[Op-Ed] Are You Familiar With His Work? A Short Defense Of James Gunn's Stupid List

A two year-old list written by recently-hired "Guardians of the Galaxy" writer-director James Gunn has been making the rounds this week, in particular this gem:

Over at The Mary Sue, writer Susana Polo articulates, which calls out the "Super" and "Slither" filmmaker for homophobia, slut-shaming, and endorsing corrective rape. Polo comes out just this side of advocating that Marvel/Disney fire Gunn for the offending line, but for good measure there's already a petition out there demanding that Gunn get the axe.

This--I struggle with calling it a "conversation" based on the headline of Polo's piece alone--is ostensibly about personal responsibility for public statements, the continued mistreatment or marginalization of female comics fans (and across the spectrum of sexuality), the question of whether an employer should hold an employee to task for something they say on their own time.

Really, this is about Gunn--a funny man who's made some terrific and occasionally sensitive films--making a joke that didn't land.

First off, let's look at the original February 2011 piece, based on results from a poll on his Facebook page, (and preserved here thanks to the miracle of Google Cache following Gunn's decision to take it down yesterday). The complaint about the Batwoman bit (and a couple of others that Polo selectively chooses to editorialize on) is that Gunn is outing himself as a creepy misogynist harboring corrective rape fantasies towards lesbians. Taken in a vacuum, yeah, that line is pretty gross.

But let's pull back and look at the other 49 entries in the piece--for instance this one for Tigra:

For thirty-plus years Tigra has been consistently poorly-written, which means you’d probably have an easy time talking your way into her pants. Especially if you have a slight furry fetish, but aren’t totally willing to commit to it.

Or this one about Emma Frost:

What I love about Emma is the practical attire she wears while adventuring. Certainly, if I were a woman fighting giant monsters I’d want to wear some awesome breast-mushing halter top, a pair of panties, and thigh highs. That stuff would never get in the way. For those men who love rude b*****s, the White Queen is number one.

Something that's clear from just these two selections alone: Gunn has at least some passing familiarity with the characters on their list, is aware of how they've been treated/portrayed over the years, and is having fun at the expense of their hysper-sexualization. But More than than that, in reading the entire piece, it's obvious that Gunn is writing in a voice, in particular, the creepy, sexualized voice that tends to inform these "Top 50 fictional people I would totally try to get down with" lists.

The Polo piece takes particular issue with this bit about Gambit:

My girlfriend voted for this Cajun fruit. I think she’s looking to have a devil’s three way with the two of us. The idea of my balls slapping against Gambit’s makes me sick to my stomach, but I can’t deny the fellow’s pure HEAT, as he yet again placed so high on this list, despite being male and in the presence of so many A-listers. Wolverine and Superman may beat him in sales, but it’s who the ladies love that really matters, and Gambit is the Galactus of C**k!

Besides mis-characterizing the Gambit entry as being an insult to female sexuality--based on what's here, he's drawing on gay panic in a hypothetical threesmome between himself, his girlfriend, and the character where there might accidentally be some "crossing of the streams" as it were--it ignores how outsize and ridiculous the entries are. There's nothing exactly "serious" about it, from the title to the bro-y dissection of what he'd like to do to the characters and why.

Dark Horse editor and all-around straight-shooter when it comes to this kind of conversation Rachel Eddin argues that this doesn't work as satire because this level of sexualization exists in the industry already, that Gunn is hitting too close to home if this is all just a joke. I don't buy this logic--that because there are people out there who are that awful, poking fun at their level of awfulness is an invalid kind of humor. It's what Colbert does, it's how Mel Brooks approached race in Hollywood with "Blazing Saddles" (not that I'm elevating Gunn's list to those levels, but you get my drift).

"But someone reading this who does believe that stuff would totally take it seriously," is a line I've seen pop up in a couple of comment threads. First off, we've probably already lost those people: they're currently nodding their heads at lengthy postings about the inherent misandry of #1reasonwhy and they're not really bringing anything useful to the table anyway. You're not gonna reach them--they're gone. Let 'em go.

And the whole mess ignores one important thing: Gunn's work. As Drew over at HitFix notes, Gunn "likes really, really dirty jokes." That was the part of this ginned-up anger that's really gotten to me: he's someone who writes often funny stuff for a living who told a joke that didn't land (two years ago, it should be repeated). This is kind of his thing, from the body horror freaks of "Slither" to Boltie, the junior psychopath in "Super," to the kind of deeper than she looks sexpot Juliet Starling in his foray into video games "Lollipop Chainsaw." Polo says that "The extent to which one can separate the artist from their work is a very personal decision that varies from person to person," but in this case, divorcing the artist from their work is part of the problem here.

Heidi MacDonald's piece strikes on what has been bugging me the most here: targeting a two year-old joke article from Gunn isn't a practical or particularly useful exercise when it comes to creating more access to non-white men in comics. It's a dumb battle to be having when the same energies could be directed toward encouraging mentorship for a diverse range of comic creators or maybe making sure the CBLDF is getting the support it needs to continue defending free speech.

What's my stake in this? Nothing, really. I've spoken to Gunn professionally a couple of times and he seems like a smart, sweet dude, but more importantly, I like some of his work quite a bit. That work will speak for itself (and I'm sure Gunn will speak for himself in time), but as someone who writes about movies, comics, games, and the people who make them, and who is definitely concerned about the level of access for women, gays, lesbians, transgendered folks, and people of color, the call to have Gunn trotted out and shamed in the public square feels like a gross overreaction, a disservice to those things which I think are important and a reflection of the most shrill instincts when it comes to defending and promoting equality.