Everything Wrong With Fox’s ‘X-Men’ Billboard And The Media’s Response To It

Welcome to Media Watch. In this twice-monthly column for The Establishment, I’ll be writing at the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality in news, scripted and reality TV, movies, advertising, #ClickbaitCrimes, social media, media literacy, and media and telecommunications policy, carrying on the Media Watch column I debuted in 1997 in Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, then the oldest continuously-publishing feminist newspaper in America. Read more about my work and Media Watch here.

On Friday, 20th Century Fox apologized for strangling Jennifer Lawrence in a promotional campaign for X-Men: Apocalypse, so for this inaugural installment of Media Watch, you get a twofer. First, a look at Hollywood’s latest misogynist marketing fail through a media literacy lens, and then a discussion of what does (and doesn’t) constitute effective media criticism and activism.

From giant billboards in L.A. to subway and phone booth posters in NYC, the image 20th Century Fox used to build excitement for their latest superhero flick is of metallic villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), huge and imposing, hoisting a comparatively puny Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) into the air by her neck using just one hand. Most versions of the posters carry the tagline: “Only the strong will survive.”

Through a media literacy lens, it’s easy to decipher the visual and subtextual meaning of this promo ad: Men have power and strength; women are weak and can at best hope to survive violence. This messaging of subordination is apocalyptically bad for women and girls, who for the umpteenth time get to see violence against them normalized and played for entertainment. It’s also harmful to boys and men, who learn yet again that, for them, “strength” is defined only within the boundaries of a toxic masculinity that essentially encourages male abuse and control of women.

As the studio likely expected when they banked their box office on an image this provocative, a robust debate erupted over the campaign. On May 7, a photo posted at NY blog EV Grieve shows a subway ad an anonymous parent annotated with eight pieces of taped-on paper: “This violence in my kid’s face is not okay.” On May 26, the day before the movie premiered, a headline on geek culture site The Mary Sue asked, “Who Approved This Poster for X-Men: Apocalypse?” As TMS’s Sasha James noted, “Mystique getting choked out” may represent a relevant plot point about the imbalance of power between hero and villain in the film itself, “but it’s a whole other ball game to pick this single visual out of 144 minutes of film and use it as a representation of your entire movie.” And there’s the crux of the problem: There’s a massive difference between a stand-alone screen shot and a fully-formed scene with build-up, dialogue, and characters who have more agency than blue-tinged damsels in distress.

The tipping point came on June 2, when The Hollywood Reporter interviewed actress Rose McGowan about her comments calling out the billboard on Facebook a week earlier: “There is a major problem when the men and women at 20th Century Fox think casual violence against women is the way to market a film,” she said. “There is no context in the ad, just a woman getting strangled. The fact that no one flagged this is offensive and frankly, stupid . . . 20th Century Fox, since you can’t manage to put any women directors on your slate for the next two years, how about you at least replace your ad?” THR also quoted Jennifer McCleary-Sills, director of gender violence and rights for the International Center for Research on Women, on “the intentionality of” Fox normalizing violence against women. “[You] could have chosen any from the thousands of images, but you chose this one,” she said. “Whose attention did you want to get and to what end?” In response, stories began proliferating in mainstream and genre outlets alike, from NY Mag’s The Cut and The Guardian to CinemaBlend and ComicBook.com, all pegged to McGowan’s critique, and often quoting THR’s sources.

The next day — four months into the ad campaign and a week after the film’s premiere — The Hollywood Reporter updated their story with Fox’s statement: “In our enthusiasm to show the villainy of the character Apocalypse we didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form. Once we realized how insensitive it was, we quickly took steps to remove those materials. We apologize for our actions and would never condone violence against women.” (Oh, you would never? I think you meant you would, and you did.) And let’s complicate the studio’s assertion that they “took steps to remove those materials.” What are those steps? Will Fox be paying people to take down their billboards, banners, and posters on the sides of highways, phone booths, and subway stations everywhere, or only in some markets? And on what timeline? Because without a funded, time-sensitive effort, Mystique may remain in a perpetual chokehold in lower-profile areas — just as a bus shelter in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn still encourages viewers to tune in for the debut of the new Late Show with Stephen Colbert . . . coming to CBS in September, 2015.

The apology itself made news in dozens of outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, CBC, AV Club, US Weekly, and Mashable, whose headline illuminated the studio’s disingenuous response: “Fox apologizes for ‘X-Men’ ads showing a strangled Jennifer Lawrence 4 months later” (emphasis mine). Thankfully, Mashable’s Mariya Abdulkaf made a key point missing from most other coverage: “These images have been circulating for nearly a year, first appearing in a press package in July 2015 and on billboards for the past four months. The delay shines a negative light on Fox’s apology, which comes as complaints about the images have recently ballooned with celebrities stirring the controversy.”

Additionally, with X-Men: Apocalypse reaping disappointing financials in its first week, the increased attention to the film — not to mention the torrent of free advertising in the form of reprints of the billboard running alongside all the stories about McGowan’s criticism and Fox’s subsequent apology — may actually benefit the franchise in a climate where media companies often stoke controversy to boost their bottom lines.

Hakim Bellamy, Inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, pulls no punches when it comes to the corporate decision-makers behind the offensive campaign. “For a super ‘villain’ so often scantily clad (read: nude) it is disheartening that the first thing filmmakers (and ad execs) would have her wear is a fist around her neck,” says Bellamy, who shares a birthday with Mystique, who first appeared in the May 1978 issue of Ms. Marvel. Formerly the communications director at Media Literacy Project, Bellamy suggests that “we ought to begin thinking of patriarchy and perpetual misogyny in pop media (or in general) as a societal mutation of the birth defect variety. C’mon 20th Century Fox, you can do better than this! The nerd in me wanted to overpay to see this movie in the theaters already, without the whole domestic violence trigger approach.”

The Comics Canon Controversy

Predictably, aggrieved comics fans are taking to the internet to brand McGowan and those who agree with her politically correct feminazi bitches. Their rationale? Mystique is powerful in the comics, and fans know she’s not so easily trounced, and itsjustaposterandwhatdidyouexpectanyway, so there! But this reaction misses the point: We see no hint of Mystique’s power in the posters; McGowan was responding to what is in the actual ad, not what Fox chose to omit. As Geek and Sundry staff writer Edie Nugent says:

“Mystique is unquestionably one of the most powerful mutants out there. She began the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and was its leader (the films have previously given Magneto sole credit for this, but Mystique is also responsible for relaunching and leading the brotherhood in the comics). Her might is in the ability to lead, as well as infiltration, sabotage, and general combat readiness. So, while showing her to be helpless against the threat of Apocalypse works in context of those who are ‘in the know’ about comics, those aren’t the only ones viewing and absorbing the media campaign to promote the film. There’s definitely an imbalance of knowledge between the filmmakers and the general-interest audience being targeted by this marketing.”

Culture critic Arturo Garcia, an editor at Racialicious and Raw Story, takes issue with the way Fox’s marketing undercuts both Lawrence’s character and franchise continuity:

“The movie is being sold with an image that has a much different context within comics canon. Longtime X-readers are more likely to expect that, even if Apocalypse were able to get that big of an advantage over Mystique, there was at least more of a fight leading up to that moment. More crucially, the comics are more likely to show Mystique throwing everything she’s got at him. Apocalypse is — in terms of canon — more ‘powerful’ than Mystique, but he wouldn’t be able to handle her this easily. Unfortunately, the casual audience Fox is courting for this movie isn’t likely to know this.”

Fans’ knee-jerk “but, but, but . . . back story!” defense of the billboards reveals a drastic lack of media literacy and critical thinking skills. This print campaign wasn’t made for the comparably small die-hard comics community; instead, it attempted to pique a general interest audience’s curiosity with a completely decontextualized shot of blue-skinned J-Law being choked out. Those unfamiliar with the comics (read: most viewers driving or walking by the posters) didn’t see the culmination of a hard-fought battle between formidable Marvel mutants. They’d be unlikely to wonder if Mystique might give Apocalypse a run for his money before this image, or if she kicks his ass in some subsequent scene. Instead, they just saw a hulking, powerful male figure easily dominating a smaller, strangled female figure — with the reinforcing tagline, “Only the strong will survive.” And in a country where every day three or more women are murdered by their husbands and boyfriends, such copy strongly implies that she’s a goner.

Some comics fans took umbrage at the way Fox’s promo campaign misrepresented not only the characters but the movie itself. In a perfect comparison, author and self-described sci-fi geek Fran Stewart asks, “Would you advertise Star Wars VII with Rey strapped in a chair while Kylo Ren lurks over her? It was a great scene in the film, but a lousy way to advertise what happens in the story.”

So what would have been a better way for Fox to advertise what happens in this X-story? “From a comic-literacy standpoint,” says Carol Hood, writer and creator of the comic American Witch, “it would be preferential to see Apocalypse face Cable or even Loki, but as we are all aware, this isn’t print for comic books, it’s print for a movie loosely based on the comic books. If this was me, if I had a still shot of Apocalypse dominating Magneto in my arsenal, that would have been my print choice, hands down. Who is a greater villain than Magneto? And what better way to illustrate an all-powerful villain’s evilness than to present the world with a still shot of him overpowering another all-powerful villain?”

Perpetuating Media Bias While Speaking Out Against Media Bias

As a media critic and media activist, I appreciate Rose McGowan’s emerging feminist pushback against Hollywood sexism in the past year. She was right to encourage the creatives and decision-makers behind the ads “to take a long hard look at the mirror and see how they are contributing to society” when they exploit and normalize violence against women for profit. If she hadn’t used her platform to bring attention to this damaging ad campaign, Fox would not have had to apologize for their misogyny or promise to remove the ads. This is a media literacy win.

But just as she fomented transphobia in a muddled, TERF-y attack on Caitlyn Jenner last winter, McGowan’s discussion with The Hollywood Reporter was not without its problems. To drive home her complaint about Mystique’s chokehold, she urged THR to “Imagine if it were a black man being strangled by a white man, or a gay male being strangled by a hetero? The outcry would be enormous.” Womp, womp. With this quote, she implies that racist and homophobic advertising does not happen All. The. Time. It does. To imply otherwise, even unintentionally, is inaccurate and harmful. It does not help advance feminist goals to erase or deprioritize discrimination faced by people of color and LGBTQ people.

Women are constantly subjected to hypersexualized imagery in which physical and sexual violence against them is made to appear sexy, commonplace, normal, even funny. But that doesn’t mean that women are the only constituency mistreated within corporate media. Major outlets and studios do often frame people of color and LGBTQ people in hideously bigoted ways. The only difference is that there is generally more fear on the part of Hollywood studios that they may face an organized backlash and have to pay a price if they’re caught using racism as a selling point — because organizations from the NAACP to Color of Change have been extremely successful in mobilizing their members to hold media companies accountable for blatant racial bias. The same is true in terms of the fear of being held accountable for homophobic (and, more recently, transphobic) media because of GLAAD’s many successful campaigns.

As happy as I am that McGowan spoke up about the X-Men billboards, her false dichotomy pitting media sexism against racism and homophobia is a pet peeve. When people do media critique without a solid intersectional political framework and a broadscale understanding of the complexity of the media landscape, they can unintentionally ignore, reinforce, or perpetuate media bias while speaking out against media bias. By insinuating that the one form of oppressive media messaging that matters most to her negates the existence of other oppressive forms of media messaging, McGowan subtly undermined her credibility as a media critic at the same time that she marginalized people of color and LGBTQ people.

***

Every time an ad campaign at this level happens, an impressive number of people are involved in the process. On the advertising team, graphic designers, art directors, copywriters, editors, creative directors, and high-level executives all play their roles; on the studio/client side, the pitch has to go through multiple levels of approval before the public gets their first glimpse. Yet with hundreds of potential directions to choose from to market X-Men: Apocalypse, they reflexively greenlit a lazy, misogynist trope counter to their source material. Apparently no one at 20th Century Fox remembered that we’re currently in the 21st century.

Studios can do better. And the media must do better, too.

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