1) “Buffy vs. Edward” helped to establish your reputation as a remix video producer. In some ways, it looks forward to the focus on pop culture and masculinity which has been central to your newest videos. So, can you share some of the thinking behind this now classic video? What motivated this video? What does it suggest about the relationship of your work to fandom and popular culture more generally? What core political commitments informed this work?
When I saw the first Twilight film back in 2008, I was struck by its unmistakably regressive messages about gender. I also notice that much of the disdain for this movie online was directed at the character of Bella rather than that of Edward. In general female characters in entertainment tend to draw more criticism than male characters do. Often this is because of a combination of sexism and the poor representation of women in a male-dominated media industry. Though in the case of Twilight, the critical focus on Bella’s romances seemed especially misguided because Edward is the one depicted engaging in unambiguous stalkerish behavior.
Domestic violence and abuse prevention organizations publish lists of “red flags” to help people identify warning signs in their romantic relationships. Even a casual look at those lists reveals that Edward engages in many “red flag” behaviors over the course of the four Twilight books and subsequent movies in the series. These “red flags” include things like extreme jealousy, disregard for personal boundaries, threats of violence, and isolating someone from their friends or family. These controlling behaviors are part of a dangerous and toxic form of masculinity that is often celebrated in entertainment.
When I began constructing my remix video comparing Twilight’s conservative gender framing of vampire lore to the more progressive messages embedded in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show, I made a point of focusing my visual argument on critiquing Edward’s behavior. To that end, I removed Bella entirely from the remix and replaced her with footage of Buffy. All of the Buffy clips I used were deliberately chosen to make it appear she was directly responding to Edward’s abusive behavior.
My hope with that remix was to re-shape and re-focus online conversations away from Bella’s “lack of personality” or “indecisiveness” and back onto Edward’s words and actions. Once I released Buffy vs Edward on YouTube in 2009, I was excited to see that the mashup accomplished that goal. All across the internet, from the LA Times to Edward fan forums, I started seeing nuanced conversations pop up about Edward’s abusive behaviors.
All of my critical video work uses pop culture as a lens through which I can engage in sociopolitical discussions with fans and general audiences who may not be as familiar with academic theory or texts. My projects are, at their core, critical investigations of the ways entertainment creates meaning in our shared culture.
2) “Right Wing Talk Radio Duck” brought the political dimensions of your remix practice into much sharper focus and you found yourself responding to some fairly powerful critics within the conservative media sphere. In some ways, you were mapping the emergence of the alt right ethos that would bring Donald Trump to power. What do you see when you look back on that video and its reception today?
My Right Wing Radio Duck remix video was meant as a critique of Glenn Beck in particular and reactionary right-wing talk radio in general. But more than that, I wanted to focus on how right-wing demagogues exploit real working class concerns by scapegoating immigrants and people of color. Many Americans were understandably angry about the bailout of corporate banks after the mortgage crisis of 2007, which left huge subsections of the working poor and middle class out in the cold. Glenn Beck and his ilk preyed on and twisted the very real frustration many Americans were feeling about that economic catastrophe.
I wanted to unequivocally condemn Glenn Beck’s racist fear-mongering, but I didn’t want to completely demonize all of his listeners. My goal was to have viewers of my remix come away with a better understanding of why some working folks might be taken in by Tea Party-like rhetoric. It’s a bit of a difficult and delicate argument to try to make in any format but it’s especially challenging with remix video because you’re so often limited by the source material. That’s why I chose Donald Duck as the lens through which to make my critique. Donald seemed especially appropriate for remixing because he was originally created by Disney to represent a frustrated down-on-their-luck Depression-era “everyman.” Donald is a hot-headed character. He’s easily duped. He’s almost always wrong, but critically he’s not entirely unsympathetic. In short, he’s not a villain. I constructed the remix carefully so we see Donald lose his job, have his house foreclosed on, and then in desperation turn to right-wing radio for answers, only to be driven into a panicked nightmare by racist fearmongering. In my remix Donald eventually figures out that he’s been hoodwinked by right-wing voices that don’t really care about him or his struggles.
In terms of the reaction to the remix, I was accused by Beck himself of being part of a union/communist plot funded by Obama to undermine the values of American capitalism. It was ludicrous but it would have been a lot funnier if it didn’t inspire his listeners to start threatening me online. During his heyday on Fox News, Glenn Beck turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. His potent mixture of “tough guy” rhetoric, racist fearmongering, faux populism and conspiracy theories was nearly identical to what we saw in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
3) You ended up working with Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency, where you would have seen fairly directly the #gamergate crowd at work. How did those experiences shape your current Pop Culture Detective project?
My experiences while working with Feminist Frequency were definitely a catalyst for the creation of my crowdfunded video series. As you mentioned, I worked as producer and co-writer on the first season of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games project. During my 3 years at that job, I became one of gamergate’s favorite male targets.
Gamergate, for those who are unfamiliar, was a coordinated hate and harassment campaign mostly targeting women involved in video game development and criticism. This online crusade was reactionary in nature and rooted in a particularly virulent strain of anti-feminism. I should note that since I’m a straight white guy, the type of online abuse I faced was decidedly different (and less intense) than what women endured. Abuse directed at women is often of a sexual nature and includes obsessive stalking and specific threats of intimate violence. When men are harassed online it usually follows an established pattern of attempted emasculation. Alongside a spade of threats, I was accused of “not being a real man,” of being “too sensitive”, of being controlled by women, and of course of being gay. Essentially I was seen as a traitor to my gender. All this because of my role in critiquing the demeaning and overtly sexualized ways in which female characters are often represented in video games.
The daily insults and abuse hurled at me over social media made it clear that gamergate had as much to do with cultural ideas about hyper-masculinity as it did with women in gaming. Indeed the two concepts are deeply interconnected. It very quickly became clear to me that the angry young men involved in gamergate saw themselves as protecting video games from the influence of women because they viewed their hobby as one of the “last bastions” of macho manhood.
The gamergate response is perhaps not all that surprising. At every point in history when steps toward equality are won, those gains are met with a reactionary backlash. So for example, Old West pulp stories saw a surge in popularity which coincided with the rise of movements for women’s suffrage. Men’s Adventure magazines of the 1940s to 1960s were in large part a reaction to gains made by women (and people of color) in the aftermath of WWII. These types of testosterone-infused pulp adventure stories served as a form of “equality escapism” (as I like to call it) for men angered by a changing reality. They offered men a way to retreat to a place where men could engage in regressive power fantasies rooted in white male supremacy. These were narratives where men got to be rugged individualists who dispensed justice from the barrel of a gun (and where those men were rewarded with women). These were fantasy worlds in which men’s violence and men’s chauvinism were presented as ideal formulations of masculinity.
I’d argue that this same type of macho manhood is mirrored and celebrated in many modern video games. For decades mainstream video games have leaned on macho power fantasies as a way to appeal to a young straight male demographic. Entitlement to women and women’s bodies (and other sexist conventions like the damsel in distress) played a large part in the type of male fantasies major gaming companies were selling. In the years leading up to gamergate, however, we saw some sectors of the gaming industry very slowly begin taking some steps towards creating better representations of women in their products. A large cross section of angry young men falsely believe that even modest progress towards gender equality in their favorite entertainment media is something that diminishes them, their power, and their masculinity.
Over and over again, men involved in gamergate would say they were defending their fantasy worlds from “political correctness” and “diversity.” They felt some types of video games were important to their identity as men because those games provided them a safe space where “men could be real men again.” And they feared that women’s input into video games would “feminize” gaming and therefore take away their hyper-masculine fantasy worlds.
The celebration of and idealization of macho, violent, and toxic forms of masculinity has always been closely linked to reactionary right-wing politics, and it’s an especially potent part of the ideology of hate groups. After gamergate and the rise of Trump, it seemed a important time to start a video series that critically deconstructed toxic representations of manhood in entertainment. That is what my project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is all about.
4) As we turn to your current project, let me ask a question that is the title of one of your videos. What is toxic masculinity and what should we as a society being doing to reign in this particular noxious set of attitudes? Why might educational videos represent one appropriate response to this problem?
Toxic masculinity is an important term but it’s often mischaracterized or at least misunderstood in conversation, especially outside of academic settings. The video you’re referring to is my attempt to clarify the meaning of the term and hopefully spark more constructive conversations.
As I said in my video on the topic, Toxic masculinity refers to a particular set of harmful actions and cultural practices. It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hyper-competitiveness. It’s connected to the sexual objectification of women, as well as other predatory sexual behaviors, and it’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation, and violence.
It’s important to note that “toxic masculinity” is not a condemnation of men or manhood in general. There is nothing toxic about being a man, but some men act in toxic ways. In other words, toxic masculinity is not something that men are, but rather it’s something that some men do. Which means that, we as men, can choose not to participate in that toxic behavior and instead choose other more empathetic, cooperative, compassionate forms of manhood.
In terms of why educational videos like mine are useful, the hope is that they can help get us on the same page. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to have these difficult conversations when critical words are terms are so widely misunderstood or misrepresented.
5) Let me ask another blunt and straight forward question. Why should we care what kinds of representation of masculinity run through popular culture? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with actual male behavior in everyday life rather than the masculinity of wizards and stormtroopers?
I believe we should be concerned with both. The truth is that personal expressions of masculinity and media representations of manhood are not separate and distinct; they’re deeply interconnected. Media and culture have a cyclical relationship; media influences culture and, conversely, culture influences media. Obviously that doesn’t mean we’re all mindlessly mimicking what we see on television, but one thing media is very good at doing is shaping our worldview. One of my favorite feminist theorists, bell hooks, connects the dots succinctly, she says: “Popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is happening.” She’s right. Our cultural ideas about what it means to be a man are heavily influenced by entertainment. Of course schools, families, and religious and political institutions all play important roles, but for better or worse mass media has become one of the primary areas where our cultural ideals of manhood are shaped and reaffirmed. This is why I believe it’s critical for us to interrogate what those Stormtroopers and Wizards are teaching us about masculinity.
All media has embedded messages and values whether producers and filmmakers intend to include them or not. When it comes to myths about manhood, some of the most common ideas we see infused in entertainment often pass under the radar because they reflect current cultural norms. These include myths like: men are naturally aggressive and violent; men who express vulnerability are weak; manhood is earned through physical competition and conquest; men’s sexist behavior is biologically driven. These messages are limiting and harmful for a whole host of reasons, not least of which because they reinforce the false notion that toxic behaviors, practices, and attitudes are normal, natural, and even inevitable for men. The reality, of course, is that men are capable of transformation. This is why we need media that models alternative formulations of masculinity in which men are shown openly communicating their feelings and vulnerabilities, practicing de-escalation tactics, and embracing empathetic responses to conflicts and challenges.
Media changes us — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. It has incredible power to alter our perceptions, shape our worldview, and transform our identities. Media can trap us in old ways of thinking or open up exciting new social possibilities. My long-form video essays are focused on challenging media that does the former and elevating media that does the latter.
6) Today, the phrase — men’s movement — has often been co-opted into a misogynistic backlash against “political correctness” in general and feminism in particular, making it harder to speak as a male ally of feminism. How would you characterize the perspective you bring to these videos? What works provide you with the intellectual framework you draw upon in this work?
As I mentioned above, my work is very much influenced by feminist writers like bell hooks. Back in 1984, hooks boldly advocated for a feminism that included men. Her second book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center” includes this passage which has stuck with me and provided a framework for my own work on masculinity. She notes, “Men are not exploited or oppressed by sexism, but there are ways in which they suffer as a result of it.” Her point about how the social system of patriarchy both privileges men while simultaneously harming us by robbing us of our humanity is a foundational one for my Pop Culture Detective Agency project. Hooks expands on this perspective in her excellent book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. That book is, incidentally, the first thing I always recommend to guys who are just beginning their journey into what feminism means for men. I find it both critical and inspiring that hooks calls for men to be held accountable while still remaining deeply compassionate to our struggles as men.
Another important influence for me has been the work of Sociologist Allan G. Johnson who wrote a book called Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. I’ve found his insights about how social systems and individuals are interconnected (neither exists without the other) to be particularly helpful in my research and criticism. R.W. Connell’s academic writings on Masculinities is also very useful for my work. She argues that there are many types and formulations of masculinity, all of which exist within a hierarchy of “masculinities.”
As you eluded to in your question, my perspective is fundamentally different from those who call themselves “Men’s Rights Activists” or MRAs. There are now hundreds of men with shockingly popular YouTube channels and social media followings who proport to care about men’s issues. Unfortunately most of them are indeed coming from a decidedly reactionary place which oozes hatred for feminism and is steeped in a palpable resentment of women. These guys are openly advocating for a return to the hypermasculine male supremacist values of decades past. They’re upset that our culture is slowly evolving in terms of gender and they’re determined to resist this social progress. The dark irony is that many of the things MRAs point to as being problems for men in our society, (suicide rates, combat deaths, life expectancy, etc.) are not a result of feminism or “discrimination against men” but are instead a byproduct of the social system of patriarchy. Instead of working to find real solutions to these issues (which would require a measure of self-criticism and self-transformation) MRAs are hell-bent on blaming feminism in particular and women in general. In many ways my video essays are a direct response to the popularity of the poisonous MRA prospective. My hope is that by compassionately addressing the emotional harm men and boys face as a result of patriarchal pressures in our culture, I can reach some of the guys who are hurting and perhaps keep some from joining reactionary movements.
7) You celebrate Steven Universe for offering a more positive role model for young boys. What is it doing that seems distinctive and progressive to you?
When I first saw Steven Universe on Cartoon Network, I was pleasantly surprised by its subversive themes and plotlines. A lot has been written about the show’s progressive values, and rightly so; it centers powerful women and contains relatively unambiguous positive depictions of queer relationships. Last year I produced two videos focusing on something that gets a little less attention: the downright revolutionary ways men and boys are represented.
One of those video essays explores Steven’s superpowers. This is an adventure show about a boy with superpowers derived from an interstellar gemstone, which he uses to summon a magical shield. It’s rare to see a boy hero given a largely defensive weapon instead of an offensive one. Indeed Steven’s main contributions to his superhero team are shielding, protecting and healing his teammates. Those are all traits traditionally associated with women in fantasy fiction. But beyond that I argue Steven has an additional less obvious superpower which is even more fundamental to his character and to the show’s values. And that’s Steven’s empathy, which plays a critical role in de-escalation and conflict resolution throughout the series. Again that’s something exceptionally rare to see with boy heroes in these kinds of narratives.
My other Steven Universe video essay focuses on emotional expression. In Hollywood men are typically not shown expressing vulnerable emotions, at least not outside of a very narrow set of traumatic circumstances, like when a loved one dies. Steven Universe doesn’t play by those rules, on that show men are regularly depicted as expressing a wide rage of vulnerable emotions in response to all kinds of social situations.
Whenever I talk about emotional expression in male characters, I make a point of emphasizing the “expression” part. Most male characters are, of course, written to have feelings and emotions on some level. It’s not uncommon for male heroes to harbor a deep-seated inner pain. However, that pain is usually left unspoken. We as audiences are meant to understand that male heroes experience intense feelings, but that turmoil is framed as something they must keep hidden. They’re very rarely shown openly communicating or vocalizing their vulnerable feelings. The emotions that men on the big screen are allowed to express are anger and rage. And those emotions are typically closely aligned with acts of violent revenge which are framed as a form of vigilante justice. Needless to say, this is the very definition of emotionally unhealthy.
Steven Universe is the exact opposite. As I mentioned, the show is absolutely packed with men and boys who are open and vocal about expressing their emotions. So for example, everyone on the show cries. Men and boys are shown crying in most episodes, and more importantly, these tears are never presented as a sign of weakness. In fact, tears serve to communicate an impressively wide range of emotions, from joy to concern, from despair to pride, from frustration to love.
Steven and his father Greg are also not afraid of being physically affectionate with those around them, and not just when it comes to family or romantic partners either. Steven openly admits to being afraid, and he is never shamed for expressing that fear. Unlike many other coming-of-age stories about boy heroes, Steven’s growth does not hinge on learning to “conquer his fear.” Instead Steven learns that fear is a natural and useful emotion, something he should listen to, in order to help keep himself and those he cares about safe. All of this is exceptionally rare for television. It’s especially notable given that Steven Universe is an animated series aimed at younger audiences.
8) To what degree are the myths of masculinity you discuss inherited unconsciously as part of the genre formulas passed down from earlier generations of media makers? To what degree is masculinity being reimagined and reasserted today in equally destructive terms?
Certainly there are a whole bunch of regressive ideas about masculinity baked into many long-running traditions in genre fiction. Hollywood’s current rush to remake and reboot franchises from decades past has meant we’ve seen images of aggressive manhood reproduced in uncritical ways. Over the past decade superhero movies have taken over the box office. That genre in particular lends itself to portrayals of manhood where physical intimidation, violence, and vengeance are framed as effective and heroic forms of conflict resolution for men. Incidentally that goes for both small interpersonal conflicts as well as larger intergalactic conflicts. We’ve also seen some entertainment that I’d categorize as being part of a conservative backlash against progressive or feminist gains. I already mentioned that some popular gaming franchises are especially guilty in this regard. Recent films by directors like Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, and Peter Berg would also fit into this category since many of their productions tend to unapologetically celebrate aggressive versions of hypermasculinity.
On the whole though, I do think a lot of Hollywood writers and media makers are much more aware of the potentially harmful conventions and clichés in their work these days. Unfortunately the relatively high level of media literacy on the production side hasn’t translated into much in the way of new or subversive storylines for male characters. What we get instead is an enormous amount of lampshading.
Lampshading is a writer’s trick wherein media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant, clichéd, or stereotypical aspect of their own production within the text itself. It’s basically a wink in the direction of the audience. Lampshading is often used as a way for media makers to acknowledge troubling or toxic gender representations in their production but then continue to uncritically indulge in those depictions. Lampshaded dialogue can make writers seem clever, self-aware, and even self-critical, while still largely sticking to Hollywood traditions. This then tends to make a piece of media seem more progressive or subversive than it really is.
My latest video essay, The Adorkable Misogyny of the Big Bang Theory, details how ironic lampshading is employed in comedies and sitcoms as a way to let nerdy “nice guys” off the hook for a wide range of creepy behaviors. But lampshading is increasingly used in dramas as well. It’s one of Joss Whedon’s favorite writing techniques; he’ll often write humorous lines of dialogue to point out macho behaviors in his male characters, only to then have them keep engaging in those same behaviors. So for example there’s a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which the male heroes take turns trying to lift Thor’s hammer. The witty writing acknowledges that these men are involved in what amounts to an extended “dick measuring” contest over who is the stronger superhero. There’s even a line where Black Widow makes fun of them all for it. In another Marvel movie from different directors, Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow asks point blank if the male hero really wants to “punch his way out” of a difficult situation. But again even though the problem is explicitly acknowledged in the text, nothing fundamentally changes in terms of how those male characters are depicted; they still solve the majority of their problems by punching other men in the face.
So I’d argue that while many Hollywood writers are on some level aware that toxic and violent masculinity is an issue, they either have no alternative or they don’t really believe it’s a big enough deal to take seriously– preferring instead to acknowledge the issue and then double down on the same old formulas. The end result of all these forms of replication is the same: a market flooded with images of violent macho manhood, some done with a wink to the audience, but precious few representations that directly challenge the hypermasculine ideals of manhood.
So while the clichés of genre traditions are more readily acknowledge today, I’d argue that media makers are still trapped. However, it’s not that difficult to become unstuck. It just requires a willingness to defy audience expectations. I will say that there are a few exceptions to the rule where filmmakers do embrace atypical and empathetic versions of heroic masculinity. I recently made a video essay about the Harry Potter spin-off, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in which I posit that the protagonist, Newt Scamander, is a welcome subversion of traditional male action-adventure heroes.
9) If you had the attention of people working in genre entertainment today (and I am sure you do), what would you most want them to learn from watching your videos?
First and foremost that their work isn’t just entertainment; media can have enormous impacts on people’s belief structures, worldview, attitudes, and sometimes behaviors. In various times and places around the world the role of storyteller has been a sacred and revered position because their job includes the responsibility of passing on lessons, values, and cultural identity to a younger generation. Media makers are the most influential storytellers of today and, like it or not, there is a lot of power that comes with that job.
And it’s possible to do things differently even within the confines of a major studio production. The Martian, for example, was a widely successful, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat blockbuster, and one that remarkably contains absolutely no images of men solving problems with violence. All conflicts are solved through the use of science, cooperation, and human ingenuity.
As I mentioned above, another successful movie with an unconventional male hero is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Newt performs a refreshingly atypical form of masculinity. He’s sincere, nurturing, empathetic and sensitive. And, crucially, that sensitivity is framed as a strength rather than a weakness.
It may sound cliché to say that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it’s true, and it’s especially true when it comes to Hollywood. Media makers have a responsibility to be careful and intentional about the messages and values embedded in their stories. If producers and filmmakers are willing to take the risk of showing emotionally vulnerable, communicative, empathetic versions of leading manhood, I think they’ll find a large audience out there that is hungry for those alternative depictions of manhood.