James Gunn found himself the target of an online firestorm when his homophobic posts were unearthed and passed around on social media. One of the key directors in Marvel’s stable, Gunn was quickly forced to apologize for his “poorly worded and offensive” remarks.
The year was 2012, and Gunn was not fired as the director of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Last week, however, Gunn’s offensive old posts were again unearthed. Again he apologized. Gunn is far more established and powerful this time around, and yet, this time he was fired from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”
Times have changed. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal, dozens of men have been ousted for allegations of sexual misconduct. It was a long time coming, but when it came, it was sudden. Now the same urgency and zero-tolerance mentality are being applied to offensive statements as well as deeds.
“The studios haven’t behaved well. They have been bad actors,” said Tracy Williams, CEO of PR agency Olmstead Williams Communications. “Suddenly there’s a spotlight put on them, and they realize they need to button up. Every company is moving quickly. Heads are flying; look at all the people getting fired.”
Roseanne Barr was jettisoned from the “Roseanne” revival, a ratings colossus, in May — and the show was canceled – just hours after she tweeted racist comments about Valerie Jarrett, adviser to former President Obama. Jonathan Friedland, the head of communications at Netflix, was ousted last month for allegedly using the N-word in a company meeting.
Then last week came two firings in as many days. Amy Powell was let go as head of Paramount TV on July 19, after making “racially charged” remarks about African-American women. (She denies the allegations and has threatened to sue Paramount for her summary firing.)
That evening, right-wing Twitter personalities Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec dug up and began circulating Gunn’s tweets from 2009 to 2011. In them, the director joked about pedophilia and child molestation. At 8:53 p.m. on July 19, Gunn tried to explain that he had matured since then and noted that he had apologized previously.
“I truly felt sorry and meant every word of my apologies,” he wrote. “I used to make a lot of offensive jokes. I don’t anymore.”
It was not enough. By lunchtime the next day, he was out of a job. Alan Horn, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said the jokes were “indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values.”
As happened at the height of the #MeToo movement, there are now questions about whether the response to a real and serious problem has gone too far.
“This strikes me as the most extreme reaction so far,” said Jeffrey Thomas, an employment attorney at Akerman LLP, who echoed that Gunn had apologized previously and added that the tweets predated his employment by Disney. “I am concerned that some organizations may be overreacting.”
The “Roseanne” firing was widely hailed at the time, especially among liberals who were uneasy with her support for President Trump. But it appears to have set a precedent that such issues can be adjudicated in a matter of hours, and that any hesitation may imply sympathy with the offensive remarks, Thomas said.
“Disney made a decision with Mr. Gunn that is going to have enormous impact on the ‘Guardians’ franchise and with Marvel,” Thomas said. “These should not be decisions you make in two hours. In taking down these executives, the studios had better make sure they’ve got the evidence to prove the allegations. You are taking down people with resources and access to some of the best lawyers in town.”
The #MeToo movement and the focus on offensive comments come in an era when President Trump has set a low standard for public conduct. Williams sees both as a reaction to the Trump era.
“We feel as a nation that we have to take so much from him and his administration that we are establishing new and higher codes of conduct within our own organizations,” she said.