2014 has been a long, strange year. It seemed like every month brought a new catastrophe, many of which were surreal: A plane disappeared in mid-air for reasons that were never explained. A bloody epidemic that was decimating a continent suddenly showed up in ERs in Texas and Ohio. A small Midwestern town punished protesters with tear gas and tanks, effectively declaring war on its own people. I’ve heard people talk about how they feel they are “living in a movie.” Not the sort of movie you’d want to live in, either — some large-scale Hollywood vision of the end of the world. To say that you’re living in a movie is another way of saying that you’re living in a nightmare.
But here we are, in the final act. And, sure enough, the final catastrophe of 2014 is also its most bizarre: We are now living through an international conflict triggered by a Seth Rogen comedy.
The Interview is, by all accounts, a bad and excessively poop-joke centric movie, let alone a bad reason for an international conflict. Still, it features its protagonists (played by Rogen and James Franco) gorily assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. The real Kim Jong-Un, understandably enough, was not pleased by this. So, it appears, North Korea retaliated — not by declaring war, not by launching missiles, not with physical terrorist attacks, but by hacking into the e-mail inboxes of Sony Pictures and posting death threats to moviegoers online. And when the Guardians of the Peace, the cyberterrorist group that has claimed credit for the hack, threatened to attack movie theaters where The Interview was playing — “remember the 11th of September 2001,” they warned — the studio cancelled the movie’s release.
That decision has been met with plenty of outrage, especially from the Right. It has been denounced, unambiguously, as terrorism. Some have even called it an act of war. Newt Gingrich and Bill O’Reilly have both bemoaned the death of free speech. Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told major movie theater chains: “[If] you agree to show this movie, I will send a note to the Republican Party’s millions of donors and supporters urging them to buy a ticket — not to support one movie or Hollywood, but to show North Korea we cannot be bullied into giving up our freedom.” The president gave official comment, denouncing the decision to pull the movie as a compromise of American free speech. Buoyed by all this support, Sony announced it would release the film after all, on Christmas Day.
You’d think, given all of the hype, that the Sony hack was one of a kind. Yet that’s not true. Almost every part of this story — the stolen information, the invasion of privacy, the death threats, the promises to punish and shut down speech that threatened a particular belief system — mirrors other high-profile events of the year that drew far less condemnation and outrage.
Consider: The Interview was cancelled because North Korea promised theaters another 9/11. This fall, during GamerGate—which, depending on your stance, was either an outpouring of misogyny or a “movement for ethics in gaming journalism” — the Utah State University cancelled an appearance by feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian, because school administrators were promised that “a massacre” would occur if she were allowed to speak. And GamerGate, itself, began when private correspondence was posted online: Eron Gjoni, the ex of game developer Zoe Quinn, posted chat transcripts from their break-up online in an attempt to humiliate Quinn and paint her as a villain. People called it bullying. They called it harassment. But they didn’t call it terrorism.
So what’s the difference? I’d submit that what’s pertinent here is that the victims of GamerGate were all women.
You could argue that the Sony hack was a crime — theft of private informatioh — while Gjoni didn’t steal those chat transcripts with Quinn. He did own them, and was merely unethical in posting them. That’s true. But then you could look just a little further back, to “The Fappening,” where the victims most definitely were stolen from, and in one of the more personally hurtful ways imaginable. “The Fappening,” in case you were unaware, is the world’s least tasteful name for what happened when hackers stole and posted private nude photos of dozens of female celebrities. The theft and trading of sexual photos almost certainly comprises a form of sexual assault, morally if not legally; no one has the right to see you naked without your permission. It may be illegal, too; there are state laws against “revenge porn,” and some of the images distributed in the Fappening leak were child pornography. Still, it was called an error of judgment on the part of the women who’d taken the photos or videos. It was called a scandal. In point of fact, the epicenter of the photo distribution, Reddit, seemed distinctly peeved about being asked to take down the photos at all: “We are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies,” Reddit grumped, in an official message — and was, for what it’s worth, cheered on by the exact same right-wing sites outraged by the Sony hack and the suppression of The Interview.
Because, you see, when that theft of private information took place, it was called “free speech.” It was not called terrorism.
Very well, then; you could argue that the Sony scandal only became “terrorism” when lives were at risk. It wasn’t about embarrassing a bunch of execs with stolen information; it was about threatening innocent moviegoers to keep them in line. If someone had taken it upon himself to act on the underpinnings of the ideas that fueled GamerGate and the photo leaks — that women exist primarily as sexual objects, and that women who don’t obey men’s desires should be punished — and started hurting people, there would have been an equivalent outcry. Surely, that would have been terrorism.
Well: No. Because that also happened this year. This May, California student Elliott Rodger killed seven people, including himself, because he felt women had rejected him: “I cannot kill every single female on earth,” Rodger wrote in his manifesto, “but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts.”
Killing a few people to scare many people; there’s hardly a more concise description of what terrorism is and what it aims to do. But even this was called a tragedy, or a mental health issue. As I and many other women can can attest, there was significant pushback if you tried to call it terrorism.
Yet here we are, with the new and supremely newsworthy face of terrorism, The Interview’s cancellation. And it mirrors, in exact detail, what women have been going through all year. It’s international terrorism, whereas other cases were domestic, but if that makes a significant difference, no one told Oklahoma City. It’s a case of nations opposing each other, rather than one privileged group within a nation opposing and punishing a less privileged one — but, if anything, shouldn’t we be less upset when a bully actually picks on someone his own size? Yet, perversely, the outrage appears to get louder the more powerful the target is; an attack on a multi-national corporation with millions of dollars at its disposal is vastly more important than an attack on a woman with a modest salary who happened to speak out, at least insofar as you judge importance by the volume of the media outcry. This is the most surreal part of the year’s most surreal scandal; after spending months or years shouting at the top of your lungs for people to pay attention to what women are going through online, to no avail, you will see people go absolutely livid with outrage when the exact same thing is done to a major corporation and/or Seth Rogen. To be a woman is to be continually terrorized — either as the target of something like GamerGate, or as a witness who knows she can be targeted if she steps out of line — with no outrage summoned on your behalf.
Yes, it’s a shame that The Interview was cancelled. Yes, disappearing a work of art to appease some threatening entity’s tastes is a bad call. But women’s voices are disappearing, too, all the time, as the result of our daily terror — or they never show up at all, because our silence is all that keeps us safe. It would be nice to see that treated as a “free speech” issue — or to have Congressmen and political operatives urging their constituency to fund, publish, and back even a few of the women we’ve lost to harassment online. But that probably won’t happen. Those women are just trying to change the world, after all; they don’t do anything really important. Like, say, writing poop jokes for Sony Film.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.