On Wednesday, after a group of hackers who call themselves the Guardians of Peace threatened terrorist attacks on screenings of “The Interview,” James Franco and Seth Rogen’s action comedy about a CIA plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Sony Pictures pulled the movie from distribution and said that it has no plans to release it through video on demand. The consensus is that we’ve lost something important here, although there’s some question about whether we should be angry at North Korea (if the country is, in fact, behind the Guardians of Peace) for weaponizing the hack or at Sony for exhibiting cowardice in the face of threats.
But while I certainly worry that the scale of the incident will have a chilling effect on raunchy satire or even moviegoing itself, I wonder whether we’re just offloading responsibility for our increasingly violent and polarized conversations about media on to a convenient villain.
We don’t actually have to imagine what threats to artists and consumers might look like. They’re already here, whether as manifestations of fanboy intensity, sexist rage or religious norms. Sometimes, it’s small technical details that provoke a violent reaction, rather than political antipathy or nationalist sentiment. In 2013, Dave Vonderhaar, the design director for the video game “Black Ops 2,” got death threats over adjustments he made to the firing rates of certain weapons in the game. Maybe the nasty tide of social media was just an extreme expression of outrage rather than a statement of actual intention to act. But there were few ways for the company to hold the people threatening Vonderhaar accountable, either.
We’ve also had threats of mass shootings on movie theaters that seemed inspired by the attack on patrons at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012. One came from a man who was receiving mental health treatment who outlined his scenario to a hospital worker. Another came from a College of the Holy Cross student who postured on 4chan about shooting up a screening of “The Hobbit.”
These scenarios may not have been credible. And they seem to have been driven more by mental illness, vainglorious bids for attention and boyish posturing than political or aesthetic agendas. But if “swatting,” a risky kind of hoax that involves making fake police reports about hostage situations that lead the cops to descend on unsuspecting civilians, can become popular despite the consequences, it’s not hard to imagine the rise of threats on performances and screenings as a tactic that could seriously curtail public consumption of culture.
Gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian had to brave a bomb threat to accept an award from the Game Developers Choice Awards this year, and she canceled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after the state’s concealed-carry laws prevented organizers from carrying out security checks in response to a threat to the event.
And it’s easy to imagine other political conflicts in which culture could become a target of serious threats. Pop culture already has a hard enough time braving social disapproval to tell stories about abortion. The extreme anti-abortion fringe has shown a willingness to use violence, whether by assassinating abortion providers or bombing clinics that provide abortion care. The film “Obvious Child,” a romantic comedy involving an unplanned pregnancy, had to seek a new distribution model — it screened in theaters and through video on demand simultaneously. If movies or TV shows that address abortion find themselves under threat, it’s easy to imagine Hollywood losing what remains of its courage on the subject.
Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat suggested that the Sony hack will drive down the number of possible villains until every movie features white supremacists — “And that’s just until the neo-Nazis find a hacker of their own.”
But the point is that aggrieved groups of any type don’t even need a tech genius. Even if Sony is mainly canceling “The Interview” primarily out of hopes that it will stop the Guardians of Peace from releasing more stolen data rather than about specific fears of an attack, “exhibitors are worried about legal liability if violence breaks out at one of the film’s screenings,” Brent Lang explains in Variety. White supremacists show up as villains everywhere, from action movies like “White House Down” to prestige television dramas like “Breaking Bad.” They also plot real-world violence, like a 2008 plan to assassinate Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency. If someone out there wants to push back against racists’ status as bogeyman of the moment, they just need to threaten to shoot up a movie screening or a premiere.
This chilling environment isn’t even purely domestic. The role that a badly made video about the prophet Muhammad, “The Innocence of Muslims,” played in the terrorist attack on Benghazi and in protests around the world has been obscured by Republican insistence that the operation contained no element of spontaneity. In Libya, at least, as David D. Kirkpatrick concluded in the New York Times, “Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters.” In Chennai, India, protesters targeted the U.S. Consulate as well.
“The Innocence of Muslims” got pulled from YouTube (though the legal fight over it is still ongoing) because an actress involved in the project, Cindy Garcia, said that she had received death threats over the project and that by duping her, the filmmaker had violated her copyright to her performance. The clip might have been suppressed via a complicated appeal to copyright law rather than blackmail. But the precedent was still fundamentally the same: threats from abroad instill enough fear to stifle art at home.
The Sony hack and the cancellation of “The Interview” are on a larger scale and higher profile than anything we’ve seen before, and they could absolutely usher in worse. Among plenty of other things, I share Douthat’s fear for the loss of sheer originality and chutzpah in moviemaking. But we shouldn’t pretend we’re living out one of our own stories, in which North Korean madmen exhibiting surprising levels of competence hold us hostage. The Guardians of Peace just took advantage of a style of conversation about culture that too often devolves into threats of violence. And we did plenty to create this situation ourselves.