The internet has made this a very strange time to be a celebrity. We have never had so much unfiltered access to the people we admire, which hasn’t always been for the best. As much as you might revere your favourite actress or musician, the fact is that they’re a person, just as fallible as you. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that people say and do stupid things on a regular basis. You and I, at least, have the benefit of knowing that no one is really paying attention; as much as your parents and teachers tell you that what you put online will have an effect on you, it’s very rare that anything actually happens.
The same cannot be said of the celebrities that everyone is paying attention to, however. Especially since the birth of the #MeToo movement, online audiences have been increasingly vigilant of people in influential or powerful positions, quick to call out people who use that platform to spew ignorance or hatred, especially towards vulnerable or marginalized groups.
While opinions differ on exactly how far this kind of activism can and should go, I think the foundational idea is a solid one. A celebrity’s voice can be heard around the world and the ideas they put out there matter. When the same groups of people are constantly the butt of the joke, it starts to colour the way people see that group. This isn’t to say that every comedian who has made a tasteless joke in the past should just be “cancelled,” as some denizens of Twitter would put it. As an example, let’s look at the incident with Kevin Hart from a few months ago. The actor was set to host the Oscars this February, until old, homophobic tweets from 2011 resurfaced and caused controversy. The tweets weren’t what caused such a hooplah, however. Indeed, Hart’s response when the tweets resurfaced was what sealed his fate. Across numerous Instagram and Twitter posts (and a very half-hearted appearance on Ellen), he flip-flopped between insincere apologies and refusing to apologize, insisting that he had already dealt with the tweets and became a better man. His outbursts are proof on their own that, actually, Hart had not become a better man. The tweets didn’t resurface as a way to spite him, they resurfaced because they still represented him and he had done very little to change that.
I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some people who are too quick to pull the trigger on someone’s career. My point is that, most of the time, incidents like this are called out to encourage us to all be better, as opposed to being an attack on a specific person. If Hart had made a demonstrable effort to be a better person, instead of insisting that he’d already done that, the whole affair could have been handled much more gracefully. To me, this situation seems pretty clean cut. Hart was given a chance to be a positive role model and he squandered it.
The situation that Marvel director James Gunn found himself in last year was perhaps more complex. Like Hart, he had some dodgy tweets from around 2010/2011 resurface against his name. They cost him his job directing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Unlike Hart, however, Gunn mostly found support online, from his cast, his fans and his friends and family. What was so different for Gunn that he found solace where Hart found rejection?
Well for one thing, Gunn has actually become a very different person since those tweets were made. His apology when they resurfaced is not the only time he has addressed these tweets publically. In the time since they were made, Gunn has made a concentrated effort to move away from the tacky shock value of those offensive jokes and be a more positive voice in public. No attempt was made by Gunn (or his supporters) to defend the tweets, or try and alleviate Gunn’s responsibility. But those tweets simply do not reflect the man’s attitudes anymore and that much has been very clear to see.
What’s more, the resurfacing of these tweets was not the result of public outcry, but was instead part of a smear campaign from a political troll. Mike Cernovich, who has himself made some utterly abhorrent remarks about sexual assault, brought the tweets to light as part of some baffling retaliation for Gunn’s liberal politics. Essentially, the morality of Twitter’s so-called “social justice warriors” was hijacked to make a mockery of Gunn and was in no way intended to defend any group of people.
It makes Disney’s almost immediate decision to fire Gunn all the more baffling. For one, the tweets were made at around the time that Gunn was making the original Guardians of the Galaxy film; if they were bad enough to cost him his career, why didn’t he get fired then? It was also clear to pretty much everyone that this wasn’t the same situation as Hart and his homophobic tweets. The whole thing felt like a perversion of justice. There was no moral weight to the decision to fire Gunn. All it did was prove that even movements with the best of intentions can be twisted by people with ulterior motives.
So why am I bringing all of this up again? Because, as it turns out, Disney have gone back on their decision after about half a year. Gunn has been reinstated as the director for the final installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy that he had been working on for most of a decade. The news is as shocking as it is relieving. We may never know why exactly Disney walked back on their decision, especially as they were so firm on it at the time. But from the outside, it seems like acknowledgment that people are capable of being better. Yes, we should absolutely say something when we see ignorance or cruelty. But the people who are able to recognize those faults and make an active effort to better themselves deserve to be heard when they do so. That’s the lesson to be learned here.