Who does Aaron Sorkin really hate?
I’ve written before about “The Social Network’s” view of Jewish women (you may recognize a few lines below), and how it’s so unflattering it’s no wonder Mark Zuckerberg will probably choose to intermarry. But then I considered Sorkin’s mysterious Erica Albright character—the one who outright rejects Zuckerberg in the opening scene, whose Jewishness is alluded to but never explicitly stated—and I realized that I liked her; and that Zuckerberg liked her; and that Sorkin was deeply conflicted about her.
The following column appeared in the print version of The Journal and is, I hope, the beginning of a broader investigation into why Hollywood seems to have a special aversion to Jewish women.
In “The Social Network,” writer Aaron Sorkin insinuates that one of the central drives behind Mark Zuckerberg’s development of Facebook was the hot-blooded pursuit of women.
Only, Sorkin’s script presents such a narrow, hackneyed view of women — they are either humiliatingly contemptuous or raving sex objects — critics and commentators have predictably erupted with diatribes against this seemingly misogynist universe.
Sorkin himself has admitted the movie’s portrayal of women is troubling.
“It’s not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie,” Sorkin responded to a comment posted on TV writer Ken Levine’s blog. The commenter had wondered how the same writer who conceived C.J. Cregg in TV’s “The West Wing” could write a movie without a single admirable woman.
“Facebook was born during a night of incredible misogyny,” Sorkin wrote as justification.
While it is true that women in general do not shine in “The Social Network,” the critique is misguided, because Sorkin is quite specific as to which kind of women he is referencing, when he references them at all — and they come in two forms: Asian Americans and Jews. According to a surface reading, neither gets a pretty portrait; Asian women are depicted as attractive and easy, and Jewish women are brawling shrews.
Jewishness, in general, is a characteristic the fictional Zuckerberg and his friends are desperate to escape. At the Caribbean Night party at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house, one of Zuckerberg’s friends wryly remarks: “There’s an algorithm for the connection between Jewish guys and Asian girls: They’re hot, smart, not Jewish and can dance.” Sorkin would have us believe that, in the eyes of some Jewish men — or at least those run-of-the-mill Harvard scholars — one of the best things about an Asian woman is that she isn’t a Jewish woman. And in Sorkin’s story, Asians get bonus points for performing oral sex in public bathrooms.
“That’s not what you’re going to get from an Erica,” said Olivia Cohen-Cutler, referring to the film’s only female Jewish character. Cohen-Cutler, a senior executive at ABC, is the chair of Hadassah’s Morningstar Commission, which devotes attention to images of Jewish women in the media. While most are decrying the film’s treatment of women, Cohen-Cutler sees something different in the character Erica Albright.
In the film’s opening scene, the fictional Zuckerberg is on a date with Erica, who is pretty, sophisticated and exquisitely articulate. While trying to woo her, an arrogant and socially inept Zuckerberg winds up insulting her every which way, which prompts Erica to unequivocally reject him: “You’re going to be successful and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek. I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won’t be true: It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
But her assertiveness, while well-founded, is met with a withering take-down. Zuckerberg avenges himself on his blog, her rejection providing the impetus for the creation of “Facemash” — the beginning of Facebook.
In real life, he wrote, “[So and so] is a bitch. I need to think of something to take my mind off her. Easy enough. Now I just need an idea.”
In the movie, the fictional Zuckerberg also insults the size of her breasts — and her last name, with a subtle dig about how her family changed their name from “Albrecht” to “Albright” — the only hint that she is Jewish, though it’s never explicitly confirmed.
“In one way [the Zuckerberg character] was saying, ‘She’s a fraud because her family did this and I’m not because I’m still Zuckerberg,’ “ Cohen-Cutler said in an interview. “What you saw throughout the film was a combination of Zuckerberg’s arrogance and self-loathing related to his otherness, which played into the ‘Jewish men hate Jewish women’ continuum.”
If this were pure fiction, it might sting a little less, but unfortunately it isn’t: Zuckerberg, who might be the most eligible Jewish bachelor in the world, met his real-life girlfriend, the Chinese American medical student Priscilla Chan, on erev Shabbat at an AEPi party during his sophomore year. (According to The New Yorker, friends speculate that they will marry.)
Liel Leibovitz, a writer for the online Jewish magazine Tablet and an assistant professor of communications at New York University, believes this is just more evidence that Hollywood is undeniably and irretrievably hostile to Jewish women.
“Being ‘Jewish’ in Hollywood means adhering to the stereotype, namely the smart and shlubby person who overcomes insecurities and applies wit to get ahead,” Leibovitz wrote via e-mail. “That, of course, is a stereotype that’s great for guys, but not too great for women. While Jewish men can fit right into the ‘Jewish’ niche in Hollywood’s arsenal of preconceived notions and crumbling clichés, Jewish women cannot.”
Indeed, Erica is punished, not for being the object of the male gaze, but for subverting it by being the only character in the movie who is actually smarter than Zuckerberg. Even if her rejection is the proper comeuppance for his immaturity and arrogance, it is Zuckerberg who becomes the hero, while Erica remains the heartless wench who wounded him.
Where does this animosity toward Jewish women come from?
“I am convinced by the theory that pins the blame largely on Jewish men,” Leibovitz wrote in his e-mail. His much-read 2009 article “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” postulates that both Hollywood’s executives and its leading men prefer shiksas. Period.
In that vein, Sorkin’s script and its obvious aversion to Jewish women can be seen as an indictment of Jewish women nobody likes: the entitled Jewish American Princess and the overbearing Jewish Mother. But Erica Albright-Albrecht doesn’t fit into either of those stereotypes, even if she derives, in some way, from an archetypal Jewish feminine strength.
“I long for the day when a Jewish actress would play a Jewish character that’s just the normal, uncomplicated, unremarkable love interest who also happens to be Jewish,” Leibovitz said.
An uncomplicated Jewish woman? No wonder Sorkin doesn’t deliver. He seems, instead, ambivalent about them. He can’t stand the stereotypical figures (either on screen or from his own life), but he is also trying to imagine something different. So while Erica is reproved for her boldness, it is Zuckerberg who ends up endlessly longing for her, and an ideal that doesn’t really exist.
I suppose it’s asking Hollywood too much for two smart, good-looking Jews to run off into the sunset together. Or at least, in this case, to Silicon Valley.
“It’s too bad that this movie, which is really a testament to the brilliance and single-mindedness of someone, had to flip the bird to being Jewish,” added Cohen-Cutler, who admitted she loved the movie regardless.
Too bad, indeed. The real world is full of Jewish women whose qualities run contrary to Hollywood stereotypes. Which leads me to believe that it isn’t Jewish women that are the problem; it’s that Jewish men like Mark Zuckerberg and Aaron Sorkin are hanging out with the wrong ones.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Aaron Sorkin had been married to a non-Jewish woman. His former wife, Julia Bingham, is Jewish.