[17 June 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
The ‘Washington Post’ film critic wasn’t wrong in wondering aloud about the impact Hollywood can have on the typical young male.
If anything, the Internet has made the world a cruel, cruel place to be for cultural critics. The common insatiable desire for interaction and connection that we all share has been afforded the tools to make such impulses not only more readily available, but also imperative. Imperative to submit to. Imperative to utilize.
Celebrated Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday met this consequence head-on a couple weeks ago when she penned a response to the impact she believes Hollywood may have had on Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, on 23 May. She wondered how complicit modern day entertainment was in the fabric of the killer’s influences and ultimate decision to take his anger and aggression out in a deadly manner.
“As Rodger bemoaned his life of ‘loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desire,’ and arrogantly announced that he would now prove his own status as ‘the true alpha male,’ he unwittingly expressed the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA,” Hornaday wrote. “For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny). Rodger’s rampage may be a function of his own profound distress, but it also shows how a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.”
This observation might not have caused the stir it did if it wasn’t followed by the critic’s mention of the recent film Neighbors, which stars Seth Rogen and profiles the trials and tribulations of a married couple living next to a fraternity house. Hornaday cited the flick by asking:
“How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like Neighbors and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure’? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?” (“In a final videotaped message, a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen”, 25 May 2014)
And boom, as they say, went the dynamite.
The citation sparked a bevy of debate, highlighted (or, one could argue, jump-started) by Rogen and Apatow, when they took to their respective Twitter accounts to lash out at the writer. “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage,” Rogen wrote. “I find your article horribly insulting and misinformed. She uses tragedy to promote herself with idiotic thoughts,” Apatow opined.
We’ll start with the latter and move to the former. Call me naïve, but having spent the last three or four years religiously looking on the Washington Post‘s website to read what Hornaday has to say about movies I might want to see—and viewing how selfless and forthcoming she has been on other platforms, such as Twitter and radio interviews—it’s nearly impossible to conclude that the critic was merely looking to promote herself by suggesting such a correlation. I don’t know her, of course, but part of her charm and appeal is the humility with which she often presents herself in her writing and commentary.
That armchair observation pales in comparison, however, to the apex of why the director’s response was both foolish and cheap. Because for as much as their telling egos might not enjoy hearing it, Hornaday’s column, in fact, was not all about either Neighbors, Rogen or Apatow. Actually, reading how infuriated those two guys were, it’s hard to think either of them went any further than reading a blurb from a Google News search.
“Critic Ann Hornaday says Neighbors responsible for shooting rampage, wonders if Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow will face charges”
That’s not even close.
Of the essay’s eight paragraphs, the people and movie in question appeared a grand total of once. Of the film references in it, Neighbors amounted to no more than a quarter of the piece’s total examples (American Psycho, The Pick-Up Artist and “every Bond villain in the canon” were referenced beforehand). I mean, upon reading the thing in its entirety for the first time, I had to go back and re-read each word after realizing how upset Rogen and Apatow were. At first glance, I took the mention as a throwaway example, one of thousands she could have plucked from thin air to illustrate her point, which clearly had a much broader focus on sexism than it did yet another cheap-laugh-fest from the Knocked Up guy.
So, to think that the director/writer would argue that she was merely looking for click bait is not only absurd, but almost entirely ill informed. Which is a shame, because Apatow has done his share of great things when it comes to the modern misogynistic debate; such as helping get Girls off the ground, and making Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay Weir in Freaks & Geeks one of the most complex female characters one could find on television. How he could get off suggesting Hornaday was compiling “idiotic thoughts” is somewhat shockingly unimaginative for such a hugely accomplished member of Hollywood.
Then, there’s Rogen, whose willingness to play the indignant card is a bit perplexing. The aforementioned “It’s not fair” scenario that unfolded in the critic’s column is much more a comment on Tinsel Town’s obsession with male idealism than it is a barb at the ignorance of a single actor, is it not? Consider the sentence again, though this time, without the presence of Apatow’s name:
“How many men, raised on a steady diet of comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?”
Couple that with the fact that Hornaday never even mentions Rogen by name, and what you have is an actor drawing parallels that were seemingly never intended to be the sole focus of what the writer was attempting to convey in the first place. Neighbors, along with Apatow and Rogen, were only the latest examples in a long, storied line of these types of films and these types of stories. Hornaday was merely looking for the latest example of this kind of movie, a type of movie that has been around for about as long as popcorn has been sold at the concession stand.
Thus we ask: If the shooting and subsequent essay at hand all occurred soon after the release of Superbad, would Jonah Hill be lashing out? If this tragedy and reaction would have happened in 2005, when Wedding Crashers hit theaters, would Vince Vaughn be releasing some terse statement, discrediting and dismissing one of the more respected movie critics in the business?
Even worse was the outrage it incited online by those who felt their own personal response to the controversy was vital. (Yes, I know: pot, kettle, and all that.) One of the loudest, most impassioned diatribes came from Dan Sickles at The Huffington Post.
“Ms. Hornaday,” he concluded, “I’m a passionate film lover, a feminist, and a civil rights activist. It’s a shame to see your tangled, convoluted thoughts make it to print instead of staying in the pages of your notebook. The recklessness of your words only add noise to the already-cacophonic turf many of these important wars are being waged on, and it may be time to extricate yourself, or stick to what you know best, criticizing other people’s work.” (“Responding to Ann Hornaday and the Trappings of Misguided Feminism”, 27 May 2014)
It’s not that Sickles didn’t make some fair points in his response—maybe the famed Bechdel Test isn’t the most accurate way to judge a film’s gender bias. If we are to blame movies for mass murder, why didn’t Hornaday note that some responsibility should fall upon video games, music and other forms of entertainment, as well? But to reduce the Washington Post scribe as just another “uninformed journalist”? Calling her ideas “haphazard” and the article a “negligible, ignorant piece of trash”?
Really? Did you have to do that?
I can’t vouch for Sickles’ credentials, other than his work at The Huffington Post, of course, but I do know that Hornaday used to write movie reviews for The New York Times. I do know that she worked her way from being an editorial assistant at a magazine to holding the film critic position at The Baltimore Sun and The Austin American-Statesman, two well-respected American newspapers. And, maybe most notably, I do know that she was once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and that honor came as a result of her work in criticism.
Sure, Sickles noted how he had never even heard of Hornaday prior to reading the article at hand, but did he even take a minute or two to actually learn something about her before spouting off?
I’ve been very lucky in my life to write for various publications and have a few people say some very nice things about my work. But I’ve also been subject to some really harsh and really damning criticism from readers who have voiced their concern with not only my judgment, but also my ability to write. One of my favorite reactions? “Never read anything with Colin McGuire’s name at the top.”
But what I find hard to accept in the case of Hornaday vs. The World is how volatile fellow writers have been. In addition to Sickles’ vicious rant, there are a great deal of essays out there that contain caveats about the article’s intention: “I understand the point she was trying to make… but this wasn’t the example to pin her argument on,” Slate‘s Jessica Grose wrote, while Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon noted, “I generally like Hornaday’s writing, but to include Apatow in this list of offenders strikes me as, frankly, kind of bizarre.” (“If Hollywood Movies Inspire Real-Life Violence, Then Why Are Teens Less Violent Than Ever?”, Slate, 28 May 2014) (“Presuming Bad Faith Is No Way to Argue”, by Sonny Bunch, Washington Free Beacon, 27 May 2014)
But why? Why is it so bizarre to cite one of the most successful and arguably the most popular director/writer of his generation when it comes to the specific genre Hornaday was calling out? Who else was she supposed to use? The Farrelly brothers? Ben Stiller? Jason Segel? And just what movie was she supposed to call upon to make her point in the modern day? The Fault In Our Stars? Maleficent? Edge of Tomorrow?
Bravely (and I would argue rightly), Hornaday released a video response the week after her tiny string of words created such a firestorm of criticism. In it, she refused to back down, noting how the point of her essay was to further the conversation on a subject far too complex to merely begin and end with her short column.
“In my capacity as a movie critic,” she said, “I was looking at the video as a lens through which to examine questions about sexism, insecurity and entitlement, how they’ve threaded their way through an entertainment culture historically dominated by men and how they’ve shaped our own expectations as individuals and a culture. At a time when women account for less than 20 percent of filmmakers behind the camera and protagonists in front of it, I suggested that it’s long past time to expand and diversify the stories we tell ourselves.” (“Ann Hornaday on her Elliot Rodger YouTube video column, the response and a conversation that should continue”,The Washington Post, 28 May 2014)
I think Hornaday was right. One-hundred percent right. No qualifier. No, “but”. No justifications. Simply. Just. Right. She was right to expand the horrific tragedy into an observation on an uneven popular culture. She was right to offer her opinions on how to make that uneven popular culture more versatile. And she was right to further a conversation worth having as these unbelievably disturbing killing-spree catastrophes keep popping up with more frequency.
None of us have answers for any of these things. Apatow and Rogen don’t. Sickles doesn’t. Neither does Hornaday. But to ridicule and dismiss one’s attempt at finding any modicum of resolution or reason in the midst of this disaster is far worse than merely pulling a set of movie examples out of thin air to illustrate a point worth pondering.
Conversations like this aren’t easy to have and they certainly don’t come without fault. But as one Washington Post movie critic pointed out with what I would argue was grace and intelligence, they are mandatory to have if we as a people hope to find any value in interpersonal engagement, they are mandatory if we as a people choose to concern ourselves with bettering the way we go about living our day to day lives.
Some of us have that hope. Yet as Hornaday found out all too well, some of us don’t.