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The Elephant in The Interview

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On Wednesday, Sony pulled the plug on the latest Rogen/Franco buddy comedy, The Interview. The trailer promised a Jonathan Ross-esque TV host and his producer bumbling through international espionage on a quest to kill Kim Jong Un. As the film’s release date approached, a Sorkinsian plot of email hacking, bomb threats, and business decisions all careened downhill like the Grinch’s sled. The top five theatre chains in the country declined to screen the movie, and Sony, realizing no one was going to see the film in a mass release, spurned DVD and VOD, took its toys and went home.

And oh, the firestorm that ensued. People took to Twitter to lament that they’d planned on seeing the movie, and now “the terrorists have won!” Artists in all fields decried this “censorship” and warned about the doom that awaits on the horizon for all creatives. And of course, many insisted that the way to topple Kim Jong Un’s regime is through relentless mocking, pointing to the anti-Hitler comedies during World War II that helped bring the Third Reich to its knees.

Excuse me if I look past this for a second to concentrate on something that appears to be missing from this conversation. It seems to me that in all our demands for “free speech” (a phrase that has been tossed around needlessly; the United States government did not censor The Interview), we’ve overlooked the people of North Korea, and how our American thirst for jokes erase them from our consciousness.

Movies like The Interview and Team America: World Police don’t often show the realities of life in North Korea and the human rights violations perpetrated by the government there. The joke is often, “Check out this guy! He is short and portly, and he thinks he’s important! His country lacks the basic luxuries we take for granted!” We find these dictators hilarious because they seem to be lacking self-awareness, a cardinal sin in our culture, which demands everyone know and understand their place. Our enjoyment of mocking Kim Jong Il and his successor, Kim Jong Un, comes from a mild second-hand embarrassment that anyone would think they were influential when their country is so backwards by U.S. standards. We’ve depicted these men as powerless bunglers throwing useless temper tantrums and dreaming up Acme brand schemes that never pan out. But the punchline is never that either dictator committed atrocities against their own people. We stick to digs at physical appearance and inflated self-importance, and top them off with offensive “Asian” accents straight out of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

Maybe it’s too difficult to make involuntary human medical experimentation and multigenerational prison sentences a catchphrase. Within his own borders, Kim Jong Un is far from powerless. He and his cabal of generals and high ranking officials have continued in his predecessor’s footsteps with regards to mass executions, paranoid surveillance, and other assorted atrocities. Our popular media seems largely unconcerned with this; we’re only interested in a dictator whose evil springs from harmless, grandiose self-vision and funny foreign outfits.

Occasionally, the horrors of life in North Korea do show up in our American satire. 30 Rock, for example, featured a running plot line in which a major character’s new bride was kidnapped by Kim Jong Un and forced to serve as the anchor of an all-propaganda news channel. Viewers could chuckle at allegations of torture, dismal living conditions, and the poor quality of life that comes from living under constant government surveillance, as long as we were assured that it was happening to an American character whose rescue was in the works.

In that way, life imitates art; we only seem truly concerned with the atrocities in North Korea when Bill Clinton is flying over to rescue a United States citizen from them.

Some have argued that films like The Interview or Team America: World Police serve the same purpose as the Warner Bros. and Three Stooges comedies about Hitler. It seems like an apt comparison, until you apply context; Larry, Moe, and Curly were lampooning Axis Powers while the Allied Forces were fighting them. Franco and Rogen are assassinating Kim Jong Un while the United States continues to ignore the real abuses the North Korean government perpetrates against its people. It’s hard to imagine that Bugs Bunny tormenting Hitler would still be a point of pride today if we’d continued to let the Nazis murder millions of people without lifting a finger. If we aren’t going to do anything about Kim Jong Un’s government, what purpose does our satire serve, beyond providing American audiences with cheap laughs at the expense of people who are suffering tremendous injustice?

Cries of censorship are equally puzzling. Sony pulled the movie when major theatre chains, concerned about possible terrorist threats–or the effect rumors of those threats might have on their weekend take–refused to run the movie. Already embroiled in conflict over hacked emails and facing projected financial losses as a result of their December movies being leaked online, Sony made the decision to pull the film. While many are pointing to this as a battle lost in the war on freedom of expression, Sony has acted in their own self-interest, influenced by the actions of, but not due to a direct threat from, North Korea. Meanwhile, U.S. retail super giant Wal-Mart openly exerts pressure on the recording and publishing industries to produce content and packaging that fit strict criteria in line with the company’s moral standards. When record and book companies bend to their whims, we have no problem seeing it this as business as usual, not capitulation to conservative Christian terrorism. We simply accept that no major corporation will throw away potential revenue; The Interview will likely release in the future to overwhelming commercial success.

Maybe this is, as Newt Gingrich prophesied, America’s first loss in a “cyberwar.” Or it could be a strategic move to draw out the controversy and boost the film’s box office totals when it ultimately does release. But one thing is certain: it took the threat of losing Christmas day with our two favorite stoners to make many of us give a damn about North Korea and their evil, freedom-crushing ways. Whatever counteraction is taken, it will be in the name of U.S. commercialism, without a thought to the people suffering the brutality of Kim Jong Un’s regime. So you’ll have to pardon me if I’m not up to waving a banner for my imperiled American freedoms right along with the rest of the crowd.

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29 Comments

  1. Wonderbink
    Wonderbink

    It’s also questionable if North Korea had anything to do with the Sony hack or the threats in the first place. The fact that people leapt to that conclusion says something about our assumptions about North Korea–expecting them to fill the roles of movie villains.

    December 19, 2014
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  2. Stormy
    Stormy

    Oh my gosh, thank you. I’ve been rolling my eyes at the “censorship!” and “I know my rights!!” cries. I want to send all of these whiny losers article after article about escapees from North Korea describing the horrors that they endured, and then ask these babies if they still think Kim Jong Un is so fucking funny.

    First off, no one has a “right” to see a movie. Sony made a business decision.

    Second, when Anita Sarkeesian gets credible death threats and cancels a talk at a university, neckbeards around the country cheered. “YEAH BETTER KNOW YOUR PLACE NO ONE WANTS YOUR OPINIONS FEMINAZI LOLOLOLOLOL FREE MARKET HAS SPOKEN!!!” When white dudes get their work pulled due to an almighty corporation making a marketing decision? “WHAAAAA WHAAAA FREEDOM OF SPEECH I WANT MY POLITICALLY INCORRECT SATIRE THAT IGNORE THE SUFFERING OF MILLIONS EXCEPT WHEN IT’S A PUNCHLINE WHAAA WHAAAA”.

    Blech. The whole thing was a fuck-up from beginning to end. The North Korean dictatorship is just not funny, and it would take a humorist much more brilliant than Seth Rogen and James Franco combined to try.

    December 19, 2014
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  3. Katherine
    Katherine

    Amen!

    December 19, 2014
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  4. Scott
    Scott

    With regards to comparisons between things like The Interview and WWII propaganda comedies, I would argue that you’ve got it backwards.

    The WWII cartoons were people who couldn’t participate in the fight helping the allied effort in whatever way they could, by reinforcing to the public that the Axis was bad. Those films didn’t go into details about why the Nazis were bad, they just told you “these are the bad guys, we’ve got to beat them”. Sony isn’t going to get together a stable of Expendables-esqu action stars and declare honest to god war on North Korea, and since the government doesn’t seem particularly keen on fighting this injustice directly, the creators of these movies do what they can to make sure the American public seems these people as the bad guys. If that inspires one American to research the state of affairs in North Korea and start agitating for change than the film wasn’t wasted. It’s not the film makers failing to keep up with the government. It’s the government failing to keep up with the film makers.

    As to why it’s presented as a comedy, and doesn’t point out why these people are bad. Because no one would see it. While a documentary film about the inhuman treatment of individuals in North Korea might be compelling, and could have anyone who saw it instantly demanding the US liberate the North Koreans, the number of people who saw it relative to the nubmer of peopel who would see a Seth Rogen/James Franco film would be abysmal. The majority of people who went to see it would be people already familiar with the subject matter. You’d be preaching to the choir.

    So while lampooning a foreign dictator might not be the ideal solution to the North Korean crisis, it’s the solution that will work right now, and make more people aware of what’s going on, even if that means it’ll leave a lot of people thinking Kim-Jong Un is just tubby and comical.

    December 19, 2014
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    • Robin
      Robin

      You said this so much better than I could! I have been a rabid follower of the news and events in North Korea since the late 90s, so I know all about this stuff, but I regularly have conversations with my friends and family who have no idea about any of this. I’ve seen the documentaries, but they haven’t. Documentaries, while an extraordinary tool, do not appeal to as wide an audience as mainstream comedies do, plain and simple. Unfortunately.

      This fiasco, whichever side of opinion you fall on, has opened a LOT of eyes, and a LOT of dialogue, and I think that’s wonderful.

      December 25, 2014
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    • Caitlin
      Caitlin

      This!
      Also the movie doesn’t focus on making fun of Kim, it’s about showing the world what an asshole he is so that revolutionists can stand up for themselves. The movie is a comedy, yes, but it does highlight all of the shittiness in North Korea and shows people trying to fix it.

      January 4, 2015
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  5. Megan M.
    Megan M.

    I always enjoy your take on things, Jenny. Thank you.

    December 19, 2014
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  6. Ilex
    Ilex

    Wow, Jenny, you bring up some important points, and an angle I hadn’t even thought of. Thanks for posting this.

    December 19, 2014
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  7. the-great-dragon
    the-great-dragon

    I read an article this summer where Kim Jong Un was already threatening counter attacks if the film hit theatres. So I’m honestly surprised how many people are rallying in protest now, when it’s been months of “this is a really, really bad idea. Kim Jong Un is NOT happy.”

    People were saying the same stuff they are now and I thought it was B.S. then too. I really don’t see the benefit or the point in a film that turns a dictator into a cartoonish buffoon. Esp. when it’s so obviously ignorant of and disconnected from the horrors people face under said dictator and esp. when the dictator is still alive. The fact that people are surprised and outraged that this went south is baffling.

    It takes a special sort of privilege to sit comfortably at home, laughing at the injustice people face, and I find it disturbing that everyone was so set on doing it at Christmas, a time that’s supposed to be about giving and charity and all that jazz.

    December 19, 2014
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  8. Courtney
    Courtney

    Bra-freaking-vo, Jenny!

    December 19, 2014
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  9. BG
    BG

    In the US we have a weird view on other countries and wars – and it seems like it’s always been hard for us to see beyond our own perspective.

    Judging by popular culture you’d think we were in there all during World War II, from all the cartoons and films and such that we see about rousing the US to go fight. Except we didn’t just hop in at the beginning – officially we didn’t lend a hand until we were bombed.

    Sept 1940 – May 1941 – Bombing of Britain
    May 1940 – Paris surrendered
    Jan 1941 – US enters war/Pearl Harbor

    I remember how really shocked I was when I learned about this timeline – because this wasn’t discussed in my high school history class. (And that’s not even mentioning the other, earlier/continuous human rights violations.)

    And we regularly forget that what’s funny is very culturally specific.

    And wow, you are so right about these films never mentioning the human rights bit – which is kinda weird since they’re also advertised as being “edgy humor.”

    December 19, 2014
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    • Jemmy
      Jemmy

      World War II started in 1939. I’m Australian, and we seem to learn our war history differently to America. I’ve had discussions with an American who majored in military history (or whatever it is referred to over there). The American mindset that a war isn’t real until they’re participating in it drives me nuts. Our soldiers were dying well before the USA bothered to take a look but their deaths are not worth a mention because they aren’t US deaths.

      He was also shocked to discover how early into the Vietnam war Australia provided soldiers. It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter.

      Sorry for the rant, but as someone with relatives who died in WW2, it irks the hell out of me.

      December 19, 2014
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  10. Petra Newman
    Petra Newman

    I’ve seen this film compared to ‘The Great Dictator’ by Charlie Chaplin and it’s a comparison that bears further examination precisely because it highlights both how spurious it is and the very valid points you’re making here, Jenny. Firstly, though Chaplin (at the time of making the movie) was unaware of the full extent of Nazi atrocities, his movie, though a comedy and a pastiche, did educate its viewers about the dangers of a totalitarian government; to the extent that, Roosevelt, when he heard that Chaplin was experiencing difficulties with his studio getting the film made, sent Harry Hopkins as an emissary to persuade Chaplin to persevere. The film released before Amercia entered WWII when isolationism was popular with the public and it would seem that Roosevelt saw this movie as being part of the process of educating the public about the Nazi threat. Obviously this was only one movie and it’s reach and influence are up for discussion but clearly Roosevelt felt that it was worth the effort. As you say in your piece, there appears to be little in “The Interview” that shows the viewer the realities life in North Korea. Something that has always struck me as a bit of a missed opportunity as the central story focuses on a plot to Assasinate their leader. What better reason could the film provide?
    Another point worth noting about Chaplin and “The Dictator” is that at the time of its making Chaplin had no idea of the extent of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. He later commented that had he know, he would have been unable to lampoon them in the way he did. Clearly Chaplin recognized exactly the point you have made hereabout the nature of satire and what it achieves if you’re portrayal of such a figure is one dimensional baffoonary.
    Ultimately the story of the making of “The Great Dictator” is the story that this debacle with “The Interview” would like to be but isn’t. Chaplin made his movie against the wishes of his studio, funding it with his own money. While unaware of the full truth of the Nazi death machine, his point was always to highlight the dangers of such an oppressive regime, the infamy of dictatorship; not to simply use it as the punchline of a joke. Unlike Sony, Chaplin held firm against the pressure, released his movie, even though at the time he had no idea wether it would even recoup his investment. Ultimately he made his truth and then stood strong in it.
    From everything I’ve seen and read about “The Interview” as a movie (and of course this can only be a subjective point of view since I haven’t seen the film in its totality), the subsequent hack and it’s fall out, it bears little relationship to Chaplin’s ideals or actions. The movie seems to use Kim Jong Un as an easy target, albeit one that was known to be controversial. Sony’s choice to pull the movie is, as you say, based on economics and it’s economics that have, in the end, trumped all other considerations. Ultimately I totally agree with the comments President Obama made about not allowing terrorism like the hacking to dictate our actions but I also agree totally with you about the lack of thought given to the realities of life in Korea.

    December 20, 2014
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  11. Jon
    Jon

    Does anyone else think we haven’t heard the whole story about this episode?

    I think you’ve raised some good points about the matter and the issue of humour as a means of challenging evil is complex. I do think though that any effective action against North Korea will be costly to all parties and if people prefer to mock and ignore the situation rather than wrestle with those implications I can understand why.

    December 20, 2014
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  12. Candy Apple
    Candy Apple

    The United States couldn’t care less about Hitler and his atrocities; it would have happily watched London burn right to the ground during the Blitz without turning a hair. The only thing that galvanized it into action was having its military base bombed by the Japanese.

    So, yeah, the parallel is perfectly valid: the lampooning of Kim Jong-Un is just like lampooning Hitler during World War II. When North Korea bombs one of our bases in the Pacific, then we’ll start to “care” about Nazi concentration DPRK prison camps. Until our interests are directly threatened, we don’t “care” about anything. I remember reading about Taliban atrocities toward women in Afghanistan in the ’90s. It took 9/11 for us to pretend to “care” about women’s rights there. This is SOP for the U.S.A.

    If Kim Jong-Un threatens to bomb us if we keep publishing erotic fiction, will you then consider his baseless threats that shut down your next book’s release a facet of censorship? Just curious when you would consider it censorship.

    December 20, 2014
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    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      When it was actual censorship. Sony is not beholden to anyone to release movies they don’t want to release, especially when without the support of theatres, they would stand to lose money on it. Amazon could strike KDP down tomorrow and it wouldn’t be censorship because I couldn’t publish my books, no matter what their reasoning. Now, if there were legal repercussions–”You’ll go to jail if you publish this”–then I’d consider it censorship. Sony is self-censoring; the movie belongs to them, and they can do what they want with it.

      December 20, 2014
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  13. […] women shouldn’t have to talk like men to be taken seriously. -North Korea is not funny. As Jenny Trout points out: “If we aren’t going to do anything about Kim Jong Un’s government, what purpose does our […]

    December 21, 2014
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  14. Sanam
    Sanam

    Thank you so much for writing this. Every time I heard someone lamenting about ‘Freedom of speech’ I wanted to hurl.

    Also, I am more than 100% confident that if ANY other nation decided to make a movie depicting an assassination of a living president, the American people would be up in arms over such a threat, and demand retribution.

    December 22, 2014
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    • Sarah Dixon
      Sarah Dixon

      There was a British made film a few years ago about George W Bush being assassinated. It was a drama rather than a comedy but it was still condemned by politicians on both sides in the USA. There were also some cinema chains that refused to show it.

      December 30, 2014
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  15. Excellent, thoughtful post. Well put.

    Cheers

    MTM

    December 24, 2014
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  16. Raging Brainer
    Raging Brainer

    This really helped me consider it differently as I had no real opinion on what was happening.
    I’ve always been aware of what was going on over there, I’ve read many accounts of peopled managing to escape into South Korea and telling their stories.

    I’ve seen the horrible propaganda that they show on their TV and have kept up with the news stories about what is going on over there. I suppose my tendency to assume everyone already knows what I know sometimes cripples my ability to form a proper opinion of a situation like this. The only thing I thought of when I first heard about the movie was that it was purely mental masturbation, similar to when we fantasize about fighting and winning against a bully or rescuing someone from a terrible situation like a mugging.
    Although if people aren’t really aware of what is happening in North Korea then they won’t be seeing the movie for the satisfaction of seeing a horrible person get what is coming to them.
    This has definitely given me something to think about and thank you for speaking out because I doubt there are many people willing to do so.

    December 26, 2014
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  17. Asha Bradford
    Asha Bradford

    Jen, here’s the issue. I care deeply about the North Korean suffering. I study it intensively in my off time ( I feel like calling it a hobby diminishes it). You posted this article without having viewed the movie, and you prejudged it as just another “team America”. That was unfair and inaccurate. To speak about the media response and the Sony scandal is one thing, but it was incredibly unfair to go further and judge “the interview” itself without having seen it. I’ve seen it myself, and the whole thing the emphasize throughout is that there are thousands of people in death camps and the citizens are starving, which is why the Kim family is horrible. Yes, it’s a comedy but they did a damn good job of bringing a real issue into a fun comedy, and as someone who really does give a shit about N. Korea I applaud them for that. All you had to do was wait a few days for the movie to come out. I’m curious, have you seen it, and are you willing to make any retractions, amendments, or at least updates? Please, because I love you and most of the stuff you write, but I want your INFORMED opinion. Let us hear when you have one.

    December 27, 2014
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    • JennyTrout
      JennyTrout

      At the time I made this post, viewing the movie wasn’t an option, and I couldn’t have waited “a few days” for it to come out, because at the time I wrote this Sony was still saying they had no immediate plans to release it. Only in hindsight could I have waited.

      If I did unfairly compare it to Team America, then that was my bad, because I strayed from the point I was trying to make: that I don’t think any comedy, no matter how sensitively it tries to deal with the subject, should be made at the expense of people suffering tremendous injustice. Viewing the movie won’t change my opinion on that overall. I know I’ll take heat for that statement, because artistic freedom, etc. but everyone is allowed to have one stick up their butt, right?

      I had considered The movie could be excellent, but at this point I don’t want to support the “free speech” rhetoric that they’ve been using to sell the film (appealing to my patriotism is the #1 way to get me to not do something, sorry, Sony). Also, the only way to see the movie would be to go to the theatre, and I would rather spend my money and my limited time elsewhere.

      That said, if you wanted to write a rebuttal to this piece and you don’t have a blog (I have a hard time remember which of us have them and which don’t) or you’d just prefer to reach the same audience, I’d be happy to post either the link or the full review on the blog and keep the convo going.

      December 27, 2014
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  18. Is it just me, or — in light of events since this post — does it seem like maybe Sony made some stuff up in order to garner a larger audience for an expensive movie that was probably going to bomb?

    December 29, 2014
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  19. Ilex
    Ilex

    It does seem weirdly serendipitous.

    On the other hand, I suppose North Korea could have completely misunderstood how the rest of the world would react to attempts to control us.

    It will be interesting to see what is eventually found out.

    December 29, 2014
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    • Definitely. They’re denying responsibility now. Not that they’re the most truthful nation … It just seems odd that Sony was so frightened of showing it anywhere at all and then just in time decided to go back to the original release and everything.

      I haven’t watched it, but friends who have said it isn’t very good. I think I’ll be skipping it.

      December 29, 2014
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  20. Ilex
    Ilex

    It’s definitely not on my list of must-see movies.

    December 29, 2014
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