Social Network: It's all about the girls, stupid!
I have just come back from watching the Social Network with 2 of my best Facebook and real life friends. Its raining outside in Palo Alto, where I have lived for 14 years. Its raining inside my head too -- tears of frustration about the realities facing women in our world in 2010.
In the world Mark Zuckerberg and his young friends inhabit in the movie, "getting girls" seems to be the dominant motivating force for just about everything. Perhaps that is the reality of life of young men in college in the United States in the 21st century. Really?
Girls themselves, however, despite forgoing "women's colleges" and flocking to the Ivies, play a woefully irrelevant role in this movie. I hope and pray that this is not a metaphor for their irrelevance in the United States in 2010. However, the state of affairs after this recent November election that elected the largest ever cohort of white men to Congress in 60 years does give me pause.
After 14 years leading the Global Fund for Women, a Palo Alto start-up of a somewhat different kind, I have been exposed to startling and brutal realities when it comes to gender injustice around the globe. I have met women with their faces disfigured in acid attacks, women whose vaginas have been mutilated by rifles and machetes, girls whose labia were sliced off in rites deemed "purifying". I have met the intended victims of dowry murder attempts, forced marriages and honor killings. None of these are designed to put your mind to rest about the state of "women's rights" in the world.
Yet, I am almost always able to bear the horrors of these stories because the women who have been subjected to these degrading traditions and actions are doing something about their fate. They are organizing, they are mobilizing, they are speaking out, they form women's groups, they become lawyers to challenge Sharia and customary law, they educate their families, they demand justice from their governments. They are dancing sparks, ripples in a global women's movement that is bringing waves of change to the lives of communities and nations worldwide. They are fighting for the rights women in this country have come to take for granted over the past 4 decades.
What can we say about the women and girls portrayed in a movie made about one of the most "successful" men of the 21st century? That there are precisely two of them in the entire movie who show some guts, some brains, and some gumption and are wearing relatively modest clothes (why is it that the men in this movie are covered from head to toe in suits or sweatpants and sweatshirts, while the women are barely clothed?). They are: the first woman in the film, Mark Zuckerberg's girlfriend from Boston University (whom he abuses online in a drunken rage when she breaks up with him -- after a tirade in which he essentially questions how smart she can really be since she goes to BU and he goes to Harvard!) and the last woman in the film, the smart (and fully dressed) woman lawyer who is on his legal team in the negotiations with his former Harvard colleague and friend, Edwardo Savarin.
Other than these two exceptions, women in the Social Network are shown only as sexual objects, wanting nothing more than to be feted and played with by "successful men." It is irrelevant to them whether success is defined by being jocks who row crew and belong to private clubs at Harvard or being the founder of Facebook or Napster. As my friend said, as we left, "ugh, it makes me want to close my facebook account."
Except what it makes me want to do is... use my facebook account to call 21st century first world sexism to the world's attention. Yes: I am talking to You, who argue the US needs to protect women's rights in Afghanistan... you really think it is funny and amusing and entertaining to treat women like this in a movie?
Maybe even many young women in US might wonder why I am still so angry at the portrayal of them as ditzy, short skirt wearing, cocaine bearing (yes that was a girl's bare stomach off which they were snorting the stuff!) idiots. No, there were no women that could be found -- not at Harvard and not in Silicon Valley in 2003 who could crunch code and be "wired in." But there were a lot -- including the ones who went to Stanford and Harvard, who could sleep with you and smoke pot and entertain you while "the boys" built the company. This is more than 80 years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought to give women the right to be treated as full and equal citizens of this country. And, yes, we have now earned the wonderful and full opportunity to be treated as one hundred percent sex objects in a movie about the "change making invention" of the century.
I have a sixteen year old who goes to school in this privileged community called Palo Alto. And she asks herself and me, "why do girls who take honors classes during the day feel like they have to dumb themselves down to be liked by guys at night?" Why indeed? And, while, we certainly can be grateful that our daughters are not being stoned to death, or denied the opportunity to go to school at all, or married off at age 14 to a man they have never met, I am not so sure that bringing up a daughter in a country where she is far more likely to experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner than be the target of any other kind of violence is something to celebrate. It is certainly not a sign that we have achieved gender equality or parity, much less any kind of justice.
It is not just the violence of a physical nature that I worry about with regard to Mira and her friends. It is the violence of movies like the Social Network that abuse any notion of dignity and equality -- note the phrase on Zuckerberg's business card: "I'm the CEO, bitch." It is the violence inherent in songs by talented rappers like Lil' Wayne that denigrate women by describing them as "whores and bitches." It is the violence girls inflict on one another by using terms like "slut" as a term of endearment. It is the violence that Mark inflicts on girls by making them objects of "hottie comparison" on the internet as his first act of accomplishment as a talented computer hacker.
Social Network, the movie, suggests that Mark Zuckerman and Sean Parker, were driven to be entrepreneurs, at least in part, by their desire to "get back at" or "impress" the girls who dumped them or made them feel humiliated in some way. Across the world, women face incredible, debilitating, murderous violence because they have failed to adequately "please or obey" the men in their lives. Just because they do it in mini skirts instead of burqas doesn't make them safer or less likely targets. I hope outrage among a new generation of women's rights activists in the United States will result in women and girls refusing to accept this as the status quo.
Follow Kavita N. Ramdas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kramdas