Nerds and bimbos on the silver screen

This blog post is about my gratitude to Entertainment Weekly

Okay, so I don’t read Entertainment Weekly. I don’t watch TV shows about celebrities or read magazines about Hollywood. When I’m on the treadmill at my gym, I’m about 10,000 percent more likely to be reading a New Yorker story about the influence of the right-wing, billionaire Koch brothers on American politics than a story about the movie business. 

But I did go see The Social Network over the weekend. 

I enjoyed it, although that’s not the point here. Directed by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing, it’s a well-plotted, intelligent story of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg from nerdy Harvard sophomore to billionaire founder of Facebook. The plot is great, acting is great, main characters are fascinating, and it can spur all sorts of date-night conversation about values, friendship, and cutthroat business decisions, as well as about the line between fact and fiction in this kind of looks-real-but-could-be-totally-made-up drama. 

But the women. 

This was my second response as I came out of the movie theatre, after the above thoughts. 

All the women in the movie are bimbos, with the exception of the college girlfriend whose dumping of Zuckerberg eventually leads to the creation of Facebook.

The women in the movie are minor characters, and they spend all their time taking clothes off, giving blow jobs, snorting coke, getting drunk, and hanging on the arms of guys with status. Busloads of gorgeous girls stripping at frat-type parties. Clubs full of gorgeous girls getting drunk. Houses full of gorgeous girls partying and having sex. 

And this is a story that takes place at Harvard, for God’s sake, in the 2000s. And in San Francisco and Palo Alto

Those are all places that are pretty close to my own orbit. I was at Harvard, although it was 30 years ago. And I’ve reported  about Silicon Valley, although I’ve never lived the culture of a Web 2.0 start-up. There are certainly ditzy, shallow women in all these places (and ditzy shallow men ready to exploit them!), but I’ve never seen that as the dominant culture. 

In fact, it has always seemed to me that if you are a non-ditzy, non-shallow woman, Cambridge and the Bay Area are two really good places to be. 

So my first reaction was horror: My God, I hope that isn’t the reality for young women in their 20s today.  

Followed by a spurt of self-censorship: Oh, Ilana, there you go on your feminist horse again. 

Really, I felt predictable. Repetitive. Boring. I don’t know whether I was more fed up with Hollywood, or with my own reaction. It seems like I have spent my entire adult life going to movies and being angered by their depictions of women. 

At a certain point, you just stop getting angry. You get used to it — like smog, like trash in the streets. You don’t even see it. Or you see it, but get sick of pointing it out over and over again. It becomes much more interesting to talk about whether the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is accurate or not. 

But then a friend posted a link to this Entertainment Weekly story on her Facebook page. 

(Is this getting circular or what? Facebook posts about movies about Facebook? And then of course I’ll promote this blog entry on my Facebook page, so it will be a Facebook update about a Facebook post about a movie about….) 

In any case, EW reporter Jennifer Armstrong wrote:

Without sifting through the backstories of Zuckerberg and company for strong female figures, it’s hard to know what the filmmakers could have done differently while still hewing to some version of the truth. And it’s clear that they’re showing us, for better or worse, how women function in these particular boys’ worlds, which, apparently, is as objects to be conquered with fame and fortune. The Social Network certainly provides, if nothing else, strong evidence that we still need feminism, that we need to inundate boys with it in particular — and that we need to nurture math and science skills in girls more than ever before, so they have as good a chance at changing the world as these guys did.

Armstrong raised exactly all the right feminist points about The Social Network. I found myself cheering. I found myself saying, “Yeah! Now why didn’t I write that?” 

So here I am, writing it. 

And feeling unexpectedly grateful to Entertainment Weekly.

And telling myself to remember: Trust your instincts. Don’t self-censor. When it comes to the way our culture continues to objectify women, it may be necessary to be boring and predictable, to repeat the same critiques, angrily, over and over and over.

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9 Responses to “Nerds and bimbos on the silver screen”

  1. Harriet Chessman Says:

    Ilana, I actually think your own original take on the representation of women is most likely more accurate than the E.W. article. She suggests that this film is somehow representing the women as they actually were, at those Harvard and Silicon Valley parties. I 100% support the idea that our culture should do more and more and more to promote math and science skills among girls and women. Yet I don’t for a minute believe that the depiction of women in this movie is accurate, and it’s awful to think that this kind of depiction goes on and on, replicating itself in the souls of girls and boys across the nation.

    I guess I’m saying, I too am a profoundly discouraged feminist in a culture that appears to love and cling to its notions of women as simply sexual and/or maternal figures, secondary to men — these notions flying in the face of a reality I have seen all my life, of intelligent and resourceful women doing their best to override cultural expectations.

  2. Tom Moore Says:

    What I remember from 1974-1978 (when I was at Harvard) was that men and women lived almost entirely separate lives, at least in my social sphere. Women virtually never appeared in the dormitory suites where I lived, and rarely even at the tables in the dining halls. Of the men with whom I shared my living spaces over four years, I can remember two that had girlfriends, each for about a week. Two were gay (though not out of the closet at the time), but the rest were normal men who would go on to marry, have children, etc, but not with women whom they interacted with at Harvard. It was a monastic life.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Tom, my experience of men/women at Harvard (1976-80) was quite different. I had lots of male and female friends who got along quite warmly and lovingly, shared group houses off campus etc. (One case in point — my friendship with our mutual buddy Paul Rosenberg.)

      Like other colleges, the place had a number of parallel social universes all existing in the same place and time. Your monastic crew, my lefty lentil-nut-loaf types, the final club preppies etc.

      This is all somewhat interesting given that my 30th Harvard reunion is taking place this month. (But I’m not going. One of the downsides of hanging out with all those anti-establishment types is that even if I wanted to go to a reunion, none of my friends would be there!)

      • Sandy F. Smith Says:

        None of them, Ilana?

        Naomi Rush Olsen, who I got reacquainted with at the 30th reunion, directed me to your blog post on “The Social Network” after I raved about it in a Facebook status update.

        Sure, the 30th reunion, like the 25th, had a lot of successful businessfolk in attendance, but the underachievers were also represented: I showed up, for instance, as I did for the Big One. (Several classmates privately thanked me, and one did so publicly, after I piped up about my not-all-wine-and-roses past year or two at a discussion about reinventing oneself at midlife. Perhaps we should compare notes, given the theme of this blog.)

        But we were talking about “The Social Network,” right? I hadn’t thought about it much (more evidence that feminism remains relevant, I guess), as I was so caught up in the inner and outer workings of the man-children who largely propelled this story forward, but your comments about the women in the movie are 100% spot on. And while I’d agree with you that San Francisco is one of the last places I’d expect to see that kind of behavior, I’m not surprised that it makes its way even out there, because, as you suggest above, it will continue as long as booze- and drug-soaked postadolescents with too much testosterone sloshing around their brains continue to be produced by society.

        I hadn’t thought about it

  3. Tom Moore Says:

    I think part of the issue was that the ratio of “Harvard” admits to “Radcliffe” admits, at least in 1974, was on the order of 2.5 to 1. I certainly had the impression that this situation produced an unhealthy situation all the way around.
    Women felt embattled, and men frustrated. When did this change? It would be interesting to know how things gradually moved to a situation where, if I am not mistaken, there are more women undergrads than men at Harvard.

    I am certain your situation was different, if only because off-campus residents were a small and self-selected group. It was not that my social circle -wanted- to be homosocial, but that it seemed like there was no alternative within a deadening social situation.

  4. Kaveh Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but the depiction of women in the movie that you report REALLY pisses me off. I’m sure the women scene is WAY exaggerated and fictitious. Here we go again, Hollywood; shame on you. Now I feel I have to warn my daughters before they go see it, but what good does a dad’s advice do for teenage girls when there is so much crap in our dominant ‘entertainment’ culture? Aaarghh!

    Please don’t for a nano-second doubt your frustration and reaction to this kind of BS Ilana.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I think it’s still a worthwhile movie for Leila and Naseem to see, Kaveh, but it would be a great jumping off point afterward for a conversation about “hmm, any thoughts about the women in the movie? does this reflect the lives of you and your friends? if not, what do you think it is reflecting?”

      I would NOT let a younger child (under 15 or 16?) see it.

  5. Wendy Nelson Tokunaga Says:

    Good blog post!

    I saw “The Social Network” and, while it’s entertaining, it’s nearly all fictional. So it’s possible that its portrayal of women is fictional as well. The Daily Beast did an excellent article on the fictionalizing of the story:

    http://ow.ly/2PGYA

    And to let you know, Entertainment Weekly is not your typical celebrity culture magazine. They have a lot of thought-provoking articles about television and movies and pop culture that can be a nice alternative to the often-snooty New Yorker. :-) However, The New Yorker did an interesting interview with Mark Zuckerberg, which again has him coming off as much more intelligent and interesting than how he is portrayed in the film:

    http://ow.ly/2OQCz

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