Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Was Ann Hornaday Right?

Following the shooting massacre near the University of California Santa Barbara, the issue of misogyny has reentered mainstream news and commentary. One response to this shooting was offered by Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday who wrote that the shooter, who had posted an online video claiming he was going to take revenge on the women who had rejected him, suffered from “delusions [that] were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in.” Hornaday went on to implicate the recent comedies of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan in creating those delusions. She wrote, “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like ‘Neighbors’ and feel, as [the shooter] 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’?”

Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan responded to Hornaday over Twitter. Rogan tweeted, “I find your article horribly insulting and misinformed” and “how dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

The exchange between Hornaday, Apatow, and Rogan brought the ongoing debate about the role and responsibility of cinema to the forefront but picking on one film or group of filmmakers is not productive. To suggest that comedies like Neighbors or Knocked Up incited a shooting spree is ludicrous. For that matter, blaming violent movies and video games is equally silly. A single film or even an entire genre of films do not have the power to brainwash an otherwise normal human being and turn him or her (but usually him) into a killer.

However, that isn’t quite what Hornaday was suggesting in her piece. What Hornaday was really picking up on is something far more widespread and troubling. In her piece she wrote:
Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.
Hornaday is not a indicting a particular film or filmmaker here. This is about a much broader matrix of images, themes, and narratives that Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry thrust upon us.

The most effective propaganda does not conjure brand new images or ideas or directly challenge core beliefs. Rather, effective propaganda utilizes preexisting beliefs, values, and prejudices and reflects and reinforces them, usually grafting those beliefs onto a cause, an idea, or a story. The films of Judd Apatow and his protégés and imitators do have a problematic regard for women but they didn’t create it (and Apatow and company are far from the worst offenders). Their films are consistent with the way the motion picture industry and the culture as a whole have envisioned and internalized notions of male entitlement.

Women have been marginalized in mainstream Hollywood films since the very inception of the studio system. It’s only recently that the idea of a female director has become a possibility within the Hollywood old boys club but even in 2012 only 9 percent of the top 250 movies at the domestic box office were directed by women. Things are about as bad on the acting front, where less than one-third of speaking roles—not lead roles but simply acting parts with a bit of dialogue—were portrayed by women. Concerns about the portrayal of women (or the absence of women) isn't about a single film or filmmaker. This is systemic and its message to the audience, intentional or not, is that women’s stories do not matter and that women serve a utilitarian function in the stories of men.

But this isn’t just about feature films. The imagery of movies exists in concert with other media including music, novels and print ads and together they shape and reinforce, in Hornaday’s words, “what we desire, expect and feel we deserve” from life.

Misogyny and male entitlement are so deeply entrenched in the culture and in the business practices of the entertainment industry that hoping for change is an act of folly. But it isn’t the film critic’s job to hope. It is the job of critics to critique individual films and to point out the larger context in which those films exist. No one should expect Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan to accept blame for a shooting rampage because they aren’t responsible for it. But they are accountable for the content of their films. Provoking thought and consciousness of the themes and values of movies--spoken and unspoken--is about the best critics can do and filmmakers and moviegoers ought to ponder those criticisms carefully.

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