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Lithium Sexist men on Letterboxd are my Joker origin story

Jul. 21, 2021
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Mia Vicino, most well known as Brat Pitt on Letterboxd, was receiving death threats. She recently called attention to the gross, misogynistic reviews posted on the platform by one of the guys behind Cum Town, the sixth highest-earning podcast on Patreon. That’s when the flooding began: a chorus of reply guys yelling “cunt” and “bitch” in her Twitter replies, sending her GIFs of men shooting guns, and even signing her email up for random Korean newsletters (she’s half-Korean). “All these reply guys were like, ‘Ready to do targeted harassment against Brat Pitt, sir!’’’ Mia told me via Zoom, doing a salute. “It was really disheartening and upsetting because there were thousands of people liking [the Cum Town guys’] tweets against me, calling me stupid and a bad writer.”

Like most users, Mia was enamored by the simple premise of Letterboxd, which its founders described as “Goodreads for film.” She joined at 19 and decided to pursue film shortly after. Now 25, she’s currently among the most followed users on the platform, where her review of Fight Club as a satirical gay rom-com has almost 15,000 likes. But it was when she started popping up regularly on the Popular page that unwelcome visitors in her comment section started being regular, too.

At first, Letterboxd seemed like a cinephiliac utopia bringing film criticism to the masses. While there’s no shortage of critics of marginalized identities, mainstream outlets are still usually helmed by straight white men, mirroring the industry they seek to critique. Letterboxd’s movie database-social network hybrid format grants its users democracy, a rarity in something as gatekept as cinema. Established writers like Indiewire’s David Ehrlich coexist with young people watching movies as a hobby. Letterboxd serves as an incubator for budding film lovers—like Mia, who became a film major after joining the site—providing them with a sense of community and an opportunity to take part in these often homogenous conversations.

It seems to be a reprieve for professional critics too. Mike D’Angelo, who writes for Entertainment Weekly and Esquire, uses Letterboxd’s “Review” feature to write diaristic entries he couldn’t include in his published pieces. “I don’t worry about pro forma things like plot synopsis. I make jokes and references you would have to have a fairly deep film knowledge to understand. I find it much more liberating,” he told The New York Times. Weirdly, he added that he finds the unedited, anything-goes nature of the site to be “off-putting,” despite saying a few sentences back that he does it as well: he finds it “maddening” when reviews are written in all lowercase or without proper grammar and punctuation. 

D’Angelo is definitely not alone. Users, often men, habitually berate the popularity of joke reviews often written by women and LGBT people. Just last month, a bunch of Twitter users serendipitously banded together in a thread, bonding over their shared annoyance over this kind of review. Responding to a screenshot of Mia’s Letterboxd entry for Oldboy (2003), in which she called it “Kill Bill’s sexist cousin,” one user said, “Anytime I log a movie and see one of her unfunny reviews it makes me realize why a lot of people hate that site.” Another replied, “Honestly the site is really good once you block all the ‘popular kids,’ it’s a damn shame that they ruin the app for so many people I’ve found it to be a really useful tool.” I can only imagine how frustrating it is for these men that one movie review site is deviating from the norms and popular opinions normally prevalent in film discourse, when literally every other website was built with them in mind.

Letterboxd thankfully has no share function (except copying links), so most days joke reviews live in peace. But this only makes it more baffling when the reply guys do come: when I logged Netflix’s The Devil All The Time and called the cast a “white man buffet” (a compliment, which would have been clear to my mostly young, mostly female followers), a user who doesn’t follow me ordered that I delete my account, saying, “If you rely on political talking points to dislike this film, you are a political commentator. Not a movie critic.” “It’s like this subset of people who believe in separating art from the artist. They resent you for talking about gender or racial politics in a film,” Mia explained. “They’re like, ‘It’s just a movie, don’t focus on that,’ when it’s easy for them to say that because the film canon is so catered to their interests; [it’s] just so starkly straight white men.” 

In some cases, reviews don’t even have to be political (and the writer doesn’t have to be a woman) to incite this kind of reaction. Comedian and writer Demi Adejuyigbe, who joined Letterboxd for the timeless forum it provides, received nearly 400 comments on his two-star Joker review. He edited his entry several times in response to the backlash, but ultimately admitted defeat: “Alternatively, I can just agree with whatever you guys think if it means you’ll stop yelling at me. Who cares.” When I rated the same film relatively low, I got over a hundred comments as well, with many users going through my profile in an attempt to discredit my opinion. A personal favorite (which has since been deleted, RIP): “She gave four and a half stars to Hustlersthe underrated stripper heist film released a few weeks prior—“and two stars to Joker. You think someone is going to take her seriously?” This kind of hostility is dangerous considering that Letterboxd is many young people’s primary exposure to wider cinema. “I learned so much from that platform, so I don’t like the idea of creating this environment that makes you afraid to learn,” Mia said. I agreed, commenting that the Parasite poster on my wall (and the Steve Zissou banner on hers) wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Letterboxd.

Mia also pointed out that some comments she gets are benevolently sexist. “They’re like, ‘Wow, I would never expect a young woman to have seen this movie from the ‘40s. I’m impressed,’” she said. “It’s hard to put your finger on why it’s so irritating, because on the surface, they’re like, ‘I’m just trying to connect with this young woman about film. What’s wrong with that?’ You’re being condescending and weird!” She hypothesized that men on the platform feel safe imposing their opinions on others because “they feel like they have this ownership over the art of cinema.” She adds that historically, most directors deemed “important” have been white men, and seeing decades’ worth of movies directed from one’s own perspective is more than enough to breed and embolden these reply guys. 

Funnily enough, many of these men complain about how women and LGBT people are taking over Letterboxd, “but when you actually go through the reviews of any movie pre-2010, it’s all men in the reviews,” Mia argued. “They have this warped way of thinking where they [see themselves] as the underdog, when we’re still the underdog.” While it’s true that society is still largely patriarchal, it’s hard to deny that feminism—regardless of how watered down it’s become—is now relatively more mainstream. Rosalind Gill, in her article “Post-postfeminism?: New Feminist Visibilities in Postfeminist Times,” pointed out that discussions of gender and feminism are becoming more mainstream across media, with widespread coverage of rape culture and the lack of strong female characters. “Where a few years ago it sometimes felt difficult to make any feminist arguments ‘stick’ in the media, today it seems as if everything is a feminist issue.”

Gill adds that this “shift” in public discourse characterizes contemporary society as post-feminist, in which feminist values are the universal standard. Of course, the only kind of feminism that can freely and comfortably thrive in a capitalist society is one that has very little effect on systemic issues—the mainstreaming of feminism distorts it as merely pro-woman, with no regard for race, class, ability, or sexual orientation. With the internet’s inability to cater to nuance, this is often misconstrued as misandry: normally people outside the white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual status quo are in the margins, but in the proliferation of (neoliberal) feminist dogma it is easy for these men to see themselves as the minority. 

When I criticize or poke fun at Men™ on my Letterboxd, I know that they are still more likely to be top critics on influential outlets, and that me comparing them to Joker has very little bearing in real life. Outside of this context, however, it would appear like what I’m doing is straight-up insulting half the user database of a website, or “being sexist to get a ton of likes as usual,” as one commenter said. But my review doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and you can’t be sexist to someone who is institutionally more powerful than you. 

That said, Letterboxd recently made drastic changes to protect its users better. Previously, community guidelines were enforced by moderators who would only see offensive content if it got flagged. “I feel protected, but I’m not sure how smaller accounts feel because so much of moderation [before] was reliant on people reporting the comments,” Mia said, adding that she feels moderators are looking at her page more because she’s prone to reply guys. Now, people can limit who is able to post comments on their reviews and cultivate a safer space for discourse. “If I want to post something I think would generate a lot of discourse from a certain type of internet guy, I can just set it to Friends Only and I don’t have to worry about it.”

It’s a relief to witness this just as Letterboxd is seeing an increase in younger members. Gemma Gracewood, Letterboxd’s editor-in-chief, told The New York Times that their biggest demographic right now is 18-24-year-olds, who come to the site “having watched The Princess Switch: Switched Again and discovering The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” With the rest of the film industry being accessible to only a certain type of person, Letterboxd is learning of its role as a gateway for newer film fans and the responsibilities that come with this power. When Mia was getting death threats, Gracewood reached out to her to offer consolation and support. “I feel supported by them,” Mia shared. “I think it’s nice to know that Letterboxd is in my corner.”

Illustration by Enne Goldstein.