Wednesday, May 21, 2014
May 21, 2014: AmericanStudying Harvard Movies: The Social Network
[My alma mater has seen more than its fair share of cultural representations, including a number of film portrayals of the university. Those films have a lot to tell us, not only about images of Harvard but also about educational, social, and cultural issues through that lens. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five such Harvard Movies and their meanings. Share your own thoughts on images of Harvard, college and higher ed, or related issues for an Ivy League-worthy weekend post, please!]
On success, rejection, and the roles of social communities in our lives.
From the opening scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), the film (scripted by Aaron Sorkin) links two distinct narratives to one another: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)’s pursuit of admission to one of Harvard’s elite Finals Clubs and his relationship with his girlfriend Erica. When both of these quests end in failure—Erica has dumped him by the end of the opening scene, and not long after he is denied by his chosen Finals Club (while his roomate and co-Facebook founder Eduardo is “punched”)—the joint rejections provide the direct impetus for Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, which the film depicts from its earliest iteration as, at one and the same time, a misogynist “ranking of girls” and an alternative, more democratic kind of Harvard community than the elitist clubs.
Whatever its grounding in the realities of Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s stories, this narrative origin point provides a powerful duality for the film’s overall arc and themes: an image of “the social network” as based on both personal grievance and communal appeal, the worst and best sides of human identity and relationships. Moreover, these dual narratives nicely construct two sides to Zuckerberg himself: he benefits from the contrast with the Finals Clubs, which are portrayed (with some accuracy, as I also noted in Monday’s post) as elitist and cut-off from the rest of the community; but comes off looking far worse in his relationship with and payback toward Erica. That duality also informs Zuckerberg’s two most lasting professional relationships in the film: with the elite and snobby Winklevoss twins, in relation to whom Zuckerberg is mostly portrayed as a hero; and with the sympathetic and eventually aggrieved Eduardo, toward whom the film’s Zuckerberg behaves much more like a villain.
I think these dualities also have a great deal of resonance with our broader narratives of higher education. After all, every experience of higher ed—an experience that more Americans now share than at any prior point in our history—begins with a moment defined by acceptance and rejection, by whether these communities welcome us into them or deny us entrance. On one level, that moment and process are distinct from, or at least more overt than, any other such decisions in our lives. But on another, they parallel many of our other social relationships—not only with dating and significant others, relationships which inevitably lead (as Zuckerberg came to realize) to either acceptance or rejection; but also with possible jobs and careers, with professional and social organizations, indeed with any community of voluntary affiliation. We’re all part of social networks, and that membership is almost always contingent and fragile—a fact captured concisely in the world of higher education.
Next Harvard movie tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other images of Harvard or higher ed you’d highlight?