Given how news from France’s pre-eminent film festival comes at interested on-lookers both fast and furious over the Mediterranean fortnight, it may not be all that surprising that I missed out on the initial hubbub that bubbled out of a Cannes Mad Max: Fury Road Q&A involving the Toronto Star’s own movie critic, Peter Howell.
Essentially Howell posed the following question to the film’s titular male star, Tom Hardy:
“I’ll preface my remarks by saying that I have five sisters, a wife, a daughter, and a mother so I know what it’s like to be outgunned by estrogen. But I just wanted to ask you, as you were reading the script, did you ever think ‘Why are all these women in here? I thought this was supposed to be a man’s movie?”
Hardy, understandably unimpressed by the question, tersely answered (after a noticeably long pause and a flabbergasted look filled with derision): “No. Not for one minute. It’s kind of obvious.”
Buzzfeed (and several other outlets, like HuffPo) immediately picked up on the story and within minutes internet commenters, Tweeters and the lot were throwing a mountain of shade in Howell’s direction.
Do I think Howell intended to be sexist with his question? No. But there-in lies the issue. Because whatever his intended meaning, the question he asked could be construed as nothing but. Many outlets neglected to include the question’s preface as if it tainted the sexism inherent in the question that followed and some outlets, in defence of Howell, added it back in as if it completely absolved Howell of any wrongdoing that followed. Personally, I would leave it in. Far from absolving him, the disclaimer speaks volumes on how much Mr. Howell has to learn about what sexism actually means.
Speaking from experience, just because a man is “outgunned by oestrogen” it does not immediately follow that the same man cannot possibly be sexist or misogynistic. When confronting a former employer about his unfair treatment of female employees (on behalf of that particularly large portion of our department), I was told that what I was saying couldn’t possibly be true because he had two daughters and a wife. No further discussion was tolerated because, in his eyes, the fact he had begat two young females (though he had no actual say in the matter, I might add, because…NATURE) meant every action in his daily life was gender balanced accordingly.
Howell tried to clarify his question (and the meaning behind it) soon after, saying, “my question to Tom Hardy was intended as the opposite of sexism.” He explained that he “was congratulating him for his willingness to share the screen with so many strong women in a franchise and genre more inclined to celebrate the male over the female. He was also willing to be in a co-lead role with Charlize Theron, in a movie called MAD MAX, no less.” Howell complimented Hardy further: “I think a lot of male stars might have objected to this, but Hardy is of a special breed.”
Not to put too fine a point on it but Howell’s explanation is altogether more offensive than his original question. Earning any authentic, ground-breaking “He for She” genre film kudos would surely involve far more effort from a male actor than just, in the case of Mr. Hardy, a willingness to share the spotlight with a woman. Judging from Hardy’s reply, he found his lack-of-issue with the script and its characters both unexceptional and obvious. As it should be. He doesn’t need to be, nor should he be, lauded for making Fury Road.
And though I think Hardy really is a “special breed,” it is because of his exceptional talent and willingness to go above and beyond for a part and not because he deigned to take part in a franchise re-boot with some kick-ass femme characters. Hardy is, for all his amazing abilities, just an actor. An actor paid to play a part and share the screen with others. Quality actors tend to accept films because the role offered intrigues them for whatever reason. To suggest that sharing the screen with another well-written character, who happens to be a woman, would somehow be damaging to the film and possibly to an actor’s career does all actors of both genders a huge disservice.
I’m willing to bet that Hardy’s incredulous manner in answering the proffered question would’ve increased tenfold had he heard Howell’s later explanation. To congratulate any man in any profession on his willingness to work alongside women, no matter the circumstances, is ridiculous, inexcusable and quite frankly, all kinds of condescending to everyone involved. You wouldn’t walk into the office each day and congratulate male colleagues on being brave enough to share their days with female co-workers, would you?
Perhaps the most insulting thing about Howell’s comments is the unstated flip-side of his whole question/clarification: that the female actresses (including a Best Actress Oscar winner) involved in Mad Max: Fury Road should be grateful to Tom for being so ‘willing’ and for taking a chance on them and, possibly, on his career. After all, how could the movie have been made if not for Hardy’s selfless co-operation? In doing so, Howell belittles every single one of the actresses involved and also manages to remove George Miller, the writer and director of the epic, from the picture entirely. Still seem like the opposite of sexism, Peter?
On that point, remind me to congratulate Tom Cruise for deigning to take a chance and share the screen with Renee Zellwegger in Jerry Maguire. And good on you, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt, for sharing Edward Scissorhands and Benjamin Button with Winona Ryder and Cate Blanchett, respectively. You’re all selfless, forward thinking stars.
But surprisingly my issue with this whole hubbub isn’t the question itself per se, it’s that the conversation being generated online is only a portion of what we should be talking about in 2015…though given my diatribe above, I’m as guilty as the next blog for getting stuck in the mire of the moment. After all, would Howell have even asked his question if strong, layered female characters were the norm in Hollywood films, action-genre flicks or not? Why do roles like Furiosa not exist in far, far greater numbers? What can we do to make Mad Max: Fury Road the norm? And while I’m at it…where the hell is a Black Widow movie, Marvel? That’s what we should be talking about while continuing to educate well-meaning men like Howell as to what really constitutes the “opposite of sexism.”
ETA – Full disclosure: For the better part of the past 8 years I’ve been working as an content producer and film journalist (though not, I might add, as a critic…yet). So I’ve been in similar situations to Howell and know that what comes out of your mouth when you jump up to ask a question at a high-stakes presser isn’t always what you intend – or even intelligible. Or in my case, sometimes nothing at all comes out as you freeze in the terror of the entire room staring right at you. Hence my comment that I don’t think Howell’s intention was at all negative. I think he probably intended to ask something along the lines of “what were your thoughts on reading the script and finding such strong female characters inhabiting Max’s world?” or something similar. Unfortunately what he did say was highly questionable (as was his explanation/apology), and I think the above dialogue is necessary to explain why many were so quick to anger.
I’ve also noticed that most articles defending (or redressing the situation with) Howell in any capacity have been written by men and have instead pointed to the internet as the true culprit here. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It’s extremely important that both Howell and others understand that though there truly isn’t really a bad guy or gal or autonomous collective in this situation (not Howell and not the internet), there’s a legitimate reason behind why people were offended and as such, there’s still room for all to improve, educate and learn.
Watch the full Fury Road Q&A below should you feel the need. The question under the microscope comes at around the 9:30 minute mark: