It’s been said that The Social Network is bad with the ladies. … Yeah, it’s totally true. What can I possibly say on this subject that hasn’t been said yet, that isn’t simply profane insults directed at used-to-be-good-with-women Aaron Sorkin and habitually-poor-with-female-characters David Fincher? I can expand on a point I previously made on Facebook, ironically. You know why Tarantino remains my favourite director of the 21st century and likely will remain such until I die? Because he made one movie that focused entirely on men and has spent his entire career atoning. Now, Tarantino and women I can talk about another day. But suffice it to say for the purposes of this article now that I feel he’s more than made it up to the ladies with a series of ever more complex, deeper and frankly better female characters since day one. But what has Fincher done? Like with the rest of his career, he’s devoted his time and energy to stagnation and maintaining the precedents he set in Se7en.
Let’s take a walk through what I mean. Anyone who has watched Se7en through to the end knows the sole reason Gwyneth Paltrow is in that movie, and it’s not to facilitate the buddy-cop vibes between Somerset and Mills. You watch Fight Club and you know that story is all about dudes and how dudes interact with dudes and the collision of the philosophies behind fascism and democracy and how that affects dudes. Fast-forward to fall’s Facebook feature–little has changed. And for some reason, everyone is treating this like it’s a big deal right now and not back in 1995 when David Fincher started making movies I count toward his overall filmography. (Everyone knows they stopped at Aliens.)
Now, irksome yes is the fact that everyone’s complaining now because The Social Network is a big fall movie and we haven’t had many big movies this year. Between Toy Story 3 and Inception, everyone’s been waiting for an actual worth-talking-about hit and with Network‘s number-one weekend, it’s the film du jour. And specifically, the criticism comes in the very specific form of “if it’s the best film this year, then where are the strong extant female characters?” It’s true–we’ve been delivered a film we’re supposed to find amazing, but it kinda really blows goats when it comes to portraying half of our species on screen.
But hey, you know what else did? Inception. And you know what we did in response? Called it one of the best movies of the year, and didn’t raise a single objection. For shame, North America. We’re better than this.
Oh, but how did it absolutely drop the ball when it came to the ladies? Take a walk with me. You’re about to find out why I can’t get behind Dave Fincher and I fell out of love with Chris Nolan.
Inception is a great movie. So is Lawrence of Arabia (filmie joke). Anything I’m about to say, I say with the warning that when I see it again and review it (finally), it will have a four star rating. But god damn, does Christopher Nolan suck at putting women on screen. How many female characters are in that movie? Fewer than there were in The Social Network. As Social Network had three women of importance, that’s not a good sign. Inception has two: the equally awkwardly named Ariadne and Mal (pronounced moll, spelled like-the-French-for-bad, ugh).
Let’s start with Ariadne. Ariadne is, in a sense, the magical negro of Cobb’s world. Cobb is the mighty con man, ever-skilled at what he’s doing, but flawed in that he pushes himself too far. He’s the man that we, the audience, admire for his flaws as well as his charm and tragic history. Ariadne is the new kid in the heist crew. Immensely gifted with natural talents that surpass Cobb or even Cobb’s equally-male sidekick Arthur. She looks upon every sight that Cobb shows her with wonder and reverence. When Cobb starts to undergo some personal trauma in act two (of five), it’s Ariadne–not his closest male friend–who is rushing to his aid. “Aha! There! A woman doing something necessary to the story! See? Doesn’t suck!”
Look again. Ariadne is comforting Cobb. The woman is consoling the man, who is hurt. She has sacrificed a student life (assumedly) to pursue a life of crime for some dude she just met, whom she is now consoling as he grieves. The woman, serving the man, without regard to her own desires. What are her desires? The film isn’t curious about this. I know she’s to be well-paid for her services in the heist, but wasn’t she a fairly successful architecture student before? Does she have friends? Okay, okay, cheap shots, yes. But it’s still a vastly talented woman bowing to the will of a heroically-flawed man, and we still accept it. Because..?
Mal. Mal is worse. Mal is the metaphorical representation of comfort and longing. She exists solely in Cobb’s head, and therefore is literally the one-note of “Cobb’s past, as a character”. She is, in Nolan’s words in Cobb’s mouth, a “shade” of the woman she really was. Great, so of the two (count’em) two characters with a vagina in your movie, one exists to prop up your male hero and the other is there to personify his suffering and self-loathing. Thanks, Chris.
And the truth is, all of Christopher Nolan’s movies are this bad with women. Christopher Nolan is this bad with women. For a forward thinking genius, his films have a very 1960’s sense of gender roles: men are heroes and save the day, women sit back and clap. His most complex female character is likely Natalie, from Memento. In the more than ten years since that movie’s release, Nolan hasn’t stagnated with female characters. He’s regressed. Worst of all is that he could have easily made any of the heist archetype characters in Inception into women. He wasn’t beholden to a comic book or a novel. It was an original Nolan piece. So why were the only female characters there just to make the male protagonist look better?