In this Sunday’s Washington Post, film critic Ann Hornaday wrote a piece that ruminated on the Santa Barbara murders through the lens of cinema. The headline of her piece described the brutal act as a “a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen.”
The killer had written in a 141-page manifesto about his plans for a “day of retribution” against” “good-looking people,” including a “Second Phase [which] will represent my War on Women. I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away. I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts. I will attack the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender: The hottest sorority of UCSB.”
Hornaday, a former colleague of mine, writes: “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure’? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?”
It’s a little simplistic of Hornaday to hang the argument around Neighbors, which as movies go is what I guess you could call “tolerably sexist.” Sorority girls are not characters unto themselves so much as hypersexualized prizes for boys to bicker over. But Seth Rogen’s character spends a lot of time taking care of his baby. So, wash? This is the kind of trade-off women who go to the movies have to make all the time.
Well, someone read Hornaday’s story and concluded it was not fair. That someone: Seth Rogen.
Be insulted if you will, Rogen, but how, exactly, is Hornaday misinformed? Much of her piece cites statistics: on the Bechdel Test and how many films fail to pass it, on the abysmal state of female equality in Hollywood, the astounding lack of women in leadership roles on and off-screen. I wish Hornaday were misinformed. I wish Hollywood were a post-feminist utopia. I wish Scarlett Johansson got to do more in The Avengers than prance around in a catsuit; I wish Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique could be more to the X-Men franchise than a human pawn between two men and their opposing worldviews. I wish I didn’t have to shut off the part of my brain that screams out whenever I see a female character’s eyes go anime-wide at her Male Hero as she begs him not to fight that super important fight. (“I have to go,” he says. He is so important. “Be careful,” she sniffles.)
Hornaday doesn’t even go into the pervasive violence against women in reality; the Santa Barbara killings are only the most recent, and high-profile, attack of its kind. 40% of mass shootings start with the shooter targeting his girlfriend, wife or ex-wife.
For the love of Judd Apatow movies, GIRLS ARE NOT A THING YOU GET. They’re not a goody bag at the end of the frat party. It honestly feels like Rogen could not miss the point more if he were participating in some kind of point-missing contest.
To quote Hornaday: “For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment (often, if not always, featuring a steady through-line of casual misogyny).”
This is the point at the heart of the op-ed that really matters. Neighbors is just referenced as the latest in a long, long line of movies in which men are granted what they desire, always and without question, even if what they desire is not a what, but a who.
Rogen is offended, as any reasonable person probably would be at the suggestion that something they did could possibly have contributed to an act of grisly violence. But this is not the first time someone has linked pop culture to crime, and there’s plenty of precedent for a better way to handle the situation.
Take Christian Bale’s response in the wake of the Aurora shooting: “Words cannot express the horror that I feel. I cannot begin to truly understand the pain and grief of the victims and their loved ones, but my heart goes out to them.” Here is a thing he did not say: “How dare anyone imply that me killing bad guys in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.” Because the Aurora shooting wasn’t about Bale; it was, and is, about the victims, the survivors, and their families.
People in movies can’t have it both ways: either pop culture is totally irrelevant, and therefore the work they do is totally irrelevant, or pop culture does matter, which means they will sometimes have to reckon with the fact that their work can be a force for evil as well as good. If you want people to see Dallas Buyer’s Club and leave with greater empathy for the challenges the LGBT community faces, you have to be prepared that people will see darker movies and leave with darker thoughts, and that even — especially — seemingly innocuous movies can and do have a powerful influence over the way we think, feel, communicate and behave.
(Also of note: Christian Bale gets a callout in Hornaday’s piece, too. She references his “slick sociopath” in American Psycho. Why does Rogen have to take this so personally — isn’t he supposed to be acting?)
Rogen is making himself the victim here. And while there might be a way to see him as the victim of a very even-handed editorial, last time I checked, Rogen was not the victim of a killing spree. He was neither stabbed nor shot to death. Perhaps a little perspective is in order.
In the aftermath of the Santa Barbara rampage, #YesAllWomen started trending on Twitter. The phrasing is a rhetorical response to “Not All Men,” a trend of infuriating dudes who freak out whenever a woman writes about the rampant misogyny she experiences in her life. “Not all men are rapists,” say the Not All Men men, as if that is the crucial problem at stake. Rogen is basically Not All Men-ing Hornaday. Why not take this as an opportunity to use the huge platform that is Rogen’s Twitter account (he has over 2 million followers) and start a thoughtful constructive dialogue? For instance: “Hey, that’s not a fair critique of my movie. Neighbors is about the internal conflict within every adult who is afraid to let go of their youth; it’s not about committing mass violence against women who don’t like you. Mental illness is complicated and no one thing causes a shooter to “snap.” Just because someone’s dad worked on one movie one time — a movie that, in fact, features a complicated female protagonist who embodies the exact opposite of all the sexist problems you describe — does not mean that someone infused a hateful ideology in his son. But you raise some really valid points about the way men treat women in pop culture and real life. I would love for my Twitter followers to read your piece with an open mind, and for the guys especially to think about the responsibility we all have to make our communities places where women and girls feel respected, valued and safe.”
I’m curious what the women involved in the film think about all this. Rogen’s offended reaction reminds me of the outrage surrounding the Game of Thrones rape scene; the only voices from the set were actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and episode director Alex Graves, both of whom did not consider the scene to be rape. (For everyone playing along at home, “It became consensual by the end” = not a thing, definitely rape.) The person who never weighed in? Lena Headey, the actress who plays Cersei. (I reached out to HBO to speak with her at the time, but Headey wasn’t giving interviews on the scene.) So, where’s Rose Byrne’s response?
Ann Hornaday responded to Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen’s criticism via video. Watch it here.