A couple of weeks ago, esteemed Pajiba alumnus Joanna Robinson tweeted out a link to a Medium.com piece by David Dennis. The subject is Exodus, Ridley Scott’s upcoming biblical epic. To put it mildly, Dennis doesn’t care for some of the casting choices.
Here’s the lede:
“Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings movie is racist as shit. And it’s disgusting, lazy and a movie that people shouldn’t still be making in 2014.”
GODDAYUM! Forget firing shots. Dennis broke into the National Air & Space Museum, hot-wired the Enola Gay, loaded up a nuclear payload, and dropped it straight on whatever neighborhood the septuagenarian Scott calls home. In fairness to Dennis, the criticism that follows his napalm-slathered intro isn’t entirely without justification. A film set in ancient Egypt cast Christian Bale (white) as Moses, Joel Edgerton (whiter) as Ramses, and Aaron Paul (translucent) as Joseph. Actors with middle-eastern or minority ethnicities are relegated to prestige roles such as Slave No. 4, Assassin, and Lower Class Servant.
Still, the implication that anyone who purchases a ticket for Exodus is either racist or endorses racist behavior seems hyperbolic. So Joanna and I had a comprehensive, nuanced, 140-character discussion - I thought the position was extreme and didn’t acknowledge economic realities; Joanna rightly pointed out that there isn’t any reason the key supporting roles couldn’t be filled by actors of color. After a few volleys we discovered middle ground and planted a flag. Healthy discourse: it tastes like kale.
For some reason, though, the conversation stuck with me. Why was I, a middle-class white guy not in any way impacted by the ethnically appropriate casting of a sword-and-sandals film, still bothered by the article 48 hours later?
Basically, it boils down to this: the Dennis piece was the latest in a seemingly recent trend of pieces that criticize pop culture for not steadfastly embracing socially acceptable positions while painting those who don’t share that level of offense as ethically flawed. Call it “entershament” for short.
Here’s a recent sampling:
Wait, WAIT! I know “petulant, male, privilege-ignoring brat” is running through your head right now. Hear me out. Classifying criticism as entershament doesn’t necessarily invalidate the thesis or render the points irrelevant. One can easily make a case that all three examples above highlight very real problems within the respective series.
Rather, entershament makes you feel like you’re precipitating social injustice by watching, enjoying, and overlooking these issues. Does buying for a ticket to Exodus or raving about “True Detective” despite their social flaws make me morally deficient? Do I exhibit sociopathic tendencies because I can watch a woman get raped in the background of a scene and not feel revulsion? I don’t think so. I hope not. Then again, my favorite character currently on TV gunned down a half-dozen middle school students while they sat in their classrooms. Yes, I may very well have multiple screws loose.
Yet who hasn’t pulled for a murderous meth kingpin, a womanizing ad executive, a gun-toting ghetto robin hood, or humanoid robots who attempted to exterminate the human race? A not insignificant number of “Breaking Bad” fans were apoplectic that Walter White didn’t kill his own wife during the finale. Rape was practically a supporting actor on HBO’s “Oz.” We like our characters complex and flawed right up until the moment we don’t. The series, films, and vices that trigger these pieces remaining frustratingly inconsistent.
Let me toss a contrarian opinion your way: I don’t endorse rape. I don’t have a problem with it being prevalent in a quasi-medieval fantasy show, either. Having characters dispense key information while lying around a brothel is absolutely unnecessary, but I’d be the one lying if I claimed it made me uncomfortable. Yes, casting ethnically appropriate actors should be the standard. Is failing to do so racism? Well, I’m not so sure. I imagine most of us more or less huddle under the same umbrella.
Advocating the opposite position on entershament pieces leaves you trapped in moral quicksand. Flail around with a spirited defense and you only sink deeper. By the time you find that nuanced explanation with which to extricate yourself, you’re already dead.
Me: The way “True Detective” portrays women doesn’t really bother me.
Strawman: Whoa dude, you’re for underwritten, objectified female characters?
Me: In general, no. This show unspools through the eyes of its two male leads, though. We see everyone through their lenses.
Strawman: Regardless, it’s sickening how they treat women.
*this conversation brought to you by Strawman/Dead Horse For America PAC 2016
It’s enough to make me pine for a time when “Game of Thrones” discussion revolves around what episode was ruined by insignificant dialogue alterations.
I want to believe that these pieces wholly reflect their authors’ beliefs. Sadly, discerning between absurd hot takes disseminated solely for attention and honest-yet-controversial opinions is next to impossible. My gut tells me respected critics like Emily Nussbaum, Mo Ryan, Todd VanDerWerff and others are well above setting off klaxons just to draw attention. But I’m cynical. I can’t help but notice these think pieces tend to crop up once a show is pretty popular. Writing that a hit series fails basic decency tests inevitably gins up opinion on both sides. Ann Coulter’s third vacation home is a testament to the fiscal power divisive discourse wields.
As with most complex issues, solutions aren’t immediately apparent. Supporters counsel stubborn resistance; opponents scoff that a while male has the gall to make himself the victim in all this. Neither solves the problem. Entershament won’t vanish any time soon; I’m not sure it should. Spotlighting areas where pop culture hasn’t progressed is important, as are the opinions of those who believe not every show needs to pass social litmus tests. Informed discussion often reveals previously uncharted lands near the center of the map. Maybe we’ll soon find that middle ground.
Until then, I’ll be over here hating myself for loving “True Detective.”
Brian Byrd is the campaign manager for Strawman/Dead Horse 2016. Follow him on Twitter.