Honestly, I hesitated to write this piece. I considered scrapping it in favour of something fluffier or more in line with my usual content. I don’t usually get scared to write things. I’m a pop culture hot takes merchant who talks about celebrities and romance novels and cares way too much about box office numbers. What do I have to fear? It feels intensely insulting to compare my apprehension on this issue to the genuine danger many journalists put themselves in to report on world matters. Still, it would be foolish of me to pretend that all is well in my field, or that the elephant in the room wasn’t there at all. So, here I am.
In case you missed the news, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired by Disney last week after a right-wing personality, whose name I won’t even give oxygen to, dug up old tweets of his that showed some pretty abhorrent ‘jokes’ on topics like paedophilia. This man, who himself was charged with rape in 2003 and endorsed for Senator of Alabama a man accused of sexually assaulting a minor, has taken great pride in this supposed scalping. Gunn, who apologized for these jokes in 2012, has not excused his behaviour and taken complete responsibility for it.
Part of me hates having to excuse Gunn’s so-called jokes. I was aware of them for years and never liked them, but it didn’t surprise me that a former Troma director would be so giddily off-colour. Usually, I’d be happy to see consequences in this field, especially for straight white dudes who made corporations a lot of money, because how often does that happen? But this was never an issue of consequences or responsibility. This was a concerted attack organized by a right-wing conspiracy theorist and literal rapist, done so because he could. This is not a man who cares about the societal assumptions strengthened through this kind of humour. If he did, he never would have endorsed Roy Moore. I fucking hate those jokes Gunn made. I thought they were disgusting. But I don’t think Gunn being fired for something Disney knew about years ago will lead to the necessary conversations or make us learn anything. All it will do is embolden this ongoing culture war. It will give power to a faction that doesn’t need or deserve it, and they will simply go after others who don’t share their politics.
It’s already happening, as evidenced by some of the stuff going around right now regarding comedians like Patton Oswalt and Michael Ian Black.
Now that they “got” James Gunn they’re going after Patton Oswalt and Michael Ian Black.— Alex Zalben (@azalben) July 21, 2018
The connection isn’t years old jokes (bad or otherwise). It’s that they’re all vocal Trump critics.
Congrats on emboldening a bunch of virulent, dangerous trolls.
As somebody who has in the past made jokes about a whole host of topics, including molestation, I have never denied the horrors of it whereas you, actually charged with rape in 2003, have denied whether “date rape is possible”?— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) July 21, 2018
It’s been happening for months, directed at Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy, and anyone else who apparently ‘ruined’ Star Wars.
It’s been happening to people like me for months.
I don’t want to draw a direct parallel between myself and, say, Rian Johnson or Kelly Marie Tran. I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of things. I write about pop culture on the internet, have about 8700 Twitter followers and would be what the podcast Who? Weekly would classify as a Who. I don’t matter. However, I am keenly aware of what it’s like to have people come after you online because you said something they don’t like. This weekend, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson — a former Pajiba writer — joked that we’d all be going on a Twitter deletion spree. I responded with a Real Housewives gif and quickly had someone say I was a known POS. This person was a DCEU fan, and I know there are people in that fandom who tried to organize shit against me because I don’t like the franchise and have made some snarky jokes about Zack Snyder. Google my name and one of the first images that comes up is a screenshot of one of those jokes. Mostly, you get repeats on my Twitter profile image because some websites used it to illustrate what a racist bully I am because I wrote for SYFY FANGRRLS that Star Wars has a white male fandom problem. And it does.
Of course, this is the minor leagues compared to some of my colleagues and friends, but I am sharply aware of its existence. I know there are people who have folders full of screenshots of my and others’ tweets in case they need to ‘prove’ what a terrible person I am because of my pop culture stances. Sometimes, I remember this and laugh. I didn’t laugh this weekend.
Free speech comes with consequences. That’s how it works and that’s how it always has worked. It’s a point that often seems to miss the usual crowds who think every slur they use is covered by the First Amendment. Roseanne Barr’s defenders tried to claim free speech when she was spouting racism, pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy, and attacking the survivor of a school shooting on Twitter. Now, more than ever, I see free speech proclaimed as a right of literal Nazis on the march. The irony did not bypass me when the ‘fuck your feelings’ crowd suddenly drew the line at James Gunn, a man they’d be rushing to defend had he been a Trump supporter.
The issue with free speech is that it’s never been free. Not for everyone. Just ask Colin Kaepernick. Free speech has always been an issue of privilege, and the most marginalized voices in society are most likely to be voiceless as a result.
Nowadays, we’ve seen the contradictions of free speech reach a new zenith of irrationality. Everything incendiary and damaging is considered free speech by the same people who want to arrest protesting football players. Nazis should be protected but cracking jokes about Trump should send you to jail.
One of the reasons I am so done with faux civility in our current age is because it is only ever demanded of and enforced by one side of the divide. When Michelle Obama said, ‘they go low, we go high’, I doubt she meant that should apply to bowing down to literal rapists. I expect Obama’s words to be misused by willfully ignorant liberals in the same way Martin Luther King’s are. One cannot be civil or play by the old rules when they are being deliberately twisted against us. Gunn was fired by Disney for a variety of reasons, the main one probably being that Disney have a squeaky-clean image to uphold, but the floodgates this opens cannot help but be a concern. How do you play the game of civility when the other side happily use your own standards to demand more of you than they ever do of themselves? They know we will try to go high and use that to further diminish our voices and beliefs. You cannot reason with people who endorse paedophiles while demanding action against a man making jokes about paedophilia.
We are in the middle of a culture war, and we’ve been in the metaphorical trenches for years now: From GamerGate to the invasion of the Sad Puppies at the Hugo Awards to the hate campaign against the Ghostbusters reboot to the recent attacks against diversity in comics to everything being launched against the new era of Star Wars. We still hear cries that pop culture doesn’t mean anything in the real world, even as the reality T.V. show President seems to care more about his celebrity reputation than his policies. It matters that we fight for our pop culture and for the most silenced voices to be given the freedom to speak. It matters that we understand the tools being used against us, even if they came straight from our own toolboxes. It matters that one of the most powerful media entities in the world bowed down to a man who brags about date rape not being real rape.
It matters that the contradiction of free speech is used to silence us.
I know many of you will read this and say, ‘who cares about James Gunn?’ And I hear you, and I understand you. I don’t ask anyone to excuse Gunn, mostly because he doesn’t excuse himself, nor do I beseech you to centre all your conversations on free speech and our current culture wars on a cishet white dude who makes blockbusters. But it matters that we know what we’re up against, and that we understand the old rules don’t work anymore. I’d suggest you all start deleting your old tweets, but I’m not sure it will work. All we can do is march on.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)