I have been following the work of political remix artist Jonathan McIntosh for some years now. We discussed his Buffy vs. Edward and Right Wing Talk Radio Duck projects in By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activists. We reconnected recently when he participated in a workshop of artists, activists, and educators hosted by my Civic Imagination research project, and he shared with me the really exciting work he is doing as part of the Pop Culture Detective Agency series on YouTube. I wanted to direct more attention to the ways he is using his remix skills to question the construction of gender and sexuality -- in particular, toxic forms of masculinity -- in various forms of popular culture. These videos are ideal resources for Media Literacy education and they make effective use of a range of fannish texts in the process. Over the next few installments, he is going to share the background of this project and in each post, I am going to be sharing some of his works.
“Buffy vs. Edward” helped to establish your reputation as a remix video producer. In some ways, it looks forward to the focus on pop culture and masculinity which has been central to your newest videos. So, can you share some of the thinking behind this now classic video? What motivated this video? What does it suggest about the relationship of your work to fandom and popular culture more generally? What core political commitments informed this work?
When I saw the first Twilight film back in 2008, I was struck by its unmistakably regressive messages about gender. I also notice that much of the disdain for this movie online was directed at the character of Bella rather than that of Edward. In general female characters in entertainment tend to draw more criticism than male characters do. Often this is because of a combination of sexism and the poor representation of women in a male-dominated media industry. Though in the case of Twilight, the critical focus on Bella’s romances seemed especially misguided because Edward is the one depicted engaging in unambiguous stalkerish behavior.
Domestic violence and abuse prevention organizations publish lists of “red flags” to help people identify warning signs in their romantic relationships. Even a casual look at those lists reveals that Edward engages in many “red flag” behaviors over the course of the four Twilight books and subsequent movies in the series. These “red flags” include things like extreme jealousy, disregard for personal boundaries, threats of violence, and isolating someone from their friends or family. These controlling behaviors are part of a dangerous and toxic form of masculinity that is often celebrated in entertainment.
When I began constructing my remix video comparing Twilight’s conservative gender framing of vampire lore to the more progressive messages embedded in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show, I made a point of focusing my visual argument on critiquing Edward’s behavior. To that end, I removed Bella entirely from the remix and replaced her with footage of Buffy. All of the Buffy clips I used were deliberately chosen to make it appear she was directly responding to Edward’s abusive behavior.
My hope with that remix was to re-shape and re-focus online conversations away from Bella’s “lack of personality” or “indecisiveness” and back onto Edward’s words and actions. Once I released Buffy vs Edward on YouTube in 2009, I was excited to see that the mashup accomplished that goal. All across the internet, from the LA Times to Edward fan forums, I started seeing nuanced conversations pop up about Edward’s abusive behaviors.
All of my critical video work uses pop culture as a lens through which I can engage in sociopolitical discussions with fans and general audiences who may not be as familiar with academic theory or texts. My projects are, at their core, critical investigations of the ways entertainment creates meaning in our shared culture.
“Right Wing Talk Radio Duck” brought the political dimensions of your remix practice into much sharper focus and you found yourself responding to some fairly powerful critics within the conservative media sphere. In some ways, you were mapping the emergence of the alt right ethos that would bring Donald Trump to power. What do you see when you look back on that video and its reception today?
My Right Wing Radio Duck remix video was meant as a critique of Glenn Beck in particular and reactionary right-wing talk radio in general. But more than that, I wanted to focus on how right-wing demagogues exploit real working class concerns by scapegoating immigrants and people of color. Many Americans were understandably angry about the bailout of corporate banks after the mortgage crisis of 2007, which left huge subsections of the working poor and middle class out in the cold. Glenn Beck and his ilk preyed on and twisted the very real frustration many Americans were feeling about that economic catastrophe.
I wanted to unequivocally condemn Glenn Beck’s racist fear-mongering, but I didn’t want to completely demonize all of his listeners. My goal was to have viewers of my remix come away with a better understanding of why some working folks might be taken in by Tea Party-like rhetoric. It’s a bit of a difficult and delicate argument to try to make in any format but it’s especially challenging with remix video because you’re so often limited by the source material. That’s why I chose Donald Duck as the lens through which to make my critique. Donald seemed especially appropriate for remixing because he was originally created by Disney to represent a frustrated down-on-their-luck Depression-era "everyman.” Donald is a hot-headed character. He’s easily duped. He’s almost always wrong, but critically he’s not entirely unsympathetic. In short, he’s not a villain. I constructed the remix carefully so we see Donald lose his job, have his house foreclosed on, and then in desperation turn to right-wing radio for answers, only to be driven into a panicked nightmare by racist fearmongering. In my remix Donald eventually figures out that he’s been hoodwinked by right-wing voices that don’t really care about him or his struggles.
In terms of the reaction to the remix, I was accused by Beck himself of being part of a union/communist plot funded by Obama to undermine the values of American capitalism. It was ludicrous but it would have been a lot funnier if it didn’t inspire his listeners to start threatening me online. During his heyday on Fox News, Glenn Beck turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. His potent mixture of “tough guy” rhetoric, racist fearmongering, faux populism and conspiracy theories was nearly identical to what we saw in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
You ended up working with Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency, where you would have seen fairly directly the #gamergate crowd at work. How did those experiences shape your current Pop Culture Detective project?
My experiences while working with Feminist Frequency were definitely a catalyst for the creation of my crowdfunded video series. As you mentioned, I worked as producer and co-writer on the first season of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games project. During my 4 years at that job, I became one of gamergate’s favorite male targets.
Gamergate, for those who are unfamiliar, was a coordinated hate and harassment campaign mostly targeting women involved in video game development and criticism. This online crusade was reactionary in nature and rooted in a particularly virulent strain of anti-feminism. I should note that since I’m a straight white guy, the type of online abuse I faced was decidedly different (and less intense) than what women endured. Abuse directed at women is often of a sexual nature and includes obsessive stalking and specific threats of intimate violence. When men are harassed online it usually follows an established pattern of attempted emasculation. Alongside a spade of threats, I was accused of “not being a real man,” of being “too sensitive”, of being controlled by women, and of course of being gay. Essentially I was seen as a traitor to my gender. All this because of my role in critiquing the demeaning and overtly sexualized ways in which female characters are often represented in video games.
The daily insults and abuse hurled at me over social media made it clear that gamergate had as much to do with cultural ideas about hyper-masculinity as it did with women in gaming. Indeed the two concepts are deeply interconnected. It very quickly became clear to me that the angry young men involved in gamergate saw themselves as protecting video games from the influence of women because they viewed their hobby as one of the “last bastions” of macho manhood.
The gamergate response is perhaps not all that surprising. At every point in history when steps toward equality are won, those gains are met with a reactionary backlash. So for example, Old West pulp stories saw a surge in popularity which coincided with the rise of movements for women’s suffrage. Men’s Adventure magazines of the 1940s to 1960s were in large part a reaction to gains made by women (and people of color) in the aftermath of WWII. These types of testosterone-infused pulp adventure stories served as a form of “equality escapism” (as I like to call it) for men angered by a changing reality. They offered men a way to retreat to a place where men could engage in regressive power fantasies rooted in white male supremacy. These were narratives where men got to be rugged individualists who dispensed justice from the barrel of a gun (and where those men were rewarded with women). These were fantasy worlds in which men’s violence and men’s chauvinism were presented as ideal formulations of masculinity.
I’d argue that this same type of macho manhood is mirrored and celebrated in many modern video games. For decades mainstream video games have leaned on macho power fantasies as a way to appeal to a young straight male demographic. Entitlement to women and women’s bodies (and other sexist conventions like the damsel in distress) played a large part in the type of male fantasies major gaming companies were selling. In the years leading up to gamergate, however, we saw some sectors of the gaming industry very slowly begin taking some steps towards creating better representations of women in their products. A large cross section of angry young men falsely believe that even modest progress towards gender equality in their favorite entertainment media is something that diminishes them, their power, and their masculinity.
Over and over again, men involved in gamergate would say they were defending their fantasy worlds from “political correctness” and “diversity.” They felt some types of video games were important to their identity as men because those games provided them a safe space where “men could be real men again.” And they feared that women’s input into video games would “feminize” gaming and therefore take away their hyper-masculine fantasy worlds.
The celebration of and idealization of macho, violent, and toxic forms of masculinity has always been closely linked to reactionary right-wing politics, and it’s an especially potent part of the ideology of hate groups. After gamergate and the rise of Trump, it seemed a important time to start a video series that critically deconstructed toxic representations of manhood in entertainment. That is what my project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is all about.
Jonathan McIntosh is a media critic, remix artist, and video essayist. He has been remixing mass media narratives for critical and educational purposes since before the invention of YouTube. He serves on the advisory board of New Media Rights, a non-profit organization working to protect the rights of digital media makers. His current project, The Pop Culture Detective Agency, is a series of long-form video essays exploring the intersections of politics, masculinity, and entertainment.