On two separate occasions, I was called a troll by screenwriter Max Landis, the son of legendary director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers). Before we get to the “why” of that, and why I’m just so incredibly proud that it happened, we have to (potentially legally) start with a caveat.
What follows here is my personal recollection and reaction to a series of events that unfolded on Twitter. At no point and time was I representing The Reader as a publication during those events. Even now, while you’re reading this on The Reader’s site or in one of those…weird whatchamacallit things with the paper and ink, this is just my personal thoughts, views and recollections.
See, I’m a critic, not a journalist. There’s a major difference. I’m a semi-professional “opinion-haver,” not someone meticulously researching factual claims. Honestly, Max Landis could shit rainbows for all I know. Actually, that might literally be a thing… Look him up on YouTube. In real life, he could be everything good and right in this world. I very, very strongly doubt that, but it’s possible. However, the interactions we had on two separate occasions speak to larger culture issues that are unfolding and point to deeper conversation that’s happening about inclusivity, intellect and art. And it’s happening on Twitter. So it’s happening in real time, a fact that makes it very difficult to catalogue, research and store for future discussion. All that said, I believe what went down (twice) is so illustrative and important, I’d really like to talk about it.
But, Max, if you’re reading this (which I know you’re not): I was serious the many, many times I invited you to contact me on a more personal level. I will literally pay good money to sit down in a room with you so that we can talk while staring at each other in the eye parts. I want to know what that conversation would look and feel like. Because all I know right now is how the dialogues we had online looked and felt (again, not objectively were, but how they looked and felt to me). So let’s talk about those.
Shortly after Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, Max (I’m calling him that to distinguish him from his much more well-recognized father, who has earned the reputation associated with the last name Landis) called the lead character, Rey (Daisy Ridley), a “Mary Sue.” For those who don’t know, the simplest and most objective explanation for that term is that it refers to a female character in fan fiction who is, basically, “too good to be true.” There’s a shitpile of subjectivity that goes into understanding the dense and loaded term, but everyone generally agrees that it is used to refer to a woman in fanfic who is “over-skilled” or “over-idealized.”
Max repeatedly reiterated that the term is not inherently derogatory…
Literally, the first line in the description on TVTropes.org is “Mary Sue is a derogatory term primarily used in Fan Fic circles.” To many, including myself, Max’s claims that the term is not offensive by nature bore a good comparison to people who proclaim “I’m not racist, but…” and then say something completely and horribly racist. Whether or not he believes the term to be loaded, the overwhelming consensus is that it is. And for good reason.
The reason that so many “Mary Sues” appear in fanfic is that very few actual women appear in the kind of content that inspires fanfic. That is to say, if you are a fan and want to see powerful, intelligent women represented abundantly in science-fiction and other genre work, you’re probably going to have to write it yourself. The male hero is the standard, the default. Even in intellectually progressive fiction, even in fantasies that take place either in “galaxies far, far away” or in alternate realities with green tentacled people, the default is “man = hero, woman = boobs.” That’s just how it is. It’s a waste of time, space and word count to have to prove such an overwhelmingly well-recognized fact. So please don’t make me.
When the first picture of the table read for The Force Awakens came out, Twitter noted that it was pretty much a sausage-fest.
So when it turned out Rey was the lead, it was pretty great. But for some, like Max, something wasn’t so great. Now, this is my space to write, so I don’t want to spend a ton of time sifting through evidence after evidence, going back and forth over what he claims made Rey a “Mary Sue” and why it’s wrong. And it is wrong. Provably wrong. Easily provably wrong. And literally dozens of people did a better job of showing why than I could because they have patients for disproving ignorant bullshit that I don’t have. I liked Erik Kain’s from Forbes because it was so direct.
Regardless, the point isn’t really whether Rey is or isn’t a “Mary Sue.” It’s not even really how profoundly messed up it is that there’s even a heated debate when there’s finally an inclusive bit of mainstream science fiction. For the love of God, they used a person of color, Finn (John Boyega), as the audience stand-in “everyman.” It was glorious! So when Max shit on it, people like me got mad. I can’t say why the others got mad, but I did because it felt like a gut punch to those who had been patient for so long.
So many of my friends do not see themselves reflected in the fiction they love. Be they biracial, queer or simply cis women. They want so badly to see themselves on screen, to feel that connection. It’s something we dude nerds take for granted all the time. And here comes Max, who is rich, Max the beneficiary of Hollywood nepotism shitting all over this moment. Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough to set me off. Probably, but maybe not. But you see, Max claims everywhere, in interviews, personal videos, essays, social media, that he is an ally. He claims to be an ally to women, to people of color and to the queer community. And his first reaction was to be pissed that Rey was good with a light saber so fast that she must be a “Mary Sue?” She must be a poorly written, amateurish, fanfic character undeserving of her lead role because how could a woman be so competent and heroic!
So I tweeted at Max. I’m sure it was something eloquent and well worded that briefly and succinctly exposed the implicit, systemic misogyny I thought was subconsciously or intentionally operating behind his opinion. You know, something like “Go screw yourself you dumb butt.” The fact is, with 140 characters, sophistication is a luxury Twitter doesn’t afford. On the one hand it’s nice. You get right to it. Pleasantries are for everything past 141 characters. On the other… Things get heated fast.
So as I walked around a toy store, unable to find a single figure of Rey, the lead in the single biggest movie in years, I tweeted at Max. And out of nowhere, he tweeted back. To his credit, he was polite at first from what I recall. He wanted to discuss his points. I wanted him to understand that it was unnecessary to make them. He wanted to go through each complaint. I wanted him to see that this was a scrutiny not leveraged against any of the literally thousands of men who are the heroes in almost all the rest of the genre and exhibit the same behaviors and characteristics as Rey. Within a few heated back and forths, what was a conversation became an argument. And then he called me a troll.
You have to know what a troll is by this point in the Internet’s existence. A troll is someone provoking another person for the pleasure of upsetting them. It’s the old adage about wrestling a pig: You get messy and it’s fun for the pig. I’m not a troll. I wasn’t having fun for no reason. I wanted very badly to see Max walk back his statement or at the very least see why his stubborn resistance to understanding why simply making the comments represented a problem. But he didn’t. So I said some very mean, bad, not nice things to the rich Hollywood screenwriter (who at the time had I believe two movies in theaters). Why the opinion of some guy Max had never met from Twitter who lived in Omaha mattered to him is beyond me. He has more than 73,000 followers. I scrape beneath 1500. I should have been insignificant to him, easily ignored. I was not.
Okay, now, here’s where I admit I was a dick even further. I wished him syphilis on Twitter. Actually, that’s not true. I wished him ALL the syphilis since time began. Having given up on reason, I resorted to humor to express frustration. Now, unless technology has progressed that I don’t know about, you can’t actually give someone “all the syphilis.” I thought it was a mean, but completely nonthreatening, way to show how irritated I was that a white cis man born into privilege like Max would spend days refusing to see how calling a character who meant something to women a derogatory term.
So he retweeted my comment to his 73,000 followers and, in my opinion, sicced them on me. Admittedly, he didn’t say “go get em.” But Twitter etiquette and the fact that he’s a prolific user lead me to truly believe he knew what he was doing. Suddenly, I was besieged by a tide of Men’s Rights Activists and dudebros savagely attacking me. For me? It was easy to shake off. But I can’t fathom the abuse women, people of color and queer Twitter users must face daily if this is all it took for this to happen to me. I never felt worried or threatened. JockBroBigDick69 telling me to jump off a bridge is not only something that doesn’t make me a victim, it makes me laugh. But, see, I’m not a woman. I’m not a person of color. I’m not queer. I’m not someone for whom threats are a routine part of moving through the world.
So, that night, when Max came after German/Palestinian director and personal hero Lexi Alexander, I lost my ever-loving shit. Do you know what Alexander had the audacity to do? Block Max on Twitter. That’s all. Block him. In the most nonthreatening, nonaggressive, safe, protective fashion, she simply made it so he could not have a clearly unwanted conversation with her. And Max lost his goddamn mind. Again, that’s not a medical opinion, that’s just a personal one. He made a video. It was a video addressed to Alexander. Stop for a second. Just stop and think this through.
A woman says in the clearest language possible “I do not wish to talk to you.” And Max’s first reaction was to make a video talking to her. Knowing he couldn’t send it to her (remember, he’s blocked), he encouraged his followers to do so. He has 73,000. How could Alexander possibly block all of them? She couldn’t. So for a brief period, a deluge of a recorded conversation Alexander specifically and explicitly asked not to have was relentlessly coming at her from all directions.
Now, Alexander can’t simply “take care of herself.” I’m fairly confident she could mentally, physically and emotionally cripple entire nations if needed. She’s that bad ass. One time, someone suggested that we needed an “army of Lexi Alexanders” to which Alexander replied “I am an army.” While she is always kind in expressing her gratitude for support, she is beyond strong enough to deal with this and probably, I don’t know, ISIS all by herself.
But that action of Max’s, sending his legion of douchebros after her, was inexcusable to me. He claimed he was just “trying to understand” why she blocked him. As though he is owed that right. As though anyone in this world is owed an explanation for someone choosing to no longer engage with them. What Alexander (and I through her) realized in that moment was that Max is the embodiment of privilege. He believes himself to be owed things, ranging from success to a simple explanation of why Alexander wanted nothing to do with him.
Things died down. Months passed. I figured this was all over. In fact, I figured it all worked out for the best because I got to learn how much Alexander puts out there. Her fierce honesty about the treatment of women and people of color in film and television would have totally missed me had Max not done what he did. She seemed to have moved past it all. I would read day after day as she would make blisteringly brilliant points about what she and others like her face just trying to do what they love. She referred several times to being either explicitly or implicitly “blacklisted” for her honesty. A woman lauded with praise early on in her career found little work simply because she was brave enough to speak. Again, that’s at least how I read it. If you go back and watch Punisher: War Zone and don’t see how the supremely hyped version of that character on Netflix’s “Daredevil” was lifted heavily from Alexander’s film…
So after time passed, something else happened. Without using his name (remember, he’s blocked from her Tweets anyway), Alexander used a story about Max to prove hypocrisy in Hollywood. Max wrote American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein. Two movies widely considered to range in quality from “bad” to “oh God, kill it with fire.” Regardless of whether studios ruined them (as Max claimed) or directors botched them (again, another suggestion of Max’s), they were commercial flops. In the entirety of his “career,” the start of which almost certainly has to have had some relation to his father’s connections, he has had just one successful film. One. Chronicle, which was a found-footage film light on dialogue and plot. That’s it.
So when, after two consecutive, relatively large, financial disasters, Max was given a $3 million payout by Netflix for a movie, Alexander used the situation to prove that meritocracy in Hollywood is a myth. How could anyone claim that if you “do good work” and “earn” the shot at success it will come, if a man with back-to-back crap tacos scores a huge contract? Her point was simply made: A woman screws up once, she goes from director to unemployed. A person of color writes one bad movie, they better learn how to be a chef or something. A straight, cis, white man who writes two baskets of feces that cost millions of dollars has an armored car pull up and dump money on his lawn. It’s a beautiful synopsis of the problem. It’s how “Oscars So White” happens every year. It’s why there is such a thing as “Mary Sue” in fanfic. Max is the system. Knowingly or unknowingly, he embodies all of it.
And it outrages him. His need to believe that his success is deserved is so extreme, when he caught wind (again, he’s blocked from seeing Alexander’s tweets), he went cruel again. He implied that he heard “damaging rumors” about her as a person. He suggested she was mentally unwell. He once more pointed his legion of douchebros at her. And that made me mad. Again, not because I think Alexander is a damsel in distress, but because when a piece of shit acts like a piece of shit, we should all point at that piece of shit and say “You’re a piece of shit.” So I did. About 3-4 months after Max and I sparred about Rey and he called me a troll, he saw me Tweeting about Alexander at him.
And he remembered me.
Me. A guy in Omaha he talked to one day months previous. A guy with little to no influence. A guy who should mean absolutely nothing to him. Within minutes he remembered me as “that troll.” So I, obviously, immediately updated my Twitter bio to reflect my pride in being called a troll by Max Landis twice. But I also laughed. Because in that moment, I knew I won. I had gotten to him. Some part of him in there was bothered enough by my comments that they lodged in his subconscious. Was I classy about this revelation? Please. I’m the guy who wished Max “all the syphilis.” He told me I was still a troll, so I told him that even though I may always be a troll, I could sleep well knowing I will never be the guy who wrote American Ultra or Victor Frankenstein. We haven’t talked much since.
I sent him another flurry of messages the other day, some he responded to secondhand but not directly. It was in response to him, once again, trying to justify a horrible position. This time, he took to a video to explain how people who are mad about Scarlett Johansson being cast in a role written for an Asian woman are “mad about the wrong things.” Don’t worry, he prefaced it by saying he was neither “mansplaining” nor “whitesplaining” the situation before mansplaining and whitesplaining the situation. The classic “I’m not racist, but…”
So what does this all mean? Why does this all matter? 10 years ago, people in Hollywood making $3 million script deals didn’t talk to dudes from Omaha who were pissed off. 5 years ago, Lexi Alexander was struggling to find work after speaking out about the systemic injustices in a field she loves. She just directed two incredible episodes of popular TV shows. I don’t know that you call this “progress” but you can call it an “evolution.” There is a dialogue. In the same way that #BlackLivesMatter grew from a hashtag to having a full-on mayoral candidate in Baltimore, so too can Twitter work to make popular culture, specifically cinema, better.
In the weeks that followed the bitching about the sausagefest Star Wars photo, one of the characters that had yet to be cast was gender flipped. Captain Phasma went from (allegedly) being played by Benedict Cumberbatch to actually being played by Gwendolyn Christie. It wasn’t some back-patting, self-congratulatory movement for the Twitterverse who complained. But it was proof the echo chamber may have a crack in it.
Follow Alexander on Twitter. Learn from her. She speaks truth. Follow Max on Twitter. Tweet at him when he spews vile bullshit. If film matters to you, join us on the frontlines. It seems impossible, but dialogue with people in studio boardrooms, writers’ rooms and editorial collectives is now possible. If you love film and want it better, understand the world that Alexander lives in. Try to make Max change the world he has some control over. Stay silent but watch or get vocal and engage. But get in here. Shit’s going down, y’all.