Last Friday, the Walt Disney Company abruptly severed its professional relationship with writer-director James Gunn. Gunn’s third movie for the company, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, was to start production this fall; his first two Guardians films (sorry, “volumes”) grossed a combined $1.6 billion for Disney. So this was no small thing — the termination, for cause, of a central asset of the most successful movie franchise in the world. What ended Gunn’s gig was not his job performance, but his pre–Marvel Universe status as a fringe director, internet asshole, and provocateur. His time at Disney expired due to bad tweets, now the second leading cause of Hollywood career death, behind only sexual misconduct. The tweets — an endless, gross, “indefensible,” in the company’s words, litany of sick jokes about pedophilia — were not entirely fresh news. They, along with entries on a blog Gunn eventually took down, had been the subject of online discussion for quite some time. If the studio didn’t know about them already, the reason can only be that it simply wasn’t paying attention. (The studio’s statement dismissing Gunn did not address the question of how long those in charge have known about his tweets.)
What apparently caused Disney to pull the trigger was the tweeting of Mike Cernovich, alt-right self-styled scourge and a central figure in the Pizzagate/Infowars Universe, who re-unearthed Gunn’s jokes and went into strategically righteous “how can Disney let this man work around children” mode. (The Guardians movies are cast with adults, but never mind.) Practically bleeding concern from every pore, Cernovich later wrote of Gunn’s tweets, “How do you know they are jokes?” Cernovich then got to his real point, which is that he claims to have examples of “100” more Hollywood people making pedophilia jokes on Twitter. Oh, good. Yay. This should be another awesome couple of weeks in the land of Everything Is Garbage Now.
There are many boxes to unpack here, and the smallest, least interesting one is labeled “Find a better use for your time and creative energy than making jokes about sex with children.” That doesn’t need to be discussed because, one’s absolute right to make those jokes aside, pretty much everyone agrees that it’s bad, including Gunn, who tweeted his regrets about them, and after being fired, issued a statement about his “wildly insensitive” tweets, the sum of which was that although “they don’t reflect the person I am today … I take full responsibility,” and as a “business decision,” I get it.
As mea culpas go, fine: It’s a teachable moment. Henceforth, everyone should sing like no one can hear you, dance like nobody’s watching, and tweet like several years from now you’ll be employed by a corporation trying not to run afoul of government regulatory agencies mid-merger. Let your work be your “brand,” not your needy impulse to shock the room. But it’s too easy to say that Gunn brought this on himself. He didn’t. Assuming there is no more to the story than we are being told, from all appearances Disney capitulated, without more than a half-day’s thought, to a manifestly disingenuous pressure campaign from a movement seeking to recast an ongoing debate about offensive speech to suit its own purposes — a redefinition that does not stand up to a minute’s scrutiny. And in doing so, Disney endorsed something far more offensive and dangerous than Gunn’s joke that in the sequel to The Giving Tree, the tree gives the kid a blow job.
The road to the takedown of Gunn probably began two months ago, with Disney’s (via its network ABC) abrupt cancellation of Roseanne after its star compared former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape, while attacking Muslims and George Soros for good measure. Like Gunn, Barr had a long history of appalling statements on social media, one that was well-known to ABC before Roseanne was revived. Unlike Gunn, the tweet that resulted in her dismissal was brand-new, which suggested that Disney was willing to draw a line, in effect granting its top-level talent amnesty for any preemployment offensiveness as long as, going forward, their records stayed clean.
Barr’s support for Trump made her a hero of the right (and of Trump himself, who called her to offer congratulations on her first episode’s ratings). When she shot herself in the foot, as anyone who has followed her social-media career knew she would, her firing was quickly reframed by alt-righters as the end point of a liberal-media smear campaign. And here’s where the problem starts. The Breitbart/Trump/Cernovich portion of the right has always tried to minimize blatant racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim rhetoric by placing it all under one heading: “not politically correct.” In their world, only “snowflakes” take umbrage at people who dare to “tell it like it is”; they view everything from the #MeToo movement to attacks on racism as penalties that liberals administer to those who violate perceived political orthodoxy. The outrage with which Cernovich went after Gunn is a calculated posture, a way of saying, “If you can get someone fired by saying their words are offensive, we can too.”
That approach depends, for its effectiveness, on a deliberate refusal to draw any categorical distinctions. It insists on a world in which punishment should be weighed not by the intensity of the offense but by the noise level of those who are (or act) offended. Thus, Gunn’s comment that a hotel shower was so weak that it felt like a 3-year-old peeing on his head (yes, that is literally one of the “pedophilia” jokes that was quoted in support of his firing) is given the same weight as a blunt-force attack on African-Americans, the LGBTQ community, or women. If you can’t see a difference between a lame Gunn tweet from 2012 like “Three Men and a Baby They Had Sex With #unromanticmovies” and “When is the last time women organized to support a men’s rights issue? Stop being fags. Who cares about breast cancer and rape? Not me” (a Cernovich tweet from 2012 — he’s super-interested in not being interested in rape), then you’re either not trying, or you’re invested in insisting there’s no difference. As is, for example, Ted Cruz, who swiftly attached his suction cups to the underside of this news cycle and sweatily tweeted about Gunn that “if these tweets are true, he needs to be prosecuted.” By Saturday, Gunn’s Wikipedia page had a subheading labeled “Pedophilia accusations”; it has since been changed, but the reputational damage is done.
Disney has always fluffed its feathers about how, because of its worldwide brand, anyone associated with its name must be above reproach, but in the wake of its merger with 21st Century Fox, it’s going to be responsible for more of what we watch than any other company in America. How the company decides what to punish and what to defend is a question its employees and its customers have a right to ask, and the answer had better be something other than “We’ll do it quickly and in a state of panic.”
The website Deadline Hollywood fretted over the weekend that Gunn’s firing was going to cause a “free speech chill” in Hollywood, but free speech has never meant the right to make public remarks with a guarantee of no consequences from one’s employer — it didn’t for Barr and it doesn’t for Gunn. This will not be solved by the application of a single, uniform principle, whether it is “Free speech is absolute” or “Anything that offends someone is by definition offensive.” It can be handled only by examining nuance, intention, and meaning, an approach in which corporations rarely specialize or excel.
We live in an era in which any insistence that two things with surface similarities are in fact different is met with instant, ill-informed charges of hypocrisy. But a joke — even a thousand creepy jokes that you wouldn’t tell at a dinner table, in a locker room, or anywhere else — is not the same thing as the public stereotyping or vilification of groups that are already widely targeted with discrimination and hatred. Sarah Silverman’s “I want to get an abortion but my boyfriend and I are having difficulty conceiving,” is not an attack on babies, as much as Ted Cruz would probably want to prosecute her for conspiracy to commit murder. Nor does it equal Roseanne Barr calling George Soros a Nazi “who turned his fellow Jews in 2 be murdered … and stole their wealth.” One is a jab; one is a libel (one for which Barr later apologized). What the alt-right wants is to gerrymander the racist, the hateful, the defamatory, and the outright menacing into the same district as the merely tasteless, in the hope that the left will shrug in resignation and sigh, “Okay, we give, maybe it’s all merely tasteless.” But it’s not. And if a company that’s all about expression can’t draw those distinctions — and worse, if it outsources its judgment about offensiveness to professional internet trolls — how can any creative artist believe that Disney has their back?