A new anti-choice horror film turns evil kidnappers who force women to give birth into the good guys. But why stop there? There's plenty of horror movie staples that could be rewritten to promote a right wing agenda.
When tracking the mean-spirited nature of anti-choice activists, it helps to develop a dark sense of humor. It’s the only real protection against despairing at how actual human beings can let their misogyny erode away any empathy they might feel towards female human beings.
For one’s mental health, I suggest choosing some times to laugh instead of cry at the stupidity of openly suggesting, for instance, that rape isn’t that bad. Which is why I’m laughing in astonishment that right-wing nut Kenneth Del Vecchio has created a horror film about an old man who kidnaps women seeking abortion (who are all apparently white, nubile, childless and unmarried) and forces them to have the babies against their will. The press release promises a “twist,” which I think is easily predictable. While most torture porn flicks like “Saw” are ugly and misogynist, they rarely suggest, as far as I know, that we should admire the men who kidnap and torture women for the “crime” of being sexy, or that young women being kidnapped and tortured are grateful for their punishment. But I’m guessing the “twist” here is a series of young women tearfully thanking their captor for forcing them to give birth against their wills. Just a guess.
Which made me think: why stop at abortion? If this movie is a success, then it opens up a whole avenue of possible horror films where usual conventions of horror movies are turned on their head to promote right wing ideology. Some suggestions:
“The Abstinence Killer.” Most horror films have the last girl responding to a serial killer wiping out her friends by either fleeing from him, or killing him in self-defense. But in this movie, the heroine goes to the chewing gum section of her abstinence-only class and realizes something the police don’t understand. The killer isn’t a bad guy, after all! It turns out he’s only targeting sexually-active girls, and, as she learned in abstinence-only, those girls are un-marriageable and have no more value than chewed up wads of gum. The film ends with our virginal heroine helping the killer escape the police, so he can rid another town of the evils of fornication.
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Remake: “The Stepford Wives.” In this remake of the 1975 classic horror film, the surprise twist at the end isn’t that the men of Stepford are killing their wives and replacing them with robots. You already knew that! No, in this version, the last scene shows the ghosts of the murdered wives coming back and thanking their husbands for killing them and replacing them with robots. “I was a poor help-meet,” our heroine will say in her ghostly form. “Thank you for giving yourself the marriage a man like you deserves.”
“The Smoldering Bed.” A rebuke to the 1984 film which sympathetically portrayed a woman who is driven to kill her abusive husband because she has no other way to escape his violence. In this movie, we start off by believing the screaming wife-beater is a bad guy, but then our heroine realizes it was actually her fault all along. She was a smart mouth! She did burn dinner. After our heroine shuts up and starts cooking better, she finds that the beatings stop and the hot sex—but never with contraception, you sinners!—begins.
“Another Exorcist.” The original movie, “The Exorcist”, was already a classic any sex-phobic right winger could love: a young girl brings Satan on herself by having the nerve to be pubescent, and is only saved by the hard work of a celibate priest who renounces the pro-science ways of the modern world. In this sequel, we see young Regan all grown up, and living a life of Catholic perfection out of gratitude for the priest sacrificing to save her. She’s married, has about 15 children, and spends her days singing in the kitchen, never giving a thought to having an independent life. Then, one day, Regan lingers briefly over the condom display in the grocery store, and we realize right then that she’s having a brief fantasy of what it would be like to have sex without getting pregnant. It’s only for a moment, but this bit of sin allows Satan to re-enter Regan’s body, causing another exorcist to be called, and another series of horrors inflicted on the rebellious body of our would-be Jezebel heroine.
Remake: “I Spit On Your Grave.” The 1978 rape revenge film showed a brutal gang rape and then showed the victim hunting down and killing her attackers one by one. There is no kind of unladylike behavior like that going on here. The new movie starts off seeming like a horror movie, brutal gang rape and all, but then it morphs into a romantic comedy. After the rape, our heroine begins to worry that with a past like hers, she’s never going to get married. So she hunts down each rapist, to see if he’s man enough to make an honest woman out of a woman whose virginity he brutally stole. Hi-jinks ensue, but in the end one of the rapists agrees to marry our heroine. In one more twist to the happy ending, we find out that our heroine is pregnant from the gang rape, and our noble rapist-turned-knight-in-shining-armor says, “Even if the baby turns out to be someone else’s, I’ll raise him like my own.” The swooning you hear says $100 million box office payoff! The ladies love a man who can forgive a woman for being unwillingly impregnated, and let’s face it, maybe he does owe her at least this small favor.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of taking traditional horror films and making them more right wing. There’s even more possibilities after these prove a success: monster movies where women with jobs are the monsters, a remake of “Carrie” where the psychotic anti-menstruation mother is the good guy, a version of “Alien” where Ripley feeds herself to the alien out of penance for leaving the kitchen to work on a space ship. Think of your own!
Recently, some political pundits have begun to suggest that we are living in a post-truth world. It doesn’t matter, they say, that candidates spread blatant falsehoods, or contradict themselves within moments, because the American public no longer cares about what is true; they only care about what they believe to be true. This is a terrifying thought, one perhaps unrealistically heightened by the drama of the current campaign cycle. Regardless, the events of this weekend surrounding the Tribeca Film Festival and a documentary called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe may provide a glimmer of hope that facts and science can still win.
The festival, co-founded by legendary actor Robert De Niro, came under fire when it revealed last week that it would be screening Vaxxed in April. The documentary, directed by discredited ex-medical researcher Andrew Wakefield, claims to be a whistle-blowing piece; it accuses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of knowing about a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and engaging in a conspiracy to cover it up. Though De Niro initially stood behind the choice to show the film as a way to encourage “further conversation” around autism, just one day later, the festival’s organizers announced the film would no longer be on the schedule. Scientists, filmmakers, researchers, and members of the public breathed a sigh of relief.
I think we can look at De Niro’s ultimate decision as a victory for facts—because when it comes to vaccines and autism, the history is complicated, but the science is very, very clear.
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In 1998, a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a study in which he claimed to have followed 12 children who had developed normally until being exposed to the MMR vaccine. The study, which was published in the esteemed medical journal the Lancet, argued that the vaccine had led to intestinal problems, which had, in turn, led to autism. Though the study acknowledged that “we did not prove a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described,” this is how it was interpreted and reported by many.
In many ways, the study and the way it was reported gave birth to the anti-vaccine movement popular today. Celebrities like Holly Robinson Peete and Jenny McCarthy have claimed that vaccines caused autism in their children, and recommended that other parents reject medical advice and avoid vaccinating their own. And lawmakers around the country have sponsored legislation to let parents opt out of mandatory vaccinations of school-aged children for “personal reasons.”
Not surprisingly, as fear increased, vaccination rates dropped, both in Britain and the United States. Even less surprisingly, as vaccination rates dropped, incidences of diseases thought to be under control, like whooping cough and measles, increased.
Vaccination works not just because it protects an individual from a communicable disease, but because it provides the community with something called herd immunity. Public health experts believe that 90 percent of a given population must be vaccinated to protect the unvaccinated members—such as infants and people with compromised immune systems—from getting sick as well.
So parents who choose not to vaccinate their children are making a decision that affects other people as well. Yet in seven states and the District of Columbia, less than 90 percent of entering kindergarteners have been vaccinated for measles. There are many public health experts, myself included, who believe this is a direct result of Wakefield’s study and puts us all at risk.
Wakefield’s Study, Debunked
Almost immediately after Wakefield’s study was published, other researchers set out to recreate his results and examine the possible connection between vaccines and autism. None of them ever found it. Wakefield himself could not reproduce his results. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine reviewed all of the available research and concluded that no link existed between the MMR vaccine and autism. A 2014 review of all of the studies since Wakefield’s found that researchers have now looked at over 1.2 million children and have not found any link between autism and vaccines.
As others failed to find similar results, scientists began to question Wakefield’s credibility as well. In 2004, it emerged that Wakefield had been paid the equivalent of $674,000 by a law firm intending to sue the manufacturers of vaccines, and he had not revealed this obvious conflict of interest. Upon learning this, his co-authors asked for their names to be removed from the 1998 study. In 2010, the Lancet retracted the study and Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license. Finally, in 2011, an investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) concluded that Wakefield was guilty of “falsifying medical histories of children and essentially concocting a picture, which was the picture he was contracted to find by lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers and to create a vaccine scare.”
But Wakefield did not walk away quietly with his tail between his legs. Instead, he portrayed himself as the victim of a medical establishment that had a vested interest in keeping the “truth” a secret. In 2011, when the BMJ investigation was published, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that his work was “grossly distorted” and that he was the target of “a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns.” Last month, he was one of the speakers on Conspira-Sea—a cruise for conspiracy theorists. And now, he has released Vaxxed.
According to the New York Times, Vaxxed claims to introduce a CDC insider who says the agency knew about the link between vaccines and autism and deliberately withheld information from the public. The Timesalso reports that in the promotional material included on the Tribeca Film Festival’s website last week, but has since been taken down, Wakefield’s bio said he authored the Lancet study that “would catapult Wakefield into becoming one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine.” The bio did not mention that the article had been retracted, or that Wakefield’s medical license had been revoked.
The Film Festival Controversy
The inclusion of the movie on the Tribeca Film Festival’s roster prompted instant criticism from people across many fields who believed it was dangerous to give Wakefield any opportunity to spread his misinformation, let alone a platform as prestigious at this one. A group of scientists, physicians, and autism experts—many organized by the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC)—mobilized almost immediately. Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation and a member of the IAC listserv, told the Guardian:
Four or five years ago we weren’t as well organized and people didn’t realize the importance of responding quickly and strongly … Today, we know that we have to respond to every incident however large or small, because if you leave any of these discredited theories unchallenged, it allows people to think that there’s something still to be discussed.
Others in the scientific and medical communities weighed in. The science blog Respectful Insolence, which is written by an oncologist, argued that by putting Vaxxed on the schedule, “the organizers of the Tribeca Film Festival have screwed up big time and given antivaccine a big, fat piece of propaganda to scare parents into not vaccinating.”
Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine specialist at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times that the festival’s reputation lent credence to the film that it does not deserve:
All of us are out talking about it reassuring parents, children, anyone who wants to pay attention to this issue that vaccines are safe and effective, and they certainly don’t cause autism, and that Dr. Wakefield was a fraud and had his license removed over this very event.
Similarly, Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in an interview with the Times on Friday, “Unless the Tribeca Film Festival plans to definitively unmask Dr. Wakefield, it will be yet another disheartening chapter where a scientific fraud continues to occupy a spotlight.”
Journalists also sounded off. In a piece the LA Times published the day the film festival schedule was released, Michael Specter, a New Yorker writer who has written extensively about vaccines, said of Wakefield, “This is a criminal who is responsible for people dying. This isn’t someone who has a ‘point-of-view.’ It’s comparable to Leni Riefenstahl making a movie about the Third Reich, or Mike Tyson making a movie about violence toward women.”
Michael Hiltzik, a columnist at the LA Times, concluded, “Careless actions such as those of the Tribeca Film Festival don’t contribute to ‘dialogue and discussion,’ as the festival’s PR would have it; they just spread misinformation and pseudoscience and undermine public health.”
And the filmmaking community chimed in as well. In an open letter to the festival’s organizers published on Thursday in Filmmaker Magazine, documentarian Penny Lane wrote:
This film is not some sort of disinterested investigation into the “vaccines cause autism” hoax; this film is directed by the person who perpetuated the hoax.
And this hoax isn’t cute, or fun, or thought-provoking. Very possibly, some people will walk away from your festival having been convinced, in part because of your good name and the excellence and integrity of your documentary programming, not to vaccinate their children. And very possibly people will die as a result.
Still, the initial reaction from the festival’s organizers was to defend their decision. Robert De Niro himself spoke out to support the film on Friday. In a statement he explained that he had asked for the film to be included because he and his wife have an autistic child and felt this conversation was important. He wrote:
We believe it is critical that all of the issues surrounding the causes of autism be openly discussed and examined. In the 15 years since the Tribeca Film Festival was founded, I have never asked for a film to be screened or gotten involved in the programming. However this is very personal to me and my family and I want there to be a discussion, which is why we will be screening VAXXED.
Not surprisingly, this did nothing to assuage others’ outrage. As I have argued in the past, this is not an issue in which there are two sides who have equal credibility and equal right to discuss their opinions. This is settled science, in which research and facts are up against allegations proven to be false. And people said as much to Robert De Niro. More stories were written on Friday, and the comments section on the movie’s page on the festival’s now-defunct website exploded in a debate over vaccine efficacy.
The actor appears to have listened, if not directly to these voices, then to others who expressed similar opinions. In a second statement released Saturday, he wrote, “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”
This Is Not an Entirely Post-Truth World
Hopefully, the positive outcome of the controversy will help us reject the concept of a post-truth world. Granted, this was not a lawmaker being held to the fire for inaccuracies in their debate performance or admitting to inconsistencies in their messages, which they seem reluctant to do thus far on this issue; De Niro’s views on the issue, based on his statements, seem to be less motivated by deeply held beliefs or political strategy and grounded instead, however misguidedly, in “starting a conversation.”
It can also be argued that the free media dedicated to this short-lived controversy was exactly what Wakefield wanted—especially since the outcome gives him even more fodder for his conspiracy theory.
But I choose to look at it as a positive development. Believers in science organized quickly, stood up swiftly, spoke out loudly, and relied heavily on the facts. And those are clear: Vaccines don’t cause autism. Moreover, not vaccinating children leaves our communities open to outbreaks of diseases like measles that we know how to prevent. It took years to recover from Wakefield’s fraud, but it looks like rationality and science may be prevailing on this front—which gives me hope for other topics where the facts are firmly on our side.
A letter from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston's lawyer to CNN threatening to sue if the network broadcasted the documentary film The Hunting Ground is the latest action in a series of high-profile sexual assault cases where both the accusers and the accused are bringing defamation claims.
The lawyer for Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston threatened on Friday to sue CNN if the network went ahead with its plans to air the documentary film The Hunting Ground last weekend. The film features the first public interview with Erica Kinsman, who says Winston raped her when they were both undergraduates at Florida State University and that the administration failed to adequately investigate the crime.
In spite of the legal threat, the film aired as planned on Sunday evening. But the letter from Winston’s lawyer is the latest action in a series of high-profile sexual assault cases where both the accusers and the accused are making defamation claims.
To win a defamation suit, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant said or wrote something false about him or her and in doing so, caused harm. They’re notoriously hard to win, and even more so for public figures, according to Ruthann Robson, a law professor at the City University of New York who focuses on First Amendment rights as they relate to sexuality and gender. A public figure like Winston must prove not only that a defendant said something false, but also that the defendant either knew the statement was false or said it with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
But, she says, winning is not the only reason that public figures file defamation suits.
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“People can bring a suit not necessarily because they think they can win, but because it is a form of retaliation against a person. You feel aggrieved, and so you then sue,” Robson said in an interview with Rewire. “You can also do it to get press. It says, ‘Yes I’m serious. I’m not just calling this person a liar, I’m actually suing.’”
The Hunting Ground, the film that provoked Winston’s ire, examines the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, putting stories to the statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. Directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, it debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews, and is being discussed as a possible Oscar contender. (Full disclosure: I attended the Sundance screening with Ziering’s family.) On Monday, the Producers Guild of America announced that the documentary was one of five nominated for an outstanding producer award.
Ahead of the television debut, Winston and his lawyers sought to stop the film from airing.
“We are writing to formally caution CNN that the portions of the film ‘The Hunting Ground’ pertaining to Mr. Winston are false and defamatory to Mr. Winston,” reads a letter sent from Winston’s attorneys to CNN’s president Jeff Zucker, originally posted by the Hollywood Reporter.
“CNN may have persuaded itself that Mr. Winston’s status as a public figure insulates your company from a libel judgment,” the letter continues. “If CNN decides to proceed with this broadcast, we will perhaps have the opportunity to test that legal proposition in a court of law.”
This is not the first time that Winston has turned to a claim of defamation in an attempt to protect his reputation.
In May, he filed a countersuit against his accuser, Erica Kinsman, for defamation and “tortious interference with prospective business advantage”—in other words, he claimed that her allegation hurt his potential future earnings. (His suit contains the claim that “in or about March 2015, Ms. Kinsman appeared in a documentary entitled ‘The Hunting Ground.’ In that documentary, Ms. Kinsman repeated her malicious, defamatory, and false statements that Mr. Winston raped her.”)
Kinsman is suing Winston for sexual battery, assault, false imprisonment, and intent to inflict emotional distress arising out of forcible rape. A judge dismissed one of Winston’s claims against Kinsman in September, but upheld the defamation claim.
A similar defamation case arose in 2013 at Xavier University, where a basketball player named Dezmine Wells was expelled for a “serious violation” of the code of student conduct after a fellow student accused Wells of raping her. Wells sued the university for libel and injury to his personal and professional reputation. The case was settled in 2014 under undisclosed terms, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Robson says defamation suits can have a chilling effect on sexual assault reporting, which is already remarkably low. If an alleged perpetrator files a defamation suit, the alleged victim must go through a civil trial as a defendant—a long and potentially traumatic experience. The chance of a rape allegation being false is also small: Researchers put the number of false rape allegations between 2 and 8 percent, no higher than that of most other crimes.
Rodney Smolla, a professor at Delaware Law School and an expert on defamation and media law, says it isn’t uncommon for people who have been accused of a sexual crime to file a defamation suit against their accuser.
“For hundreds of years, people have brought libel claims for allegations that they engaged in some kind of sexual misconduct. Libel suits have often been the vehicles by which the accused try to clear their name,” Smolla said in an interview with Rewire.
But it’s not only the alleged perpetrators of rape who are trying to clear their names in court, something Smolla calls a “new twist.”
Earlier this month, four women joined an existing federal defamation suit against Bill Cosby. Cosby now faces four defamation suits in three states, brought by women who say they were sexually assaulted by Cosby and then branded by him and his lawyers as liars, according to the New York Times. Many of the women say Cosby assaulted them decades ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, so the deadline to file criminal charges has passed. A defamation suit represents a kind of last legal resort for these women.
“In these recent cases, we see a very new and innovative switch, in which the alleged perpetrator says they didn’t do it; and then the alleged victims say, ‘Your denial basically implies that we’re lying and making this up, so we’re now going to sue you for this denial,’” Smolla said.
As for Winston’s claims against The Hunting Ground, both the network and the filmmakers released statements backing the film and its subjects.
“CNN is proud to provide a platform for a film that has undeniably played a significant role in advancing the national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses,” the network said in a statement to the New York Times.
Winston’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment by publication deadline.
“We fully stand behind Erica Kinsman’s account, and the accounts of all the subjects in our film,” Ziering and Dick wrote in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. “When documentaries bring to light uncomfortable truths about powerful people and institutions, it’s not unusual for them to wage aggressive campaigns to silence their critics. That’s what we’re seeing now.”