Mike Cernovich, a far-right troll infamous for being a ringleader in the Pizzagate and Gamergate controversies, successfully led a smear campaign against Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, leading to his firing from the franchise's upcoming third film. The campaign circulated disgusting tweets Gunn made between 2008 and early 2012, joking about topics like pedophilia, 9/11, rape, the Holocaust, and AIDS. Disney's incredibly swift decision to protect its family-friendly brand by firing Gunn sets a dangerous precedent of ignoring an individual's ability to grow beyond their past mistakes in favor of unintentionally normalizing the alt-right.
Before being hired to helm Marvel Studios' Guardians franchise in 2012, Gunn built his career on bad taste "comedy." His first feature film credit as a writer, Tromeo and Juliet, ends with the sibling main characters parenting deformed incest babies. He and his brothers created a comedy web series, PG Porn, which is exactly what it sounds like. His directorial debut, Super, is a violent black comedy that plays, for laughs, a scene in which Ellen Page's character rapes the protagonist, played by Rainn Wilson. Until he was hired by Disney, most of Gunn's creative body of work centered on vulgar humor.
This gross shock humor extended to his online presence. Numerous tweets exposed by Cernovich contain pedophilia "jokes" such as "I'm doing a big Hollywood film adaptation of The Giving Tree with a happy ending - the tree grows back and gives the kid a blowjob" as well as anti-LGBT slurs like "tr*nny," which is especially upsetting to me as a trans woman. His website featured homophobic and sexist posts like "The 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With." Gunn's brand of "jokes," while attempting to fit into a culture of shock humor, clearly crossed numerous lines of good taste.
So, many were shocked when Gunn was hired by Disney, a company notorious for fervently protecting its family-friendly image, to direct Guardians of the Galaxy. One could argue that Gunn should never have been hired in the first place, based on his career history up to that point. He certainly made no effort to hide it. Yet Disney and Marvel Studios, which have a history of hiring problematic creatives like Robert Downey Jr. who ultimately redeem themselves in the public eye, stuck to their Gunn.
If the director had continued down the path that his offensive past showcased, the decision to fire him from Guardians Vol. 3 would make perfect sense, if many years too late. Yet Gunn has repeatedly shown his growth from his past and directly addressed it on many occasions, without a major controversy threatening his career to motivate him. In a 2012 interview with GLAAD, Gunn said, "I can see where statements were poorly worded and offensive to many. I'm sorry and regret making them at all." While certainly not the best apology of all time, it shows Gunn's recognition of his past and his desire to move beyond it. Additionally, one glance at Gunn's Twitter feed since 2012, which contains little to no offensive humor, shows how Gunn has matured.
Gunn's time working at Marvel Studios has also facilitated his growth. His brother Sean, who stars in the Guardians movies, stated, "In many respects this change in my brother was reflected in the change that the Guardians go through. ... We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That's a gift."
In an interview with Buzzfeed that took place well before the recent controversy, James Gunn said, "I felt like Guardians forced me into a much deeper way of thinking about, you know, my relationship to people, I suppose. I was a very nasty guy on Twitter. It was a lot of f***ing edgy, in-your-face, dirty stuff. I suddenly was working for Marvel and Disney, and that didn't seem like something I could do anymore. I thought that that would be a hindrance on my life. But the truth was it was a big, huge opening for me. I realized, a lot of that stuff is a way that I push away people. When I was forced into being this" -- motioning to his chest -- "I felt more fully myself."
Certainly, his creative work on Guardians mirrors this growth. Gunn repeatedly identifies himself with the character of Rocket Raccoon from Guardians. In the films, Rocket is initially defined by his vulgarity, anger at the world, and desire to be left alone. Yet, as Sean Gunn stated in a Cinemablend interview,"It's pretty clear that Rocket still feels alone ... that's why end on [Rocket's] face, is that I think that he's learned to be more of a family member to everyone." Rocket's character arc throughout the franchise's two films, quite intentionally, mirrors James Gunn's self-development.
James Gunn's actions and creative work, backed up by post-firing support from people who know him, including Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Zoe Saldana, have spoken to his personal change. Working at Marvel Studios, something Gunn initially feared would make him lose his edge, made him a better person; someone able to express himself creatively without resorting to vulgar, offensive humor to garner attention.
This is why firing Gunn this past weekend does not make sense. Certainly, the argument could be made that, as he never faced repercussions then, he should face them now. Yet to do so ignores over half a decade's worth of character growth. The time to punish Gunn was in 2012 or earlier, not today. Gunn's past actions, while disgusting, are redeemable. Indeed, he has redeemed himself in the eyes of many. He is by no means deserving of the same ire that we reserve for the likes of Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein, men whose actions can never and should never be redeemed. However, the decision was made, and Gunn may be stuck with an imploding career.
More importantly, Gunn's firing holds ramifications beyond him. The director, who is vocally anti-Trump, drew the attention of Mike Cernovich when Gunn criticized conservative Ben Shapiro. Alt-right member (or "American nationalist," as he prefers to be called) Cernovich helped lead the Gamergate harassment campaign and also supported Pizzagate, a theory that falsely proclaimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex slavery ring out of a pizza parlor. He also has a history of gleefully running smear campaigns against prominent figures on the left, like when he caused MSNBC commentator Sam Seder to be fired by circulating an out-of-context tweet where Seder joked about child rapist Roman Polanski. Seder was rehired when the full context of the tweet was recognized.
Cernovich revels in what he see as holding the left to its own standards. When Seder was fired, Cernovich stated, "Thank you to everybody who emailed MSNBC. You're heroes because you emailed MSNBC and you let them know about the tweet. You let them know the people will be heard."
In his mind, and the minds of many on the alt-right, the firing of Gunn mirrors the recent sacking of Roseanne Barr from her TV show for her racist tweet targeting former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Roseanne herself supported the comparison, tweeting, "I'm disgusted to read all of the support for James Gunn's pedophile jokes-as the same people supported blacklisting me for a joke they didn't even understand."
These two experiences are not equivalent. First, and most importantly, no reasonable person supports Gunn's pedophile jokes, as Roseanne insinuates. They support James Gunn the person, who has grown significantly since making those jokes. Also, while Gunn has repeatedly shown unsolicited regret, remorse, and growth since making those tweets, Roseanne has failed at every turn to repent for her racist remarks.
Indeed, in the wake of her firing, Roseanne doubled down on her horrific actions. While she gave a half-hearted apology in an unsuccessful attempt to save her job, she has since publicly stated that she believes she was fired "because I voted for Donald Trump. And that is not allowed in Hollywood." This is a lie; she was fired for a racist tweet. Even if we accept Roseanne's assertion that the reaction to that tweet was overblown, it came on the back of years of homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, racist, and white supremacist remarks, none of which Roseanne showed regret for.
This stands in sharp contrast to Gunn's reaction to his firing, where he stated, "Regardless of how much time has passed, I understand and accept the business decisions taken today. Even these many years later, I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself then. All I can do now, beyond offering my sincere and heartfelt regret, is to be the best human being I can be: accepting, understanding, committed to equality, and far more thoughtful about my public statements and my obligations to our public discourse. To everyone inside my industry and beyond, I again offer my deepest apologies. Love to all." Unlike Roseanne, Gunn ackowledges his actions and accepts responsibility for them.
To equate Roseanne and Gunn in appeasement of alt-right trolls like Cernovich sets a dangerous precedent. Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, an ally to the LGBT community who has appeared in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is currently facing attacks from the alt-right for the following 2013 tweet: "My dong is super friendly and loves getting rubbed by children #CareerEndingTwitterTypos." Alt-right trolls are now insinuating Oswalt admitted to pedophilia. He's not the only one, with numerous left-leaning creators like Dan Harmon and Trevor Noah also facing attacks and others, like Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson, taking cover in preparation for an onslaught. Only a nuanced look on a case-by-case basis can fairly decide who should and shouldn't lose their job.
I do not believe we should blindly support someone because they agree with our politics. Yet to continually fire these people at the behest and in appeasement of the alt-right normalizes people like Cernovich. It says that their warped view of the world is just the natural counterpoint to a liberal mind-set; this is false. The views of many on the alt-right do not stand as the opposite of liberalism, but in opposition to basic levels of human empathy and compassion that anyone -- left, right, and anywhere in between -- should support. The alt-right revels in "giving the left a taste of our own medicine" while simultaneously continuing to support right-leaning figures who espouse homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, racist, sexist, white supremacist, and many other horrific views with zero repercussions. In fact, many times those views are rewarded. They even helped elect one of those people president of the United States.
Make no mistake -- Gunn, Oswalt, and other liberal celebrities are being targeted not out of a sense of justice, but to silence prominent critics of Trump. They're part of hate campaigns being crafted by a disingenuous minority, made to appear bigger than it is. The alt-right gladly tears down left-leaning public figures by erasing nuance in the name of basic morality, while refusing to hold its own leaders to the same principles. It's a disgusting double standard that we continually play into.
The media, including left-leaning publications, runs stories on the manufactured, manipulative outrage of the right-wing because the salacious articles get clicks. Many liberal figures pile on too, eviscerating the fallen subject out of a desired sense of moral vitue and purity, a tribalstic impulse that takes precedence over understanding larger context, or because they fear other liberals turning on them for not speaking out against the behavior of men like Gunn. The only way to combat this is by both understanding the nuances of our morality and recognizing that everything does not fall into a limited to binary of right and wrong but many times has shades of gray, while simultaneously forcing leaders on the right to stand firm in some level of moral conviction.
I'm not against people being against Gunn. If you understand the entire situation and still find yourself unable to forgive Gunn's tweets, that's OK. His tweets are disgusting, and it's up to you personally if you find his actions after that to be redemptive. Yet I only respect that view if you formed it from a nuanced understanding of the totality of the situation.
At the end of the day, what's most concerning about the entire Gunn controversy is that the very idea that human beings can ever move beyond their past has been called into question. Are we capable of moving forward, learning from our past mistakes? If we can't, what does that say about humanity as a whole? If individuals can't grow, then humanity can't grow either. This is why it is imperative that we believe in our own capacity to evolve. The only way to move forward is to continually look back to where we have been. Only by doing that can we can actually build a better future.
JESSIE EARL is a multimedia producer and editor at The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @jessiegender.