Hollywood sexism

Jennifer Dudley, tech journo boss for several News Limited newspapers (and a former editor of mine), has an interesting post up on The Courier Mail’s Hi-Tech Blog. Basically, she points out, the film The Social Network fails to depict any women as competent with computers. This despite the movie purporting to be about the creation of Facebook, which, she reminds us, has for three years had a female chief operating officer.

Jennifer asks: ‘Is The Social Network misogynist? And is that the fault of the filmmakers or the tech industry?’ To the extent that the movie is misogynistic, I’d go with the former. Probably not intentionally (I don’t know if the writer, Aaron Sorkin, has been accused of misogyny in his other work, most notably ‘The West Wing’). The reality is most likely that most of the main players in high innovation high tech are male. It isn’t popular to say so (as Larry Summers found out), but on most criteria the extremes of the bell curve distributions are predominantly male. The average is the same, but the bump in the curve is flatter. You get more sickeningly smart men than women (ie, when you’re getting up to four or five standard deviations to the right of the mean), and you get more astoundingly dumb men than women.

I say this as a man who is in the great safe bulk near the middle of the curve, and finds those at the extremes suitably scary.

But all this is moot. The movie is made up. Listen to Peter Thiel talk about it in this recent interview by ReasonTV. (Thiel was co-founder of PayPal, and put in half a million US dollars into a 5% share of Facebook in 2004.) Thiel is pretty dismissive of the movie as any kind of a reflection of reality, or the characters involved.

As to Hollywood, the most profound exercise in storyline misogyny I know of is its treatment of Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Puppet Masters. The book was written in 1951 and has three main characters: the spy master, his son Sam the secret agent, and Mary, another secret agent. Eventually Mary and Sam become an item, but he has to be cautious because she is every bit as deadly as he is himself. Eventually — for reasons that make sense in the book — they have a physical fight, which Sam is able to win — barely — only because of his greater size. As the story develops, Mary turns out to be even more important because she holds the solution within her to saving humanity.

Don’t get me wrong, by today’s standards the book would be viewed (especially in the later parts) as profoundly sexist, but nonetheless the Mary character is a powerful person.

The 1994 film was … well, let me quote one of its screenwriters:

A screenwriter wrote to me marveling that my name is in the writing credits of the god-awful 1994-released film Robert A. Heinlein’s THE PUPPET MASTERS. After all, I seem like a sensible enough guy, and yet the film is piss-poor terrible. He was quite relieved to find out I know quite well that the movie is awful.

That was written by Terry Rossio, no novice in Hollywood screenwriting (eg. Shrek, Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Deja Vu).

And here’s what happened to Mary:

And [Hollywood Pictures president Ricardo Mestres] didn’t like the story of the lead female, Mary. “She doesn’t have to be connected to the plot,” a female executive on the project told us, “in this type of film, the woman is just the hero’s girlfriend.”

In the end, Mary was just a boring xenobiologist in order to have an excuse to be in the picture and thus become a love interest.

So there you go. When in doubt, I say, blame Hollywood.

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