1. In The Way
In·ter·sec·tion·al·i·ty: the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
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This isn't an essay, it's an admission.
Over the last month, I've got a lot of requests asking for commentary on the following subjects: Elizabeth Banks' Spielberg comment/criticism of Joss Whedon's old Wonder Woman script/Ana Lily Amirpour's shut down of a person in her Q+A and insisting there's no racism with the film/the discussion of James Gunn's handling of a possibly sexist running joke in Guardians 2/Sofia Coppola's Civil War set-film not addressing slavery whatsoever/and now the GOT/Confederate debacle. And what has my answer been to most of these queries?
That's because I feel myself getting to this point where I've (somewhat) stopped rushing in to voice my opinions on a lot of intersectional issues du jour, not out of any real fear of doing so, but mostly because I've been second guessing my understanding of a lot intersectional issues lately. So instead, I've just been slowly letting it all start to gel and add up to something deeper in my mind. Not just in terms of having a better understanding of this complex crossroads in our critical industry (one that has been so largely dominated by white males), but understanding what that really means about how we engage with/write-for a movie-going audience that is rapidly changing. In short...
This is about realizing when you're in the way.
2. Me, Me, Me
A little personal history time.
When I'm not a big green rage monster who writes about movies (I will keep this joke going forever and I will outlast you), "Dr. Banner" is admittedly just some doofy white guy. But, of course, we all have a context that adds up to a little more than that. For instance, I grew up in a couple of middle-class Boston townie towns. No, not the kind of "middle" class where my parents were surgeons, but the actual middle class where my parents worked in public high schools. But they really made the kinds of choices that made me feel like I had everything I could ever need. Sure, there was that childish kind of suburban angst where we always had the old crappy TVs, but there were books everywhere. And yes, my clothes were usually hand-me-downs, but they each took me to see Europe. This is just my way of clarifying that I had every tool at my disposal. I did well in school and in turn I got endless encouragement from great teachers. Heck, I was even pretty good at sports. So with all of this I ended up going to a fancy, expensive university! But it was there that I suddenly got an outrageous chip on my shoulder regarding class and all those who were born with "supertools" (there's an obvious joke in here somewhere). I was put in dorms with kids who spent more in a weekend than I made in a month of literally shoveling shit that summer. Our lives were very different. Despite having so much privilege, I suddenly saw a group that looked like they were playing life on cheat mode. But of course that's what I did. Because in the end, as much as it was genuinely about the piss-poor state of the world...
It was really about me.
But luckily, for the first time in my life everyone wasn't overwhelmingly white (and there's a lot to be said for Boston's particular brand of racism). There is a big difference between going from a place where you have one "Korean friend" to actually being with a diverse group of people either who were all either from diverse communities or homogeneous communities that happened to be different from yours. Suddenly it mean having friends from India, Texas, Madrid, Uganda, Stone Mountain, and every other place you can think of. Sure, I may have grew up in a liberal home, but your liberalism, sensitivities, and understanding always changes with an actual change in environment. Because it's not just a theoretical understanding of struggle and diversity, nor in your ability to correctly name or label it. No, it's about seeing the flesh and blood person breathing in front of you and hearing them talk about the nature of their life. It's about them telling you how much a certain label can hurt them or alternatively mean the world. It's seeing the love, the fear, the cost that comes with their experience. And when you're young, these realizations are profoundly important. But you want to be so good at it reflecting this new understanding. You want to have the most experience with it possible. You want to be "good" at understanding diversity. So you get involved and you get vocal. We didn't even really have the popularization of the word "ally" when back I was in school, but you want to be exactly that. And yes, everything you are doing is often "good," but I desperately wanted to be good at it. It's like I wanted a big gold star because I volunteered a couple times in Roxbury or some shit. Because in the end...
It was really about me.
But nothing in my fancy university actually compared to moving to Los Angeles, where I had two discoveries. One, that the people who actually make it in Hollywood come from more wealth than even those at fancy university (we rarely talk about this). And two, writing a dumb character on the internet suddenly put me in touch with infinitely more people than I ever imagined. There are many who love talking about the internet as an echo-chamber, but I find the opposite to be true. People looooove to tell you exactly why they don't like you. And if you get in the habit of wandering around the internet, it's all actually there. The whole, ugly, beautiful, sincere, stinking mess just radiating like the beating heart of a being that barely understands it's alive. It's internet intersectionality and it's right at your fingertips. And it will tell you constantly, and without pity, exactly why it thinks you are wrong. Why it thinks you are bad. Why it thinks it knows better. And so, you are suddenly in a space where it is more important to be good than ever. To get it right. To be a good ally. To be flawless. And for years I have written with those goals. Because in the end, for all the good I may have meant...
It was really about me.
I did not want to be bad. So I say in the words of our most childlike admission... I just wanted to be good. It is the kind of admission that makes those cynical-hearted, PC-Culture-hating naysayers rub their hands together with glee. It makes them go "See, he just wanted to be good! SJW's are self-serving trash!" as if to dismiss the un-dismiss-able morality of every single basic social value of human decency that we've ever espoused. Which is an accusation that's easily disarmed with a heavy sigh, for the basic instinct to be good is not only necessary, but leaps and bounds better than the instinct to sew discord, animosity, and division (and it's also certainly better than shrugging off people's very real concerns with our detached centrism). So don't worry, this isn't going to be one of those ridiculous, "well fuck it, why do I even try!" slow slides to conservatism that seem to be so hip these days (usually whenever a liberal white person feels challenged).
No, the admission of "wanting to be good" is much more about what happens with a white writer's inability to be bad. Because when that happens, it leads to series of mental gymnastics that are really troubling. For instance, we get defensive and focus on our intent, our general standing in the community, and our past deeds to show the issue at hand surely isn't what you are saying. We make constant assurances to the fact that we're on the same side. It is the utmost disbelief that anything we could do would be interpreted as problematic x, y, or z. Because we've tried so hard and used all our understanding so surely, surely it is you who are wrong in this situation! It's the kind of response every woman or POC has gotten a million times over from white people/men/whoever else this intersectional universe. They are just so adamant they are trying to do good that of course their effect could never be! But this is something that a white writer needs to reckon with more than anything else, to sit with, to absorb, and to de-armor oneself, all en route to what is perhaps the most important, simple, and strange realization we can have. One that is especially true after going on about myself for five damn paragraphs...
It's not about me.
Because you learn there's incredible danger when it's about you. When you turn the march toward progress into a referendum on whether you are correct or a good person, you end up robbing both voices and the evolution of the conversation itself. For instance, I was recently reading about a young African-American woman in Tennessee who had a disagreement with her history professor (who was white) over the correct answer on a test. Now, as the article states it's important to understand that this professor deeply considered herself an ally. She was beloved by many previous African-American students. She had a safety pin. She even went so far as to have a black power fist in her Facebook banner (yikes). And the test question in question highlighted a pretty, important issue within understanding of slave culture and the common break-up of families, which the professor said wasn't true. This went against the students understanding and answer to the question. But when the student argued for this and backed up her answer with more research (even highlighting that the teacher's answer came from some fucked white sociologists in the '60s), the teacher was still staunch and incredulous in that disagreement. Even saying “I have taught thousands of black students and I have never had anyone disagree with how I cover this” (more yikes). She even went so far as to challenge the student to speak in front of the class if she felt so confident in this issue. Undeterred, the student did just that. But this is when the professor started losing it and took to complaining about said student on Facebook, clearly holding a grudge. When the comments got back to the university, the Professor was dismissed. But was the student vindicated? No, many former students rallied to the defense of the professor and all the great wise things she did in her past, she was called out for challenging, etc. ... But let's look at some of these fucking comments from the teacher.
“‘She’s on LinkedIn trying to establish professional contacts, this should be fun!'”
“‘After the semester is over and she is no longer my student, I will post her name, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.. after she graduates, all bets are off.'”
“‘I don’t forget malevolent attempts to harm me. #karmawillfindyou.'”
“‘Ignore the facts, promote a misinformed viewpoint, trash me and I will fight you.'”
All. Because. A. Student. Thought. There. Was. A. Different. Answer. On. A. Test. And. Then. Tried. To. Promote. A. Deeper. Understanding. Of. That. Answer.
Everything about this situation is such a violation of basic teaching ethics. Everything. Even on the most immediate level, if someone did that much work in researching an answer? Fuck, it's like, give em credit, dude. It's just an answer on a test and you have a student showing gumption and a passion for learning. Isn't this the exact intent of education? The way we evolve knowledge? So what in the hell could convince a professor, who desperately wants to be an ally, to do something like this? Was she simply lying about her caring the whole time? Nope. Is it her inability to care about other people and their social conditions? Nope... Turns out, it's just the fucking hero complex and the inability to perceive herself as anything less than a perfect intelligent leader to her students.
Again, it's the inability to be perceived as bad that kills you. Because you end up defending yourself, putting the other down and enacting and embodying the very thing you swear you cannot be. Because then you have to contort yourself and the world around you to be the thing you state instead of the thing you really are. Believe me, I'm not saying this from a place of admonishment. I'm saying because I've guilty of it. Sometimes you don't even realize you're doing it, and sometimes you even can sense it happening in yourself but it's like your body and defensiveness is acting first because YOU ARE UNDER ATTACK in your brain. She outright said it, "trash me and I will fight you," all to a young woman who just disagreed with a test answer! And this is not some innocent thing on the part of the professor. You better believe it's a form of racism because, in the end, it's about putting yourself first. It's about putting you in power and control above all else.
Of course, there is an important flip-side reaction to the same inability to be wrong. And that's when you're so upset you that fucked up a progressive social cue that your heart immediately falls out your butt. You're so ashamed you begin to throw every mea culpa and groveling snivel, because it's all ABOUT HOW SORRY YOU FEEL, and the need for them to KNOW that you fucked up, and that you must be forgiven. Which, in a weird way just turns forgiveness of you into another referendum about you. It's now about something they have to alleviate for you, instead of what it should be about, which is an alleviation for them. The defensiveness and the groveling are actually two sides of the same coin. It is the "you" coin. And it is all centered around the desperate need to be good. But, as should be clear by now, when you are so worried about how you fit into a thing, it becomes so much harder to see the thing itself.
So the only choice of how to handle this becomes obvious: Let go of the entire idea that this is a referendum on you. Let go of the idea that it is a litmus test on your decency, morality, or standing. And when you really let go, not just with words or ideas, but through the kind of genuine life-learning where your body has learned to let go too... a miraculous thing happens...
Suddenly navigating these complicated issues becomes a fuck-ton easier.
3. Fear of a Black Hat
There's a lot of pissed-off people right now.
Let's start with the anger at Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman script, which sort of turned into a larger discussion about Joss Whedon's career in general. When it started happening, I noticed a lot of people of my generation caught off guard by the fact that a number of people actually have issues with Joss Whedon and they launched into defense mode. Part of me had the instinct too. Did they not know that Joss Whedon was basically a savior for so many young weirdos in search of deeper connection? That Buffy basically was basically gospel to a generation of young women, progressives, and gay teens who were looking for understanding and kinship? Do they not understand that he's probably one of the best functional writers on the planet, what with his acumen not just for dramatic plotting, non-bullshit twists, and thematic resonance that ties deeply into meaningful metaphors? Do they not understand that even he when he dives into problematic, un-empathetic subject matter, that he deals with these things with empathy and nuance? Do they not know these things?!?!
Of course they know those things. They also know Joss Whedon is just a human being with proclivities and voice like anyone else. They know they can see someone beyond the reasons to lionize them. For instance, Inkoo Kang is probably one of the smartest critics on the planet, but when she raises an eyebrow about the curious fact that the universe of Firefly has a lot of people speaking in Mandarin and yet a huge lack of actual Chinese characters and background extras, it's instantly met with angry dismissal. It becomes all about what Joss Whedon meant, or couldn't have meant, instead of looking at the simple reality and effect. So it often gets turned right back on the critic, complete with all sorts of accusations. And the simple truth is that it's not even really about the Joss Whedon referendum, it's about "seeing this thing for what it is." So the reaction can just become maddening for people who are just trying to raise good points about normally progressive artists. The conditions around lionized artists makes it feel horrible. And this is such a real, everyday reality for women of color, because it affects conversations in staggering proportions. Especially once the knee-jerk "logic" argument fades, it always comes back to others supposing their motivations. They're told they "just seem angry" or that just "want to be angry." A statement which shows the defensive-minded are, of course, not asking the two most important questions.
One, what's so wrong with being angry?
And, two, why do you think people are angry?
Think about it. When you're angry, your anger makes complete sense, right? Whether you are angry at Trump or Libtards or the pop culture moron du jour, there's nothing ever wrong with your anger. But for women, POC, LGBT, and marginalized groups? Maybe they're angry because the entire system around them is laughable. Maybe it's because they have a universe of dire issues to be angry about. Maybe it's because we talk about not believing what our country did last election, and yet 94% of black women voted for Hilary against Trump. Maybe it's because white liberal folks talk about how they fear one day living in a police state, but black people have been living in a police state for centuries now (and worse). Heck, given our backgrounds and sliding sense of justice, if white people were immediately put into the world that black people had to live in, we would be grabbing a brick in two seconds, without the realization of the oppression that comes next. Because when that happened in Ferguson, white America shrugged and wondered why it couldn't be like the MLK days...
So the reason to be angry is so simple, so obvious, and so clear, and yet when this somehow moves into a discussion of pop culture and representation, we will constantly tell the marginalized that their criticisms are ridiculous (but only if our opinion and association happens to be on the other side). By all means, let us tell black women how they should consume entertainment. Let's tell them that the values of our white stories should be palatable and seen as benign. Let's tell them how they should see their very existence, just because Joss Whedon means a lot to us and maybe even some other black people we know. Let's tell them why we couldn't possibly be wrong because we're well-intentioned allies.
Alas, the bigger truths are always simple in answer, but hard to enact. We get trapped in cadence. Maliciousness. We never really understand that the criticism of a Joss Whedon script is not inherently about him, but the system and what seeming allies could do better. And even when a critic goes on a quest for their criticism to be heard, it comes not from some perverse desire to take so-and-so down, but from the fact that lionization of said allies seems to make them untouchable. For when artists get their “progressive card,” people will rush to defense immediately. But really someone like Joss is an artist who has to evolve like all artists. He'll probably tell you that as much as anyone. And sure, I think he actually has evolved and could make that case to you, blah blah blah, but that's not the point. The point is we think anger is only a problem when that anger is directed at us. We think that anger is unjust. We tell them it's better directed at other people, instead of us. But really, we're just making it about us.
Instead of what we are tapping into.
For that, let's turn to a recent example Guardians 2. Now, I love James Gunn. I think his work is genuine. I think he comes at his humane view of the world with a sense of humor. I also think he's got some Loki-like prankster blood in him that fuels his approach. Which means, yes, I think a lot of his work goes into fucked up subject matter, but often does so in interesting and mindful ways. He's also had some big missteps like the superhero sex list, etc. Which all goes into consideration when there were people who expressed concern over Drax constantly telling the Mantis character that she is ugly, all before culminating in a final joke where he tells her that she is beautiful (pause) on the inside. Now, the larger context of the joke is obvious and clear in attention. Mantis is, by objective standards (whatever that means), quite attractive, so the real intended butt of the joke is Drax and whatever he and his weird alien race finds attractive. And more importantly, we are meant to infer that his character is a dumb, insensitive oaf who is mean and just doesn't get it, even when he gets it. So within the context, no, the film does not "agree" with him in any way. More so, Bautista's final line actually plays heartfelt and funny. I believe I laughed... But the point of the commentary surrounding the running gag is that there is an even bigger context.
Let's start with a simple statement of belief: Upon thinking about it, I don't think a woman would be so quick to write that same exact joke. Because I think the joke not only still makes the oafishness of Drax endearing (even if it knows he's wrong), but because it directly taps into the pervasive, hurtful dynamic of how many women are told they're ugly all the time. Ask any woman and they will tell you how pervasive it is, whether they are "beautiful" or not. It doesn't matter. It's an insult that is flung anytime a guy doesn't get what he wants. It all taps into the toxic discussion of how men put down women, of what beauty even is, and how men are aware/unaware when they use it like a weapon. It taps into how some men think they're merely talking about "preference," but it builds up into this impossible contradiction that keeps women feeling wrong and not pretty no matter what they do. And we have to remember this specifically with the Mantis character, who has been abused and locked up and used by Ego for years. But again, I believe the film has sincere empathy for her and demonizes what Ego is doing, but that's not what's up for debate. What is up for debate is how the joke plays into that larger reality. In the end, it's just more abuse for her. And I've seen enough people grimace at it because it taps into a very real issue that women deal with ad nauseam. When that happens, all you have to do is realize that is what is happening. That you are tapping into something deep and troubling and our only job is to be sensitive and listen... That's it.
But when the discussion came out on twitter, I think Gunn, like so many others, got defensive. He talked about the idea being ridiculous, and how women loved the scene, etc. But the reality is there was nothing to prove to anyone he was talking to, who clearly understood where their comment was coming from. There was only trying to prove himself to himself. In any situation of getting called out, there's always the importance of just the immediate point of stasis. Some defensive people believe this is caving and just saying "the other person is always right" (which is only a real fear when it's really important that you're right all the time). Really, it's just about disarming and letting someone know they are heard and considered. The best answers are always so simple. Want a stock answer? "I'm sorry, that wasn't my intention, but that's an interesting point of concern and I'm going to think about it." And it works if you actually freaking mean it. Likewise, it's okay to ask questions if you phrase them kindly, etc. So no, I don't think James Gunn meant to be sexist. I think he, like so many people, is afraid to be wrong. Which is where the trouble always starts.
It extends to so many places beyond this, including other women of color. I haven't seen The Bad Batch, so I can't speak to the portrayal, but when asked by a young black woman in the audience about the multitude of deaths of black characters in the film, Amirpour seemed incredulous. She began talking about how it's a film that skewers everyone with equal-opportunity violence, etc. Even later going on to say that the accusation hurt her deeply. But to start from that place of defense is to effectively deny the staggering exploitative history of black death on screen. Thus, the immediate answer is so much more simple, something akin to, "what you're talking about is always an important and valid concern. I was trying to do X with the film, but if it adds to the problem then it's something I have to keep thinking about." But instead we always go for the knee-jerk response of I WASN'T WRONG! It's like our sensitivity is a one-way street. We only want people to be sensitive to our goodness and we will cast aside our own sensitivity when very real people tell us what is hard for them. But this really is not some devastating thing. I love Whedon, Gunn, and Amirpour for all the positive things they bring to cinema, but if you think I’m going to take that as a license to turn around and tell Asian or Black people how to feel about them, then you're completely wrong. I'm just going to listen and absorb it. Because even in the commentary of these discussions, it's about getting out of the way of yourself.
Ultimately, we transcend this through the normalizing of being wrong.
There are many who assume that this means that "the other person" is the one has to fix their attitude. That the person criticizing you cannot be angry, nor strident, nor treating the issue in black-and-white terms. Meaning not only can we never be wrong, but we demand that our supposed-wrongness must be gift wrapped or served to us on a golden platter. But, of course, that's is just another way to try and control it, to preserve our power. It's just like we require our minority leaders to be Martin Luther Kings and not Malcolm X's, we thus demand that our critics only deal with us in the nicest of ways. Even then, we probably won't listen because the core issue is that we can't be wrong, so we immediately transfer the anger right back onto the critic in question. Why don't you see that you're wrong? Why are you angry at me? Why don't you see if YOU'RE wrong first? And it's, like, seriously? Do we not think women and minorities grow up in a culture where they are constantly told to doubt themselves? Told to be respectful? Told to not rock the boat? That they didn't grow up in world where they were taught to question every single aspect of their wants and needs and deny their basic rights to personhood in favor of ours? And in this moment we just end up doing more of this very same thing. We embody the very thing we claim we aren't.
Which brings us to the part that IS about us. And that is realizing that "not being angry" is absolutely our responsibility and our responsibility alone. The smartest move I ever made with this goofy account was promising that "the character" would always be sweet instead of angry and smashy. I haven't always stuck to it (some weeks are better than others), but it's been one of the most important guidelines for my aspirational self. But still, that taps directly into the whole "inability to be wrong" thing and the fear at the center of it. Because you'll notice I used the phrase "Fear of a Black Hat," at the start of this chapter and it is, of course, a reference to the 1993 mockumentary about gangsta rap culture, but I'm also crossing it with the intended meaning of Chuck Klosterman's book "I Wear the Black Hat," which is about villainy at large. The two meanings come to a devastating cross section here to make us realize: We not only fear the other black hats, we fear wearing the black hat ourselves. We have to learn to transcend this through the hardest act of all: acceptance... because at some point, you will wear the black hat.
And, especially then, it's still not about you.
4. "... Tied Behind Our Back"
There's one hard line I'm going to hold in this discussion.
But that's because I'll always hold it. And that is constant vigilance with the best practices of semiotics (aka "The study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication."). At the core of which is the critical understanding that "depiction does not mean endorsement." For meaning and messaging can be created in many different ways and condemnation can come in many different forms. For instance, if a character commits some kind of violence at the beginning of a film, it is not saying that committing this violence is good, because the film may deal with the consequences and show them learning for it. Or consequently, it could show them not learning from it whatsoever and then being punished for this immorality. Or consequently, it can show them not learning from it and then the universe NOT punishing them at all, and then showing us how the universe fails to punish people's bad behavior, even when it probably should. These are all valid ways of looking at the world and its propagation of violence. And yes, of course we need some films to show the way we think the world SHOULD work (and they often include some of my favorites), but we also need to be honest about the way we think it does unfortunately work, too. Meaning there is an absolute need for both approaches when it comes to our whole understanding of any given issue. Which brings me to an observation, one that I realize is a potentially loaded statement, but I'm going to say it anyway.
I see a worrisome overlap between those who tend to deal with movies in an overtly political context and those who tend to mistake a lot of depiction for endorsement. Specifically, the overt concern that a film always needs to show how the world should work, and that coming at it any other way is messaging that condones the behavior.
Now, to immediately walk this back to a middle ground so we can be super clear. I do not think this is always the case. I do not think it is even true in a fraction of cases. And please understand that this criticism goes in every direction of the political spectrum, not just liberal and conservative. Also, please understand I'm not trying to dismiss the very valid conversation about how despite many films' intentions to criticize, they can absolutely fail and end up condoning those messages (you've seen my arguments about Fight Club). Nor am I trying to dismiss films that haphazardly use charged and problematic tropes (you've seen my criticism of a lot of films' lazy depictions of sexual assault that never deal with the consequences). Nor am I trying to dismiss that there are a lot of filmmakers who back up their ugly, horrible, amoral movies by lamely saying it's satire or "just a joke," without understanding how to actually make that shit clear. In short, there are many broken forms of depiction that absolutely are inadvertent forms of condoning. No, what I'm saying is that sometimes the most passionate and political minded of us, who often understand a great deal about the sensitive nuances of culture and the power of social messaging, sometimes do not bother to dive into the same level of nuance with narrative semiotic understanding.
Which is actually okay, by the way. I mean, most people don't spend their lives studying narrative semiotics. But when we dive into this stuff, we have to dive into every bit of context, every time, to effectively talk about what's "true" in a given film. We can't just dive into a few examples at face value and confuse depiction and endorsement. We have to explain how the contexts add up, not just on the face value, but how it creates a larger narrative meaning and why that meaning might be problematic. And we also have to make cases for the spectrum and intention. For instance, I fully support the audience-blaming, angry screed of The Wolf of Wall Street in this adult R-rated comedy, but I absolutely agree that this shouldn't be the approach for every movie. For instance, the "how the world should work" approach of Aesop Fable-ism is much more ripe for PG-13 comic book movies and Pixar movies. Which is perhaps the biggest reason for we needed Patty Jenkin's Wonder Woman script over Joss Whedon's old one (which I haven't read in 10 years). It's because her perspective and positivity was sorely needed, especially in this current landscape. But getting into the why, the successes, and the problems of both approaches, requires every nuance and every understanding of the semiotic build.
Because I am still never going to take anything at face value. I am never going to cast out anything sight unseen (but I will say Confederate seems like a very, very bad idea for a million obvious reasons). And as much as we may inherently need the positive films that show the world how it should work, I can never go so far as to solely call for cinema that always caters to depiction meaning endorsement, just to "prevent confusion" in some proverbial filmgoer who might learn the wrong lesson. To do so is the death of cinema and semiotics itself. It's virtually the same thing as Trump fans thinking Julius Caesar was a piece of propaganda wanting to kill the president. Because that is definitely not what that freakin' play is about. And if you go down that line thinking all films can work as propaganda and worry about their effect, you inadvertently steer right into the thinking that all cinema SHOULD THEREFORE BE PROPAGANDA, as long as it backs up what you believe.
The problem is that we are fighting a culture war.
We live in an America that is radically divided in terms of ideology. And the stakes feel so damn high precisely because they are so damn high. And in that war, I completely agree. We need more films like Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman. We need more transcendent, humane films like Moonlight and Magic Mike XXL. We need more beauty. More hope. More kindness. More of the best of us. But I'm never going to take that need and turn it around as an abject criticism of darker films like Ex Machina (though I understand if you're tired of seeing these and support your interest in abstaining from them). I can't turn around and criticize sight unseen without getting into the finer points of execution. Because when it comes to the criticism and the nuance? We are at our best selves when we deep dive with full semiotic understanding. Like this jaw-dropping piece from Angelica Jade Bastien, who not only validated the same criticisms that many were throwing at The Beguiled in black-and-white terms, but reached into the depths for a deeper understanding of how the film ties into a larger context, created a whole framework of understanding, and taught me about twenty things I didn't actually understand before. It is a triumph of criticism, something that both confirms all our separate viewpoints and then clarifies them in a smarter way than we ever expressed, perhaps precisely because it never eye-rolled or casually dismissed, but engaged the text with full semiotic control. This means that even in my most hostile criticisms of Michael Bay, I have to take him seriously. That's the job. And it's the job because the culture war is not fought with drawing lines, but arguments which dive into the bonds between us, feeding our hearts and minds, all in the hopes of a new clarity.
There's the old saying Democracy has to fight all its battles "with one hand tied behind its back." Also, I know the Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle that "the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it." And I know how much easier it would be to just put things in black-and-white and move with fiery confidence. The truth is I could probably take the entire sentiment of this article and put it in a single, strident tweet. But if I did? People who already understood would retweet, and everyone else would likely get angry. I keep saying "All I have is an argument," but that's the most important part of this entire discussion. I've learned that the long, slow, painful path of building giant iron-manning arguments, ones that take as many counter-arguments into account as possible, are what's truly worth it. Because it's all in the effort to try and help steer people into mutual realization, along with helping myself hopefully come to a better understanding in their response. Because you can't just say what's true. You have to show how you got there. And you have to do it every time.
It's like you always gotta bring the gun, the bullet-proof-vest, the years of negotiation training to a knife fight. And then you gotta hope no one gets hurt.
But through this, the proverbial needle slowly moves.
5. The First Result
This entire conversation about intersectionality, criticism, and nuance, manifests into two things that Hollywood does not understand.
The first one is "Criticism vs. Disinterest."
Because when it comes to criticism itself, I can demand/ask/argue for all the nuance in responses that I want. But when it comes to a filmgoer's relative disinterest in a film? Based on whatever approach or subject matter the film may have? I can't really ask for anything against that. Not ever. It's like when I mentioned a filmgoer wanting to abstain because they're tired of a certain cinematic approach, or maybe they don't want to be triggered by certain subject matter. This disinterest is absolutely valid. Because in that case it's not abjectly about what's "wrong" with a film. Instead, it is absolutely about what we want out of a film and would like to see from more of them.
For instance, I remember a moment where I was going to watch a movie with someone (and for clarity purpose, they were not white) and there was a bunch of old screeners lying around and I picked up The Big Short and was like "hey, wanna watch this?" They took a quick look at the cover and went, "Eh, five white dudes. Not really into it." It wouldn't have occurred to me, but it just hit me so suddenly. It wasn't a dismissal. There was even the acknowledgment that it was probably good. It was simply disinterest. A disinterest that stemmed from this person having been fed these kinds of omnipresent white guy movies their entire life. It didn't matter that the film was a criticism of the worst of white guy culture, for it was already something they understood intrinsically, and thus they were interested in something more specific to their own cultural interests. It's pretty simple, actually.
But you will not believe how much this still blows the minds of Hollywood white people. The modern Hollywood person still thinks they're doing a good job because they make minority-focused films and think of them as niche (despite the constant evidence good films will blow up, like Get Out, Girls Trip, etc). But white films? White is for everyone! White is default!
Yeah, that time is already gone, baby, gone. Even on the blockbuster level, Wonder Woman and Fast and the Furious are the new diverse standards especially against the continued poor performance of tired Pirates movies and a host of other "default" movies. Default is not white. Default is now when there's everyone. It's the result of the endless, countless arguments of why representation matters. And it's nothing you'll understand if you've been so happily represented your whole damn life. Read this column from a young female born with a missing limb on the power of Mad Max: Fury Road. Read this piece on the importance of CJ Jones in Baby Driver. And Hollywood? This doesn't matter because of criticism and hot takes, it matters because this is business. This is the new way to start making dollars. And it's shifting faster and faster in this direction every damn day (which is exactly why part of our nation is clinging to the past and attempting to kick everyone else out).
But this actually gets us right back into the larger conversation of what we "require" films to be. Because while there's nothing inherently wrong with Sofia Coppola making movies that are very much about the humanistic, nuanced view from white privilege, the problem is that it has become less and less universal and marketable with a growing audience that wants you to account for intersectionality. That's just the new reality. And the same understanding needs to come into the critical conversation. Because as I said, gone are the days when we can simply expect white movies to be regarded as universal. For instance, I love Manchester By the Sea. I fucking grew up near there. And I will argue the merits, nuance, and beauty of Lonergan's masterpiece until the cows come home. But if you think I'm going to use that connection to chastise anyone because they make a "sad white people movie" joke about it or simply not interested because of Casey Affleck's involvement, you're wrong (but it took me awhile to get there). Because not only are there a number of valid criticisms, but the main point is that it's not even criticism that's happening here (even if our defensiveness makes it feel that way), it's simply disinterest.
And this reality is going to creep into more places than you think.
For instance, I have to admit, I literally have literally never even thought about the following point in my entire damn life. But I know countless people who would argue that the Coen Brothers are probably the most incredible American filmmakers working today, right? But the great Ira Madison made me realize that they've never really put any black characters into their films, and one where they did, The Ladykillers, they were all basically horrendous stereotypes... I had never even thought about that before. And please understand that Ira wasn't arguing that this makes the Coens somehow bad. In fact, he was actually arguing that he doesn't want to see what they do with intersectionality, because their prior work has shown those insights to likely be rote, disappointing, or whatever else. His interest is was actually in seeing them continue to talk about the world they understand. But there is still no doubt we have to acknowledge the staggering gulf at play, and come to understand that the Coen view is just another niche.
White entertainment haaaates thinking of itself as niche, but it always really has been. And it is that acknowledgement that is the most important part. Not defensiveness, not feeling like we are bad, nor that the Coen's are bad for doing this. Just simple acknowledgment that it is what it is. For so long, white culture has had (and of course still does have) a lock on the direction of pop culture, and the time has simply come to tell better stories, more inclusive stories, or, in the very least, show awareness of an intersectional world. For instance, the other night I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming and while it's not the Miles Morales movie that many craved, it is, in the very least, a film that shows awareness of what modern day New York actually looks like. In that, it vastly changes our sense of what these characters should be (my favorite was Tony Revolori playing Flash). To that, we have to understand that the future of geekdom is going to look a lot more like Yuri On Ice than "Ironman 6."
So, Dear Hollywood: All the criticism you feel you are hearing is really more about disinterest. And the time of the white, default omniverse is going away.
6. The Second Result
So the second bit of fallout from the changing landscape of intersectionality should be obvious, but of course taps into our ridiculous sense of defensiveness:
Why do we think every movie has to have 100% consensus?
If you look at the very definition of intersectionality, you have to acknowledge that conflicting interests and needs are at the very heart of it. Thus, 100% consensus is a literally impossible. Sure, there are overlaps in what we all do, but it's mostly about acknowledging and owning the things that don't overlap and how it impacts all of our lives in different ways. It's acknowledging difference. So why do we think that a movie could somehow implicitly satisfy every condition of intersectionality? And more importantly, when someone is vocal about the ways that it does not, why do we then freak out?
I'll throw out an example. While I am irrevocably biased because I know Emily and Kumail, The Big Sick is considered pretty fantastic across the board, right? In terms of consensus, it has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is absurdly high. Plus it taps into so many brilliant conversations about intersectional culture and does so with humor and insight. So anyone who must not like it or has some complaint with it must be insane! Because they're part of this 3% that just doesn't get it! Or they have some ulterior motive! They must be dismissed somehow! We need consensus!
But why the hell do we need that? Seriously, why do we act out at the idea that "takes away" from a 100% RT score? A 97% pretty much means the same fucking thing to me as a 100%. The difference doesn't matter, even on a statistical level. But to us, even a tiny bit of "against" brings out our defensiveness again. Our brains zoom past all the praise of our film because we cannot even be a little bit wrong. Take the popular reaction to this recent column that was written about The Big Sick that states, "I'm So Tired of Watching Brown Men Fall In Love With White Women Onscreen." And it cites examples both in this film and the recent strings of relationships in Master of None. Now, we could react in any number of ways. We could refocus the conversation on how these entertainments are miracles in their own ways. With The Big Sick, we finally get a Muslim Pakistani lead in an incredible comedy, the way it deals with the way cultures bounce against each other, the way it handles emotional truths with no easy answers. Heck, you could even argue that the film accounts for the very criticism being put forth in recognizing the plight of the Pakistani girl who is constantly sidelined by boys looking for "real marriage." Double, heck I could even launch an argument about the tendency in criticism where it seems impossible to experience "mudita" the selfless joy of seeing others' happiness and transcendence without first putting it through the comparative lens of yourself and your own needs and struggles. Or you could throw all that away and say the person just seems strident!
But all those things are defensive. And none tap into the actual point. Because, yup, there can be very real problems with a male culture that views white women as the prize (note: no, the problems are not for white people). And even with a movie doing everything progressive, you can still be a person on the outside of the circle and that can be really painful. Again, that's the thing of intersectionality. There's always going to be someone on the outside the circle of inclusion, looking in. And there will always be ways it hits right into a pang of conflict for someone. Because the thing about mudita is it actually requires empathy in the other direction, too. Not only is there no right to tell the critic how to feel, there are so many who have never gotten any kind of representation, even if the entertainment in question is the first time others feel like they have gotten this very thing. We gain nothing in dismissal. We gain everything in simply listening. Because nothing being said in that article actually takes away from The Big Sick. It actually adds to layers of understanding that come from it, and paints a picture of the bigger, more complicated world we live in. And who we can strive to be next.
Underneath all of this is the quest for acceptance and validation, not agreement. So we need to stop thinking of movies as being a referendum where we need the 100%. Because if you think one voice takes away from the power of what the movie does, you're wrong. And if you think the movie's true goodness takes power away from the one voice raising a point about it, you're also wrong. We cannot seek to eradicate, because it is only the conversation that matters and the ways we can see each other. For in acceptance, there is our transference of experience. For people watched The Big Sick and talked about suffering with other diseases or how it compared to being gay while in an Indian family. There is so much power in the shades of representation beyond specificity, but the ways our intersectionality is linked. Heck, it even works with symbolic representation. I saw a movie about being a ghost under a sheet and I cried by eyes out. But by listening to a person who felt something, whether anger, or fear, or uneasiness, we do the same kindness. In recognizing that connection is a two way street, we must not ever lose sight of our part.
And understanding the ways we fall short.
7. You, You, You
Sometimes I worry about our cultural emphasis on alignment and agreement versus compassion. Meaning I worry that in the culture war, it’s all about being on the right side of the fight, and if you aren't? To hell with ya. Sometimes I worry that in call out culture, we have no idea what to do with "part 2" of the situation once the called-out genuinely wants to get better. We just want them to go away forever (which literally no one can do). Sometimes I worry people think their morality and what makes them good just depends on pointing at the bad people and saying they're bad. Sometimes I worry in a way where I have these grand outlandish thoughts where I want to look everyone in the eye and ask the provoking question: "Okay, if this country literally broke out into a race war, with minorities on one side and white people on the other, and there was fighting in the streets... What would you really do?" Sometimes I worry about the maelstrom of polarity and how it causes the "rational centrists" to end up mistaking abject philosophical hatred as "a side in a debate" against those merely expressing ire about a basic lack of civil rights. And thus the centrists end up sliding into the eye-rolling "both sides are wrong" conservative-leaning pit of doom like Laci Green. I worry about all these things, because in the end, they are about systems around me and what affects me.
I don't want it to be about me, but as David Foster Wallace noted, the problem is there is no life experience we can have that doesn't happen by going through our own two eyeballs. So what is the way past that?
I've been watching a lot of Twin Peaks: The Return lately and reading and writing about it as well. One of the topics that gets discussed is Lynch's frequent use of violence in regard to women and the old school sense of gender politics. I could get into the validity (starting with the fact he's in his 70s), but a lot of it goes back to the depiction endorsement stuff, along with the right to disinterest. I don't know if he's woke, but if you want to know what Lynch is really about in his heart, then it's embodied in Gordon Cole talking to the famous transvestite-now-transwoman character Denise (played by David Duchovny) and how he said the following about her struggles within the Bureau, "And when you became Denise, I told all your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die." At this, I cried. It just started happening. Just to hear Lynch, this old master of cinema, so plainly and so succinctly take on the question of the hour and answer with that exact phrasing, hit me right in the gut. And, of course, it left me with another question:
What does it really mean to “fix your heart?"
It's not your mind. It's not your viewpoint. It's not getting on the right side. It's fixing your heart. So really, it's about having compassion. Which means it's about compassion for others, but not in the proverbial sense, for it's not the theoretical masses or minorities out there. It's finding compassion for the other person. The person right in front of you. The person talking. No matter who they are and what they are saying about you. And, no, that doesn't mean tolerating their viewpoints. It's understanding their personhood. I do actually realize what I'm asking with this. In the modern social media landscape, there's a litany of people with the most hateful, toxic, horrific opinions whose only goal is to tear you down. These are people who genuinely mean ill will, so you largely need to remove yourself from that toxicity. No, this sentiment is far more about the conversation within cannibalizing liberal circles and ally-ship, when it comes from the people you would like to count yourself among. It's about us figuring out how to all row in the same direction, that's where it becomes critical. That's where it's all about finding your own capacity for change and reflection, not demanding theirs.
It feels impossible sometimes. I know I keep alluding to the fact I've had a rough year, but it's largely a rough year of my own doing. The kind of year where you will beat yourself up to kingdom come and back. The kind of year where doing anything good feels impossible because you do not feel good inside. The kind which requires you to well-up a kind of daily courage to face the world in even the most basic capacity. But in that, you truly understand the magnitude of kindness in turn, as only someone who feels broken really can. And in that space, you know that kindness is not about when it is easy, but when it is hard. When you have every reason to be angry, and yet you find the deepest of gratefulness, not for the bounty, but for pittance. And with that, comes the biggest understanding, which is the simple truth that you don't know everything. That the only way to pass through this life is not in a constant state of declaration, but a constant state of conversation and being the eternal student. And in that moving state, there is no time to sit here grieving about our own fragility, for the world moves on without you. For it will not wait for you. And so, being an eternal student is really about making the eternal, constant choice to fix your heart.
So I will ask again, what does it mean to fix your heart?
It is not a switch that is flipped. It is the constant, pervasive, everyday choice to conscious. To be present. To try to be a good person, but if you fail? If I fuck up royally? That's the most important choice. To pick yourself up. To accept consequence. To do it again. And do it every day for real and better than before. And in that choice, the biggest need for compassion is not when you succeed, but when you fail. And once you make that hard choice? Well, the smaller ones become so much easier. For instance, the other week I was on twitter and a POC writer was talking about the very real struggles "to be perfect" within the industry. In an attempt at supporting them, I jumped in with the obvious knowledge about how us white guys get a million second chances! Isn't that not fair!!? Aren't I showing my awareness?! I'm helping this conversation somehow!
But a twitter follower responded about how the person was trying to talk about their struggles and I butted in to make it about something else related to my dynamic and in the end, "it's not a good look." My first instinct to defend myself. I didn't mean it! I was agreeing! I was talking about the system and being critical of myself! I'm getting at the system! Etc. But I wasn't listening to the person or projecting their voice or understanding of the system, I was just making it about me. Especially when simple RT of the persons thread or show of support would likely do so much more. Because I've learned ally-ship isn't about rushing in and saying "I agree and here's more!" Sometimes it's just about listening and amplifying. So I just said oh shoot and apologized and everyone was like "cool, all good." That's literally it. And I got to understand a new wrinkle. But it was so much easier for me to understand in this specific moment because I wasn't being defensive, I just had to make the hard choice first to understand it wasn't about me.
I don't know much about achieving this, I just know it's a process. I thought I was listening before, but lately I've gone on a huge streak of unfollowing white dudes and adding a ton POC, women, and trans writers and already it's radically reshaping my sense of "the internet" and what the public conversation really is. It's owning the fact that I've definitely written problematic things in the past, and hell, I probably wrote problematic things in this very post. That's okay. I'm not writing this post to feel good about myself (hint: it really doesn't). But I'm not worrying about who I am or how this is coming off. I'm willing to make mistakes. And I'm just going to listen to what comes out of this.
But what do I really want out of this? What do I want out of the world?
I could answer with a sheepish notion of "for it to get better," but fuck that. I want the stars. Meaning I don't just want Ava DuVernay to get to do what she wants. I want 50 Ava Duvernays to get to do whatever they want. I don't just want a romantic comedy from a Pakistani girl's perspective. I want competing Pakistani girl romantic comedies on the same weekend and for us to argue which one was better on comedic merits alone. I want crazy sci-fi action movies that tell parable stories of our social struggles, the same way that I want POC to star in pulpy sci-fi movies that have nothing to do with race at all. I want both. I want it all. Because I'm a greedy motherfucker and in the end I want everyone in this country to feel like they get five movies a year that were made just for them... That's what I already have, so why can't you?
At the center of this greed is the understanding that we're trying to move something gargantuan, one which oft puts us at the nexus of brutality. I believe Chris McQuarrie uses the expression "it's like trying to steer a skyscraper," but to happily mix the metaphor, the needle is slowly moving. I want to help. And I want to help in a way that isn't about me, that understands that I'm going to end up doing things that don't help. I talk about myself and my failures so that I may undo the things that brought me to them. I wax poetic for 10,000 damn words because I want to take ownership of them. And I mean every word of this.
So I guess it starts with this:
I said this wasn't an essay, but admission. Which is this: Do you think all these thoughts come from me? Do you think these insights are mine and come from my unique view of the world? No, all of this comes from the collective thoughts and passion of people who not only understand all this as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, they have to live in that reality every day. They have to live in our defensiveness and our self-orientation. This comes from the genius of people I read and follow like Jen Yamato. Wesley Morris. Emily Nussbaum. Valerie Complex. Laura Hudson. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Amy Nicholson. Ira Madison. Inkoo Kang. Jenny Nicholson. Angelica Jade Bastien. Meredith Borders. Sydette. Alyssa Rosenberg. Emily Yoshida. Karina Longworth. Hend Amry. Linda Holmes. Jonathan W. Gray. Lauren Wilford. Tasha Robinson. Katey Rich. Nereyda. Priscilla Page. Jade E. Davis. Molly Lambert. Rachel McElroy. Nikhat Zahra. SalesOnFilm. Siddhant Adlakha. JM Mutore. Maryann Johnson. Megan Farokhmanesh. Alison Willmore. Mustafa Yasar II. April Wolfe. And even you Armond White, you crazy bastard. Follow every single one of these people and watch your life change. But it also comes from so many more people than this humble space allows. It comes from every commenter, every follower, and every critic of things I've said. It comes from the way they annihilate my sense of what's true. It comes from all the ways you are the same and all the ways you are different. So no, this is not about what what I have the words for. This is about what you've been saying and the ways I'm finally listening and getting out of the way.
Because it's about you.
That you are heard. And that you are loved.
But that love belongs to you.