Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Under the Gunn: Disney and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Decision

By now, you've most likely heard the tragic tale of the firing of James Gunn as Disney decided to go in a different direction with the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. It's a tale as old as time: man begins his film career with low-budget, ultra-violent films and develops fan following, that same man makes some off-colour jokes on Twitter involving paedophilia, years later that man is hired by a giant megacorporation to direct a movie starring a lesser-known pantheon of comic book characters that fits into a larger cinematic universe, after making that megacorporation a shitload of money an angry, belligerent Internet troll digs up those old jokes, the megacorporation - who was already well aware of those jokes - summarily fires that director to get out ahead of a controversy that doesn't even exist. Classic.

What should have been a mere blip in the cultural radar turned into a full-on, foot-long shit sandwich with all the fixings. This whole crazy ride is extremely troubling for several reasons. Not only did a global corporation very publicly summarily dismiss somebody without any pretense of due process or the slightest evidence of forethought or careful consideration, they did it based on off colour remarks he made in his own free time in his private life. Even worse, Disney's decision to fire James Gunn seems to have been entirely based on the campaign of a well-known and admitted shit-disturbing troll who set out with the express purpose to specifically get Mr. Gunn fired, and shows no demonstrable proof that he actually believes that the director's jokes about rape or paedophelia were indicative of any actual real-world wrong-doing.

Let's take a cue from Disney, and work through those points completely ass-backwards. The man most directly responsible was Miles Dyson Michael Cernovich, a men's rights activist, conspiracy theorist, and author of the self-published book, Gorilla Mindset, the subject matter of which seems centred on teaching men how to be dominant, alpha males in order to be more successful with women. He was an avid supporter of the conspiracy theory about Hilary Clinton and her pals running a child sex-trafficking ring from out of the basement of a pizza shop that turns out (unsurprisingly) doesn't even have a basement. This probably came as something of a shock to the gunman who, acting on assertions from Cernovich and his ilk, decided to take the law into his own hands and shoot up the place. Of course, whether or not there was a basement is also besides the point, as the whole paedophile sex-trafficking story was obviously bullshit from the getgo, not passing the smell test from any actual journalist, and only picked up on by other conspiracy-spouting assholes like Alex Jones.

Needless to say that a guy like Cernovich, while criticizing others for what they post to Twitter, would make an extra effort to at least appear squeaky clean and avoid controversy, or at least steer clear of really despicable behaviour that he's accusing others of. Well if you thought that, you're dead wrong. Take a look at a small sample of Cernovich's tweets covering a wide range of important topics:

Have you guys ever tried "raping" a girl without using force? Try it. It's basically impossible. Date rape does not exist.
-Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) August 12, 2012

Not being a slut is the only proven way to avoid AIDS. If you love black women, slut shame them. https://t.co/e3NUaTUZvD
-Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) February 5, 2016

The "alt-right" hasn't killed anyone, but #BlackLivesMatter regularly slaughters the innocent. Know the real threat. Think! #Dallas
-Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) July 8, 2016

If you're really interested in what Mr. Cernovich has to say on Twitter, feel free to check out Vic Berger IV, a dedicated Twitter user who documents the various offenses Cernovich perpetrates against people. If you have the stomach for it, check it out to get a feel for the ideas Cernovich espouses. It would be a real shame if he were judged for something he said out of context. One of the really great tweets is a video where Cernovich basically lays out his intentions with "controlling the narrative" of a dude who doxxed another Reddit user as opposed to getting to any sense of truth. This is a man who openly admits to his methods of intentionally trying to sabotage the careers and lives of other people who share different views than him, or that he doesn't like for whatever reason, as a matter of course. The example of the "pizzagate" conspiracy is a great (Great meaning large or immense, we use it in the pejorative sense!) example of the complete disregard that Cernovich and others like him for how their words and actions actually effect other people's lives (usually for the worse).

In an article by Daily Beast, they quote Ben Shapiro as saying the following in regards to Cernovich being interviewed on a Fox News program: “You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s a nutcase. Granting any legitimacy to a fringe kook like Mike Cernovich, and all of the attendant nastiness and problems, is close to insane by any cable network.” Now I'm certainly no fan of Ben Shapiro who is problematic in his own brand of terrible ideas and emblematic of all of the terrible ideas the alt right and ultra-conservatives still keep trying to disseminate. But I only bring this up specifically to illustrate exactly how far on the fringe Mike Cernovich is, where even guys like Ben Shapiro say that he's too extreme in his views. That's like having Harvey Weinstein tell you that you're acting inappropriately around woman.

The thing is, not only is any of this information about Mike Cernovich in any way secret, most of it is actually propagated by Cernovich himself. He's open about his hatred, open about his methods and total disregard for truth, and open about the people he is intentionally targeting.

And this is the man that Disney executives looked at and said to themselves, "Gee, this seems like a legitimate voice from a concerned citizen whose obviously crackpot ideas we should definitely give credence to when making major business decisions."

In short, Mike Cernovich is Disney's real-life Jiminy Cricket.

What's most disturbing isn't that Disney decided to let their conscience be their guide, but that for them a conspiracy-theory-touting anti-feminist seemed to make sense to them.

Yeah... I'm not sure a dance off is going to cut it this time.
It seems strange to think about Disney following the lead of such a despicable human specimen. But it only seems strange because Disney has spent so much of their considerable time and resources reinforcing their image as a "family-friendly" company to the point where for most of us most of the time the illusion is perfect. You have to give Disney credit: they have got their image and messaging down to a science.

It's hard to see beyond the glare of the dancing and singing characters and colourful animation. It's all mostly hidden, but it's there for anyone who cares to look. Like some of their overtly racist dancing and singing characters and colourful animation, best exemplified by the now notorious Song of the South. The film, a blend of live action and animation, is basically the kind of movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks might have been had the KKK been producers on the film. But even more insidious is the casual racism that was in some of Disney's more well-known films. Think about the gang of crows in Dumbo or the Native Americans in Peter Pan or the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp.

This isn't to condemn Disney or all of its employees past or present as raging racists. These are undeniable parts of Disney's history, though, and they've been given the benefit of the doubt as they've matured as a company and made strides (however small) to be more progressive and inclusive. There's some kind of parallel to be drawn with the James Gunn incident, but I can't quite put my finger on it... Oh, wait, yes I fucking can. Because it's fucking obvious to anybody who made it past fifth grade. Gunn put out some content that was found to be offensive by some people (a low bar to clear), he himself acknowledged that some of his jokes weren't in good taste, apologized, and changed his behaviour. All of this would be funny if it weren't so rage-inducing.

And to be (more than) fair to Disney and its employees, the racial and social politics in its films can, at least in part, be chalked up to being a product of the time in which those films were produced. But then you have stuff like Disney abusing its corporate power to keep changing copyright laws to keep Mickey Mouse et al. from entering the public domain. They specifically lobbied the US government to extend the copyright term, which now keeps Mickey safely under Disney's careful curation until 2023 when the copyright on the character is due to enter public domain yet again. The last extension in 1998 also protected other Disney mainstays like Donald and Goofy, who would also have been in the public domain by now.

To be clear, this is a private corporation influencing government legislation to increase their corporate profits and to avoid paying back into the system from which they so eagerly withdrew from. Ah yes, it's easy to forget that dozens of their most popular and profitable properties are built on public domain characters and stories. Hypocrisy, thy name appears to be Disney.

But wait, there's more! Who could forget the way that Disney pushes around small theatre owners by forcing them to guaranteed runs of their films for months in venues with limited screens that need to switch up their films more often than the big cineplexes? Or the way that Disney sought to blacklist the L.A. Times for one of their journalists daring to write something (gasp!) unflattering about them? And don't forget the subject matter of that unflattering article which detailed way that Disney is royally fucking over the city of Anaheim. It was only due to the power of public scrutiny that Disney grudgingly backpedaled on trying to quash a news organization's freedom of speech. There was no argument made as to the veracity of the story either. It was purely a matter of silencing a dissenting voice that might have cost them money. The implications of this are as horrific as Disney's public statements are completely tone-deaf.

Bullying and legal gerrymandering are par for the course with large companies, and Disney, despite its self-perpetuated family-friendly image, is no exception. Individuals within that company are probably by and large honest, hard-working people, but unfortunately, the core is obviously rotten. Even more troubling, Disney seems to simply be doing things that a lot of other companies wish they had the power to do.

Which brings us back to the firing of James Gunn. Disney's decision isn't troubling just because they took their lead from a shit-disturbing Internet troll with no moral compass. It's troubling because it demonstrates the overreach of a corporation being able to fire people arbitrarily. Granted, the inner workings of the Hollywood machine are a little different than other industries, but this is emblematic of decades of efforts to roll back worker rights and protections. Firing employees without fear of even the slightest hint of repercussion is a capitalist wet dream if ever there was one. The problem with Disney firing Gunn for comments he made years ago in his capacity as a private citizen is the precedent it sets for all other corporations, who we can be assured are watching the sharks circle. Not with any hope of rescuing the survivors, but of joining in on the feeding frenzy.

Now, in the interest of fairness, let's take a look at some of James Gunn's tweets that so offended the sensibilities of Mike Cernovich and his den of fellow alt-right Internet trolls:

Wondering which Disneyland character would be the worst to get raped by. I think it's Goofy. But Sleepy would suck too.
-James Gunn (@JamesGunn) October 22, 2009

I'm doing a big Hollywood film adaptation of The Giving Tree with a happy ending - the tree grows back and gives the kid a blowjob.
-James Gunn (@JamesGunn) September 19, 2011

The best thing about being raped is when you're done being raped it's like "Whew, this feels great, not being raped."
-James Gunn (@JamesGunn) February 22, 2009

For the record, I'm against rape AND baby eating in real life (unless you're really, really, really hungry.)
-James Gunn (@JamesGunn) August 4, 2009

You can click on the link above, but the few I quoted directly above give a pretty good overview of the flavour. Now, some people have been publicly ruminating about whether Gunn's jokes were in good taste or even funny at all. But whether or not the jokes were in good taste is completely irrelevant.

First of all, it's quite apparent that James Gunn isn't actually advocating for rape, or baby-eating, or peadophelia. Gunn started off his career at Troma Entertainment, known for endearing family classics like The Toxic Avenger and Poultrygeist: Night of the Living Dead Chicken. Troma films are known for their over-the-top gore, nudity, and violence. A throwback to the exploitation flicks of yore, Troma's films seem to be aimed at trying to shock or provoke the audience. This may not be your particular cup of tea, but I mention it only to provide context to a young James Gunn's Twitter feed. Being in that space, and considering his own early oeuvre included Tromeo and Juliet and the now cult classic Slither, one can see the context in which Gunn was tweeting. In an environment of people who saw themselves as provocateurs who were challenging the status quo by pushing of the limits of the taboo, it's easy to see how Gunn tried to embrace that mission.

Oh, sorry Disney. I didn't know how this machine worked.
But even the reason why James Gunn may have tweeted those things is largely irrelevant, aside, of course, from advocacy or harassment, which from the context, is pretty clearly not the case. This incident speaks to something more fundamental about our society. Even further than simply the power balance between employers (especially large corporations) and employees, the core of this entire affair is in large part about privacy. James Gunn wrote things in his capacity as a private citizen which his employer took into consideration when deciding whether to keep him under their employ. Some of you might be wanting to interject at this point that Twitter or any social media platform is a very public space, and we can't have any expectations of privacy, and people should be held accountable for their actions and face the consequences, good or ill. While I would agree with you on the last point in isolation, the James Gunn incident highlights a very important truth that we took for granted:

Privacy has always been a social construct and not a technological one.

Online social contexts are simultaneously radically different than offline social contexts and fundamentally similar. And paradoxically, it's the gap between those differences than sheds light on the similarities. There are no social contexts that are completely public or completely private; they usually fall on a scale somewhere between those two extremes. For example, having a private conversation with your friend in a public space like a crowded cafe, you still expect - and are entitled to - a certain degree of privacy. This is why there are social sanctions against such activities as eavesdropping, which has an extremely negative connotation. We all interact in common social spaces, but we draw generally agreed upon, reasonable boundaries about what we agree is private and public speech. I'm not talking about laws here, but a more general social contract. And those boundaries are largely defined by the transmission or restriction of consequences.

So yes, I absolutely believe that people should be held accountable for their actions, but that accountability and consequences should be appropriate to the social context and not necessarily transfer between contexts. For example, imagine you cheated on your spouse. Now, that's a pretty shitty thing to do, and it would make sense if the consequences of your infidelity led to couples counselling or divorce. But would it make sense for your manager at your job to fire you if they found out you had cheated on your spouse? Of course not; that would be as utterly absurd as the reverse of having your spouse divorce you because you fucked up your TPS reports at work. (Did you see the memo?)

What I'm getting at with the whole Disney firing James Gunn situation is that, aside from Disney taking their lead from a conspiracy-spouting, serial online harasser with no moral centre and a heart blacker than the darkest night, the precedent they set was bad not only for themselves, and not only for the industry, but for all of us. Consequences must follow rationally and logically, and most importantly, they must be contextually appropriate. The companies we work for have every right to expect us to do the job for which we were hired to do to the very best of our ability. What they don't have a right to do is to monitor every aspect of our lives and try to act as some kind of morality police and try and hold us to some kind of insane and unflinching standard of behaviour around the clock, for all eternity (especially a standard that they, themselves, repeatedly and often fall short of).

James Gunn getting fired as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. III isn't about whether all of the fanboys and fangirls get the movie they want. This is about the ability of companies to leverage our words and actions in one private social context in a totally unrelated social context. It's about the continued abuse of corporate power that allows employers to have another knife to dangle over our heads to keep wages lower and employees more docile and complacent and, ultimately, maximize their profits. It's, ultimately, about a shift in the balance of power, "balance" being the key word in that phrase.

When Disney fired James Gunn from his job for remarks he made and actions he took as a private citizen that broke no laws and caused no real harm, they made an unequivocally bad decision. Not just for themselves, but for all of us. It appears at this point that they have no intention of reversing that decision, so the only thing we can do is make our voices heard to prevent other similar bad decisions from being made, not only by Disney, but by any corporation that looks at George Orwell's 1984 and tries to enact in earnest, without irony or thought to the consequences, policies and precedents that Orwell sought to condemn with every fibre of his being.

The only guardians of this particular galaxy are the people we see staring back at us in the mirror every morning. And just like the heroes on film, the only way we succeed is if we succeed together.


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