Are Identity Politics Used To Prop Up Divisive Blockbusters?


Adam Thornton wonders if arguments over representation overshadow debates the objective qualities of a film.

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As a mild-mannered, left-of-centre-leaning film critic, I find myself increasingly surprised and confused by the growing use of identity politics as a means of deflecting negative criticism of big budget Hollywood blockbusters.

This increasing emphasis on issues of representation is understandable, given the focus provided to previously under-represented minority groups in films such as Ghostbusters and this year’s smash hit Black Panther. However, the positive critical discourse surrounding both films, as well as the two most recent Star Wars films, appears to increasingly rely on emphasising how ground-breaking these films are and countering negative critics by accusing them of being prejudiced.

For example, the pre-release hype surrounding the Ghostbusters remake was affected by the expected fan backlash against the concept of remaking a beloved classic film. However, the sexist comments aimed at the all-female cast resulted in a wave of opposition from most major news outlets on both sides of the Atlantic. Stephanie Merry noted in her article for The Washington Post that “People hate the ‘Ghostbusters’ trailer, and yes, it’s because it stars women” based on the record number of dislikes the first official trailer received on YouTube as well as a handful of sexist comments referencing the decision to cast women in the lead roles. This opposition, whilst well-intentioned, reached somewhat hysterical levels when Internet film and video games reviewer James Rolfe, best known as “The Angry Video Game Nerd”, uploaded a video to YouTube titled “Ghostbusters 2016. No Review. I refuse.” teasing his look into the troubled production of the cancelled Ghostbusters III sequel.

Whilst Rolfe in the video criticises the remake based on the footage seen in its trailer and mentions that as a result, he won’t see the film, he doesn’t bring up the casting of female comedians as a problem for him. In fact, he hardly mentions the subject of gender at all, preferring instead to focus on his other problems with the remake. The resulting media fallout from this video did not acknowledge this, with many articles and Twitter posts instead preferring to characterise Rolfe as a “moron” who “dances around the simple fact that has set this innocuous-seeming movie apart from its fellow blockbusters this summer – that it’s a tentpole genre film starring women“.

However, upon the film’s eventual release, box office numbers were significantly lower than the 1984 original and its sequel Ghostbusters II (1989), achieving a domestic gross of only $128m and as a result failing to recoup its $144m budget. Audience reviews of the film also appeared similarly lukewarm, with the remake only receiving a 52% Audience Score on film review aggregation website RottenTomatoes and an average rating of 5.2 on the Internet Movie Database. Yet the majority of professional critics appeared to differ in their opinions, even overlooking important issues such as “the heroines never seem properly introduced to the villain” and “the movie fails to connect its obligatory big spectacle sequences with the barely existent arc of its characters” to ultimately provide Ghostbusters (2016) with positive reviews, resulting in a RottenTomatoes ‘Tomatometer’ score of 74%.

Whilst this discrepancy could be simply due to the differing perspectives of critics and audience members, continual references to the gender of the leading characters and the film’s controversial backlash suggest that these critics are praising the film either as a result of wanting to come across as supportive or because they are afraid that if they give a negative review, they will, like Rolfe, be accused of sexism.

This emphasis on identity politics in the promotion of blockbusters as a way of deflecting reasonable criticism regarding any flaws the films may have can also be seen in the press coverage of the two most recent Star Wars instalments – Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Both films have been met with criticism due to their departures from the traditional status quo and resulting questionable plot and characterisation choices. A small minority of fans have taken issue with the decisions to include more diverse characters as the protagonists, such as the female characters of Rey and Rose in The Last Jedi. One unfortunate result of this backlash has been the minority subjecting actress Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose, to online abuse, resulting in her closing down her Instagram account.

However, similar to the coverage of Ghostbusters, these issues have been inflated by media outlets to seemingly drown out legitimate criticism of both films, with negative opinions being met with accusations of sexism and racism, and the opinion-holders being characterised as white male nerds who cannot handle change. Writing for The Independent following The Last Jedi’s release, James Moore acknowledged the considerable gap between critic and audience responses to the film, noting that whilst the average critic score on RottenTomatoes was 92%, the audience score was markedly lower at 54%. However, he uses cherry-picked quotes from the audience reviews to paint the majority of people who disliked the film as not only “self-appointed keepers of the flame getting their blood in a bubble” but also as racists and sexists who cannot handle the diverse nature of the cast, whilst also providing free publicity for rival website CinemaScore, which he cites as “more scientific” based on the more positive audience score there of an ‘A’ grade.

However, a more thorough examination of the negative RottenTomatoes audience reviews will find the majority of them criticise the film’s plot holes and character inconsistencies, with attacks on SJW (Social Justice Warrior) political agendas being less frequent than expected. Similarly, looking at the audience reviews for Ghostbusters reveals that the majority of criticism centres around issues with jokes in the film as well as with the script, acting and directing. As with the reviews for The Last Jedi, few reviewers use sexist reasoning to attack the film. So why is the sexist minority frequently invoked when referring to criticism of these films?

Whilst claims from these fans that films like Ghostbusters and The Last Jedi are promoting a “politically correct” agenda are clearly nonsensical, the increasing promotion of their opinions in the media creates a narrative, one that depicts these films as socially aware, ethnically/gender-diverse counters to the right-wing, bigoted views of their critics. This binary, which is often compared to real-world political divisions in both Britain and America, can be found in a wide range of media sources from The Telegraph (“Boycotts, bullying, and outright bigotry: the shameful history of Star Wars fans ruining Star Wars“) to Chicago-based pop culture website The A.V. Club (“The makers of The Last Jedi respond to its 46-minute chauvinist edit the only way possible“). This results in a politicised media coverage that not only uses generalisations to attack critics of the above films as right-wing trolls, but also hesitates to legitimately criticise the films, possibly out of fear of being lumped in with the very critics they target.

However, this use of identity politics as a protective shield to deflect criticism has a side-effect of delegitimising the arguments for greater representation. The need for female-led films is something that Hollywood definitely requires, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has highlighted the marginalisation of women. However, the use of blockbusters that have received mixed critical or audience responses as examples only serves to detract from legitimate arguments about the bias towards white males in both film and film criticism.

This last point can be seen in celebrity responses to the mixed reviews given to Ocean’s 8, the latest instalment in the Ocean’s Eleven franchise that is the first to feature an all-female main cast. The film’s stars Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Mindy Kaling have complained that the tepid response from critics is due to the predominance of white males in the profession, which would appear to result in a bias against a film starring women. However, this argument has been countered by reviews from female critics such as Time’s Stephanie Zacharek and Vulture’s Emily Yoshida, who have both given Ocean’s 8 lukewarm reviews, further highlighting the desperate nature of the protests from the cast. This isn’t to say that complaints about the unequal makeup of film critics aren’t valid, but rather that they should not be used to complain about a tepid response to a mediocre blockbuster reboot.  

Hopefully, this resulting mild backlash will lead to a further pushback against this form of appropriation of race and gender politics. However, I wonder how long this misappropriation of serious political ideologies in order to defend what are mostly superficial blockbusters can continue? Doesn’t this misuse simply trivialise issues of race, gender and representation in today’s society? At the end of the day, a film should be judged on its artistic merits, not on whether it satisfies either end of the political spectrum.