In the opening scene of David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’ (2010) Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend Erika scathingly dumps him after he insults and belittles her. Not only does she cut him loose, she does so in an intelligent and clever way, playing upon his insecurities in order to wound as deeply as possible.
A close look at this scene, Mark’s insecurities and the results of Erika’s rejection of him offers some useful insights into the power of narcissistic injury and typical defenses against it.
During this scene, Mark shows himself to be preoccupied with social and intellectual status. How will he distinguish himself from the other people who earned a perfect score on their SATs? How can he secure membership in one of the more prestigious final clubs at Harvard? And behind it all, how can he impress Erika? What if she’s really serious about liking men who row crew? He can’t possible compete with those “world class athletes.”
Behind his arrogance and contempt, Mark seems patently insecure and full of self-doubt about his eligibility in several personal, academic and social categories.
The conversation goes seriously awry when Erika asks, “Which is the easiest [final club] to get into?” Hypersensitive to perceived insults like most narcissists, Mark believes her question contains a put-down: “I think you asked that because you think the final club that’s easiest to get into is the one where I’ll have the best chance.”
He sounds almost paranoid and never really regains his balance after that exchange. In order to bolster his own injured ego, he insults Erika in several ways, implicitly placing himself above her in a position of superior judgment. He implies that she has “loose” morals and slept with the doorman at the bar; he suggests that she has limited business and social prospects which he can provide for her if he gets into one of the elite final clubs; and he belittles her school because its academic standards are so low no one who goes there needs to study.
When she has finally had enough, her feelings hurt by his insensitivity and her pride wounded, Erika turns on him: “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
Clever and cutting, this remark attacks Mark at the deepest level of his insecurities, his attractiveness to women. His response is a classic of narcissistic rage. He returns to his dorm room and writes a vicious post about her on his blog, calling her a bitch and belittling her breast size. He then decides to develop a website that will allow visitors to view two photographs of Harvard coeds and vote on which is hotter than the other.
This scheme allows him both to project his feelings of inferiority into the “losers” in those votes and to feel superior to everyone by virtue of his cleverness and contempt for them all. (I’ve written at length about the dynamic of winners and losers on my ‘After Psychotherapy’ blog.)
His manic drive to hack photos from all the sorority houses and his pleasure in generating so much traffic that he crashes the Harvard computer network reveal a great deal about narcissistic defenses.
When one feels unbearably small and inferior, or when one receives a deep and intolerable narcissistic injury, one can escape those feelings by flight into powerful destructiveness. (I’ve often wondered if this dynamic lies behind pointless and destructive viral assaults by hackers on large Internet networks.) Wounded and in pain, Mark employs his brilliance to rage against his world.
Of course, he then goes on to create Facebook, the most important social medium of his generation and one of the most successful companies in history. One can bolster a fragile and injured ego through creative endeavor as well … but at some level, such achievements still represent narcissistic and compensatory defenses.
At the very end of the film, when Mark stares at Erika’s Facebook page, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin suggests that everything that has happened since that fateful night in the bar has been the result of Erika’s rejection.
I was reminded of the closing scene of ‘Citizen Kane,’ when we finally learn that “Rosebud” was the sled Charles Foster Kane owned as a child. Welles seemed to be telling us that nothing else that happened during Kane’s life, after his mother sent him away to protect him from an abusive father, held any real meaning for him. At the end of ‘The Social Network,’ I was left with the same question about Mark Zuckerberg.
(I’ve written more about ‘The Social Network’ and narcissistic personality disorder on my ‘After Psychotherapy’ blog.)