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Ann Hornaday on her Elliot Rodger YouTube video column, the response and a conversation that should continue

Following her column about Hollywood’s influence on alleged Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, The Post’s Ann Hornaday received swift and divided feedback on social media. Here is her response to critics. (Video: Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)
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It’s an occupational hazard of a film critic to be misunderstood. Add extenuating circumstances like a horrifically violent tragedy, hot-button issues and tighter-than-usual deadlines, and the likelihood of something you write becoming twisted, tortured and torqued out of context rises with exponential certainty.

But even knowing all that, I was surprised Monday morning to discover that an essay I’d written over the weekend – about the YouTube video posted by Elliot Rodger, who took six lives and his own in Isla Vista, Calif., on Friday – had earned the wrath of filmmaker Judd Apatow and his frequent collaborator, actor Seth Rogen. (Rogen turned down a request from The Post to film a video segment in response to the original column.)

[READ: In a final videotaped message, a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen]

[READ: Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow: Don’t blame us for misogynistic massacre]

As un-fun as it is to be slammed by famous people, I could understand Apatow and Rogen’s dismay. Why would a movie reviewer even weigh in on the Isla Vista tragedy in the first place? It happened that Rodger taped a somewhat rambling, 6-minute rant, during which he explained that a combination of social and sexual rejection, loneliness and chronic feelings of unfairness contributed to the murders he was about to commit.

The video was startlingly well-produced – featuring rich lighting, careful staging and a classic California backdrop of palm trees. That, combined with the fact that Rodger himself grew up surrounded by the film industry, led me to write about how Hollywood movies – specifically wish-fulfillment fantasies and revenge-driven vigilante thrillers – might have informed an unstable young man’s ideas about what his college years and life in general were supposed to look like. Movies aren’t accurate reflections of real life, as I wrote in the essay. But there’s no doubt they powerfully condition what we desire and feel we deserve from it.

I was not using the grievous episode in Isla Vista to make myself more famous; nor was I casting blame on the movies for Rodger’s actions. Rather, in my capacity as a movie critic, I was looking at the video as a lens through which to examine questions about sexism, insecurity and entitlement, how they’ve threaded their way through an entertainment culture historically dominated by men and how they’ve shaped our own expectations as individuals and a culture. At a time when women account for less than 20 percent of filmmakers behind the camera and protagonists in front of it, I suggested that it’s long past time to expand and diversify the stories we tell ourselves.

Even before Apatow and Rogen’s angry Tweets, my e-mail inbox was rapidly filling up with responses that reached across a wide range, from approval to disgust.

The first e-mail I received on Sunday came from MSNBC journalist Bob Franken, who wrote:

Today’s column about the rampage and movies’ twisted influences will hopefully start an important conversation. I did MSNBC yesterday where time didn’t allow for a valid discussion of the overlapping issues of misogynism, violence, guns, all promoted by cinema. I was there to talk politics, as usual, but frankly I think the more fundamental issue is Hollywood has led the dehumanization of our society.

Mary Harrington apparently agreed, writing:

It is regretful that Hollywood now produces mostly immature white-male-fantasy movies, which is reflected in the paltry pickings for the Academy Awards. But movies aren’t attended well anymore, so Hollywood keeps selecting for a narrow audience of young men and children.

Stephen Perlman of Fairfax, Va., wrote:

Your article in today’s Post “Killer’s video is a toxic reflection on Hollywood” is spot-on. Thank you for writing it. Much of the attention on gun control and treating the mentally ill is well-deserved, but my question is, why is so little attention directed at Hollywood film producers and the movies they create, the addictive video games, and other social media pressures on young, vulnerable boys- as additional contributors to the violence? Why are they (writers, producers, creators) not challenged?

My observations struck a chord of recognition with University of Maryland graduate student Isabella Cooper:

I have taught Women’s Lit courses in the English Department several times, and did so this past semester. Sadly, I am never short on fodder to show the students how rampant misogyny and sexism still are in our culture, and this article gets right to the heart of the way Hollywood so often bolsters men’s sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, their belief that their sexual drive amounts to a right (as Adrienne Rich put it all the way back in the seventies!).

After decrying the “awful” summer movies headed our way, William Heath concluded:

In sum, the issue involves changing the way we, and men in particular, respond to the regressive fantasies that pervade mass culture. How do we make bad movies bad box office? No easy task.

Not everyone was supportive. Putting it bluntly, Brad Richards wrote:

You are just a sad sad individual. The kid was clearly mentally ill and you support him and place the blame on others.

For his part, reader Norman Kelley called the piece “one of the most cowardly, drive-by pieces of journalism ever written.” He continued:

Not once in your article did you mention how guns are used to reinforce male swagger or as a boost to limpid male libido, especially in films, TV and games. Your entire piece seems to hinge on the idea is that if more women executive were green-lighting films we have a better “collective imagination.” (Yet article like yours never explain what Amy Pascal, Stacy Snider of Sherry Lansing had been doing when they ran half of the six major film studios.) The moral cowardice of your argument is astounding given that we could have a better society if we had some sort of reasonable gun regulations. However, your article never once mentions the combination of repressed male homicidal rage and the easy availability of guns, which are often used by males in real life and fiction to solve problems.

Like Kelley, Ralph Adams Fine thought I didn’t go far enough:

Isn’t it true though, Ann, that films get made because, initially, there is a perceived audience; they get re-made and re-made and re-made and re-made because there _is_ a large audience for them. That an audience exists for the tripe you rightly decry is, in my view, the larger story. I’m not a film-industry expert by any means, but the rule of probabilities (and the rule of business) tells me that films approved by successful women executives would generally mirror those approved by successful men executives.

Jerry Laffey noted:

…the film industry like virtually all others, is driven by profit, regardless of who controls it, it gives the public what it wants. Within the public, male and female, often it is not the better angels of our nature that makes the selection.

Under the subject heading “Really?” Liz Abrams wrote:

Your comments regarding the UCSB slaughter were beyond inappropriate…’s irresponsible and does an injustice to the mentally ill to blame media for illness and/or criminal choice. For shame!

Expressing her “dismay and alarm” at the essay, mental health researcher Greta Friedmann-Sanchez wrote:

It is pieces like yours which fuel stigma and misinformation about mental illness. Stigma amplifies the challenges and pain for those who suffer from mental illness and those around them.

Then there were the short-and-not-sweets. One reader opted for the two-word message “You’re hilarious,” while another simply sent an epithet commonly described with the euphemism see-you-next-Tuesday.

Correctly predicting that the essay would draw vitriol from several corners, another reader wrote:

“Somebody had to open up this discourse. Most people will get defensive and won’t agree with it, of course, but it’s still worthwhile to have it out there.”

I hope so. Let the conversation continue.