Borders Line: On James Gunn, Satire And Sexism

The GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY director is in hot water, but not with this feminist. 

You've likely read some of the furor over James Gunn in the past few days. The director, tapped to take on Marvel's The Guardians of the Galaxy, wrote a post on his personal blog in February 2011 titled "The 50 Superheroes You Most Want To Have Sex With," a post rife with the sort of outrageous, overblown, filthy humor for which Gunn is known. Tuesday night, the post somehow started making the rounds again, and several of Gunn's remarks were called homophobic, sexist and slut-shaming by a few different blogs, many of whom are calling for his firing from Guardians. The post that's gotten the most attention is probably this one, on The Mary Sue. Go ahead and read it and come back.

I've been reading Gunn's blog for years. I remember reading the post in question when it was first published (it was taken down once the hubbub began, but you can read the cached version here to decide for yourself). And it never once occurred to me that Gunn's words - hoping Tony Stark can "turn" Batwoman from her lesbianism, calling Gambit a "fruit," implying Stephanie Brown's an easy lay because she's a teen mom - were anything other than satire. I laughed at what I instantly perceived as a skewering of the sort of homophobic, sexist content that's rampant on many fanboy blogs. I made this judgment call the way all judgment calls should be made: with context. 

Having followed Gunn on Twitter, his blog and through his cinematic career for years, I never doubted his intent. His farcical, outrage-inducing humor has been prevalent in his work since his Troma days, and particularly in the gem Tromeo and Juliet. But Gunn's also written some of my favorite female genre characters. I've long said it's no easy task being a feminist who loves horror movies, but Gunn's Slither, one of my favorite films and a passion project of his, made it easy. Ana in Dawn of the Dead, Starla and Kylie in Slither, Libby in Super, hell, even his versions of Daphne and Velma in Scooby-Doo: these are complex, strong, intelligent characters, the kind of female characters that should be the standard in genre films but still aren't.

(The only work of Gunn's with which I'm not familiar is his video game Lollipop Chainsaw, so I'll leave the conclusions of his female characterizations there to someone else.)

I don't know Gunn personally, but he's very candid on his blog and Twitter feed, and he seems to have no problem with strong women in his personal life, either. He dates cool, interesting, smart ladies, and he recently championed Twitter comedian and Chris Brown-defeater Jenny Johnson. Noted feminist and all around badass Joss Whedon endorsed his hiring to Guardians, presumably after having done at least a little research into Gunn's character. Armed with the context of Gunn's films, his writing and the way he seems to live his life, I enjoyed his 50 Superheroes post with no amount of uncertainty. I guess you could say I 'got' it.

Is it because I'm a fan and I'm partial to him? I can't deny that's part of it, but being a fan and therefore very familiar with his output has given me the necessary framework to feel qualified (as qualified as anyone who doesn't personally know Gunn can be) to say that this guy is not a sexist. 

The Mary Sue author Susana Polo said a post on the Lady Geek Girl brought Gunn's poll to her attention, and both posts read as if written by someone who doesn't know much about James Gunn. And I don't blame them for that. He's not a necessarily big name, and if I were unfamiliar with Gunn's past works, I'd be appalled at what he wrote, too. The Lady Geek Girl post, written by Lady Saika, says, "I find myself burdened with the glorious purpose of tearing a rich white guy I don’t know a new asshole on the internet."

And I think therein lies the difference in the way we're perceiving Gunn's intent. I think of Gunn as an underdog, a guy who has more than paid his dues, working his way through a bunch of drudge jobs equipped with an irreverent sense of humor and a load of talent. Polo and Saika think of him as just another arrogant, privileged Hollywood fatcat trying to edge us out of our hard-won, tiny corner of geekdom. 

And you know, I get that too. I don't love writing this post because I am loath to point fingers at Polo or Saika for not being in on the joke. The fact is, it sucks to be a feminist in the geek world. It's a thankless job that makes us feel like we should be on constant guard to protect our estate while daily battling the humorless shrew stereotype. The very act of my saying, "It's a joke that you don't get," turns me into one of those guys who calls every feminist with a legitimate concern a humorless shrew. I don't want to be that guy. 

But I also don't want to be the guy who reads a petition demanding a talented, interesting, unconventional director I admire be fired from his first big break without defending him. I truly, absolutely believe Gunn's post is satire. It's clear to me now that it's not successful satire, as it offends and alienates anyone not acquainted with Gunn's style of writing, and that's not really how satire works.

But unsuccessful satire - particularly satire meant to be in the service of the very things we fight for as feminists in the genre community - is certainly no reason to fire someone. Being a feminist isn't just words, it's actions. Gunn's actions acquit him. As a feminist, a genre lover and an admirer of irreverence in all forms, I want the man who wrote and directed Slither to be behind The Guardians of the Galaxy. James Gunn isn't a misogynist, he's an iconoclast. And we need more iconoclasts in Hollywood.