Millennial Images in Motion: Recessionary Media and The Social Network, by Brandon Green
There were two prevailing reactions to emerge from the conversation surrounding David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) upon its release. The first included disapproval of the film’s depiction of women; for some critics, bloggers and audience members, the semi-biographical account of Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) invention of Facebook as a Harvard student in 2004 seemed to celebrate an elitist boy’s club culture that reduces women to sexual objects or punchlines, whenever it is not simply ignoring them. In articulating their accusations of misogyny, these writers catalogue and critique the boys’ social and political backwardness and the ways their sexism continues a historical, “deeply rooted power struggle of the sexes that no “ism” will ever dissipate.” 1 Similarly focused on the past-ness of the misogyny represented, one writer alludes to a continuing timeline of gender politics when she claims the most troubling takeaway from the movie “is that our culture, in its most powerful places, has gotten more sexist” 2 [emphasis added]. Another writer, more inclined to see the film as a critique of sexism rather than a vehicle for it, sees in the film an accurate depiction of “the way women circulate as objects of male competition, predation, and fantasy,” using language that evokes second wave feminist Gayle Rubin’s theorization of patriarchy as the “traffic in women.” 3
The second reaction included numerous claims to the film’s status as a generation-defining phenomenon. In these declarations, writers read the film as a commentary on a still-developing zeitgeist and feel entitled to offer, with varying degrees of subtlety, their own perspectives on the generation embodied by Mark and company, the millennials. Manohla Dargis is conspicuously forward-looking in her review, in which she calls the film “a resonant contemporary story about the new power elite,” situated in “the recognizable here and now, though there are moments when it has the flavor of science fiction.” 4 Peter Travers sees the film as a treatise on millennial narcissism and a reflection of a widespread “reshaping” of online identity to fit in with other users. 5 This review comes in the wake of another Rolling Stone piece that includes The Social Network among other iconic films that “caught a generation in the act of defining itself.” 6
Aside from the troubling ease with which these two dialogues coexist yet remain separate (few who discuss the film’s generation-defining aspects attempt to reconcile these claims with the film’s overt gender politics, and vice versa), when taken together, they suggest a top-down process of self-definition that both reimagines hierarchies of power and gender while at the same time continuing a steady historical trajectory of sexism. Additionally, their references to women as objects of male competition, the cultural struggle between men and women, and an emerging power elite apply doubly to feminist models of economic conflict examined critically by scholars Susan Faludi, Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, among others, and in more popular contexts by Hannah Rosin in her oft-cited 2012 book The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. 7
Given the dialogues’ common generational frame, the socioeconomic implications of this cultural reshaping are perhaps most aptly considered within the most significant economic event for millennials, the Great Recession, the period of economic downturn between 2007-2010. Tasker and Negra provide one of the most comprehensive theoretical frameworks for considering the status of films like The Social Network within a recessionary media culture that thrives on a postfeminist economic austerity logic that discourages critical engagement with gender politics. Tasker and Negra argue the importance of studying how gender and power is depicted in a recession not only in news media images, but also within popular culture, which “helps to mobilize emotion to allocate blame, frequently redirecting resentment and anger at structural problems away from elites toward class peer groups who are imagined to retain the ‘privileges’ of earlier eras.” 8
The Social Network’s unique status as a film produced during the recession that takes place in the time just prior marks it as an important text for examining how media from this time defines and interprets the central cultural, social and economic conflicts that set the stage for the years to come. Ultimately, I argue, the film presents a model of socioeconomic conduct and identity predicated on a youth masculinity that responds to its recessionary context and symbols. This masculinity, defined by sometimes irreverent, other times self-conscious or even subconscious displays of a liminal or flexible maturity, repurposes signifiers of immaturity and unfitness for the corporate world to work in support of male upward mobility. As an example of these displays, evident throughout the film in visuals, dialogue and performances, consider Mark’s business card, seen near the end of the film, that reads: “I’m CEO, bitch” (111:07). With this delinquent badge of authority, Mark simultaneously rejects traditional corporate etiquette in direct defiance of the adults who would attempt to assume control of his creation (and squander its potential with old-world thinking), while also appealing to the cultural and economic clout of those same figures and institutions to grant himself an adult legitimacy. This example also demonstrates the underlying gender politics of this masculine identity, given the gendered connotation of the word “bitch” and the resulting suggestion that women are the casualties of male success. Consequently, this model of millennial masculinity contributes to a recessionary postfeminist media culture that reifies traditionalist gender politics in the face of economic austerity.
The Social Network and the Recessionary Corporate Melodrama
Few media scholars have extensively probed the gender dynamics of recessionary media to the extent that Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker have across a body of texts, two of which prove especially useful for contextualizing The Social Network and its depiction of millennial masculinity within a recessionary generic framework. In these texts, besides identifying and categorizing trends in recessionary cinema, Negra and Tasker explore the economic basis for many of their previous theorizations of the postfeminism – including postfeminist culture’s concentration on neoliberal modes of self-fashioning and the critical role of choice in women’s social and economic fates – in order to understand how a recessionary economic context influences these ideas, which to them are “enabled by the optimism and opportunity of prosperity (or perception of it).” 9
In an article for the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Negra and Tasker deal at length with what they call the “corporate melodrama” in a discussion they later condense and rearticulate in a book-length treatment of recessionary media, Gendering the Recession: Media Culture in an Age of Austerity, for which they serve as editors. Films within this categorization focus on the victimized male in the workplace who must navigate an emotionally taxing or unsatisfying corporate power structure. Men in films like Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009), The Company Men (John Wells, 2010), Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone, 2010), among others, reject the corporate environment as a place not “particularly compatible with the sort of gender identity to which they aspire.” 10 Male characters inevitably face opposition in their quests for self-edification in various forms including the economy itself, technology and women. For example, in Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham is an old-school “downsizer” whose sole responsibility is to act as the “face” for corporations undergoing mass layoffs by personally firing employees face-to-face (as smoothly as possible). His way of life is inextricably bound up with his work and its constant travel requirement, and as such his entire way of being comes under threat when a new, young employee Natalie (Anna Kendrick) proposes a system of digital communication (think Skype) to alleviate the costs and burden of managing employees like Ryan. Ultimately the digital communication technology fails and reaffirms Ryan’s faith in the integrity of traditional face-to-face interaction, thus ensuring the relevancy of the old-school business ethics he embodies. This example supports Negra and Tasker’s model for the corporate melodrama in that it operates through traditionally gendered discourses that thrive in periods of economic austerity. 11
Negra and Tasker identify the roots of the corporate melodrama within a wider recessionary context dominated by gendered images and discourses. They focus specifically on configurations of the “mancession,” a term used by a wide variety of media sources to characterize the recession as disproportionately damaging to male labor. These sources use as evidence for this event the sudden decline of the construction and manufacturing industries in addition to mass corporate layoffs. Suddenly, so the narrative goes, men find their breadwinner status in jeopardy, and while they retreat home to tend to bruised egos in between newfound domestic responsibilities, women continue working. Negra and Tasker highlight the role postfeminism plays in shaping “mancession” anxieties; periods of economic austerity typically motivate a cultural shelving of gender politics in favor of traditionalist discourse around gender roles, consequently implying that feminism is reserved for times of economic abundance only and encouraging the neglect of the systemic agents impacting gender politics. 12
The Social Network fits neatly alongside other corporate melodramas, though, as will be discussed further down, its youthful orientation has ramifications beyond the recessionary media images and symbols Negra and Tasker pair with other films in the subgenre. The most obvious tie to the genre lies in Mark’s (and other characters’) complicated relationship to the traditional corporate model and its values. In the opening scene of the film, Mark anxiously confronts his potential sociopolitical inadequacy in a frenzied mind-dump for his date Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who seems fiercely in touch with the absurdity and insecurity at work in his thought processes. Mark expresses the dire importance of impressing Harvard’s all-male final clubs because acceptance into one of these prestigious and exclusive organizations promises him a significant advantage in his career endeavors. He considers acceptance a necessary, time-tested step to professional advancement, one that many great men before him have taken (including presidents) and will continue to take within this established, Fordist production line of male success. Such a system resembles a traditional “corporate ladder” containing various stages that serve as prerequisites for upward mobility. This connection is supported by the fact that the only main characters shown to be members of final clubs, twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), friend of the twins Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and Mark’s best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), collectively embody the old-world thinking and power structures Mark eventually sees as obstacles to his vision of success. (One can easily imagine Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham getting along with all of these individuals.) While Mark begins wanting to progress along a tried-and-true, corporate-inspired path to financial and social success, ultimately, both out of insecurity over his incompatibility with this system and his dissatisfaction with it, he manipulates or circumvents it, to the point of expressing apathy toward the prospect of financial gain altogether through his reluctance to monetize the rapidly developing Facebook with advertising. In the corporate melodrama, “the most sympathetic male figures are always those for whom money itself is not the primary goal.” 13
The film also operates as a corporate melodrama through its treatment of economic redundancy. In “Tiny Life: Technology and Masculinity in the Films of David Fincher,” Michelle Schreiber analyzes the masculinities at stake in the conflict between Mark and the Winklevoss twins. Though the film establishes this conflict as economic to the extent that the legal claim to Facebook leverages substantial capital of historical proportion, Schreiber traces a symbolic decline of physical bodies – and a corresponding ascent of “intellectually driven bodies” – within the hierarchies of the male labor economy. 14 As she writes, Mark exercises his power and control over others through digital technology that nullifies the Winklevoss twin’s physical and economic advantages over him; For example, Mark is able to resist their attempts to impede his development of Facebook with accusations of intellectual property theft via email, as opposed to in-person interactions. The twins’ “stature and financial status and even their musculature have no technological corollary, and thus they slowly find themselves to be at a disadvantage in their dealings with Mark.” 15 Mark’s “decidedly twenty-first century power” reveals itself in moments of immobility (with him at the helm of a computer), whereas the Winklevoss twins, even when exerting themselves to their limits during a rowing event, consistently grapple with their dwindling power. 16 Schreiber finally sets this symbolic conflict between Mark and the twins’ against the backdrop of a recessionary culture that represents strength-based, traditionally masculine labor as in decline or redundant. 17
Young and Hopeless: Media Images of Millennials in Recession
However, The Social Network is unique among corporate melodramas in that it is primarily concerned with millennials, or those entering the workforce during the recession, not those struggling from within previously established roles. This youthful orientation, I argue, evokes a wholly different set of recessionary images, symbols and hierarchies. While “mancession” discourse has consequence for millennial masculinity (as described above), the scope of its influence is limited within representations of recessionary youths, which seem less anxious about the deterioration of traditionally male labor and more concerned with inescapable signifiers of youth and immaturity that accompany, or even sustain, the millennial’s stunted professional existence. Running parallel to this insecurity over these signifiers is a deep discontentment with establishment power, complicating millennial ambitions to succeed in the adult corporate environment.
As depicted in various media representations authored by older generations, millennials are often infantilized by allegations of naivety about the ways of the world and weak will. In a rather extreme opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, one writer displays a condescending curiosity about how the economic struggle will impact millennials’ optimism, entitlement, arrogance, and naivety. The recession is framed as a proving ground for a budding generation that must earn its claim to legitimacy through a sobering rite of passage, just as World War II made adults out of the Greatest Generation, and as Vietnam did for the baby boomers. 18 Similar calls for millennials to “buckle down and stop whining” about their poor economic prospects appear frequently across recessionary media. 19
Surprisingly, millennial self-representations echo challenges to their maturity in self-deprecating accounts of their struggles in the job market. Frustration with these conditions, however, is directed outward toward the corporate model and the system of higher education. In the fall of 2011, The Atlantic solicited emails from unemployed Americans for a series of feature articles documenting life in the recession. Due to overwhelming response from young readers, the publication ran two installments on Generation Y, or the millennials, suggestively referred to in the headline as “The ‘Mad as Hell’” Generation. 20 In this large collection of testimonials, millennials sound off on many of their generation’s common attitudes and misfortunes, including: anger toward previous generations for irresponsible spending and investments that led to the depleted economy (one writer cursing “grown-ups who…should have known better”); resentment of their need to scrap for low or unpaid labor just to pay bills or gain a foothold in a desired field; similarly, resentment at having to take on former part-time jobs from college or high school (or comparable jobs), only to work under coworkers without degrees; exhaustion from days and nights spent “bent over [a] beat-up laptop ferociously” and fruitlessly emailing résumés and cover letters to hundreds of employers with no response; and skepticism about traditional routes of success (college, graduate school, internships, “paying dues”) and the value of hard work. 21 In a self-reflexive piece for Advertising Age called “How the Media Portrays Millennials: 4 Stereotypes Gen Y May Encounter in the Job Market and Tips for Making the Best of Them,” one millennial reporter acknowledges the pervasiveness of such depictions (and includes clichés of millennials as tech savvy, socially conscious, entitled and lazy) and warns her generational peers to be aware of how they can impact workplace dynamics, “fair or not,” along with posing a motivational challenge to disprove the unflattering preconceptions. 22
Additionally, just as it was for adult recessionary media culture, the home proves to be one of the most symbolically meaningful spaces for the millennial during the economic downturn. Many of these same writers lament the necessity of moving back in with their parents after unsuccessful job searches, or in some cases explain their refusal to do so despite dire financial circumstances. After detailing a long work history that began at age 14 and extended to college, when taking a job as a janitor help cut rent costs, one writer describes falling into a depression after moving back home and having to do chores. 23 Others characterize the move back home as a lost “claim to independence” and worry about the widespread effect of a generation forced to live back home with “no spontaneous trips, without the ability to walk anywhere [one] needs to go.” 24
Even in seemingly impartial media sources, millennials who use their parents’ homes as command centers to launch their job searches – or simply those who rely on parents more generally – are coded as lost children in need of guidance or even protection. These images circulate in a political context that locates millennial reliance on parents in (potentially) life-and-death terms, as in the Affordable Care Act’s provision to allow children to stay on their parent’s healthcare plans into their mid-20s. 25 In 2010, the PBS public affairs program Need to Know (2010 – 2013) profiled two unemployed college graduates, Carolyn and Jason, for a segment called “Generation Jobless” (Season 1, Episode 23, October 8, 2010). In corroboration of the previous accounts of millennial joblessness, the two post-grads live with their parents who support them both financially and emotionally while they work at a former part-time job and a high school, respectively. While reminiscing about her college graduation, Carolyn comments, “I was just so happy. You get to a point where you’re just completely ready to move on.” 26 The parents themselves get screen time to explain their supportive role in which they “reassure her that it’s not her, it’s the economy.” 27 After exploring the trend in many colleges to start hosting career fairs for freshmen or sophomores as opposed to seniors (suggesting a younger process of professionalization), the segment contradicts its message in an interview with a career advisor who posits college or graduate schools as temporary safe havens from a barren job market; this advice proposes putting an intentional hold on one’s professional maturation for many years (but within an environment focused on professionalization).
In both self-representations and others in recessionary media culture, then, millennials are situated in an awkward state of ambiguous, uncomfortable, and anxious state of development somewhere between a pre-professional or even adolescent stage and an adult professional life. In looking at the cultural symbol of the home specifically, it becomes clear how media depictions of recessionary impact are generationally relational. The “mancession” man whose unemployment relegates him to the home is characterized in traditionalist gender discourses by a fear of domestication, feminization and redundancy. By contrast, the millennial’s return home is often framed in terms of arrested development and anxiety surrounding an environment that signifies their own immaturity and unfitness for an adult professional world, in addition to the loss of personal freedom associated with adulthood. The following section will consider how this millennial recessionary media context operates in the film itself through fantasies of modern success that respond to these anxieties and refigure them as ultimately unnecessary, though, problematically, this model applies only to male upward mobility.
“Meeting” in the Middle: Millennial Anxieties Taking Form
For Tasker and Negra, popular culture in a recession operates through a process of “mediation,” in which the “experience of insecurity, redundancy and the economic inequalities…are made culturally meaningful.” 28 The Social Network mediates the experience of recession in generational and gendered terms. As previously described, it presents a youth masculinity that repurposes signifies of immaturity and unfitness for (or dissatisfaction with) the corporate world to work in favor of male upward mobility. This repurposing involves the boys’ determined effort to “professionalize” their college lifestyles (which the film presents as concerned with “girls” as objects in ego-driven male competition and hook-up culture) in response to their complicated relationship to a traditional corporate model.
We can imagine more than a few millennials from the Atlantic profiles finding meaning in Mark Zuckerberg’s story as presented in the film. In an interview with The New York Times, then 26-year-old actor Jesse Eisenberg speaks to the economic implications of his performance as Mark. “For a lot of people my age,” he observes, “the message is that technology allows you to create something that can change things from a single computer. You don’t need a secretary, you don’t need an office building and you don’t need employees.” 29 This comment reads almost as a direct response to media images of millennials stuck in their parents’ homes, with little to no legitimate professional resources at their disposal, who must somehow spark an entire career from behind a keyboard. Furthermore, Mark’s adherence to his conspicuously laid-back dress code (including the iconic “nerd” uniform of socks and sandals) even in the most professional of settings (such as a disciplinary board hearings, business meetings, etc.) further blend the casual with the corporate; it is as if the stay-at-home millennial rolled out of bed and into the board room. Similarly, it is also significant that this figure of millennial success, whom critics refer to as both a “symbolic man of the age” and the “boy-king of America’s new capitalism,” is a college dropout. 30 This resonates with a millennial resentment of a higher education system that fails to prepare students for the new digital economy, one founded on the innovations of now mythic college dropouts like Bill Gates (Microsoft) or Steve Jobs (Apple), in addition to fellow millennials Zuckerberg and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, who found his rise to the top of a digital empire similarly dramatized in corporate melodramatic fashion in Nick Bilton’s best-selling book Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal (2013). 31
To more fully understand how the film responds to a millennial recessionary context, consider the following comparison of two scenes from the film that present contrasting models of male socioeconomic conduct in would-be “business meetings.” The first scene features the old-money, conservative WASP twin brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss meeting with Harvard president Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) and his secretary Anne (Nanci Linari); their business is to convince President Summers to use his institutional and legal authority to help them stop Mark from continuing with his development of Facebook, an idea they claim he stole from them. In this meeting the millennial offspring of a corporate elite family try and fail to appeal to a similarly old-world establishment figure, despite their best effort to look and sound the part of respectful colleagues. The second meeting involves Mark, Eduardo and Eduardo’s girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song) having dinner with Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the notorious internet entrepreneur behind Napster who eventually drives a wedge between Mark and Eduardo in his drive to become an integral member of the Facebook team. The business here is conducted on millennial terms and with a casual, masculine energy absent from the Winklevoss twins’ meeting with President Summers. The contrasting executions of these scenes (recruiting camera movement, sound, editing, costume design, and dialogue) highlight both the incompatibility of the millennial male for the traditional corporate world, as well as the strategic immaturity displayed in the alternative, millennial vision of masculine business conduct.
Despite Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss’ status as highly successful student athletes with promising future careers as Olympic rowers, they nevertheless remain millennials and as such resonate with a recessionary millennial audience. They approach their meeting with President Larry Summers with a mature, masculine formality, arriving to the meeting in impeccable suits and speaking with legalistic, direct precision. This dignified self-presentation, however, is undermined by Cameron’s prior concerns about appearing childish in front of an establishment authority figure. In an earlier scene, Cameron is reluctant to pursue legal action against Mark for fear it will tarnish the twins’ reputation as “gentlemen of Harvard” (41:55). Later, after his brother and friend Divya Narendra float the idea of going to the school’s newspaper to make a statement against Mark, Cameron worries it will look like he and his brother “are in skeleton costumes chasing the Karate Kid around a high school gym” (56:08). This concern over appearing like schoolyard bullies exists even in a decidedly grown-up matter (assuming most children do not accuse their playmates of stealing their intellectual property). To assuage his brother’s concerns, Tyler bolsters their legal justification for going after Mark by citing the Harvard Student Handbook’s rule against theft, a form of legal authority that notably only applies within the world of a college campus.
To their surprise, Summers is not receptive to their mature, traditional approach to their “business” and scoffs at their formal dress (sarcastically assuming their intention to sell him a Brooks Brothers franchise), the legal basis for their claims, and their alleged invention itself. The businesslike back and forth plays without music (diegetic or non-) and is shot with a corresponding functional static camera and edited in efficient shot-reverse-shot. Summers dismisses the Winklevoss twins on the grounds that his office does not handle “petty larceny” (62:40). When the twins suggest the nascent Facebook is potentially worth millions, Summers, citing his establishment experience as US Secretary of the Treasury, accuses the twins’ of harboring a youthful naivety; “you might be letting your imaginations run away with you.” In this way, even when these millennials attempt to relate to establishment business men on establishment terms, they face condescending rhetoric that belittles them personally as well as their innovation in the digital marketplace, which President Summers (as a figurehead and representative of the Harvard elite) greatly underestimates, if he even comprehends.
The second business meeting scene involves a group comprised exclusively of millennials (all male except for Eduardo’s girlfriend, Christy) engaged in a radically different kind of business talk that still negotiates a masculine professionalism with youthful collegiate sensibilities, only now anxieties about these sensibilities can be pushed to the side in this generational safety zone. While waiting for Sean Parker to arrive at a trendy Tribeca restaurant, Eduardo (like his old-world, conventionally professional peer Cameron Winklevoss) worries the group will be asked for I.D.s and, with much embarrassment at having their adult façade disrupted, have to cancel the meeting, since none of them is 21-years-old. Tellingly, Eduardo is the only one to worry about this given his adult role as the traditional businessman of he and Mark’s company; Christy reassures him of their safety and Mark seems unconcerned (65:31). In a microcosm of their straining relationship, Eduardo brings up the need to monetize Facebook with advertising, a sensitive issue for Mark, who sees advertising as a traditional business strategy that doesn’t apply to his website, which he asserts “isn’t a business” (since admitting so would make him a businessman) (65:39). Their wardrobes tell the story on their own; Eduardo’s sleek, sophisticated suit and tie combination clash with Mark’s billowing zip-up hoodie and t-shirt.
When Sean arrives (in a business-casual hybrid of the two wardrobes, a blazer and shirt combination), the score fades in with an infectious, circus-like energy. He immediately asks Christy her favorite drink, then orders four for the entire table (he is not “carded”). Suspicious of his intentions, Eduardo wraps an arm around Christy, who now finds herself a site of juvenile male competition. As the music intensifies we see a slow-motion montage of the group drinking, spilling food amidst laughter, Sean charming them with stories punctuated with comical and exaggerated gesticulations, and a steady stream of even more drinks arriving along with plate after plate of brightly colored food. The camera pans across the table to document the excess and the dizzying passage of time. The film emphasizes this energetic, glamorous style (which resembles the slow-motion montage of a final club party at the beginning of the film) by intercutting it with Eduardo’s later testimony of the night’s events to Mark and their lawyers. The only one not enjoying himself in this chaotic, party-like atmosphere is, of course, Eduardo, who sees it as validation of Sean’s recklessness and incompatibility with their company.
As the scene continues, Sean describes what for a conventionally-minded businessperson would be an embarrassing account of an inexperienced youth crashing and burning after losing control of his various internet enterprises. For Mark, however, Sean’s failed business ventures and subsequent banishment from an outmoded corporate world are badges of honor. Sean portrays his adult corporate opponents as predators out to get young inexperienced entrepreneurs (who will exploit the youths’ greatest weakness, sex, with targeted escort services) because “nobody wants to take orders from a kid…They don’t want you, they want your idea” (68:00). Thus, in the adult corporate world, being young and rebellious can be both an asset (in that it is necessary to develop fresh, innovative ideas that adults would not or could not think of) and a liability. Mark’s solution to this problem is to make his idea inextricable from his youthful identity, which is exemplified by Mark’s assertions that Facebook represents the contemporary collegiate social experience, which naturally can only be understood accurately by those within this demographic. (Additionally, worth noting is the troubling way by which Mark and friends frame Facebook as both a site that represents the social experience of college and as a tool for their male friends to find girls they meet at parties.) Wanting to interrupt the courtship between Sean and Mark and reassert the importance of traditional business policy, Eduardo poses the advertising dilemma to Sean for feedback. Sean’s inconclusive answer that neither Mark nor Eduardo is right in approaching the question underlines the strategic gray area that characterizes this vision of millennial professional culture. These are not Madison Avenue corporate suits; rather, Sean talks of Facebook in college terms – “the greatest party on campus” that advertising threatens to “end at 11” – that nevertheless demonstrate a nuanced understanding of their target demographic (69:40).
The film’s recessionary youth masculinity finds a representative not only in Mark as the film continues, but also in Sean. When we first meet Sean, for example, he is waking up next to Amy, a girl he picked up at a Stanford party (57:38). While Amy goes about readying herself for class, a shot of Sean sprawled out on the bed reveals he is wearing a white-collared shirt, unbuttoned, an image suggesting a corporate man who moonlights as a horny frat boy. The liminal maturity status is bolstered by Amy mistaking him for a college student, then semi-jokingly for a 15-year-old boy after he’s asked to say what school he goes to and replies that he went to “William Taft Elementary, for a little while” (57:35). Sean briefly panics and asks if she is 15-years-old, which we later learn is due to his attraction to underage girls.
In the comparison of the two business scenes, we can see a millennial youth masculinity that works through a strategic negotiation of adult corporate sensibilities and a youth collegiate culture that ultimately subjugates women.
Postfeminist Irony and Economic Austerity
To explore more fully the film’s depicted youth masculinity in a postfeminist context, we return to the film’s initial reception among critics and audiences detailed in the introduction to this paper. Within the cumulative discourse that situates the film as both misogynist and representative of a generation, it must also be noted how these conflicting interpretations of the film’s position in a historical timeline of gender and social relations relate to a postfeminist media culture that similarly negotiates a complex chronology of feminist achievement. Postfeminism, perhaps most neatly described by Angela McRobbie in her seminal 2004 essay “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture,” can be understood as “an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s an 80s come to be undermined.” 32 This process takes many forms, though McRobbie is concerned primarily with the rhetorical methods in commercial media that address feminist concerns in representations of gender, but only in terms that relegate feminism to the past or emphasize its triviality in contemporary culture. As Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra further elaborate, postfeminism is “inherently contradictory, characterized by a double discourse that works to construct feminism as a phenomenon of the past, traces of which can be found (and sometimes even valued) in the present.” 33
Postfeminism invites analyses that go beyond indicators of a monolithic backlash against women and instead seek out the ways feminist ideas are simultaneously positively evoked and written off. While the boys in The Social Network, for the most part, express a misogyny with little dimension or gradation, the film presents this misogyny in a complex irony common to many postfeminist media texts. To explain postfeminist irony, McRobbie analyzes a Wonderbra advertisement displayed on major streets in the US and UK in the 1990s in which model Eva Herzigova admires her own cleavage above the alternating text “Hello Boys” or “Or Are You Just Pleased to See Me?” 34 McRobbie’s analysis of the image is worth reproducing in full:
Here is an advertisement which plays back to its viewers, well known aspects of feminist media studies, film theory and semiotics, indeed it almost offers (albeit crudely) the viewer or passing driver Laura Mulvey’s theory of women as object of the gaze projected as cityscape within the frame of the billboard…Everyone and especially young people can breathe a sigh of relief. Thank goodness it is permissible, once again, to enjoy looking at bodies of beautiful women. At the same time the advertisement expects to provoke feminist condemnation as a means of generating publicity. Thus generational differences are also generated, the younger female viewer, alone with her male counterparts, educated in irony and visually literate, is not made angry by such a repertoire. She appreciates its layers of meaning; she gets the joke. 35
The Social Network enacts a similar irony in comedic moments that emphasize the boys’ sexism. For example, consider the scene of Mark’s creation of Facemash, his stunt project before Facebook that compared ill-gotten student photos of Harvard’s female community based on “hotness.” While the website spreads rapidly among male users in the span of a single night, the film pauses to put Mark’s sudden and exciting success in perspective. A female student enters a room while boys are making selections and dishearteningly mentions that one of the girls on screen is her roommate (14:00). The scene’s momentum, enhanced by an intense and intoxicating score and strategically timed edits, continues until we see a group of girls testing Facemash. The music hits a lull and the visibly concerned (but not surprised) girls have a moment to comment on the action: “This is pathetic” (14:20). Suddenly the music returns in full force matched with a quick cut to a stylized top-down shot of two boys slouching over their computers, mindlessly clicking onward. The shot is followed by shot from behind a laptop looking toward two other boys, grinning ear to ear in amusement. The film’s humor thus relies not only on the spectator’s presumed moral objection to the boys’ sexism but also on an ability to look past these objections to understand the historical specificity (and thus acceptability) of the boys’ prejudices. There is intended to be comedy in the juvenile motives behind the popularity of this otherwise impressive technical achievement enacted by an objectively intelligent person.
In addressing critics of the film’s gender politics, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin confirms the film’s postfeminist logic. Taking to a television writer’s personal blog post about his film, Sorkin apologizes to the women who posted their critiques and blamed him for the film’s problematic state. “It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie,” he begins, “but you have to understand that that was a very specific world I was writing about…Facebook was born during a night of incredible misogyny.” 36 Sorkin continues to defend the dimension to Erica Albright, a character he added on his own, whom he sees as embodying modern sensibilities (therefore implying he wrote with a feminist audience in mind). Sorkin’s defense, acceptable or not, explicitly situates the sexism of the film as a historical moment, thus making its reproducibility a non-issue. The boys’ prejudices are acknowledged but expressed as having passed.
Per Negra and Tasker, this cultural overlooking of gender politics is exacerbated by periods of economic austerity, which see a corresponding rise in traditionalist discourse around gender roles. 37 For The Social Network, the effects of this real-world economic austerity may be complicated by the film’s biographical nature and the spectator’s historical knowledge of the inevitability of Facebook’s revolution, as well as an inability to imagine a world without it. Evidence of postfeminist austerity logic can be found in the swell of articles by entrepreneurs expressing various opinions about the film’s depiction of a new socioeconomic model. One such male entrepreneur, greatly inspired by the film (“It took me about a week to understand consciously why”) lists the lessons he seeks to apply to his business practices, including “Sex is fun but can hold you back,” and “Not getting what you can be a blessing,” referring to Mark’s changed fate had he not messed up his date with Erica at the beginning of the film. 38 However media images portray the successful millennial male, then, it all comes back to the girls.
- Lopez, “The Social Network: Actually Sexist or an Unwelcome Refelction of Our Times?” n.p.
- quoted in O’Brien, “The Social Network’s Female Props,” n.p.
- Stevens, “Is the Facebook Movie Sexist?” n.p.; Rubin and Reiter, The Traffic in Women.
- Dargis, “Millions of Friends, but Not Very Popular,” n.p.
- Travers, “The Social Network Review,” n.p.
- “‘The Social Network’ and 12 More Movies That Defined a Generation,” p.1.
- Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women; Rosin, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.
- Negra and Tasker, Gendering the Recession, p.2
- Ibid, p.1.
- Negra and Tasker, “Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality,” p.355.
- Negra and Tasker, Gendering the Recession, p.2-4
- Negra and Tasker, “Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality,” p.348.
- Schreiber, “Tiny Life: Technology and Masculinity in the Films of David Fincher,” p.4.
- Ibid. p.14.
- Ibid, 14-16.
- Ibid, 11.
- Rodriguez, “The Millennial Generation Test,” n.p.
- Thompson, “Profiles of the Jobless: The ‘Mad as Hell’ Millennial Generation,” n.p.
- Ibid, n.p.
- Thompson, “Profiles of Unemployment: What It’s Like to be Jobless in Your 20s,” n.p.; Thompson, “Profiles of the Jobless: The ‘Mad as Hell’ Millennial Generation,” n.p.
- Waldo, “How the Media Portrays Millennials,” n.p.
- Thompson, “Profiles of Unemployment,” n.p.
- Thompson, “Profiles of the Jobless: The ‘Mad as Hell’ Millennial Generation,” n.p.
- Pepitone, “Health Care Dependents: Extending Parent Coverage to Age 26.”
- PBS, “Episode 23.” Need to Know.
- Negra and Tasker, “Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality,” p.347.
- quoted in Carr, “Film Version of Zuckerberg Divides the Generations,” n.p.
- Denby, “Influencing People: David Fincher and ‘The Social Network.'”; Carr, “Film Version of Zuckerberg Divides the Generations.”
- Interestingly, this title bears striking resemblance to the book adapted into The Social Network, Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal (2009).
- McRobbie, “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture,” p.255.
- Tasker and Negra, Interrogating Postfeminism.
- McRobbie, “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture,” p.259.
- Ibid, p.259.
- Levine, “Aaron Sorkin Responds to a Commenter in My Blog.”
- Negra and Tasker, “Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality.”
- Kipp, “‘The Social Network’: 13 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Take Away,” n.p.
Carr, David. “Film Version of Zuckerberg Divides the Generations.” The New York Times, October 3, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/04/business/media/04carr.html.
Dargis, Manohla. “Millions of Friends, but Not Very Popular.” The New York Times, September 23, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/movies/24nyffsocial.html.
Denby, David. “Influencing People: David Ficher and ‘The Social Network.’” The New Yorker, April 10, 2010. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/influencing-people.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
Fincher, David. The Social Network. Biography, Drama. Columbia Pictures, 2010.
“Health Care Dependents: Extending Parent Coverage to Age 26 – May. 12, 2010.” Accessed December 6, 2016. http://money.cnn.com/2010/05/12/news/economy/health_care_dependents/.
Rubin, Gayle, and Rayna R Reiter. The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.
Kipp, Mastin. “‘The Social Network’: 13 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Take Away.” Huffington Post, October 14, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mastin-kipp/13-lessons-for-entreprene_b_757382.html.
Levine, Ken. “Aaron Sorkin Responds to a Commenter in My Blog.” By Ken Levine, October 10, 2010. http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2010/10/aaron-sorkin-responds-to-commenter-in.html.
Lopez, John. “The Social Network: Actually Sexist, or an Unwelcome Reflection of Our Times?” HWD. Accessed December 3, 2016. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2010/10/is-the-social-network-really-misogynist.
McRobbie, Angela. “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture.” Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (November 1, 2004). doi:10.1080/1468077042000309937.
Negra, Diane, and Yvonne Tasker, eds. Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity. Durham ; London: Duke University Press, 2014.
— . “Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality: Recession-Era Chick Flicks and Male-Centred Corporate Melodrama.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 16, no. 3 (June 1, 2013): 344–61. doi:10.1177/1367549413481880.
O’Brien, Rebecca Davis. “The Social Network’s Female Props.” The Daily Beast, October 3, 2010. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/10/03/the-social-networks-women-arent-prizes-theyre-props.html.
PBS. “Episode 23.” Need to Know. Public Broadcasting System, October 8, 2010.
Rodriguez, Gregory. “The Millennial Generation Test.” Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2009. http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/02/opinion/oe-rodriguez2.
Rosin, Hanna. The End of Men: And the Rise of Women. New York, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.
Schreiber, Michele. “Tiny Life: Technology and Masculinity in the Films of David Fincher.” Journal of Film and Video 68, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 3–18.
Stevens, Dana. “Is the Facebook Movie Sexist?” Slate, October 8, 2010. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2010/10/is_the_facebook_movie_sexist.html.
Tasker, Yvonne, and Diane Negra, eds. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Console-Ing Passions. Durham, [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2007.
“‘The Social Network’ and 12 More Movies That Defined a Generation.” Rolling Stone, September 30, 2010. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/pictures/the-social-network-and-12-more-movies-that-defined-a-generation-20100930.
Travers, Peter. “The Social Network Review.” Rolling Stone, April 10, 2010. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/the-social-network-20100930.
Waldo, Adrienne. “How the Media Portrays Millennials.” Advertising Age, November 11, 2009. http://adage.com/article/gennext/media-portrays-millennials/140439/.