Weaponized Outrage and Finding the Line
A few weeks ago, Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson (The Island, Avengers) accepted a role as Dante “Tex” Gill, a real-life transgender gangster who, in the 1970’s, took over a chain of massage parlours used as a front for prostitution. The film, Rub & Tug, chronicling Gill’s life was all set to go into production.
However, it was not meant to be. After severe backlash from the LGBT community, that rivaled the backlash she received for accepting the role of Major Makoto Kusanagi in last year’s flop, Ghost in the Shell, Johansson instead dropped the role after mounting public pressure. The studios, of course, stayed silent.
For many, this sort of weaponized outrage is all too familiar. Director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly), well-known for his progressive and pro-feminist ideals temporarily closed down his social media accounts after receiving undue criticism over his treatment of Black Widow, coincidentally also played by Johansson, and the list goes on.
However, it’s rare for a studio to take a clear position. So when it was announced yesterday that director James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super) was fired from his position at Disney after reports that he had made some inappropriate pederastic comments via Twitter, it seems that once again, outrage culture has laid its ugly gaze on storytelling media. An outcome which left Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 without a head director. Gunn, often praised for his work on the films (arguably some of the best among the Marvel films to date,) was quick to apologise.
We have wrote extensively of the effect that outrage culture has on storytelling in our short lifespan here at TaleBlend, covering controversies such as GamerGate as well as attempting to explain why fans react poorly to repackaged characters and setting and exploring the topic of toxic fandoms. There are likely as many points to be made as there are opinions, but the truth always seems to bend the knee to the pedestal of mob outrage.
In almost every case of storytellers facing backlash for comments or levied criticism, few if any resist the urge to apologise. It leads many to question that, if the end result leads to unemployment regardless of context, what use is context?
Gunn, in his apology, cites that he once viewed himself as a provocateur, and that his “outrageous and taboo” humor was a by-product of his younger self, for which he’s said he’s outgrown.
For what it’s worth, I’m not entirely convinced his jokes, although clearly beyond-the-pale, warrant such a severe reaction either by Disney or by the mob. I have always been one to judge a storyteller on what they bring to the table, not what they do under it. I have long been an idealist when it comes to art. I believe it’s important to separate the story from the storyteller. I may, for instance, hold disdain for storytellers like Joss Whedon, and yet there will always be a soft spot in my heart for his creations. To this day I hold great respect for the skill of wrestler/performer Chris Benoit, but I hold nothing but contempt for the man himself.
Truth told, I am disappointed with this outcome. Not just because I very much enjoy the work of James Gunn, but because I don’t like the idea of giving into an outrage mob, no matter where it comes from. As a storyteller, I’ve expressed controversial opinions in the past. It may one day occur that some of these opinions (which I may or may no longer hold) could come back to haunt me.
In the end, the problem that occurs when we weaponized mob outrage is that we sacrifice context. In almost every case, big or small, it is largely driven purely by reactionaries of a political background. Often I see it coming from decidedly left-wing progressives. But recently it’s been increasingly coming from the right-wing.
And in almost every circumstance of someone losing their job, or being bullied, it’s because of something they said, regardless of context or intent. It creates a very complex question for storytellers. Should we hold each other to account for our words and opinions? Or should we, like the proverb says, separate the art from the artist?
I believe the real question lies not in the whether or not we should keep the two entities separate, but rather where the clear line should be drawn.