An Aspirational Word

Still, I knew that this kind of frankly depicted, boys-will-be-boys, besides-the-point sexism was only part of the reason I was angry; I latched onto it simply because it was the easiest irritant to identify. The other reasons would not become clear to me till I saw the movie a second time—after it had won a Golden Globe for best screenplay, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, in his acceptance speech, had piously invoked his young daughter, thanking the female nominees “for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that elite is not a bad word, it’s an aspirational one.”

The Social Network in Bollywood

After a pre-release screening of the Facebook movie we all went out to dinner, and everyone was eager to share his or her verdict on whether the movie was a success. The conversation irritated me a ton and I didn’t even know why. Was I just hungry, tired, cranky? Did I need more to drink? Did I feel like no one else was entitled to an opinion because I felt in some way proprietary about the movie? After all, it was about the Internet, where I used to work and still mostly live. Maybe it was just that the staccato speech patterns of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue had infected us, making us think that our long rapid-fire monologues about privacy and intellectual property were fascinating and full of zingers when really they were just fast and full of pauses-for-effect.

My friends wanted to talk about the movie’s style and its themes, but it was too soon for me to think about those as I sat there, eating ravioli, and wondered why I was seething. Some sympathetic response had been agitated. I was angry. First, I was angry—and sure, and weren’t we all?—about the Entourage-y qualities of the women in the movie, all but two of whom were drunk, high, stupid, mercenary, and without substance, at best, and hysterical, at worst. The first scene that I remembered, when I tried to remember the movie I’d just seen, was the one where the movie-world versions of Mark Zuckerberg and his naïve CFO Eduardo Saverin reap the first fruits of their fledgling website’s success. Two labile gold-digging ditzes—incredibly, they’re meant to be the boys’ Harvard classmates—push the putative billionaires into adjoining bathroom stalls and aggressively fellate them. Later that evening, the boys and their dates find themselves back in Zuckerberg’s dorm room, where Zuckerberg and Saverin hold an impromptu board meeting to deal with a pending crisis. The girls watch from the periphery as tasks are doled out to whichever of Zuckerberg’s nerdy-dude roommates happen to be around. “Is there anything we can do?” the more aggressive girl asks, and for a moment I imagined that she would be assigned to handle something “feminine”—design, PR, party planning. I would have felt a pathetic kind of joy, if she had. “No,” Zuckerberg says, and goes back to drawing up his battle plan.

Still, I knew that this kind of frankly depicted, boys-will-be-boys, besides-the-point sexism was only part of the reason I was angry; I latched onto it simply because it was the easiest irritant to identify. The other reasons would not become clear to me till I saw the movie a second time—after it had won a Golden Globe for best screenplay, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, in his acceptance speech, had piously invoked his young daughter, thanking the female nominees “for helping demonstrate to my young daughter that elite is not a bad word, it’s an aspirational one.”

Sometime in between these two viewings I found myself on an Airjet India flight to Amsterdam, watching a Bollywood movie called Badmaash Company. Like The Social Network, Badmaash Company is about a group of friends who break the rules to become rich against the odds, and whose change in fortune eventually threatens to tear them apart. Like The Social Network’s fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg, Mumbai college student Karan is determined to transcend his background—he comes from a family of middle-class strivers—without jumping through hoops like finishing college and climbing the ranks at some mundane company. First, Karan and his friends Tanzing and Chandu fall in with a smuggler and become mules, transporting counterfeit clothes and shoes across the border; in doing this they meet and befriend a glamorous girl named Bulbul Singh, who becomes part of their crew. Realizing that he’ll never be a kingpin without seizing the reins of the enterprise, Karan uses the knowledge he’s gleaned during these trips to develop a scheme: he and his friends will create a phony import/export company and knowingly import two defective shipments of shoes—one all left shoes, one all right shoes. When the shoes are rejected, Karan and company will buy the shipments at auction for rock-bottom prices (wearing silly costumes to disguise their identities) and reunite the pairs, then sell them. It’s a ridiculous idea, but it works, and soon the friends expand their operation, duplicating the ruse in America, but with one innovation—this time they bilk an importer of gloves.

Protracted musical montages mark the characters’ triumphs much more than they would in an American movie (though no one sings) and this creates a sense of heightened reality that helps to smooth over the awkwardness of rooting for unrepentant criminals who aren’t even very clever about their criminality, or justified in it in any way. The Badmaash Company viewer wants the crew’s latest endeavor to succeed simply because she’s eager to get to the next bright-scored series of shots of the crew shopping and clubbing, spending their ill-gotten gains on shiny sunglasses, big purses, and flashy neon nights out.

But the downfall scene is just as much a part of this rhythm of expectation as the shot of the friends peeking out of the open top of a limo that’s cruising down Fifth Avenue, and it comes hard on the heels of their journey to America. Tanzing becomes an alcoholic and beats his girlfriend. Karan cheats on Bulbul, for unclear reasons, and then the police finally catch up with them and he is sent to federal prison in the US. There are bitter recriminations in a boardroom, scenes where the protagonists ask themselves and each other what ever united them in the first place. Just when everything seems darkest, they suddenly remember and reunite. Karan is released from prison and Bulbul meets him in a diner and reveals that she is pregnant with his baby. He kisses her bulging belly and they reconcile. The final scene is a barbeque in the backyard of Bulbul and Karan’s isolated, enormous, tacky McMansion in, maybe, New Jersey, with all the friends and all the central couple’s children looking ecstatically happy. How any of it is paid for is anyone’s guess—some legitimate business built on the startup capital of the former illegal one, maybe? That is, after all, what happens all the time in real life.

Though it zigzags back and forth in the chronology of Facebook’s founding, dipping into flashback to flesh out events described by various bit players in the Facebook lawsuit saga, The Social Network—like Badmaash Company—begins at the beginning, on the (imaginary) night when the germ of the idea that became Facebook was generated. We are immediately in the middle of a tense conversation between a couple who don’t seem to have much in common with each other. Erica is as pretty and socially adept as Mark is nerdy and quasi-autistic. Speaking of his desire to be part of Harvard’s proud Final Club tradition, like US presidents before him, Mark tells Erica that if he gets in he’ll introduce her to a world that would otherwise be out of her reach, because she goes to BU. He means for her to be impressed; she feels condescended to, and of course she is correct to feel that way. “You’d do that for me?” she says, and he fails to pick up on her sarcasm. When her anger becomes so obvious that he can no longer fail to notice, he clumsily defends his intended point but instead ends up accusing her of having slept with the bouncer. Enraged, she becomes even more attractive; her eyes widen as she seethes. At the end of the scene Erica not only breaks up with him, she delivers a referendum on his personality that’s as epigrammatic and memorable as a fairytale curse: “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you are going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

Were this promising sparring match the beginning of a love-hate couple’s relationship in a romantic comedy, the movie’s next few acts would unspool predictably: Zuckerberg would become a successful computer person, and more of an asshole, but his success would leave him feeling empty, so he would set out on a quest to become worthy of the woman he lost—the only woman who ever really understood him!—by reforming his asshole ways. Erica would remain blind to his conversion, and all would seem lost—until the dramatic last-minute reversal that would thrust the estranged lovers, at long last, into each other’s arms. “You’d do that for me” would be repurposed in some teary way, perhaps at their wedding, and then the credits would roll over a singalong scene.

The Social Network is formulaic, but that isn’t the formula it follows. It belongs to a genre that I didn’t at first realize was a genre. Like Badmaash Company, like Entourage, it’s a story about what happens to friendships when one friend gets stratospherically rich. It turns out that it’s very fun, as a moviegoer, to watch as a fairly ordinary person uses his native ingenuity to become extraordinarily rich. It becomes even more fun to watch if the sudden-onset wealthiness turns out to have some minor bad consequences, so we can still relate to the rich person enough to vicariously enjoy his success. This turns out to be such an inherently gripping story that a lot of The Social Network can get away with taking place in boardrooms where people are giving legal testimony.

But you pay for the fun, I think, or at least I did. The anger I felt after I left the theater—it wasn’t just about the blowjobs. I hated confronting my willingness to identify with a character’s journey towards something even cooler than a million dollars (a billion dollars, natch). I hated the emphasis, in this movie, on the fiscal aspect of Zuckerberg’s achievement. The story of someone getting richer and richer and desultorily sadder and wiser delivers satiation in a squishy, unhealthy way; it’s like eating a wedge of tiramisu for dinner. The story of someone who invents a tool that enforces a worldview—a tool that even his worst enemies will be forced to use—is fascinating, and it is only incidentally the story that this movie tells. When Zuckerberg friend-requests the girlfriend he alienated at the movie’s outset then compulsively hits “refresh,” it’s not just a compelling moment because of the universal wistfulness over lost love. There’s also the idea that this woman who utterly disdains Zuckerberg has decided—in a moment of thoughtlessness or torment, we have no idea—to use the site at all. But this isn’t a point the movie cares about making. By then, whatever has or hasn’t happened in the larger world, or in these characters’ souls, one incontrovertible thing has happened to its founder: he has become so stratospherically rich that none of those things can touch him anymore.

When a character contends with the immediate effects of a sudden influx of cash, then its more subtle psychological implications, we can’t help but imagine how we’d handle the situation—what we’d buy, how we’d cope. “Everyone who knows me knows that money isn’t a big part of my life,” Zuckerberg says in The Social Network, before reminding everyone in the room where he’s giving his deposition that he could buy and sell them. Both times I saw this movie, the audience laughed at this line in the same pinched, nasty way. We are so with him at this moment; he’s the smartest and richest person in the room, not just giving the proceedings the bare minimum of attention that he can get away with but also, when pressed, admitting that this is what he’s doing. Money may not buy happiness, but it can buy the right to be a gloriously unrepentant jerk. “You’re not really an asshole,” the blandly patient lawyer poor Rashida Jones plays tells Zuckerberg near the end of the movie. He is, though—but so unabashedly and transparently that you might be forgiven for mistaking his dickishness for courage. And by the end of the movie he’s slightly more aware of his assholeness, and even vaguely repentant—this is, I guess, a character arc.

What Badmaash Company and The Social Network have in common is that they present entrepreneurship as the ideal model of success. More specifically, they enshrine a particular mode of entrepreneurship that involves outwitting, by whatever means necessary, the system that has nurtured the nascent entrepreneur up to the point when he has the idea that allows him to transcend it. In Mark Zuckerberg’s case, that involved bilking his only real friend out of billions. But we understand why this was necessary; in his shoes, the film shows us, we’d have done the same thing. His friend was stupid. Who signs a contract without reading it? We certainly would never be that stupid. We are going to leave the theater and someday, somehow, become the rich guy: we’re that ruthless, that inventive. Someday we will have our moment, too—we’ll sit in a room full of powerful people and say something really sassy to them, and they won’t be able to do anything about it, because regardless of whether they like us, they have to respect the authority our wealth has conferred on us. This particular wish-fulfillment scenario, for the generation that will come of age with this movie as a touchstone, is as powerful as the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts goes to the Rodeo Drive boutique where, as a poor hooker, she was dissed by the salesgirls and where now, as a rich courtesan, she will take her revenge on them by buying lots of stuff.

Which begs the question: Who is this film for? I guess it’s for people who are still young enough or naïve enough or amorally ambitious enough to convince themselves that such a moment might still be imminent in their own future. They can enjoy The Social Network. I envy them, I guess. It sucks to be disabused by age, by experience, just by life, about how the dream-lie of capitalism is unlikely—for me, and for billions of other non-Zuckerbergs—to come true.

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