The Extraordinary Sexism Of Extraordinarily Bad Movies

A scene from Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings / Youtube
There’s nothing good about the misogyny of bad movies and their most devoted fans.

B ad-movie fans always remember the first cinematic travesty that made them love bad movies. For me? That movie was Squirm.

Schlocky, horrendously acted, narratively incomprehensible, and thoroughly amusing until the bitter end, the film—which centers around an infestation of flesh-burrowing worms in a small Southern town—is a classic example of so-bad-it’s-good.

I caught the movie as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the iconic show featuring a man and his robot pals irreverently roasting the worst of cinema. After channel-flipping to the program one Sunday afternoon with my little brother, we were both immediately riveted, then obsessed; soon, we were buying MST3K box sets for each other, and engaging in lengthy debates about which terrible movie was the most terrible of all (Manos: Hands of Fate? Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? Plan 9 From Outer Space? The choice could feel impossible).

Years later, I married a man who grew up loving MST3K as well, and who had a general fondness for incompetent filmmaking; it was he who turned me on to the broader snarky subculture of bad-movie fandom, which includes everything from late-night screenings and live skewerings to YouTube series and podcasts.

But as much fun as this fandom can be — and it can be extremely fun — over time I came to develop a lingering discomfort with it all. The vast majority of revered bad movies were created by and star white men, and they frequently feature blatant, even outrageous, misogyny. But the issue runs deeper than that.

In a world where only 7% of directors are female, and movies directed by women receive 64% less distribution than those helmed by men, it’s hard to stomache a culture openly devoted to celebrating even the most incompetent white male filmmakers, making movies that revel in unchecked chauvinism.

More complicated still, even the accompanying fan culture is dominated by white men who seem to thrive on the very insular misogyny so much of snark-culture feigns to undermine.

I entered bad-movie fandom to feel a part of something subversive. But increasingly, I came to wonder if it just represented a schlockier version of that most mainstream of Hollywood qualities — rampant sexism.

What separates a bad movie from a great bad movie? As I see it, the answer is simple: A great bad movie must never be boring. The best worst films bastardize filmmaking conventions — like, say, comprehensible dialogue, logical storylines, and emotive acting — in thrillingly absurd ways, ever poised on the precipice of legitimate surrealist brilliance. (My essay on the thin line between great bad movies and the typical David Lynch product is one for another day.)

Within this subset of movies, a few types dominate: There are goofy sci-fi B-movies that typically provide the grist for Mystery Science Theater’s late-night lancing; studio-financed flops that fail at epic scale, like The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Cutthroat Island, and Waterworld; delightfully shameless knock-offs of much better films, like the Star Wars ripoff Space Mutiny and bargain-bin E.T. vehicle, Mac and Me; and movies produced by studios, like the infamous Cannon Films, devoted exclusively to making relentlessly low-quality absurdities.

Across this bad-movie universe, sexism is common, with egregious female nudity and violence against women; female characters lacking agency or actual characterization is as routine as laughably low-fi special effects and exceedingly amateur acting.

But what I’d like to focus on is a genre that perhaps best displays what makes beloved bad movies so problematic: films self-financed by wealthy men that are strikingly incompetent and go on to gain cult appreciation, endowing their creator with folk-hero status. These movies often share the traits of glaring misogyny and unbridled egoism, with their creator typically serving as some combination of director, writer, producer, and star.

No film better exemplifies this archetype than Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a universally mocked “romantic drama” burdened by overwrought dialogue (“You are tearing me apaaaaart, Lisa!”), bizarre unresolved storylines, unending gratuitous sex scenes set to cheesy R&B jams, and acting that ranges from the comically maudlin (Tommy Wiseau) to the beleaguered and visibly confused (everyone forced to act alongside Tommy Wiseau).

Wiseau wrote, directed, and stars in the film, and the story of him making The Room is the stuff of bad-movie legend. In some ways, Wiseau presents as a genuinely sympathetic figure — a socially awkward man who, it’s believed, left a perilous situation in Eastern Europe to pursue his dreams, only to find that he didn’t fit in to the Hollywood scene.

But there is also real privilege to his story. He was able to spend a staggering $6 million to self-finance The Room — money earned from running a successful retail business or money-laundering for organized crime, depending on who you believe (the murky shadiness of Wiseau’s backstory is part of his mythic appeal). And despite his obvious incompetence and reportedly nasty behavior on set, Wiseau was able to see his movie through to the end, a fact that has been attributed to vague notions of noble tenacity, but which could also be viewed as the result of him being a rich white dude, when rich white dudes can be or do anything they please.

Meanwhile, the film itself is basically an MRA fever dream in celluloid. Wiseau plays Johnny, a good man undone by a selfish, manipulative vixen named Lisa who seduces Johnny’s best friend; fabricates a lie that Johnny abuses her; and tells Johnny she’s pregnant even though she’s not (“I told him that to make it interesting,” she says by way of cruel explanation).

Johnny, by contrast, is a really great guy, which we know because characters throughout the film repeatedly tell us that he’s a really great guy. In the movie’s final scene—an impressively problematic suicide revenge fantasy— Johnny shoots himself in the head as a result of Lisa’s many betrayals. After his body is found, Lisa is explicitly blamed by his friends for being a terrible no-good woman who destroyed a very good man.

While Wiseau is mostly defined by the singular disaster that was The Room, “filmmaker” Neil Breen is known for his oeuvre of atrociousness. Breen has used his own personal wealth — seemingly from real estate ventures, though the exact source of his money also remains unclear — to self-finance four terrible films that he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in: Double Down, I Am Here…Now, Fateful Findings, and Pass Thru.

I’ve seen both Double Down and Fateful Findings, and they are, if possible, even more bat-shit insane than The Room, adding supernatural wizardry and government conspiracy-theorizing to the romantic drama messiness. Like Wiseau, one imagines Breen got into filmmaking in part so he could shoot gratuitous sex scenes with beautiful women, which are frequent in his films despite serving no discernible purpose. As with The Room, there is also an undercurrent of misogyny throughout.

This is especially true in Fateful Findings, a film in which Breen plays Dylan, a brilliant hacker whose gorgeous wife, Emily, selfishly defies his patient pleas to stop being a drug addict and alcoholic. By the time Emily is dying of an overdose, Dylan has moved on to an affair with another beautiful woman who, despite supposedly being his childhood sweetheart, looks to be about 20 years his junior. Both romantic conquests disrobe frequently for no narrative purpose. Oh, and the teenage stepdaughter of another character inexplicably has a crush on Dylan, and tries repeatedly to seduce him.

Wiseau and Breen are hardly alone in gaining cult appreciation for their incompetently made sexist romps. James Nguyen wrote and directed Birdemic: Shock and Terror, a daft Hitchcock rip-off in which the protagonist, a wildly successful software salesman, dates a frequently lingerie-clad Victoria’s Secret model; their relationship dynamic is defined by his controlling ways, which we’re presumably meant to find charming, and in one telling scene, the girlfriend’s mother tells her she’s lucky to have found a man to support her.

Nguyen’s follow-up, Birdemic 2, further displayed his penchant for, as Variety put it, “blondes, invariably cast as wannabe actresses who’ll do whatever to attain ‘stardom.’”

More problematically, Uwe Boll—widely considered the worst filmmaker of the modern era—has written and directed movies including Blubberella, a one-joke film in which the joke is female fatness, and Postal, in which the protagonist — with the help of busty, scantily clad cult members — kills his fat wife and her illicit lovers (oh, and also a bunch of Al-Qaeda terrorists).

One could argue that these men and those like them have faced retribution for making such misogynistic disasters; their films are, after all, considered among the worst ever. You could also argue that these movies are considered terrible in part because they’re so reductive and sexist, which in a way highlights the perpetuation of misogyny.

These points are certainly valid. But they’d hold more water if these shoddy, sexist films didn’t also endow their creators with godlike status, affording them opportunities many aspiring filmmakers could only dream of. Filmmakers like Wiseau, Breen, and Boll aren’t exalted in the same way a Tarantino or Kubrick are, obviously, but they’re exalted nonetheless — and crucially, they’re afforded a similar brand of success.

Wiseau, for instance, often signs autographs following screenings of The Room, which take place regularly at movie houses across the country. And his subversive fame has earned him not only attention, but money— after The Room, Wiseau’s reportedly highly racist and misogynistic show The Neighbors was purchased and distributed by Hulu.

This December, Wiseau’s profile will be raised further when the movie version of The Disaster Artist — a bestselling book about the making of The Room, co-produced by and starring James Franco and Seth Rogen — is released. Already, Wiseau is making the media rounds for the highly anticipated movie, which is generating early awards buzz.

Breen’s films have also become a staple of celebratory late-night screenings, and he has leveraged this cult status into a GoFundMe campaign for an upcoming project that has been promoted by the likes of the AV Club. (It’s worth noting that despite the high-profile support, though, his funding goal has yet to be reached.)

After Nguyen’s Birdemic was featured as part of Rifftrax, essentially Mystery Science Theater live, he capitalized on his newfound celebrity to make the 3-D sequel, which a mobile company created a game for, and paid for exclusive video-on-demand rights to. (Nguyen, too, has tried to crowdfund another film, to no avail).

As for Boll, he’s had entire film festivals devoted to his “vision.” And after mercifully retiring last year, his “legend” has lived on; one film festival that showcased his work this year described him as “a cult figure who will undoubtedly be missed.”

Yes, these men have provided much of the financing for their movies. But one wonders if, even flanked with the requisite deep pockets, any woman could see to fruition such obviously shoddy work, not to mention attain cult-celebrity status after doing so.

In the end, what we’re left with is a pretty disturbing paradigm of power. If you’re a man — particularly a white man — and you make a good movie, the door of opportunity will be opened wide (see: Colin Treverrow, who parlayed his modest indie hit Safety Not Guaranteed into directing Jurassic World and then, before he was canned, Star Wars: Episode IX).

If you’re a white man who makes mediocre or pretty bad movies, you’re still kept on major-studio payrolls for years (see: Brett Ratner, whose mostly lackluster output as a director and producer, including X Men: The Last Stand, New York, I Love You, Tower Heist, and Hercules, hasn’t precluded him from a 26-years-and-counting Hollywood career — and who, the very day this story was set to publish, was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and misconduct, behavior that has also been proven to not preclude Hollywood men from success).

And if you’re a white man who makes a film so atrocious it is considered among the worst movies ever produced, you can become a celebrated folk hero who is proffered celebrity status and an audience for still more terrible films. If blatant misogyny is your thing, no problem; this will not stop you from finding success on any rung of this ladder.

And meanwhile, as even the most incompetent of men enjoy opportunity and fan adoration, women with actual talent and vision are almost entirely shut out.

Also worth examining is how this culture of misogyny in turn prevents women from enjoying the sublime sub-culture of bad-movie fandom. I am an unabashed fan of the genre, but my enjoyment is seriously mitigated by the sexism these films display, and more importantly, by the nonchalance male bad-movie fans display toward this sexism. (Which is to say, it is almost never addressed at all.)

Perhaps this is because the fandom culture itself is so startlingly homogenous. The best bad-movie podcasts, like Flop House, How Did This Get Made?, and We Hate Movies, are dominated by men. The most beloved bad-movie YouTube series, like Red Letter Media and Fanboy Flicks, entirely showcase the musings of men. In its old and recently rebooted iterations, Mystery Science Theater 3000 exclusively features male hosts and male-voiced snarky robots. Rifftrax showcases three dudes riffing live. And this is to say nothing of the dearth of people of color offering their commentary and snark.

This is an obvious reflection of Hollywood’s demographics, but I also wonder if men are drawn to bad movies in particular, because they so often revel in a toxic masculinity unhindered by the conventions of more civilized cinema. In these movies showcasing gratuitous bare breasts, senseless violence, and men exerting their dominance over beautiful young women, the real star is the male id.

At the same time, in an environment where white men are feeling increasingly threatened by the forces of social progress, these films offer an implicit assurance: Don’t worry white men, even if you’re wildly incompetent, you can still be a star! It’s no wonder so many men, while mocking these films, also make it clear they consider them totally awesome.

I wonder if men are drawn to bad movies because they so often revel in a toxic masculinity unhindered by the conventions of more civilized cinema.

This is not to say that all bad movies are misogynistic, or that terrible sexist films can’t or shouldn’t be consumed by women. But the bad-movie fandom culture must change for women to feel truly welcomed. On the rare occasions when women are given the space to assess bad movies, they often highlight and discuss misogynistic undertones, rather than dismissing or outright embracing them. On a recent episode of How Did This Get Made?, for instance, June Diane Raphael (one of the only women in the bad-movie podcast game) briefly discussed with a female guest how the abysmal Running Man perpetuates dangerous rape culture ideas. Such moments are needed, and far too rare.

When I first discovered the world of bad movies more than 15 years ago, I felt like I had found something wonderfully subversive — a culture that celebrates the noble pursuit of entertainment over common competency.

But in the end, there’s nothing subversive about sexist films made by white men, or a fandom culture comprised of the white men who love them. This dynamic is, well, bad — and not in the good kind of way.

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