AN APOLOGY TO KATHRYN BIGELOWBy Bret Easton Ellis
On Dec. 5 at 11:31 p.m. I tweeted the following:
This was my Twitter-casual response to both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle awarding Bigelow best director of the year, and awarding her new movie Zero Dark Thirty, about the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, Best Picture. I hadn’t seen Zero Dark Thirty but thought, in the Twitter-moment, can it really be that good? Marc Boal and Kathryn Bigelow and another war film?
Everything about their previous effort, The Hurt Locker, seemed to me not bad, exactly, but tepid, simplistic, crude, TV-movie-ish—except for the extended sniper set-piece, ending with a whirlwind of sand blowing across the desert, a haunting visual grace note to a scary, tense scene. The Hurt Locker also felt like it was directed by a man. Its testosterone level was palpable, whereas in Sofia Coppola’s work you’re aware of a much softer presence behind the camera. In 2009, after The Hurt Locker had dominated the Oscars, I had tweeted something along the lines of: the main aspect of The Hurt Locker that interests me most is that it was directed by a “beautiful woman” rather than a man (or something like that). No one really said anything; there was very little favoriting or retweeting or unfollowing then. There were also no outraged comments about the supposed ha-ha nudge-nudge sexism that could be, I suppose, construed from the statement. But then, in 2009, I didn’t have 364,000 Twitter followers either.
That same night, Dec. 5, I went on:
The only thing that bothers me about that tweet is the use of the word “junk.” No, the movies listed above aren’t junk. Their level of craftsmanship is often quite high. They might be just OK as movies, but they’re certainly not junk in terms of execution. “Junk” is the writer’s exclamation point. It’s the writer’s Twitter flourish to a kind of dead sentence, filled with a list, and an echo of what bothered me about The Hurt Locker—because she was again being sold as the front-runner for perhaps her second directing Oscar with what looked like a very similar film. And what point was I trying to make exactly? I mean, what “visionary” filmmaker ever wins an Oscar? So what if competent technicians usually win it? That’s why the Oscars exist. So: I don’t really like any of the above films—and except for the use of the word “junk” I’m fine with that tweet (it’s not gender specific—it’s specifically about Bigelow’s work). There’s also something about the night’s earlier tweet that’s already beginning to bother me but I don’t know what it is. Yet.
The next day, Dec. 6, I tweeted:
The woman, an Oscar-nominated producer whom I’m close with, and who had called me out earlier in the day about those two tweets from the night before, now laughed at her self-seriousness. She conceded that yes, she is a very Empire woman and that of course Bret “has the right to free speech no matter how dumb.” We left it at that. She was also the first to warn me what the repercussions in the press might be if I kept it up about Kathryn Bigelow. I thought: Oh please. The press? They’ve been trashing me for years. Did you see what they did to me during my Twitter campaign for the 50 Shades of Grey screenwriting gig? I can handle the press, babe. Besides: I’m not gonna keep going on about Kathryn Bigelow.
And then, on Dec. 7, I kept it up:
This tweet, in its own way, has become a problem. And by “problem,” I don’t mean for the 364,000 people who follow BretEastonEllis’s verified Twitter account. No, it’s become a problem for the Twitter Me; my Twitter consciousness, just wanting to have fun and be a bit of a provocateur in 140 characters. And then realizing ... err, that’s not really fun or that provocative. It goes beyond douchiness into another more insensitive realm. Most of the time, if I felt I’d stepped over a line, I just shrugged it off and moved on, thinking, it’s only Twitter; these are just flashing thoughts, immediate responses to cultural stimuli floating in the air, allowing me to unleash the mind of a consciously groomed brand built for outrage and skepticism.
Or was I just a truly demented person? Or was I something in between? Was I “barraged” on Dec. 7? Yeah, a bit. Was I called “sexist” and “toxic”? Yes. Why? For thinking that someone can be overrated because they’re beautiful? No. Please, that happens every day—that’s called life, that’s called Hollywood. No, I was “barraged” because the woman in question had moved ceaselessly ahead in a man’s field and made it to one of the pinnacles in a male-dominated profession: the podium of the Kodak Theater on Oscar night, winning Best Director. My “problem” was: did she win it for directing a movie a man usually makes? And if so, is that double-COOL or double-MEH?
And yes the earlier tweets now crest with:
Again, there’s a problem here. The tweet is one of those definite proclamations—it’s neither asking a legit question and calling out the right people, nor is it a jolly-nasty tongue-in-cheek remark that could be construed as a joke about reverse sexism. The queasy feeling I get rereading it—and some of the others about Bigelow—is: Why does it look like I’m attacking Kathryn Bigelow when I just had an urge to tweet about her? And why am I so acutely aware of this now, rather than, say, in 2009 when I first tweeted about The Hurt Locker and her beauty, a time when I wasn’t even thinking that this was something I could be capable of doing—was I really attacking a woman on Twitter? Had I been giving myself excuses all these years while locked in my Twitter cage of 140 characters? And did I have to finally admit that I went too far sometimes?
A lot of this handwringing has to do with the dismantling of a casually unconscious sexism that has long been tolerated in the culture (“Duh? You think, Bret?” I can imagine the National Organization for Women groaning). Those big proclamations I made about Bigelow’s “hot” looks: where does that come from? Because clearly I haven’t been mentioning her male counterparts looks or lack thereof. And being gay you’d think I might’ve gone there (sorry Martin McDonagh). Out of all the Bigelow tweets there are only one or two I can kind of stand by. That hasn’t happened to me before. Not once since I posted my Very First Tweet in 2009 (about the band The Gaslight Anthem) had I felt bummed out about something I tweeted.
As someone who is not a white, male, heterosexual filmmaker, as someone who has felt like an outsider for things they couldn’t help, as someone who had been bullied for exactly those things he couldn’t help—I guess I should have known better.
It wasn’t until the last week or so—after talking casually to a few women about the tweets, including a journalist doing a piece on me, that female producer, my mom—and reading the countless news articles about them which, no matter how hyperbolic they were, revealed to me an insensitivity on my part. And only then did I have My Twitter Moment…
What has been happening on my Twitter page in 2012? Usually I’m responding to things I’m reading that morning, or had seen at a screening that night, or was watching on TV in bed the night before. I’m usually in my office tweeting, more often than not at night, after a couple of drinks or glasses of wine, sometimes even Blake Shelton blotto, and sometimes stone-cold sober, as I was in the middle of the night two Saturdays ago tweeting passages from a 1978 Paris Review interview with Joan Didion, along with pictures of my Christmas tree. So what does Twitter actually mean if that’s the way I go about it? How thought-out are my statements? How grounded are my opinions? How much does randomness and juvenilia and alcohol contribute to each tweet? Were the Kathryn Bigelow tweets really that bad given the context they were tweeted in? The idea that some people thought I was becoming a “shit-stirrer” was not only inaccurate, but failed to “get” the context of Twitter…
I certainly never thought I’d feel the need to consider having to write a sentence about how the “marginalization of anyone for something they can’t help (gender, sexuality, race) is actually unacceptable to me and always has been…but in REAL LIFE NOT ON TWITTER!”
Twitter seems like a writer’s funhouse to me, not something I’d use “seriously” to “hurt” someone. I don’t want to hurt anybody. And I’m not even saying that Kathryn Bigelow was hurt or even noticed the tweets or even cared. I imagine her balls are bigger than that. I thought that in the Bigelow tweets people might find a certain truth (Yes, Bret! Tell us the truth! You’d know!) about the hypocrisy of the world, of the Hollywood mindset, beautiful women in the movie biz, reverse sexism, etc. But they ultimately revealed a much more layered sexism that, I guess I thought as a gay man, I could get away with since my supposed vitriol about Bigelow was coming from another “oppressed” class. But in 140 characters it didn’t land that way.
I’ve taken a lot of hits in my career—they bounce off. The armor was built so long ago that I now assume everyone else in the public eye can handle it when they’re shot at. But the outcry over the Bigelow tweets was eye-opening to me in a way that nothing else has ever been. I got it. I heard it. I looked back at what I was doing with those tweets (quickly, unconsciously, hurriedly, drunkenly) and I have to admit they simply back-fired. Which is why I’m writing this. No one asked me to write this. I simply write something like this when I’m in pain. And I’ve been slowly feeling a painfulness when reading all of the articles reacting to those tweets.
The American press’s reaction to the Bigelow tweets was swift and overwhelming. Without reading the news I could still feel it swirling in the air because everyone around me was talking about it. It was by far the most sustained attack on anything I had tweeted about. What was odd about the collective anger was that the tweets were solely about daunting, glamorous Kathryn Bigelow—they were not directed at women everywhere, yet women united and seemed to bond over what they perceived as both a much broader and more personal “attack” (a word used often in the articles in the days that followed). The quick thoughtlessness that Twitter encourages had a lot to do with why the word “attack” was never going to register for me until after I started reading the press. What started bothering me was: what does my thinking Bigelow is physically hot have to do with anything? What point was I trying to make with that? That her success is due to her physicality? Was there anyway to get my real thoughts and feelings through in 140 characters and in a coherent and intelligent manner? Or do 140 characters (or less) determine that what you’re trying to say is sometimes going to come off as shallow, or mean-spirited, or wrong?
No one likes being wrong—I mean really wrong—about something. And in some of the cases where I’ve been attacked I really haven’t cared, because I’m not an example. I don’t represent. I’m just a lone voice and not a teacher. And I refuse to make my Twitter page one; it is what it is, take it or leave it, follow or unfollow, enjoy it or let it piss you off. But I’m taking a bit of a break from Twitter—not fully, not all the time, just over the holidays—until I see Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie.
And then, perhaps, we can start all over again.