The following excursion into the past is going to be long, but bear with me, because there is a valid connection to what is happening today.
Almost thirty years ago now, in 1989, I watched an episode of the German cultural TV program aspekte (coincidentally, I can’t believe that I have been religiously watching aspekte for thirty years now). At the time, aspekte normally focussed on high culture (still does) and social issues – you’d almost never see a feature about popular culture or even the latest Hollywood movies there.
That episode, however, was different, because they had a report about the then newly announced Time Warner merger. The report was very alarmist and worried a lot about Time Warner becoming a media monopoly and how they could determine what we watch, read, etc…, as evidenced by the massive advertising campaign for Tim Burton’s Batman film (which was really inescapable at the time). The spirit of Alfred Hugenberg, Weimar Republic media mogul and Nazi supporter, was invoked. And no, don’t get me started on how bloody offensive it was to compare a media concern founded by Jewish immigrants that gave work and a voice to many refugees from Nazi terror in the 1930s and 1940s and made anti-Nazi movies before the start of WWII in Europe to a Nazi supporter.
That aspekte episode is long lost to the mists of time, which is a pity, because I’d really love to see it again. However, the report about the Time Warner merger deeply upset me, especially since we’d just learned about Alfred Hugenberg and his role in Hitler’s rise to power at school. In fact, I mainly remember this long ago aspekte episode and how it upset me, because I wrote about it in my diary, worried that Time Warner was trying to control what we would get to watch and read (and private television had come to my little village just a few weeks before, bringing with it a sudden influx of US TV shows that the public stations would not show and a breath of freedom I was terrified to lose again). So far, Time Warner were just trying to ram Batman down our throats (and I didn’t much like Batman), but what if they got their hands on Star Wars or Marvel Comics or Disney or something else I liked (and yes, those were my examples)? What if they would try to keep us from ever watching Star Wars or reading Marvel Comics again? What if the children that came after me would never get to watch a Disney film?
I’m not sure what conclusion, if any, aspekte wanted us to draw from their report about the Time Warner merger. Personally, I suspect that someone at aspekte is a Batman fan and was just looking for an excuse to talk about the Batman movie, especially since they ran a very similar piece (“Batman is dark and serious now and no longer cartoony like the previous version”) minus Hugenberg alarmism when The Dark Knight came out. However, I can tell you to what conclusion I came and that was not “Go and watch Batman” (and indeed, I didn’t see Tim Burton’s Batman film, which was actually pretty good for its time, until several years later). Instead, I decided to hold back the media kraken that was Time Warner by staging a one person boycot against them. I also convinced a friend to boycot them as well.
I actually kept my boycot up for a while, which wasn’t that difficult at first, since I didn’t read DC Comics anyway – I was a Marvel fan through and through. Boycotting their publishing arm Warner Books wasn’t much of a problem anyway, since they rarely published anything I wanted to read. The first difficulty I ran into was that I was also a budding cineast and a lot of interesting vintage movies on late night TV bore the hated Warner Bros logo (because Warner Bros was one of the more interesting Hollywood studios of the 1930s and 1940s). I eventually decided that it was okay to watch those, because they were old and it wasn’t as if I was giving Warner Bros any money by watching them on TV. I also wondered why a Hugenberg-like company made so many anti-Nazi films. I also decided that it was probably okay to read Time Magazine, when someone handed me a free issue on a plane and I didn’t pay for it, English language magazines and newspapers being a rare treasure in those pre-internet days. Cartoons came next, because Warner Bros’ vintage Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons were really, really good in a way I was only just beginning to appreciate once I started getting the jokes. Plus, there was a time in the mid 1990s when Warner tried to rival Disney’s cartoon imperium with new interpretations of their classic characters, a Warner store chain (and I still felt slightly guilty about buying a charm bracelet with cartoon characters there), a Warner movie theme park, etc… Though I still didn’t read DC Comics until I went straight to Vertigo also in the mid 1990s. Besides, by that point it was becoming clear that aspekte had been overly alarmist and that Time Warner wasn’t actually trying to suppress anything and that they also weren’t Alfred Hugenberg. Besides, it was increasingly becoming clear by that time that Rupert Murdoch and News Corp/Fox were the ones we should really be concerned about.
When Disney started its unprecendented shopping tour in the 2000s, gobbling up Marvel, the Jim Henson Company, Pixar and finally Lucasfilm, I sometimes thought, “Looks like I should have worried about Disney rather than Time Warner, because Disney is doing everything I once feared Warner would do. Thankfully, they seem to be benevolent so far and let the companies they gobbled up do what they do best and don’t interfere. And as long as the products are good, who cares who owns the company?”
Yeah, famous last words that.
Because it is becoming increasingly clear that Disney is not so benevolent after all. And no, I’m not saying they’re Alfred Hugenberg reborn for the 21st century, because they’re not, though Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter’s close relationship with Donald Trump, including an unofficial role in his administration is slightly worrying in that context. But Disney and its subsidiaries are definitely using their corporate muscle to muzzle creatives, plus they give in to pressure from hatefilled far right groups. And it’s only a matter of time until it will affect their products, if it hasn’t already.
In July, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was abruptly fired from Vol. 3 of the series, after far right provocateur Mike Cernovich dug up some years old offensive tweets by Gunn. I didn’t blog about the firing of James Gunn here, largely because it happened in the middle of the July short story challenge, though I extensively covered the affair in my link round-ups at the Speculative Fiction Showcase.
Now the offensive tweets (and many of them genuinely were offensive, though the ones most widely reproduced were not the worst of the bunch) were years old. And unlike the many shitty people whose careers were dinged in the wake of the #metoo movement, no one who actually worked with James Gunn had a bad word to say about him. Indeed, the cast and crew of Guardians of the Galaxy and every other movie Gunn ever made fell over themselves to express their support for him. Dave Bautista, who plays Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, even threatened to quit over Gunn’s firing. Nonetheless, Disney – overruling Marvel – steadfastly refused to rehire him and even indefinitely postponed production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. In short, Disney is willing to risk a multi million dollar franchise over a few ancient tweets that weren’t even news, since The Mary Sue already dug them out before the first Guardians of the Galaxy film even came out.
Worst of all, it was really obvious that the far right only wanted a scalp in retaliation for the firing of rightwing actress Roseanne Barr and the cancellation of her horrible show over current tweets that were massively offensive (IMO worse than anything Gunn said). They’d probably have preferred Kathleen Kennedy or someone else from Lucasfilm, since Star Wars is now a main target of far right hate for daring to present characters who are not straight white dudes in heroic roles, but in the end they took whom they could get and that happened to be James Gunn. Not that those folks cared one bit about James Gunn and his offensive jokes (Remember that the Sad and Rabid Puppies backed Guardians of Galaxy as a Hugo finalist in 2015) until it turned out he was vocally opposed to Donald Trump. Not to mention that Mike Cernovich probably tweets more offensive stuff in a day (and pushed conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon, which led to various real world attacks by disturbed men with guns) than James Gunn did in his entire Twitter career. All this was totally obvious to anybody who was willing to take a look, including associating their target with pedophilia (a favourite tactic of the far right). And yet Disney not only fell for it hook, line and sinker, but there was also hardly any outrage online that Disney allowed themselves to be pressured by far right shitheads into firing someone who’d done a good job so far. And the fact that they were willing to risk a multi-million dollar franchise to appease some rightwing shitheads was just mindboggling to me.
The reaction in genre spaces instead was a shrug and something along the lines of “Well, it’s Disney. They have to protect their image as a family friendly brand.” And this from Americans who are usually free speech fundamentalists.
My reaction to this was, who the fuck cares about Disney’s brand image? And anyway, isn’t giving in to pressure by far right shitheads a lot worse for Disney’s brand image than a couple of old offensive tweets by someone who works for a subsidiary? Not to mention that the target demographic for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are not kids or families (even though children can absolutely enjoy the movies), but what is known as Generation X. After all, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are chock full of references to 1980s pop culture, while the music is from the 1970s. And those are not things you include in a property aimed mainly at pre-teen kids, unless you want to entertain their parents, too. Not to mention that there are plenty of moments in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies that can traumatise young viewers – Peter’s mom dying of cancer, Peter’s biological dad trying to kill him, lots of scenes of prison violence, mass murder and attempted mass murder committed by Ronan, Thanos and Ego, slavery, etc… – so worrying about something the director tweeted long before he ever made the first movie struck me as very odd.
Not to mention that I have never associated even Disney itself, let alone its subsidiaries, with safe entertainment for kids. After all, I cried when Bambi’s mother died, like pretty much everybody else. I cried when Dumbo was taken away from his mother by abusive circus folks. And learning years later about how circus elephants were abused in the early 20th century and publicly executed when they dared to fight back like Topsy and Mary gives Dumbo an even more disturbing subtext. I watched Friar Tuck nearly get hanged in the animated Robin Hood film, I watched the Red Queen threatening to chop off Alice’s head in Alice in Wonderland and cried at the dying dinosaurs in Fantasia (oddly enough, I don’t recall being bothered by “Night on Bald Mountain” at all, which suggests it was cut from the version I saw as a kid). Meanwhile, a live action Disney film whose title I have forgotten (something about a heroic dog) taught me what an electric chair was. During my one and only visit to Disney World as a young girl, I was scared in the Captain Nemo’s Submarine ride and the bloody Snow White ride of all things. I think they’ve since sanitised Snow White and closed down Captain Nemo, but back in the late 1970s both were pretty damn scary. Not to mention headhunters dangling shrunken heads about in the Jungle Cruise ride (which is bloody racist, too) or kidnapped women being auctioned off in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Sorry, but that’s not what I’d call safe and family friendly entertainment. Indeed, if any of it had been as safe and bland and family friendly as Disney tries to portray itself, I probably wouldn’t remember it so well forty years later.
And the Star Wars movies and the Marvel comics and movies have always been full of violence. The Star Wars films, old and new, feature torture, slavery, executions, patricide, force-choking, people thrown into lava pits and whole planets blown up. The Marvel Universe is full of often disturbing violence as well, from Jim Jaspers and The Fury (still one of the most terrifying comics ever) via Weapon X (which traumatised me, when I first read it as a teenager) and of course Dark Phoenix blowing up the planet of the asparagus people, not to mention Galactus having whole planets for dinner in the comics to Daredevil torturing people in the eponymous series, mental and physical rape in the Jessica Jones series and Thanos fingersnapping half the universe out of existence in Avengers: Infinity War. In fact, Avengers: Infinity War, Star Wars: A New Hope and The Force Awakens have the highest bodycounts in movies ever, an inhabited planet each in A New Hope and The Force Awakens and half the universe in Infinity War. And two of those were made under the new Disney regime. Sorry, but family friendly looks different to me.
But then, “family friendly” in a US context usually means no sex and no swearing (even though the Marvel Netflix series have both in spades and Loki did call Black Widow a “mewling quill” on screen, which is a pretty nasty, if old-fashioned slur), while violence, including pretty extreme or disturbing violence, is perfectly fine. This is also why I dislike labels like “clean” or “family friendly”.
The James Gunn uproar has died down by now and Gunn himself has moved on to Warner/DC and will probably helm Suicide Squad 2, so Marvel’s loss is DC’s gain. But the problem didn’t end there.
In mid September, novelist turned comic writer Chelsea Cain suddenly had her Vision series, which had only been just announced, cancelled for reasons unknown. Two years before, the Mockingbird solo series which Chelsea Cain had been writing, was also abruptly cancelled and Chelsea Cain herself harrassed by what is now known as Comicsgate over the cover of the final issue, which dared to mention the word “feminism”. Chelsea Cain left social media over the 2016 harassment, but this time around, she was no longer willing to be silent and indicted Marvel for folding in the face of rightwing bullying and for failing to support her and other creators facing harassment. Chelsea Cain also pointed out that she is now “dead to Marvel”.
What happened to Chelsea Cain is disturbing and I wish I would have paid more attention to it at the time, but again I was busy with other things. Nor was Chelsea Cain the first comic creator basically harassed out of a job. Last year, something similar happened to Aubrey Sitterson, a writer for IDW Publishing’s GI Joe comic series (my first reaction to that story was “GI Joe is still a thing?”), who first enraged the usual suspects for making GI Joe a little less white and male and then enraged them further by tweeting about his irritation with the ritualised rememberance of September 11, 2001, and how the ones who most fervently proclaim “Never forget” were usually nowhere near New York City or one of the other attack sites. Now I dislike ritualised rememberance in general (and have left instructions that should I ever die in the sort of event that triggers ritualised rememberances from people who didn’t even know me in life, I want my name left out of it), so I sympathise with Sitterson’s point. And besides, as someone who actually was in New York City on September 11, 2001, he is allowed to criticise the ritualised rememberance as much as he likes. Still, he skewered a sacred American cow plus he was the writer of a military comic book, which probably had a number of rightwing fans at a time Comicsgate was gearing up, so IDW Publishing bowed to pressure and Sitterson was out of a job.
Then last Friday, it happened again. For Friday evening, when I prepared to settle in to watch Das Literarische Quartett and briefly checked out Twitter, I came across a lengthy thread (summed up here) by writer Chuck Wendig, in which he explains that he had been fired from the Marvel’s Star Wars tie-in comic Shadows of Vader barely a week after the comic had been announced. Now Chuck Wendig has been a target of harrassment by the usual suspects ever since his Star Wars tie-in novel Aftermath, one of the first books in the “new” Star Wars continuity, came out, partly because some folks furious that the old extended universe was made non-canon decided to take out their frustrations on the new novels and partly because some folks couldn’t wrap their head around the fact that there were LGBT characters in a Star Wars novel. Of course, people getting bent out of shape because there are LGBT characters in a Star Wars novel make me wonder whether they have even watched the films, because Ewan MacGregor plays Obi Wan very much as someone who is not straight. But then we’re talking about the sort of folks here who believe that Star Wars, a story that is literally about rebels fighting an authoritaria regime, is unpolitical entertainment.
However, unlike Chelsea Cain, Kelly Marie Tran, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Leslie Jones, Magdalene Visaggio, Heather Antos and other people targeted for harassment by the far right for the crime of existing and daring to be involved in something rightwing white dudes consider theirs, Chuck Wendig wasn’t silent and didn’t quietly retreat from social media. Instead, he found some choice epithets for the people who attacked him. Which apparently wasn’t a problem until suddenly, a newly promoted editor at Marvel decided that he had issues with Chuck Wendig’s tweets, because they were too vulgar, too uncivil, too offensive and too political. Never mind that Chuck Wendig was defending himself against harrassers who say and do things a lot worse than anything Chuck Wendig ever tweeted. Nonetheless, Wendig was fired from the Shadows of Vader comic and another not yet announced Star Wars comic. At Vulture, Abraham Riesman offers a comprehensive overview of the entire affair.
Now I have been following Chuck Wendig’s blog and his Twitter account for several years now and he has always been someone who swears a lot and comes up with some very inventive epithets. Chuck Wendig’s internet persona was already sweary long before Aftermath came out, in fact even long before Disney bought Lucasfilm. Just as James Gunn’s offensive tweets were made long before he was hired to write and direct Guardians of the Galaxy. The fact that Chelsea Cain is a feminist shouldn’t really be a surprise to anybody either. It also apparently wasn’t a secret that Roseanne Barr had gone off the deep end years ago. Never mind that there are plenty of other politically outspoken folks working for Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm, e.g. Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Mark Hamill, Taika Waititi, etc… So if Disney/Marvel/Lucasfilm really didn’t want to hire someone who swears on social media and/or is politically outspoken, they should really have done their homework.
But it’s not really about that. It’s not really about Disney and its vaunted family friendly image either. Instead, it’s about far right trolls targetting people they consider political opponents and exerting pressure on their employers, social media platforms, etc… to silence their targets. After the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, Chuck Wendig tweeted a rant which got a lot of attention, including from some of the noisier rightwing voices with big platforms, who promptly targetted him. A few days before Marvel fired him, Chuck Wendig reported that Twitter had temporarily suspended his account, following mass reports by those selfsame rightwingers and their followers. Again, Chuck Wendig wasn’t the first person this happened to, because last month Twitter permanently suspended the account of science fiction author Patrick S. Tomlinson after he was targeted by the same sort of rightwing shitheads. And indeed, Patrick S. Tomlinson also speaks out against Marvel firing Chuck Wendig.
It does hand Comicsgate a big win. It hands people who want to see their media homogenized and reduced down to the same white cishet male stories a massive win. Worse, it sends a message that if you want to work for a big title, keep your mouth shut and don’t talk about politics, even though at this point in the game silence is nearly complicity.
All art is political, and apparently people being angry that politics in certain works are progressive matters more than artists actually standing up for what’s right.
This is frightening. I won’t call it censorship, but it’s pretty close. It’s a big message saying keep your mouth shut and take the abuse, because apparently defending yourself (and others around you) is as bad as being a troll. It’s “vulgar.” It’s not “civil.” Marvel has known about Wendig’s politics since 2015 at the very earliest, but suddenly there’s a problem with him being his usual self and using his platform for good? There’s a whole stunning host of implications there.
She is right. The far right wants to drive women, people of colour, LGBT people and leftwing men out of speculative fiction/films/TV/videogames/comics altogether, because they cannot handle the fact that entertainment media no longer centers only straight white American cis men, but also has room for other voices and stories. We’ve seen it happening over and over again in different sectors of popular culture with movements like Gamergate, the Sad and Rabid Puppies, the Ghostbusters backlash, the Star Wars backlash and now Comicsgate. These movements were the warning signs, the test balloons, before far right ugliness spilled over into mainstream politics. And indeed, there are documented links between the various pop culture -gates and far right politics as this Wired article by Molly McKew shows.
The industries targeted reacted diffferently to far right attacks. The gaming industry pretty much capitulated and threw the women who were being harrassed under the bus to appease the jerks they thought were their audience. Hollywood studios mostly ignored the attacks and just continued making movies. Speculative fiction fought back and drove out the harrassers, until they retreated to play in their own sandboxes. Until now, the comics industry seemed to follow the same tactics as the speculative fiction sphere, namely fight back until the harrassers go off to do their own thing. And indeed the recent influx of crowdfunding campaigns for various alt-right comic books mirrors the flurry of literary movements, small presses, magazines, indie published books and newly established awards that happened after SFF fandom told the Sad and Rabid Puppies exactly what they thought of them. And for the record, I have zero problems with rightwingers going off to do their own thing and create their own media, because it’s a lot more productive than harrassing political opponents and hopefully creates something those dissatisfied with contemporary entertainment can enjoy. In fact, it’s interesting that Gamergate didn’t try to create their own games (though there were a few webcomics and the like to come out of the movement), but then the entry barriers to game design are probably higher.
But the recent firings of James Gunn, Chelsea Cain and Chuck Wendig seem to suggest that Disney/Lucasfilm/Marvel have changed course and are now capitulating to attacks from the far right. Which is a bad idea, because these folks won’t be satisfied until they get exactly the bland, homogenised entertainment focussed on straight white cis dudes they want.
Because the truth is that the far right wants to silence everybody who disagrees with them. And indeed, authoritarian regimes of any political stripe always target journalists, teachers and academics as well as artists, writers and other creatives first before they go after everybody else deemed not in line with the regime. We’ve seen this in Nazi Germany, we’ve seen it in Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, we’ve seen it in the Soviet Union and the various Communist states of Eastern Europe, we’ve seen it in other dictatorships around the world. Right now, we’re seeing it happening in Russia, in Turkey, in the Philippines as well as in Hungary and Poland, as they drift further to the right. And we’re also seeing more and more silencing attempts of this sort happening in otherwise democratic countries.
Last week, the far right party AfD made waves in Germany, when they created online portals which parents and students could use to report teachers deemed “not neutral enough”, i.e. teachers who dare to speak out against the hateful xenophobic rhetoric of the AfD. Thankfully, this scheme was widely denounced by parties all across the political spectrum and within a day, the portal was flooded with nonsense reports by white-hat hackers. Though this isn’t the first time that the AfD attacks teachers. According to this TV report, the AfD has been denouncing teachers all over Germany for alleged “leftwing propaganda” to the respective school boards for months now and also tries to shut down school initiatives against racism. The AfD has also been attacking universities, particularly gender studies departments, as well as artists, museums and theatres, particularly in East Germany, for daring to perform plays deemed not German enough, and recently sued a theatre in the (West German) city of Paderborn for alleged libel, because they felt offended by a poster for May Frisch’s play Andorra, a classic play against anti-semitism. And AfD attacks on journalists and public television are pretty much a daily occurrence by now. Indeed, their party program shows only too clearly what art, culture, education and journalism should look like according to the AfD.
This is also why the rise of the AfD scares me. Because I know that I’m one of the people they’ll go after – as a teacher, a leftwing single and childless woman, a writer who writes in a foreign language, as someone who has worked with refugees. I know that I’m a potential target, whereas the people who tell me my worries are hysterical are engineers, nurses, pensioners, i.e. people who won’t be targeted initially.
That’s also why we should all be worried about what happened to Chuck Wendig, James Gunn and Chelsea Cain, whether we actually like their work or not. Because if a major corporation like Disney bows to rightwing pressure and fires creatives – all of them popular and successful, all of them white and two of them men – for their political opinions, it will only embolden the far right to go after anybody whose work and/or politics they don’t like.
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