-roles to friends. Approximation of convo below.

    A: The movie I’m in is coming out next month.
    B: Oh yeah?
    A: Yeah, that Facebook movie.
    B: Wow.
    A: It’s not a big role but for one of my first roles, this is pretty good.
    B: Am I going to see you?
    A: Well the thing is the movie has like 5-6 leads. And then there are other people. And the story is about Mark Zuckerberg being a nerd and then becoming popular and he gets all these girls around him.
    B: Yeah.
    A: So I’m one of the cool girls in one scene.
    B: Cool.
    A: It’s kind of brief.
    B: Still, it’s a good first role. Any lines?
    A: Not really.
    B: Oh.
    A: Yeah. And I got a few call-backs for auditions so all is good.
    B: Yeah. I’m sooooo hungry.
    A: Yeah.

    Also the big flaw with “Studio 60” is it was horrible.

  20. I’m pretty sure the portrayal of women is deliberate on Sorkin’s part, as a reflection of the views of the main characters. He even dropped a hint in the dialog, in the scene where the two new girlfriends end up sitting in on an impromptu FB meeting:

    Zuckerberg: [barks various orders at his business partners]
    Girlfriend: “Is there anything we can do?”
    Zuckerberg: “No.”

    That sums it up right there, don’t it?

  21. They should make films exactly like real life, and go out of their way to include as many views as possible. That would make movies much more entertaining. Maybe make them ten hours long, too, so we can really get a ‘complete’ picture.

  22. The Bechtdel test is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t go far enough. That’s why I’ve created the Trudeau Test [what novels would Congresswoman Davenport (pre-dementia, natch) read], the Breathed Test [newspapers / Milo Bloom], the Wilson Test [popular periodicals / Ziggy], and the Kane Test [music / Batman].

  23. People missing the point of the Bechdel test makes this feminist cringe. It’s not that some stories don’t have named women conversing in it. Not every story will, and a film failing the test does not immediately make it a worthless or highly sexist film. In this case, though I’ve not seen the film, it even seems to serve a point. It’s that there’s such an ongoing trend of movies failing the test overall, even when a character COULD be served just as well being female but is not, and that’s the point.

  24. @MooseDesign, I think you hit the nail on the head. Who would have thought a movie about an uncomfortable nerd arguing computer science and legal issues wouldn’t have a lot of women in it? As an engineering major I wouldn’t have found the movie believable if it had been filled with girls.

    In fact it’s probably more likely that Sorkin went out of his way to make sure at least some of the characters were female, e.g. Rashida Jones’ lawyer.

    @Xeni, there weren’t a lot of women in “Saving Private Ryan” either. Why do you think that was? Outrage time!

    1. Before holding Hollywood to the standards of the “Bechdel” test, shouldn’t we start with a more reasonable yardstick like, say, “remotely interesting to bipedal mammals y/n?”

    1. Sorry if your question wasn’t rhetorical but earnest, but I’m responding as though it’s rhetorical. And if it is, it’s a fair question to ask and one that deserves to be answered. Many of my favorite movies fail the test, and many movies I hate don’t fail the test–but what the test shows is just how many films fail to give women any character beyond having lives that revolve around men. It’s the shear number of those that fail that makes yet another that fails that much more troubling.

      One aspect of the Bechdel test isn’t that it passes judgment on how good a movie is, but it should be viewed as an indicator of the state of how women are portrayed in film. The fact is there are great films that fail to pass and misogynist films that are horrible yet do pass.

      1. “One aspect of the Bechdel test isn’t that it passes judgment on how good a movie is, but it should be viewed as an indicator of the state of how women are portrayed in film. The fact is there are great films that fail to pass and misogynist films that are horrible yet do pass.”

        Exactly right. But that makes calling out specific films–especially those that are purposely avoiding its terms–ridiculous.

        It’s like decrying Master & Commander because it fails the Bechdel test. It’d be a worse film if it didn’t.

        1. The difference between a historical drama set on a boat with no women (or in a WWII drama, for that matter), is that, well, it’s a boat full of men. Zuckerberg, if he lives at the present day, is in a world half full of women, who interact with each other. Granted I need to actually see the film, but if I’m taking a film like Inception regarding the Bechdel test and see that it fails, it makes me wonder WHY they chose to have it fail. I’d look at this and wonder why the writer and director and producers and execs thought that no female characters should talk to each other about something besides a man.

          It certainly is not ridiculous–especially if you’re, like me, a woman who has her world shaped by a media that neglects her sex and gender.

          (And who’s to say it would be a worse film? You’ve not seen that film, since it doesn’t exist–that’s kind of the point.)

          1. I’m not willing to grant the assumption that *Zuckerberg’s* world, so to speak, was half-female, even if the geographical world around him was. When you have a small, overwhelmingly male social circle and go to overwhelmingly male-attended classes, a movie about that period of your life is not going to feature a lot of female roles. It just isn’t.

            And that’s where Bechdel-based criticism of “TSN” breaks down. If you want or need a certain number of female characters for whatever reason, in the this specific case you’re asking that they be added where they likely (I’m not his biographer) didn’t exist in real life. And why are we insisting on creative license being taken to enforce a quota?

            I’d grant that Bechdel Tests, in some form, are useful for analyzing the state of the movie industry as a whole, but I really don’t think you can get useful information about a specific movie. It either stands up the way it was made or it doesn’t. So if Ms. Jardin had written a complaint along the lines of how Hollywood hasn’t improved its Bechdel “score” over the years, that’s an idea that has some merit, but as it is picking on “TSN” just comes across as bizarre.

  25. Having watched the movie, I find this post to be a bit off base.
    First of all, the only two likable characters in the movie were female. Both Zuck’s former girlfriend, and the lawyers assistant were the only characters to demonstrate patience and empathy. When I viewed the movie, I felt like the women who acted as “props” in the movie were there to help portray the men as male cheavanists. I in no way felt that the movie was promoting that view of women.

    Remember back to the scene where Zuck confronts his ex? She was sitting at a table full of happy looking young adults. There was a nice mixture of males to females. Also, they all seemed genuinely concerned for their friend. They seemed like good people, unlike everyone else in the film (except of course for the lawyer’s assistant).

    Overall, I actually feel like this movie addresses some of these issues. So what I wonder is, why this movie? Of all movies that could be called out, why TSN?

  26. ugh, it’s so horrible that there isn’t a law that mandates that all movies have just as many pivotal female characters as male ones. in addition, all actors should receive the same amount of lines and screen time as well as the same pay. furthermore, all characters must be redeemed by the end of the movie, which should serve solely as a vehicle for themes of equality, mutual respect, and self improvement.

  27. A bigger problem with the film is Sorkin’s tendency to have all his characters talk like they’ve doing a bunch of blow.

  28. Look, I’m the bad guy here. Straight white male, like football, etc. Even I know that films give women short shrift. It bothers me not on a political level, but on a selfish level — for story, for the art of the piece. All these arguments that fleshing out female characters would lead to boring movies, etc., are ridiculous. That, the only way we can have entertainment is to have underwritten females? C’mon folks. It’s boring having them behave as chess pieces moved around by guys.

    You know why I love Forgetting Sarah Marshall? The scene where the two female leads have a jousting match about who’s prettier. That scene is real. I have sisters. I’ve seen gals do that. I know dude culture, I lived it. It gets tedious to see that and only that repped on screen …

  29. Xeni says “Because if there’s one place where women can get even less of a fair shake than in Silicon Valley, it’s… Hollywood.”

    Forbes list of most powerful and highest earning celebrities for 2010… six of the top ten are women. Naughty hollywood, naughty!

    I think I speak for most non-brainwashed men when I say we are getting just a little tired of these clichéd arguments at a time when young women are earning more than young men on average (http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,2015274,00.html), except those who chose to devote less time to the workforce. More women go to university and there are more top tier women professionals graduating from university.

    It’s not that women don’t get a fair shake, it’s that they make different choices

    See the editor of TechCrunch’s article for an insider’s view on why there are not many women in tech:


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