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Guest Post: Examining One Reaction to the James Gunn Controversy

Essay

Shortly after James Gunn issued his sincere apology for an ambiguously satirical post on his blog that was rediscovered by fans in the wake of his appointment as the director of Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy, The Mary Sue received a letter in our inbox from a writer for another major entertainment blog. It contained what we thought were some very well put thoughts on the reaction against the reaction against Gunn’s post. We asked her if she would be comfortable publishing a form of the letter on the site, and she assented as long as she could make a few edits for the new format and she could obscure which specific site she worked for, which necessarily required the post to be published anonymously. Things were delayed a bit by the holidays and revisions, but without further ado, here’s her post.

Perhaps it’s a sign of progression in a certain subculture, when those most offended by a controversial issue are those who claim not to be offended by it at all.

The subject of sexism in gaming culture has been a hot topic over the past year: from the Anita Sarkeesian online harassment campaign, to the emergence of the “fake geek girl” meme, to Aris Bakhtanians‘ claim that sexism is “part of the culture” and removing it would be “ethically wrong”. 2012 turned geek and gaming culture into a battle ground when it came to issues of gender politics and sexism. I was spared from getting too involved with it, since while I’m an avid gamer, I am not a gaming journalist. I write for the film section of a comic book site, and my personal clash with issues of sexism in geek culture came more recently.

Last week, The Mary Sue called out James Gunn, writer-director of the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film adaptation, for a blog post he had written in February 2011 entitled ‘Fifty Superheroes You Most Want To Have Sex With’. The post mostly consisted of Gunn praising the superheroes’ assets and describing in explicit detail the sex acts he would like to perform upon them. It also included a few comments deemed misogynistic and homophobic by many, particularly feminist blogs and LGBT rights groups. The full story is available elsewhere on this site.

James Gunn removed the post with a sincere apology to those who had been offended by it. He stated that the blog post was “intended to be satirical and funny” but was “poorly worded and offensive to many”. Reading it retrospectively, he agreed that it was “not funny” and added that, “it kills me that some other outsider like myself, despite his or her gender or sexuality, might feel hurt or attacked by something I said.”

I was tasked by my editor with writing the story up for the site, which includes a forum that consists almost exclusively of male comic book fans.

I took the position that, while James Gunn by no means deserved to be fired from Guardians of the Galaxy without first being given the chance to respond to people’s challenges, the people who took offence were justified in doing so. If a work is intended as satirical, then the satire needs to be self-evident; you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the author’s previous body of work and views in order to ‘get’ the joke. In this case, you could argue that the blog’s tone was ‘obviously’ intended as humorous, but not that it was an obvious satire, and that’s a very important distinction to make, especially when writing in the context of a community that, even to this day, consistently marginalises women and perpetuates sexism.

Needless to say, my story didn’t go over well. I received over 300 comments, approximately 95% of which condemned myself and other people who’d taken issue with Gunn’s words for being ‘over-sensitive’ and said that any offence which had been taken was purely due to people being thin-skinned or actively searching for things to get offended by. One cruel-tongued dissenter even went so far as to state that I “was probably the kind of person who isn’t much fun at parties”. Another comment was that I should simply wear a blindfold and block my ears so that I wouldn’t have to hear or see offensive content. Among the many people who commented, there was only one female. She said that she liked the article.

“You’re just being oversensitive” is a comment that you tend to hear a lot when arguing against material that perpetuates homophobia, sexism, racism, however unintentionally. It was nonetheless a little ironic, given my own background. On the same website I’d been condemned for defending The Human Centipede – a film which I consider to be no great masterpiece, but nonetheless an interesting, well-written piece of body horror – and doing the same when the BBFC took the step of refusing the sequel a UK certificate, thereby preventing it from being legally shown in UK cinemas or sold in stores (a decision that was eventually repealed, albeit after huge cuts were made to the UK version of the film). Back then, these same proud defenders of “shock humour” and the “right to offend” had condemned the film as “disgusting”, “filth”, and “trash” – despite the fact that many of them admitted openly to not actually having watched it.

For what it’s worth James Gunn’s apology said just about everything that could have been hoped for. He effectively came down on the same side as people who’d called his blog post offensive, which was a brave thing to do when most of his fanbase was rallying to his defence. He’s off the hook as far as I’m concerned.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of the whole thing has been the post-apology reaction. For the most part, people who criticised the article in the first place seem to have accepted the apology and moved on. The group that remained most vocal were those who continue to insist that there was nothing wrong with what Gunn said in the first place.

When I wrote a follow-up article about the apology, the commenters in the forum did an abrupt 180. Whereas before they had been vehemently defending James Gunn, they now called him a pussy, said that he’d lost his balls, and that he was just a Disney puppet and a sellout. This suggests that what they were actually defending was not the man himself, but the right to make offensive jokes and not be called out for it.

The extremely vocal male majority in geek culture has been quick to decry any attempts to discuss issues of gender politics in the mediums that they worship, labelling dissenters as “hysterical” and “oversensitive”, and accusing them of having no sense of humour. It’s true that for every five critics who try to start a dialogue about why they felt a certain statement was offensive, there is another who will scream boycott and label the offender a misogynist/homophobic pig without waiting to hear their side of things. But somewhat ironically, the most extreme and infuriated reactions to these recent controversies have been from the groups of people who are currently comfortably at the top of the power structure, and who feel that their status quo is being threatened by the opinions of marginalised groups in their ranks.

Perhaps this is a good sign. I certainly prefer to think of it that way.

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