Love the Film, Hate The Filmmaker

Submitted by M. Baker

This week you may have learned the name Nate Parker.

This October, the first time director will see the release of his Nat Turner biopic, Birth of a Nation, which has already become a prominent Oscar contender after its overwhelmingly positive response at the Sundance Film Festival. Prior to this, Parker was an actor mostly known for appearing in roles such as the humble romantic lead in Beyond the Lights, and a more-than-disgruntled plane hijacker in Nonstop. In 1999, during his time as a student at Penn State, he and his roommate/co-writerJean Celestin, were charged with and put on trial for the rape of a fellow student. Parker was acquitted while Celestin served 6 months. The victim stated that she was unconscious during the assault, but the boys insisted she consented. The woman, who chose to protect her identity and is known only as Jane Doe, committed suicide by overdosing on pills in 2012. Her brother spoke with Variety on Monday, shedding light on Parker’s past, the effect it had on his sister, and his reservations towards the actor’s recent rise to fame.

I found this very troubling to read. It’s terrible what this woman went through. Considering how few rapes are actually reported, let alone go to trial, it’s immensely brave that she chose to face her accusers. It must have been devastating to see these boys get away with a mere slap on the wrist as she had to live with the emotional scars of the assault. After this information surfaced in the media I had to ask myself, “do I still support his movie?” Can you celebrate a movie whose driving creative force and voice is that of someone who denies any truth in a rape case? Parker posted a quasi-apology on Facebook saying he was “filled with profound sorrow” upon hearing the news of her death and says he does not “want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial,” yet he maintains his innocence. It’s an unsettling circumstance of a man who doesn’t own up to his actions, besides realizing he didn’t empathize enough at the time.

The initial reaction to my own inquiry was “well now I don’t have to see another slave movie.” Not that I had qualms with Birth of a Nation; I’m pretty excited that it’s re-purposing the name of one of the ugliest films in cinema’s history, but it will most likely continue the cycle of the only black led films nominated for Oscars are about slaves or - if you’re The Help - happy mammies. Especially after #OscarsSoWhite, it’s frustrating that the brief solution will be a biopic where most, if not all, the black characters will die. Don’t get me wrong, Nat Turner is an important historical figure who deserves some big screen reverence. I just want there to be a Birdman led by Idris Elba or a Spotlight featuring Kerry Washington to balance it out. But there is a flipside to this. No doubt Birth of a Nation is a film starring many talented black actors that generally don’t get the opportunity to play a prominent role in a prestige picture. More diversity onscreen will hopefully lead to more diverse casting in future films. 12 Years a Slave turned Lupita Nyong’o into an “It Girl” and Oscar winner, which is still impressive considering it was her first film role. If this film is successful both critically and financially and becomes an awards favorite, then it could prompt more studio backing and endorsement for directors of color.

But what to do about Parker? I’m obviously appalled by his actions. I’m disappointed that the only reason he regrets this mistake is because he’s a “man of faith” and now realizes that it would be dreadful if any of his daughters had to go through the same ordeal. No shit. Women don’t like getting raped. There are people in the world like you who could enact the same crime on your kids. This is a man who clearly grew up with a weak understanding of consent, as exemplified by his misconception of that night. It’s a blatant example of a man assuming that a highly intoxicated woman is capable of consent; an issue that has garnered awareness in recent years, especially on college campuses. Sadly, I recognize in good conscience that I cannot boycott his film because it would be hypocritical. I’ve seen many films made by white men who have committed equally heinous crimes. This year alone I saw both Woody Allen’s 30’s Hollywood nostalgia piece, Cafe Society, and Bryan Singer’s unrelenting X-Men Apocalypse (the latter I quite bemoan). I still go out and pay money for films made by people who “allegedly” have some really fucked up skeletons in their closet. I hate that in this instance I’m playing the race card, but when white directors with reported sexual assault allegations still screen their movies, then so should Parker. Maybe we have to let Birth of a Nation slide. Maybe we allow him the same privilege white men are so accustomed to. If you can shower Midnight in Paris with praise, then you can give Birth of a Nation a chance.

I unabashedly dislike Nate Parker as a person. He committed a crime, got off, and a woman’s life was destroyed. I grieve for his victim and so many other women who find themselves in similar circumstances. It is so important to speak up and seek justice in the case of rape, and college campuses need to continue cracking down on the issue. That being said, Nate Parker is a representation of something important to film culture. He is a black auteur whose film broke records amidst the bidding war for distribution rights (Fox Searchlight acquired it for $17.5 million). He is a symbol for studios to take more risks with non-white voices behind the camera. The success of Birth of a Nation could cause other unknown directors’ indie films to be bought at a festival or funded by a major studio. It’s a shame that the number of prominent black filmmakers is so low that I feel obligated to support this man’s feature in hopes that it will have a trickle-down effect. If we lived in a world where it was easy to name more black directors than Spike Lee, I wouldn’t have to support Birth of a Nation. The movie industry remains caucasian-centric, and the way to vote for change is with your dollars. I don’t want one bad apple to ruin the future of black filmmaking. Birth of a Nation happens to represent something greater than one man, much like Nat Turner himself. A single movie can ignite change in the industry. It’s always more important to focus on the future than the past,  but I implore you not to let Parker forget about his past.

Megan Baker is the talented writer behind The Vintage. Check out her incisive movie reviews and retrospectives!

Head Over Heels For My Puddin

Let’s talk about the intersection of female sexuality and public opinion. As you all know, this topic is an Internet staple. Lately it’s been revved into overdrive by the release of Suicide Squad – a film I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see. Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are rife with the trending hashtag #relationshipgoals attached to a photo of Harley Quinn and The Joker, Warner Bros has released a line of merchandise that proclaims the same, and the attendant screeds that wish to put to a stop to this phenomenon are full throated and annoying as hell. At first, I ignored it. Now that this film has grossed over $280 million and the voices of dissent are becoming louder and more ubiquitous, it’s impossible to continue ignoring it without unfriending half my mutual followers. The Negative Nancys usually unfurl the following argument: 

“The Joker and Harley Quinn are in an abusive relationship” – insert comic panel showing The Joker punching Harley or otherwise hurting her – “and should NOT be idealized.”

Then there’s a whole lot of bloviating about the nature of domestic abuse and Stockholm Syndrome, as well as a horde of mansplaining comic geeks that want to remind us all that Harley Quinn is an allegory for domestic abuse (a contentious topic), and should never be emulated. “She isn’t badass – she’s a victim!” is repeated ad nauseum, and there are passionate diatribes about what a delusional person she is, how she and Mistah J are definitely NOT in love, definitely NOT a “relationship goal,” and that the women who fantasize about these two need to be educated on what a healthy partnership looks like.

I’ve been clenching my teeth on the subject, because I’m not a DC fan and am therefore not personally invested in the discussion, but now I wish to say something, because this is a carousel that has gone around more than once. The central tenets are always the same: women don’t know what’s good for them, deserve to be lectured about their troubling sexual fantasies, and can’t grasp the concept of fiction. It happened in 2008 when The Dark Knight came out, and here it is again, bigger, louder, and more misogynist than ever.

A woman making a statement about the type of person she's attracted to? UNACCEPTABLE.

A woman making a statement about the type of person she's attracted to? UNACCEPTABLE.

What I’m going to present to you all is the idea that women are capable of identifying the difference between fantasy and reality. Shocking, right? Suicide Squad is a silly action movie starring charismatic actors. It’s set in the darkest of the popular comic book universes, and its heroes are the clinically insane and criminally violent. It’s pure escapism. Who doesn’t occasionally dream of inhabiting a fictional world? That’s why these things exist. Furthermore, Hollywood glamorizes all kinds of horrid, unhealthy shit, and this is what moralizing assholes are seizing upon? I’m sure it has nothing to do with policing female sexuality and everything to do with protecting victims of abuse and promoting good role models for women, right? Yes? No.
Eight years ago, the internet exploded with erotic Joker fanfiction courtesy of Heath Ledger fans who really dug his turn as the Clown Prince of Crime. Luckily for them, the DC universe comes equipped with a ready-made Mary Sue in the form of Harley Quinn, so that fanfic was easy to churn out. Almost immediately there was a wave of outrage (not all of which came from “nice guys” who were butthurt that the geek girls of their dreams were getting off to thoughts of a psychopath), including op-eds from fairly respected sources like the A.V. Club. Men and women of all stripes came forward to admonish these fans and let them know that they didn’t want to hook up with The Joker. I don’t think I need to point out that these criticisms were lobbed exclusively at women. There was no condescending finger-wagging aimed at the legions of male fans who rabidly loved Ledger’s Joker, because apparently it is perfectly okay to imagine being a violent man, but not okay to imagine fucking one. I also found no mentions of gay men who may have dipped their toes into the warm waters of erotic fanfic. It was a decidedly gendered backlash, and in their haste to make pronouncements about female sexuality and share their very un-asked for opinions, these neckbeards and wannabe pop psychologists failed to acknowledge a couple of things.
For one, fantasizing about a fictional character is different than wanting to actually experience a real world approximation of that fiction. Fan clubs devoted to real serial killers are rare. People aren't posting photos of Chris Brown and a battered Rhianna with the caption “relationship goals.” If women really wanted to be brutalized, they’d have no trouble locating a brute. Maybe all this Joker/Harley fetishization is just –gasp! A FANTASY.  And hey, maybe it isn’t up to you to armchair psychoanalyze these women and lecture them about their fantasies. Maybe women’s fantasies are none of your business, Dr. Freud. Just because they’re writing about them on the Internet doesn’t mean they’re inviting you to weigh in on their emotional states and/or intellectual competence.
Some women have rape fantasies. As icky as many of us may find that, it’s pretty common. Human psychology is complex and varied. Even people with PhDs don’t fully understand how it all works. Why does every Tom, Dick, and Harry assume they know how it works? Assuming that women can’t separate fantasy from reality is insulting, not to mention inaccurate. Some women are into BDSM. Some women are into humiliation. Someone women are masochists. The last time I checked, The Joker was a fairly sadistic character. Why not use him as a cipher in your erotic fanfiction? Why not use Harley Quinn as a stand-in for yourself if you want to get off to hardcore sadism? It’s a safe space to play out scenarios that could not and would not ever happen. Stop yelling about how “unhealthy” it is, and stop lecturing women about relationship dynamics. This is kink-shaming of the highest order.

If you're gonna be kinky, make sure it's nonthreatening and easy for men to exploit.

If you're gonna be kinky, make sure it's nonthreatening and easy for men to exploit.

 ”But Candace, it can and does happen!” I hear you screaming. “Women find themselves in abusive relationships all the time! Lots of abused women identify with Harley Quinn.”

And of course you’re right. But this feeds problem number two: Are you claiming that those women ended up in abusive situations because they idealized them ahead of time? If so, that’s blatant victim-blaming. That’s another iteration of “she asked for it,” and lets the abuser off the hook. Women fall into abusive relationships for a slew of reasons, but I promise you that fantasizing about mental patients in a comic book universe isn’t one of them. The Joker’s relationship with Harley Quinn is abusive at times, but these are criminally insane freaks in clown makeup who don't exist. What woman is honestly idealizing that relationship and basing her own life decisions on it? Women don’t need morality exemplified by a fucking superhero movie. We can think for ourselves, thank you. Jerking off to something doesn't mean we've lost all sense of morality.

It’s also likely that many women fantasize about extreme sexual and romantic situations out of boredom, regardless of personal fetishes and kinks. Female sexuality is repressed, policed, and controlled at every level of society. Maybe The Joker and Harley Quinn represent an alluring nihilistic escape from such puritanism. Maybe women aren’t the fragile little angels you think they are. Maybe women are so sick of being told they must fall in love with “nice” men that they’ve developed an attraction to very, very bad men. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that. And maybe those same women enjoy imagining themselves doing taboo, violent, and illegal things without consequences. Again, it's called escapism and it's why fiction exists. I don’t see anyone bitching when women insert themselves into Jane Austen novels. That’s considered perfectly normal, but swap Mr. Darcy for The Joker and everyone gets upset. Why? Because one of those fantasies is socially acceptable and the other isn’t? Let's take a moment to ponder why that is. Additionally, Joker/Harley storylines are varied. Even someone with only a glancing knowledge of the Batman canon knows that Harley Quinn's character has been through dozens of re-imaginings, and her relationship with the Joker redefined again and again. Certainly all those stories aren't abusive. I know for a fact most of the fanfiction isn't, so these women are clearly seeing something in the characters that the squalling naysayers are either missing or ignoring. 

The only argument I halfway agree with is that Suicide Squad’s marketing tactics are irresponsible. The offending Joker/Harley merchandise is clearly targeting teens and pre-teens. I know who shops at Hot Topic, and those kids are not mentally equipped to navigate the complexities of BDSM or the blurry lines of consent that accompany it. Branding an extreme kink as a relationship goal and selling it to a demographic with only a nascent understanding of romantic relationships is pretty sleazy. The budding sexuality of young women should probably not be subjected to images of a grinning masochist experiencing orgiastic pain/pleasure at the hands of a deranged maniac. Without anything else to compare it to, some unhealthy ideas could form. On the flip side, there’s a plethora of toxic Hollywood romances that aren’t as obviously cartoonish. I'd like to think that no kid, regardless of age, believes movies like Suicide Squad represent the real world. Parenting should come into play here, but I acknowledge that not everyone’s parents are stellar. So maybe, maybe it’s not great to show these kinds of relationships to teenagers. Having said that, human beings are not robots that become hopelessly indoctrinated by the media they consume. If someone, even a young person, finds herself titillated by a screen couple’s relationship, that means that some part of her resonated with what she saw. That isn’t something a writer, director, actor, t-shirt, or hashtag is responsible for. 

Now our children are gonna be jumping into vats of acid to impress their crushes. THANKS, HOLLYWOOD

Now our children are gonna be jumping into vats of acid to impress their crushes. THANKS, HOLLYWOOD

Keeping women safe is important. Awareness of domestic violence and abusive relationships is important. Promoting healthy and happy human connections, romantic or otherwise, is important. All too often, media and entertainment utterly fail to do those things, but shaming women for their sexual fantasies is not the answer. That speaks to misogyny and nothing more. If you want to write angry screeds about the film industry's irresponsible portrayals of domestic abuse, that’s fair. If you think teen-friendly clothing shops at your local mall should refrain from carrying Suicide Squad merchandise, feel free to organize a boycott. You have a right to protest things that you believe are unethical or in bad taste. What isn’t fair is berating female fans for having fantasies that you don’t approve of. Stop kink-shaming. Stop victim-blaming. Stop trying to control female sexuality. The next time one of these movies comes along and makes a big splash, stay in your lane and recognize that women have a right to enjoy whatever escapism floats their boat, just as men do.

There have already been Internet rumors of a stand-alone Harley Quinn movie, and possibly even a Joker spin-off (obviously Jared Leto is hoping this is the case – otherwise, why would he have been such a try-hard?), and I’m preemptively bracing myself for the inevitable tide of outrage that will follow in their wake.

No More Mr. Nice Girl

Nice – (adjective) 1. Pleasant, enjoyable or attractive. 2. Used before adjectives or adverbs to emphasize how pleasant something is. 

Kind – (adjective) 1. Having or showing a friendly, generous, or considerate nature.

No, this isn’t a vocabulary lesson. It’s just some food for thought. I’d like to propose a hypothesis: Niceness is overrated. It’s a quality that is touted over and over again by just about everyone you meet. You hear all the time about how nice or not nice someone is, men who consider themselves nice are forever complaining about why their niceness doesn’t get them anywhere with the opposite sex, the phrase “nice guys finish last” refuses to die, and there are diatribes and screeds and treatises written on the subject of niceness and all that it entails. Nice is almost always considered a good quality to possess (unless it isn’t getting you any sweet poonanny), and too many people use it as a yardstick to measure social worth. If you’re a woman, niceness is almost as important as sex appeal. There is a huge taboo against being too outspoken or aggressive if you’re in possession of ovaries. It’s considered very, very Not Nice, and is a huge social crime.
As I get older and gain more life experience, I find myself increasingly baffled by our fixation on niceness. Many brilliant, empathetic, and deeply kind people aren’t what you would call “nice.” Even though the words ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ are pretty close synonyms (okay, I guess this sort of is a vocabulary lesson), they are not identical terms, and nuance makes a big difference here. Nice is a veneer. Of course it’s pleasant to interact with a nice person, and some people are born with the lacquer of niceness already applied, but nobody really needs to be nice, do they? I mean, in their personal lives, not professionally. Think of the smartest person you know, for instance. Is she/he particularly nice? I’ll bet she/he isn’t. What about the most successful person you know? The most talented? Anyone who is unduly preoccupied with the concept and value of niceness needs a priority check. Niceness is so shallow, so material. My car is nice, my house is nice, my neighborhood is nice. Do I really need nice people to go with those things? Nice little people who say and do what I want them to? Nice little people that accentuate my nice little life like decorative rugs? Many people who are nice are not kind, and vice versa. Kindness is more about being considerate toward others and doing the right thing. Niceness is more about being polite and inoffensive. Is there some overlap? Heck yes! But we’re intelligent, discerning grown-ups here, so let’s pull out the microscope and take a closer look.
One of the most annoying things about society is that it is slowly being commandeered by a generation that grew up with paper thin egos. Those of us who are in the process of inheriting America from the Baby Boomers were subjected to parenting styles and children’s programming that focused on building self-esteem. On the surface, that sounds great, because childhood can be hell for those of us who are shy or weird or don’t fit in for some reason, and aggressively discouraging bullying is a noble thing for society to pursue. I’ll be the first to say it: bullying is extremely damaging and no child deserves that kind of cruelty. The problem is that not all peer critique is bullying, and constantly telling your children that they're the smartest, bestest, most perfect human beings on the planet gives them a completely unrealistic view of themselves and others. I’m not sure if Sesame Street and Dr. Spock are to blame for what happened to us all, but somewhere along the way we grew up and forgot the difference between reasonable people calling us out on our flaws and assholes viciously gnawing on our sense of self-worth. Thusly we now have a generation of adults that is obsessed with the idea of “niceness,” where niceness is really just shorthand for “never saying anything that upsets me.”

"Remember Snuffy, nobody should ever correct you, disagree with you, ignore you, or laugh at your foibles. Respect is given, not earned."

"Remember Snuffy, nobody should ever correct you, disagree with you, ignore you, or laugh at your foibles. Respect is given, not earned."

I don’t want to go too far into comedian territory here (e.g. everyone needs to grow a thicker skin and stop being so PC), but it seems that a whole fuck ton of people have lost the ability to differentiate between genuine cruelty and normal social competition. Everyone is so used to the concept of getting an A for effort and being given a trophy just for participating, we have failed to grow the type of thick skin that we actually need to have. We deflect criticism that could help us improve. We take every perceived slight way too seriously. If someone takes a sarcastic jab at you, laugh it off or respond in kind. Don’t get butt hurt and scream about how mean and nasty that person is. You’re an adult. You can defend yourself and move on with your life. If some woman fails to smile at you, don’t chide her for having “resting bitch face.” What’s wrong with you? Even if she actually is a bitch, how is that any skin off your nose? If you’re offended every time someone doesn’t fall all over themselves showing you how grateful they are to be graced by your presence, you need to retreat to a mountaintop and do some serious self-reflecting. Maybe you’re utterly clueless in social situations and you always creep people out by being awkward. Don’t freak when someone helpfully points that out, and don’t seethe with rage when you’re quietly ignored. Is it nice for someone to tell you that you suck at life or that they’re not attracted to you? Not really, but is it necessary? Um, depending on the circumstances, absolutely yes. I’m not saying we should all go around busting each other’s balls at every opportunity, but this expectation to handle everyone’s egos with kid gloves at all times is a form of cultural insanity. Some people’s egos really, really do not need to be pampered and fluffed. Some people’s egos are in danger of collapsing under their own weight.

One of the worst things about this kind of social climate is that it hasn’t done anything to curtail bullying. All that’s happened is that people who have no natural inclination to bully others are now overly self-conscious and sensitive, and those those who do have an inclination toward bullying are finding it easier than ever to attain their objectives. And as always, the people who are bullied most are the underclass and disenfranchised. Gay people are scrutinized and denied, trans people are discriminated against, obese people are discriminated against, institutional racism is alive and healthy, and the list just goes on and on. Women are unfairly “taken down a notch” all the goddamn time, while men scream about every tiny little ego infraction they suffer or imagine they suffer. Privileged, white, heterosexual men consider being disagreed with a form of abuse. This bizarre focus on niceness has just given society yet another tool with which to bludgeon second-class citizens into submission. You can just label that troublesome woman or black person with a synonym for “not nice,” and endlessly howl about how they did you wrong by expressing themselves, and other people will listen and take it seriously. There’s this ridiculous expectation for everyone who isn’t a straight white guy to be affable, non-threatening, and downright obsequious. If you’re a member of the underclass who gains a reputation for being angry or difficult…oh boy. Society will fucking shit all over you. It doesn’t matter how apropos your anger might be. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been genuinely failed by your community of if someone has genuinely harmed you. If you’re not a member of the privileged class, you’re supposed to take it all on the chin and remain “nice,” because if you’re not nice, you’re worthless.

When you dislike my sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, fat phobic "jokes" it makes me feel so OPPRESSED.

When you dislike my sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, fat phobic "jokes" it makes me feel so OPPRESSED.

And yes, this phenomenon also plays into the anti-PC movement, because the main proponents of that shit are – you guessed it – straight white guys. Politicians and comedians are the two groups most guilty of saying wildly insensitive things in public forums and then responding to their detractors with confusion and defensiveness. Please take a moment to reflect on exactly how straight, white, and male those groups tend to be. Look at how many senators, governors, and presidential hopefuls shamelessly proclaim things that are sexist, racist, classist, and just plain awful, and then react with surprise when there’s a backlash. Look at how many comedians tell “jokes” that are sexist, racist, classist, and just plain awful, and then react with surprise when their audience doesn’t contain any women, minorities, or gay people. Remember when Daniel Tosh told a shitty rape joke and then exploded and went on a misogynist tirade when some woman told him it wasn’t funny? Remember when Mitt Romney openly declared that he didn’t care about poor people and then couldn’t understand why poor people didn’t want to vote for him? What’s going on here? Don’t these people realize that we live in a Nice Society now, and that if you want people to like you, you have to be very careful not to upset them? Well, no. They don’t realize that, because the rules don’t apply to them. Niceness is for losers, so to speak. Niceness is for people who have no means of forcing people to do what they want.

You can sort of see this at work in the dating world, too. Among straight men, there’s a very persistent theory that niceness is only for men who can’t attract women through looks and charisma. Niceness is something that men “resort” to when they’re too unattractive or awkward to effortlessly bag hotties simply by existing. It's a transparent mask worn by people who either have nothing else to offer the world or are browbeaten into because society will fucking tear them to shreds if they don’t mind their Ps and Qs. Meanwhile, the powers that be are free to be as cruel and insensitive as they please. In other words, they bully the rest of us.
 I propose a mass rejection of niceness. Unless it’s something that is really just intrinsic to your personality and is inviolable, let’s all stop worrying about it. There are more important personality traits to emphasize, like courage, intelligence, fairness, productivity, and honesty. Let's build a society that combats bigotry and bullying, and values honesty and altruism over noncommittal inoffensiveness. Let's stop enabling the tyranny of thin-skinned oppressors.