How Does Film Criticism Climb Out From Underneath the Hollywood Scandals?

With Hollywood scandals making headlines in waves, how do we overcome our collective paralysis?
Movie Theater Crowd
By  · Published on November 17th, 2017

With Hollywood scandals making headlines in waves, how do we overcome our collective paralysis?

Yesterday afternoon, the staff of Birth.Movies.Death released a statement addressing their lack of coverage of Hollywood’s ongoing sexual abuse scandals. “That this ongoing tsunami of revelations came on the heels of our own troubled history has weighed heavily on us here at BMD,” the statement read, admitting that “responsibility and humility collided, and to be frank, we froze.” This statement also came on the heels of a statement by entertainment site Tracking Board, which recently underwent staff-wide sensitivity training when certain members of their staff made offensive comments about the cycle. While the effects of these statements depends on the perspective of the person reading them – one site that said too little, one site that said too much – it does speak to how poorly prepared many entertainment sites are to handle the seriousness of the moment. It feels overwhelming.

And while I’m still struggling with my own feelings about Hollywood scandals and how we cover them in the news, I can certainly relate to that feeling of paralysis described in BMD’s open letter. Since the collapse of Cinefamily, it seems like the entertainment industry has been dominated by stories about sexual harassment and abuse, and it’s easy to rationalize yourself into circles as a writer about your part in all of this. How can you talk about comic book movies and award season buzz when people are putting themselves on the line to protect others? Shouldn’t I, as a white man, keep my mouth shut and my ears open to help amplify the voices of women in the industry? Or is it my responsibility to speak out in the hope that I might reach people disinclined to listen to anyone who doesn’t look like them? Or am I trying to make myself the victim by even acknowledging this conflict? When faced with these layers of doubt, it certainly seems like the prudent course of action to keep one’s voice out of the mix.

(Worth noting: no writer has better tackled these twisting concerns than The Cut’s Rebecca Traister, who captured each side of the argument – the good intentions of men and the road to hell that they may ultimately pave – in a piece titled “We Are All Implicated in the Post-Weinstein Reckoning.”)

All of this was difficult enough when the accused (Weinstein, James Toback) loomed large as cartoonish villains in Hollywood. In the past week, though, the entertainment industry’s wave of sexual harassment issues has enveloped people known just as much for their advocacy as for their talent. First it was George Takei – an outspoken advocate for both LGBTQ and Asian/Asian-American representation in film and television – who was accused of sexually assaulting a male model in 1981. Just yesterday, Transparent star Trace Lysette corroborated previous claims of misconduct levied against Jeffrey Tambor with her own on-set experiences; meanwhile, former comedian and current Minnesota senator Al Franken faced accusations of his own by radio host Leeann Tweeden. Each of these men had made a name for themselves as performers, but in recent years they had also taken on a special significance as outspoken allies against underrepresentation in the media. They were advocates. Now they’re just part of the problem.

As more victims work up the courage to share their stories, the unequal application of accountability may cause some to equivocate. If Roy Moore and Donald Trump are not forced to face the consequences of their actions, one might ask, why should we crucify men like Takei and Franken despite all the good they’ve done as public figures? Couldn’t you make the argument that they are too important to the movement/cause/resistance to be allowed to fail? There’s also the danger of confirmation bias, where we look for opinions that validate our own desires (this has certainly been a challenge with the Alamo Drafthouse situation, where I suspect my desire to keep enjoying the cinematic experience the theater chain offers plays no small part in how closely I listen to the female voices supporting the rehabilitation of the theater post-Fantastic Fest). Takei and Franken will have their defenders, and if you’re looking for a reason to keep supporting both men despite the accusations, you will be able to find rationalization for doing so.

Perhaps it’s best to remember that this is just the beginning: there have been too many blind items and tabloid gossip over the years for us to think we’re anywhere near the end of the line when it comes to Hollywood accusations. And at the risk of repeating what many women have already said, the groundwork for what happens next has already been laid. Believe women. Amplify women. Be vocal when it comes to progress in representation; the easiest thing in the world would be for some studios to simply pull the plug on projects like Transparent, and it’s important – to slightly paraphrase Tweeden’s comments – to not let communities suffer for the actions of the individual. Remember to be consistent in your application of standards. Men like Takei and Franken must face the consequences for their actions; there are no shortage of other voices – including female and non-binary voices – who stand ready to take their place. Put your faith in them.

Above all, though, remember this: male writers are not the victim here. Entertainment sites are not the victim here. Outspoken male allies are not the victim here. The only victims are the ones harmed by the actions these individuals (and institutions) have taken – from Lupita Nyong’o to Leeann Tweeden – and they deserve our respect, admiration, and the full backing of the law until their allegations have been investigated to their satisfaction. That much, at least, we can absolutely get right.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)