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TV/Film How “The Social Network” became a staple in queer cinema

Nov. 20, 2020
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The Social Network is a romantic comedy. Although I didn’t watch the film until January of last year, it’s always been on my radar. I grew up on the internet: Tumblr and LiveJournal were how I spent my sick days and nights at home. I got swept up in many different subcultures during my adolescence, but one I never understood was The Social Network fandom. I was 12 when the film came out, and had no interest in seeing it. I remember thinking, how interesting can a movie about Facebook be? Well, I’m 22 now, and it turns out it it can be very interesting and very queer.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the relationship between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo (Andrew Garfield). While I don’t believe it was screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s intention, the chemistry between these two is undeniable: there are lingering glances, the sharing of a Northface jacket, and of course an iconic laptop-smashing breakup. Mark and Eduardo’s film relationship has dominated online circles since the film's release in 2010—from gif sets on Tumblr to thousands of fanfics posted on Archive of Our Own. Recently, I started wondering: what truly makes The Social Network a part of the queer film canon?

The film is an in-depth look at toxic masculinity on college campuses, yet “it feels like a parody of straight college culture,” writer Nia told me. Mark creates Facebook (then called Facesmash) to rank women by their looks, and Eduardo assists because he wants to help Mark get over a breakup. He rushes to Mark’s side once he becomes aware of his friend’s crisis, which births one of the first exchanges of queer longing in the film. Right as Eduardo enters the room, Mark states, “I need you.” Eduardo, earnest and wide-eyed, replies: “I’m here for you,” and Mark flatly clarifies, “No, I need the algorithm you used to rank chess players.” Multiple people I spoke with cited this as something that makes them “go insane.” From this tiny exchange alone, we know Eduardo would do anything for Mark—but is that feeling reciprocated? “So many queer teenagers have been in Eduardo’s shoes: stringing along after a person who loves you in their own way, but who will inevitably break your [heart],” says college student Emily.

Queer people can relate to Eduardo’s arc: he has a rocky relationship with his father, does everything in his power to make Mark happy, and ends up getting his heartbroken. “It's easy for us to see ourselves in Eduardo, who keeps his feelings to himself out of fear of rejection. Or [even] in Mark, who ignores his feelings because he can't let them consume him,” 23-year-old Tibby told me. It’s not just the online queer community who feels that the film is a love story, either—Andrew Garfield himself has said that to play Eduardo he needed Mark to “feel like [his] flesh and blood for the betrayal to mean something...which was easy because as soon as [he] met [Jesse, he] fell in love with him.” 

There’s also the question of why canonically straight films are often found in the queer cinema canon. I have always struggled with identifying with actual queer characters or films, and have instead found representation in characters who carry the weight of queer subtext. To Tibby, “LGBT representation in media is so focused on making [queer people] appealing to audiences.” Many queer films like to show one of two things: the victimized queer, or the perfect queer. By adopting films that are seemingly “straight,” we’re able to reclaim them as our own—which allows the stories to take on new meanings. Subsequently, LGBT people can choose how they’re represented in cinema; we don’t have to limit ourselves to the small subsection of film that tells our stories. The Social Network is no different, with its two leads pulling toward and away from each other. It’s another instance of queer people finding themselves in messy yet tender “straight” characters.

From the beginning of the film, it’s obvious that the story is leading up to how and why Eduardo was shut out of Facebook. From cuts to the depositions—again filled with lingering glances—to the obvious strain between the two leads as Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) joins the picture, tension eventually ignites like a live wire. “The laptop-smashing scene seems like the real breakup,” film programmer Winne Wang told me. The dilution of Eduardo’s shares (to 0.03%!) is not only a betrayal of Eduardo’s dedication to the company, but of his devotion to Mark. To Eduardo, Facebook was never just a business; it was a culmination of his and Mark's relationship. Facebook was a figurative child they built together, and losing that meant heartbreak. The film essentially begins and ends with a breakup: one between Mark and his fictitious girlfriend Erica, and the other between Mark and Eduardo. 

So in the end, what makes this film so important to queer people? I think it’s the inherent messiness of Mark and Eduardo’s relationship. It’s been ten years since the film came out and queer audiences are still pining over a relationship that’s queerness only exists on screen. It’s the fictionalized version of Mark and Eduardo that intrigues this community so much. “People still make videos, write fic, and draw art. They've covered every AU possible from Pride and Prejudice to robots...Characters with barely any lines have been given fully fleshed-out backstories. There have been hundreds of different versions of the story, a hundred ways of breaking Mark and Eduardo up or bringing them back together,” Tibby explained. 

Did Sorkin tap into this while writing the script? When he wrote in a scene where Eduardo stands in the rain after Mark forgets him at the airport, did he know the impact it would have on queer viewers? It makes for the ultimate angst-filled shot, and its presence is interesting especially when considering it’s one of the few things which didn’t happen in real life. “It hurts to see Eduardo soaking wet, unheard, and pounding on the door of the rented house in Palo Alto,” Emily said. It’s things like this, as well as composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ titles for the score’s tracks (“Penetration,” “A Familiar Taste,” “Hand Covers Bruise”—what’s up with that?) that make you wonder if the cast and crew had the slightest clue of the impact the film would have on queer viewers—even a decade later. 

Whether it was intentional for a biopic about Facebook to make queer people weep for a decade, The Social Network has done just that. It may not be evident to straight people, but Mark and Eduardo’s relationship is one that LGBT people can sympathize with and find power in reimagining. These two characters have absolutely no idea how to communicate with each other, and before they can tell each other how they’re truly feeling, it’s too late. The film has birthed a community: from long-abandoned LiveJournal pages to teens on Tumblr frantically live-blogging their hundredth rewatch of the film. The Social Network has earned its place in the queer cinema canon, and the relationship between Mark and Eduardo will definitely continue to be one of great interest and discussion in the online communities it’s helped grow. While it may be a movie about Facebook to some, to us it is a story about love, devotion, and loss.