Toxic Culture Around Artists Doesn’t Mean We Must Reject The Work They Do
I have always been a huge fan of Lost. I rewatch it regularly every two years like clockwork. Over the years I have bought numerous action figures and bobbleheads of the characters involved, multiple books about the series, the DVD collection and VHS recordings of the series when it originally aired on eBay. One of my first forays into writing TV criticism was an attempt at an episode guide for Lost a decade ago that I never published, and I am currently at work on another one.
I am telling you this because I have written multiple articles in this series about how everything that anyone does or writes is never purely altruistic and that everybody has an ulterior motive for doing what they do. I’m being up front about mine and I want you to keep that in mind.
Now even as a fan of the show I am not unaware of some of its flaws and not just the ones in the plot. During the run of the series, several major characters would be introduced with great fanfare and often killed off before they could realize their full potential. The lion’s share of these characters were either women or people of color. I am also aware that many of the major characters who were underwritten or underutilized were women or people of color. While I’ve had suspicions of this disparity over time, it was not until recently something precariously close to proof of this has come to light.
In next month’s Vanity Fair, a columnist named Maureen Ryan published an article called Lost Illusions as an excerpt from her upcoming book Burn It Down which hits shelves next week. In this article Ryan has interviewed many actors and writers from the series accusing show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse of creating an atmosphere of toxic racism and misogyny both on the set and in the writer’s room.
I should add that while she quotes many sources for this material in this excerpt the only actor she quotes directly is Harold Perrineau, who played Michael Dawson, who has already been publicly quote for his problems on the set of Lost over the years. All the other writers and actors are only quoted by aliases. This does not make them unreliable, of course, and I suspect that based on my own suspicions that there is a very high possibility of accuracy in this article.
Ryan’s book’s full title is Burn it Down: Power Complicity and a Call for Change in Hollywood. To quote the description on Amazon, it is “An expose of patterns of harassment and bias in Hollywood” that shows the deeper forces sustaining Hollywood’s corrosive culture.”
How do I put this gently? If you were change the medium and era, this summary could have been written at point in the history of Hollywood of the last century. It could also be written to describe any major aspect of society — the board room, the political world, the publishing world. None of this new. None of this is groundbreaking.
Even the idea that “It is never just One Bad Man’ is nothing new. In his groundbreaking book on the new Golden Ag, Brett Martin made it very clear that all the showrunners behind the TV revolution David Chase, David Simon and David Milch, Matthew Weiner and Shawn Ryan, all had ways of being unpleasant, rude and at times outright abusive to their employees. He didn’t cover Buffy The Vampire Slayer, so I suspect that’s why Joss Whedon escaped unscathed. The only man who has escaped intact was Vince Gilligan, who over thirty years doesn’t seem to have a stain on him.
I should also add that in recent years as much as we want to argue that the toxic behavior is solely the business of white males, recent events have demonstrated it has not been. Frankie Shaw was given a major deal with Showtime in 2017 to create her comedy series SMILF. It was abruptly canceled in the second season after it was reveal that Shaw, who wrote and directed every episode, was exploiting the actors behind the scenes. There are also rumors to this day that Ruth Wilson resigned from The Affair after the fourth season because showrunners Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem, who constantly used nudity for the sex scenes on the series and Wilson found it exploitive. (Strange that neither of these shows are mentioned in Ryan’s book. Well, I’m sure people would rather read about the horror stories behind Sleepy Hollow.)
I’m not denying that Peak TV has not produced more than its share of horror stories about the toxic environment that actually unfolded behind the set years after the fact. But this is nothing new. Ever since the dawn of television, we’ve heard just how much hatred there was between the cast on I Love Lucy or The Twilight Zone, the daily horror stories we learn every day about Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey, and we keep learning new things about showrunners such as Alex Kurtzman. Ryan might argue that her book is to reveal a new course for how change is coming, which is noble if it were true but we keep hearing these stories every time some scandal like this happens in some aspect of our society and nothing fundamentally changes. And even if Ryan does really believe this, she wrote this book for a second motive — and it’s the same reason she made sure that the excerpt in Vanity Fair was on Lost and not The Goldbergs or Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof might be toxic as they are accused of being, but she could just have easily written her book about the behavior on Bates Motel or The Leftovers. Indeed, the former would have done more to prove her thesis as its essentially Cuse’s solo project. She picked Lost for one reason only: she wants you to buy her book. Lost was an event series for twenty years and she’s trying to cash in on it.
Am I being too cynical? Maybe. But I think its worth remembering again that in our society, the major motive for anything is either attention or money. And the easier way to get either in today’s society is outrage, whether its real or faux. Ryan titled her book Burn it Down for a reason: it fits in perfectly with the outrage market that propels so much of today’s society. I have a feeling that some model of it is the first title for so many outrage based stories over the years.
As I keep writing and will keep writing, outrage is an easier way to get attention than proposing change. I guarantee you without reading it Ryan’s book is eighty to ninety percent horror stories slanted to devote the reader to feeling anger and guilt and maybe ten percent about hopeful things that are being done.
And as we all know, outrage is far more part of what motivates attention to pop culture than the artistic values and this is something both sides are more than willing to do, whether its one side decided to review bomb Amazon’s Lord of the Rings or the new Wonder Years because it features minorities in the major roles or boycotting Buffy the Vampire Slayer because Joss Whedon was a monster. It’s about rejecting The Little Mermaid because obviously mermaids can’t be black or about saying we shouldn’t watch Chapelle’s Show reruns any more because we don’t like what he has to say any more. And neither side has any room for nuance about their point of view. Twenty years ago, so many parents groups and church groups wanted Harry Potter off shelves because it seemed to embrace a ‘Satanic Lifestyle’. Now many of the next generation want us to stop reading J.K. Rowling because of her views on the transgender community. She might very well have had those same views while her books were being torched by the far right twenty years ago and no one bother to asked the question, but that is not an argument the other side wants to hear.
I have long since argued that on both progressive and conservative sides the Overton Window for what is acceptable keeps shifting at a way that anyone who might get left behind and uses the wrong term is considered guilty of hate speech without even being allowed the possibility of just being mistaken. Similarly, books like the one Ryan has written are not written because there is anything new to say about the toxic culture in Hollywood. It is part of the culture of shame and outrage that says we cannot enjoy anything — a book, a TV show or a movie — unless not only the series but the showrunners and cast of that series meet a standard of purity that no human being could measure. Joss Whedon may have been a monster, but that doesn’t mean the viewer should feel guilty for watching an episode of Buffy and enjoying yourself. Yet that is the fundamental message that too many of today’s ‘journalists’ seem to feel. Should I feel guilty when I read Harry Potter? Or when I see Crimes and Misdemeanors? Or watch an episode of House of Cards? Should we remove all of these works that have some kind of flaw, either because they don’t meet the 21st century standard of equity or because the creators were monsters? Many of these columnists don’t say so directly, but that is the implication that so many of them make.
Now I know everybody in the Lost community is reeling from this. Let me give you some advice. Ignore it. I know how horrible it is and I know how terrible it makes you feel that another work of art you love has been stained by a toxic culture. At a certain point we have to realize that all of these articles and stories are not being written just to tell us ‘the truth’ but to create clickbait and to sell something.
I’m not denying that it is hard to bear. I am dealing with it to in my own way. But at a certain point, we can keep letting the art we love be tainted forever because of what the actors or writers did on the set or the culture involved. The guilt of the creators is not something that should be borne by the fans. Indeed, many of the writers of these books and articles want to use our guilt to get them to buy or read their books and articles. At some level, they don’t care about our feelings.
I learned the hard truth about this when I’ve been dealing with so much doomcryers clickbait over the years. They don’t want to solve the problem or raise awareness. They want to make money. They drink our tears and relish in our pain. A book like this is not being written to indicate a solution to a problem or to raise awareness of it. It might do something to shine a light on the environment or tell the stories of those who suffered from this corruption. But at a certain level, there is exploitation here too. None of the people whose horror stories she is telling will make money from her book. The author always get more attention than the subjects.
When I heard the horror stories about Joss Whedon I went into a period of denial for more than a year, and I never thought I could watch Buffy again. But I’ve been watching reruns and its still a great show. When I saw the article online, I don’t think it even bothered me. Not because I’m numb to these kinds of revelations or because it doesn’t hurt but because I finally realized it doesn’t matter what I think. No work of art is every creating painlessly and with no suffering. No artistic creator is a saint, and indeed some of them are monsters. But just because of that fact, we should not enjoy the art any less.
I’m going to keep rewatching Lost. I’m going to keep writing my new book. Maybe I’ll include some of these new developments in it; I haven’t decided it yet. But I will not let the current mood of the mob reflecting what I like and why I like it. At the end of the day, they don’t care what I think. So why I — or any of us — care what they do?