There was a feeling of surprise when one of the biggest pieces of news to come out of the San Diego Comic Con was of the non-appearance of cult director James Gunn, due in town to promote his next project. Hours before it was revealed that he had left the much-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy franchise over Disney‘s unhappiness over old postings full of lewd jokes and comments many people found offensive – covering rape, paedophilia and the Holocaust. Mere months after Disney quickly partied way with Roseanne Barr after she compared black political aide Valerie Jarrett to a monkey, the general consensus was that the company was applying swift and equal forthright responses to those it felt did not represent wholesome family values.
The Daily Caller, who ran the story on Thursday that it is believed led to the firing, used the headline ‘After attacking Conservatives, Disney film-maker’s tweets reveal racism, homophobia and assault against children‘. It reproduced the tweets in question and also tweets from others encouraging people to stop him at SDCC and ask him about them. Politicians such as Ted Cruz made comments about Gunn perhaps needing to be prosecuted. Other commentators such as Dave Bautista (who played Draxx in the Guardians… films) disagreed and said there were wider complications involving context and timing.
“I will have more to say but for right now all I will say is this..@JamesGunn is one of the most loving, caring, good natured people I have ever met. He’s gentle and kind and cares deeply for people and animals. He’s made mistakes. We all have. Im NOT ok with what’s happening to him,” Bautista tweeted.
It is true that the Disney reaction was actually arguably far from swift, despite its suddenness after the Daily Caller piece.
Roseanne Barr’s comments were, at least the most infamous, specific, targeted and perhaps most relevant: contemporary. The assertion that she makes this week – in a video where she interviews herself, thereby presenting no real counterargument – is that her show was labelled racist because she was a Trump supporter and not because of the monkey jibe. Whatever political party one may ascribe to, it’s a patently ridiculous assertion given that Disney hired her and brought back the show fully knowing her general attitude and beliefs beforehand. She was hardly a wallflower in that department. The show was a huge ratings winner and potential cash-cow for all concerned, so it would be bizarre for Disney to make a massive outlay and take an equally big loss for a situation that could have been completely avoided in the first place. One can argue that the entertainment industry can be political, but money and profit are usually far bigger motivators. The only logical explanation is that it took Barr’s racist tweet to tip the balance and prove hard to ignore.
So if it’s contemporary controversy rather than older and problematic examples, the linked question still remains regarding Disney‘s business decisions: not so much why fire Gunn, but why now? If Gunn had made his offensive comments this year, he’d likely have been shown the door immediately and quite rightly so. Despite the presentation as such by some, Gunn’s comments were not some sudden deep state secret that had valiantly been uncovered by crusading journalists this week nor the result of a massive public outcry. They were written in 2008 / 2009 and were first acknowledged when Gunn became attached to the original Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2012 and led some to believe that his hiring would lead to immediate firing at the time. It didn’t. Gunn talked openly and expressed regret at the tone of his younger, agitant snarky postings which had appeared on his own blog and said that he’d changed his attitude and style and reassessed the irony/humour they’d meant to show. He noted he’d never endorsed any such behaviour but made light of it and admitted that it was easy to see, in hindsight, the offense they could cause for which he was sorry and would not make that mistake again. The apology was widely covered but the public seemed only momentarily interested. Disney decided to accept his mea culpa for past sins and kept him on the project. Guardians… and its follow-up were massive, record-breaking successes – critically and financially – and it seemed that Disney and Gunn were happy with their ongoing, profitable partnership. Gunn certainly wasn’t shy in his subsequent online postings, expressing his feelings on Donald Trump and a range of political positions, but it was fair to say there were no more of the posts that one might believe could affect his career.
Or so it seemed until this week.
Gunn’s departure and Disney‘s statement would, by any reasonable analysis, suggest that Disney‘s decision is wholly reactive not to the ‘crime’ (there’s been almost unanimous agreement that the offending posts are bad) but the changing opinions regarding dealing with offense. In the current climate there’s a need to be seen to be acting as much as the action itself, even if pro-active means retroactive punishments. If Disney knew of the old posts – and they obviously did – and presuming Gunn hasn’t done anything else in the intervening time – which he, at least, appears to be clean on – then his firing demonstrably can only come from Disney changing its mind. The question then becomes: is that a case of the public organically demanding something is unacceptable and it still needs to be acted on and Disney agreeing… or Disney noting that perception is everything and playing safe when a smaller demographic, The Daily Caller singularly bringing up Gunn’s political leanings as part of the story, raises the issue again – and is there a difference? If there is, then it’s an important one: dealing with something beyond ‘justice’ and reaching into ‘special interests’. If there isn’t… then any person reading this could be fired for a decade old controversy even whether it’s already been discussed and cleared by all parties in the past. Essentially, a double-jeopardy situation. Your mileage may vary depending on factors such as the people involved, the length of time taken and the scale of the incident.
Is there a time limit on offence? It’s easier to argue, in the era of #metoo, that there shouldn’t be any statute of limitations on seriously bad behaviour, but that can also be problematic. The #metoo situation has had huge, welcome long overdue successes but also led to observations that an allegation of horrific abuse can destroy a career through trial by media rather than the court system, especially when there’s the problem of justice vs. physical proof after time has passed. Public opinion seems swayed by proven patterns of behaviour, especially if recent examples can be cited. The likes of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein were brought down by consistently appalling behaviour over decades and which appears to have continued until exposed. Formal law-suits are finally being instigated. Gunn’s words on adjacent themes, though certainly not on par with the actual actions, seem horrendous, but have already been investigated years ago, conclusions made and not repeated since. Again, maybe that’s important, maybe it’s not – your mileage may continue to vary.
Perhaps the only lesson to be learned is that we’re realising that the words and actions that once vanished into history like ephemeral whispers now have real staying power and can be used for a variety of reasons. The law may be struggling to keep up with the legal ramifications of twitter and facebook in parallel with slander and libel laws in other formats, but what we say is now being put down like milestones and millstones and can be referenced with a mouse-click forever. Free speech is not the right to say anything or to be free of consequence, it’s the right to not be prosecuted by the government for saying something unless it’s demonstrably not true. Snarks and flippancy come more easily than considered arguments and fact-checking, and apologies even less so, and it’s often not as simple as slapping on an emoji at the end of an insult to avoid accountability.
It’s entirely fair that Gunn and Barr be judged by the words they freely expressed and for there to be consequences for such – including the right for a company to decide if it wants to terminate their relationship with such people over such issues. It’s what the consequences are, when and how often they are instigated or initiated and how they speak to current character of each that needs to be discussed by everyone. Because inevitably it will affect everyone and every word they speak, write, blog, post or sky-write from now on.
Disney may argue they had a moral imperative to fire Gunn and that’s certainly an opinion shared by many. But if so, perhaps they also had a moral imperative to do it a long time ago rather than a decade later and only after what reads as a hit-piece.