Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Canadian journalist shafted by the Internet

Peter Howell of the Toronto Star really wasn’t objecting to the women in Mad Max

Fri, May 29, 2015, 17:33


In this week’s movie show, you can hear me give out about the ludicrous campaign by “Men’s Rights” activists against Mad Max: Fury Road. Put simply, a bunch of hairy nuts have (in true Gamergate style) been suggesting that the film forwards a “feminist agenda”. Charlize Theron’s Furiosa bosses Max about. The key enemy is a misogynist monster. The MRA twits regard all this as a bad thing. You know the sort of rubbish.

One writer who would have no time for this nonsense is Peter Howell, veteran film critic for the Toronto Star. Discussing the increasing visibility of women in action cinema, Peter commented: “Whatever the reason, the timing couldn’t be better. This may come to be known as the Summer of the Alpha Female at movie theatres, with Furiosa leading the charge.” Yet, thanks to an unfairly skewed Tweet from Buzzfeed, Peter has been represented as a sexist troglodyte who firmly supports the MRA backlash.

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Here’s what happened. Two weeks ago, at the Cannes press conference for Mad Max: Fury Road, Peter, who is invariably first on his feet at such things, asked a slightly clumsy question of Tom Hardy. Here (crucially) is the full text:

“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?”

I was at the conference and, while the question did seem a bit uncomfortably phrased, it was clear that Peter was adopting a persona and didn’t actually believe that Fury Road should be free of women. Mind you, Tom Hardy definitely didn’t much like the question and made his opinion clear through terseness. “No,” he said. “Not for one minute. It’s kind of obvious.” Nobody around me seemed in any confusion as to the question’s tone. I thought no more about it. You can view the full press conference here to get a proper sense of what went on. Howell pops up about eight minutes in.

What happened later tells us a lot about the grubbier end of modern communications. Peter essentially suffered a relatively mild version of the outrages visited in Jon Ronson’s recent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. A full two weeks after the conference took place, Buzzfeed sent out a tweet featuring four images from the event. The quote from Howell was as follows: “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?” The following pictures showed Hardy grimacing.

All nuance has gone. Any sense that Howell is being light-hearted has been stripped away from the question. The journalist was, it is implied, outraged that women were allowed in a man’s movie. Before long, Peter had gone properly viral. You can rage all you want about the carelessness of his phrasing, but it remains beyond doubt that Howell thinks the opposite of what the Buzzfeed Tweet implies. Sure enough, he soon popped up to clarify. “My question to Tom Hardy was intended as the opposite of sexism,” he said “I 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.”

Little of this gets through to the social media mob. It has been decided that Howell is a sexist and that anybody defending must, therefore, be defending sexism. A smidgeon of inexpertly applied irony has led to Howell being (briefly we hope) identified as The Bloke who Asked that Sexist Question at Cannes. This is really most unfair.