It’s funny that the origins of Facebook now seem historical. The fun of The Social Network was the wink-and-a-nod of knowing how it all turns out since audiences were already living in a world that had been transformed by friend requests and status updates. By the time the movie came out in 2010, “to facebook” had already entered the English language as a verb and in 2009 “unfriend” had won the vocab equivalent of an Oscar by being named Word of the Year. By now, the pre-Facebook period is practically the Pleistecene.
Time flies faster in the digital era. Facebook is now one of the world’s largest companies and its executives some of the world’s wealthiest people. This has ensured that the press rollout for the soon to be published book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (who was responsible for making the company profitable) has gotten some attention. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead wants women to learn to lead by joining “lean in circles” for self-empowerment.
Sandberg’s book just happens to be coming on the heels of another publishing milestone in women’s history: the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. 1963 sure was another era. Noreen Malone points out in Slate that when Friedan wrote about the long, boring days of the housebound hausfrau in Mystique, she definitely didn’t have Wi-Fi. If she’d had, she might have re-connected with her Smith classmates not at a reunion but via Facebook and the book might have been a blog. Instead, it became a social movement. She had to leave the house to get that going.
Although Friedan became an active part of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, Feminine Mystique got a lot of criticism for saying it was about women but actually being about white, middle to upper-class women. Sandberg’s got it even tougher of course since she’s in the yet tinier demographic of self-made billionaire women. And so Friedan’s fiftieth and Sandberg’s first coming within a few weeks of each other has generated a lot of discussion of what feminism was, is, and should be. Friedan’s flaws might now be forgiven since hers was a historic moment but Sandberg is getting a lot of push back as an out of touch self-promoter. It may well be that her advice is more pragmatic than idealist and might only work for women who are also CEOs, but it’s worth noticing that she’s using her position to point out that there’s still some glass at the ceiling. Some of the criticisms of Sandberg echo those that the HBO show Girls has gotten for being about affluent, well-educated white young women. In a New Yorker review of the show, Emily Nussbaum questions this fretting over privilege and concludes that, “when there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories. . . when almost no women are Hollywood directors, when few women write TV shows, of course it’s the privileged ones who get traction.” And even being Hollywood insiders doesn’t spare them the industry’s mockery–just ask Seth MacFarlane.
Which brings us back to The Social Network. Although more fiction than fact, it offered a nice little origin myth about the company’s founder as a smarty pants jerk who couldn’t figure out how to get people, especially girls, to like him. So he creates Facebook as a means of revenge against all the slights and snubs of the Harvard hotties and their frat boy hookups by offering an anonymous means of rating them hot, or not. It succeeds wildly and soon the character-based-on-Zuckerberg and his good friend Eduardo (before he’s viciously unfriended) are getting it on with two Asian American fangirls in a bar bathroom. The kindlier Eduardo manages to convert one of these women into a girlfriend. She later turns out to be a psycho Tiger Mom who hasn’t had kids yet, but that’s another story. (Note from Hollywood to model minorities: no matter how model, we’ll find a way to put you in your place.) Facebook’s founder remains sadly alone through the end of the movie when he gets some tough love advice from an über-competent female lawyer. This character seems like a proto-Sandberg. And so the movie begins with the practical, but common, woman who dumps him and ends with the practical and super-successful woman in a man’s world who just deals with it. In between, it’s pretty much girls, girls, girls even if they are all students at the nation’s most elite universities. These two scenes don’t quite save the movie from perpetuating stereotypes of women as bimbos just as Sandberg’s book fails to speak to the problems that women from outside the Ivy League are likely to face. But if the book puts another crack in the glass, well, that would be something.