Profiles In Cowardice: Disney’s Firing Of James Gunn

The Walt Disney Company acted fast when it came to James Gunn. Many weren’t finished reading the articles that announced that James Gunn’s old texts joking about rape and pedophilia were being dredged back up by right-wing activists when the word came down – Disney was firing Gunn from his role as writer-director on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Disney was sending a message – they had a no tolerance policy in this #metoo era for these kinds of shenanigans, even if the shenanigans happened 10 years ago. Disney wanted you to know that they are dialed-in, woke and involved.

But the true message Disney is displaying is one of hypocrisy, not only in its own organization but in all of Hollywood in this new #metoo era. It shows how Hollywood pays lip service to the wave of change while holding on to the ways thing always have been. And it also shows the way they throw sacrificial lambs into the fire while protecting their sacred cows.

Oh, if they only knew! (SPOILER WARNING: They did.)

“The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him.
– Disney chairman Alan Horn”

I find this statement hilarious, especially the word “discovered.” Now, Alan Horn joined Disney around the same time that James Gunn was hired to direct Guardians of the Galaxy, so you can maybe forgive him for not being in on the history of their new hire. But Disney, who supposedly runs background checks on all their additions to the MCU to make sure that they are as squeaky clean as they can be, should have done one on Gunn. But even if they did one and nothing bad showed up in it (the Tweets in question were all deleted from Gunn’s account, after all), they should have found out soon enough the “attitudes and statements” of Gunn.

As I mentioned when I covered Gunn’s firing, this is not the first time Gunn’s words have gotten him in trouble. Back in November of 2012, just two months after Gunn was hired to direct Guardians of the Galaxy, a February 2011 survey he ran on his site to find out which comic book characters his fans wanted to sleep with was dug up. Gunn comments on the entries was filled with much of the crass and vulgar language and attitude that he showed in the Tweets. Less references to pedophilia, more misogyny and homophobic language, but still the type of stuff that would not fit in with the squeaky clean Disney image.

The story got traction in the comic book media, garnered a petition to have Gunn removed and even appeared in industry journal The Hollywood Reporter. It seems nigh impossible that someone at Disney or Marvel Studios did not see this controversy as it happened. But they still let Gunn direct not one but two GotG films. His indefensible attitudes and statements didn’t seem to bother Disney back then, did it? And even if Disney was out of the loop while that particular brouhaha was going down, they certainly must have heard something about it in the six years Gunn was employed by Marvel. But no movement was made on removing Gunn until this second wave of toxic frat speak was revealed.

This gives the appearance that Disney would have been absolutely fine with keeping Gunn on if that right-winger kept his mouth shut. It has the look that it was not that his behavior was so offensive to Disney, but rather that it was that Disney felt they had to do something extreme now in order to seem like they have been on the front lines of the #metoo movement all along. But this effort looks hollow when they kept Gunn on the payroll for so long after his 2011 blog post became public and they did nothing about it.

A study in contrasts: James Gunn and John Lasseter

I know what some of you might be saying. You might be saying that #metoo is big right now and studios are more hyper-aware of bad behavior against women and children. That’s why Disney had to act so fast. They need to get in front of  the controversy so they can save face.

To that, I present John Lasseter. Lasseter was the head and creative mind behind Pixar and eventually became the head of all Disney Animation. His was the mind that gave us Toy Story and made Pixar synonymous with quality family entertainment and took Disney’s in-house CGI arm from making Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons to making Frozen and Zootopia. He was also a man who would delve out hugs to those he liked. Long, awkward hugs where he would whisper creepy things into the person’s – usually a woman – ear. He would also be a man where you’d have to be prepared to turn you head quick to avoid an unwanted french kiss  from him. He was also someone you couldn’t wear skirts around, because he would sit next to you in business meetings and try to work his hands up them. The victims came up with a name for the maneuver they used to stop his hand from reaching their genitals – “The Lasseter.”

These actions all came to light at the height of the #metoo movement. The Hollywood Reporter was about to write an expose on Lasseter’s behavior in November of 2017. Disney acted fast and got in front of the controversy by firing Lasseter immediately.

Wait, that’s not what happened. What happened was on November 21, 2017 Lasseter sent a memo to his staff, announcing that he was taking a six-month “sabbatical” to “reflect” on his “missteps” so he could “ultimately return with the insight and perspective I need to be the leader you deserve.”

Yes, James Gunn makes offensive jokes ten years ago about women and is fired immediately, Lasseter creates an active environment of fear where women have to use their wits to avoid being groped by him and gets a six-month vacation to reflect on his missteps–with every intention on coming back.

But it gets worse. Disney was under pressure not to let Lasseter return, with the concern being that if he did return, women working in the field of animation would be crushed forever. So, in June of 2018, Lasseter announced that he was leaving the company… at the end of 2018. Yes, he would be gently shown the door – most likely on his own terms – collecting a salary the whole time and most likely a healthy golden parachute for his troubles.

Actions speak louder than words. So, Lasseter should have been bounced from Disney even quicker than Gunn. Why wasn’t he? My guess is money. While Gunn’s Guardians films brought in over $1.5 billion for Disney’s coffers, that is a paltry sum compared to the money Lasseter’s Pixar and Walt Disney Animation have brought in, not just at the box office but through merchandising. Not only that, but Lasseter has also snagged a lot of gold Oscar statues for Disney as well. That success gave Lasseter power. And that power caused Disney to coddle and protect him while he was preying on female employees. If The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t planning that story on Lasseter, it’s not hard to imagine that new employees would still be coached on how to avoid being harassed by Lasseter even today.

Joking about pedophilia is bad, being a pedophile, not so much

Some might defend Disney’s quick firing of Gunn because there were jokes about pedophilia in those tweets that were released. Any jokes about having sex with children are repugnant and nothing that a family-friendly company such as Disney could abide by. I would not say that you were wrong. I would say that Disney doesn’t really have a high moral ground to stand on in this matter.

Powder was a 1995 film released by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures shingle. Written and directed by Victor Salva, it told the story of an albino youth with magical powers over adults who is castigated and bullied for who he is.

If you remember that film at all, you remember it for the controversy surrounding it. Salva was a convicted sexual offender. He pleaded guilty in 1988 to lewd and lascivious conduct, oral sex with a person under 14, and procuring a child for pornography. He served 15 months of a three year sentence before being released on parole. The victim was one of the child stars of his 1986 short Something in the Basement and his 1989 film Clownhouse – Nathan Forrest Winters. Winters brought public attention during the release of Powder by picketing screenings of the film and handing out flyers describing what Salva did, pleading with customers not to see the movie.

This would have been a black eye for Disney if they only found out about Salva’s past through Winter’s protests. However, the filmmakers learned bout Salva’s conviction midway through filming, yet he was allowed to finish the film. Disney distributed it without hesitation, earning a healthy $20 million profit on the work of a pedophile. When asked for a statement about Salva’s criminal past, Disney spokesman at the time John Dreyer told the AP: “What’s the point, other than you want to make headlines?″ Moral high ground indeed.

Granted, 22 years is like an eternity in Hollywood, and the Disney of today is much different than the Disney of 1995. But if James Gunn is being punished for making pedophilia jokes ten years ago, Disney’s involvement with noted sex offender Salva two decades ago is worth mentioning to point out the hypocrisy of their holier than thou attitude today.

What is the statute of limitations on being an asshole? And should zero tolerance mean scorched earth?

Two things kept popping up as I researched Salva’s situation. One, he and his defenders kept pressing the point that he had paid his debt to society and deserves a second chance. Two, a lot of people don’t believe that and think his crimes are too heinous to ever be forgiven. They hate that he is still getting work and still making a living doing what he loves.

Comparing James Gunn to Victor Salva is kind of silly. Gunn does not seem to have a criminal record and does not appear to have followed through on of the rape or pedophilia in his jokes. Because that’s all they were, jokes. Vulgar, repugnant jokes done in bad taste, but it’s obviously to anyone with a lick of common sense that they are jokes. To me, it is an attempt by Gunn to be like Howard Stern in the worst way, and he succeeded. He was the worst version of Stern you can be, all shock with no charm, crude without being funny. And since he was in his late 30s-early 40s at the time, he definitely should have known better.

But jokes can still harm. And if Disney were to fire Gunn back in 2012 after he was hired, it would seem a whole lot more reasonable. But since the blog leak I wrote about in 2012, Gunn has apologized for his behavior and has tried to change away from the person he was in those Tweets and blog posts. That Facebook message above is from 2012, after the blog story broke, and as Hollywood apologies go, it seems genuine to me. Your mileage may vary, but Gunn’s words and, more importantly, his actions since that time seem to show a changed man.

But no matter how much has changed since that time, for some people it will not be enough. He needs to pay for those words, and if it costs him his job at Disney, so be it. Those jokes were aimed an audience that would be responsive to that kind of speech. And Gunn, whether he wanted to or not, more than likely inspired that audience to make gay jokes and mistreat women. Does the good he’s done make up for the pain he’s caused? And if it doesn’t, does he deserve to lose his job as punishment? Those are all very good questions, ones that will not be answered due to Disney’s rush to politically correct judgement ending the conversation before it began.

Disney is not part of the solution, it is still part of the problem

Artist Pablo Ruiz’s representation of the Evil Disney Corporation

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a James Gunn superfan nor do I have an ax to grind with the Walt Disney Corporation. But the Walt Disney Corporation firing James Gunn so quickly does nothing to help the #metoo movement along. It is a cosmetic fix to a real issue, one that rings hypocritical and hollow considering Disney’s history. Firing Gunn hours after his texts were shared does not make up for them letting John Lasseter leave the company at his leisure. Disney punishing Gunn for skeletons in his closet does not make up for them ignoring the skeletons in their own. The firing does not show that Disney is concern with stamping out abuse in all forms, it merely shows that it is willing to act upon it as long as it doesn’t cost them too much money. As such, it does the cause more harm than good.

About William Gatevackes 1861 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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