It’s strange to think of queer, ostensibly progressive writers sharing any ideological space at all with Donald Trump, but in fact, they overlap at least once on a media-criticism Venn diagram. The intersection is at the word “dangerous.”
“You talk about racist. Hollywood is racist,” Trump said to the press earlier this month. “What they’re doing with the kind of movies they’re putting out, it’s actually very dangerous for our country.” Lest you be deceived into believing that Trump joined liberals in calling out Hollywood’s lack of diversity, reliance on stereotypes, and tendencies to tell stories about race through the viewpoints of white characters, his comments arrived as the controversy about The Hunt reached its boiling point. He never mentioned the now-canceled movie by name, but an earlier tweet thread about “the movie coming out” highly suggested that his target was The Hunt, whose premise rattled Republicans for its satirical portrayal of liberals hunting conservatives.
Way, way on the other side of the political divide, two movies released this year containing trans themes have also been called “dangerous.” “Why Adam Is a Dangerous Film for Trans People,” reads the headline for The Advocate’s review of trans director Rhys Ernst’s controversial film about a cisgender high school student who impersonates a trans dude to woo a slightly older queer woman. Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Girl sparked even more fervent ire, in part because its director and star are both cis, but also because of its general darkness. “It’s the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years,” wrote critic Oliver Whitney in The Hollywood Reporter. For Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins wrote that Girl is “a curiously unjust, myopic, even dangerous movie.” In the headline for its story on the controversy, the New York Times asked, “Is a Film About a Transgender Dancer Too ‘Dangerous’ to Watch?”
The precise dangers portended are rarely specified—after all, these are movie reviews, not prophecies. Context and inference suggest that these movies are dangerous because they may help facilitate the continued marginalization of vulnerable populations via negative stereotypes and cynical world views. There’s a palpable anxiousness over the noxious effects of ideas. Often, it seems like “dangerous” is a synonym for “really bad,” a way to telegraph that the movie’s functional politics don’t align with those the writer (or speaker) feels should prevail in civilized culture.
But it is that lack of precision and the flair of melodrama that comes with “dangerous” that makes it such an abysmal word choice. It pushes reviews over the top and makes them harder to take seriously. The word is like a flashing light: Danger! Danger! In criticism, there’s almost always a better word than “dangerous.”
This is not to call out specific writers, nor is it to dismiss the entire content of their critiques. And as much as it makes me cringe whenever I read it, I think I understand why concerned critics seem to be so fond of “dangerous.” Social media takes the adage of “everyone’s a critic” and tacks on “…with a potential platform,” and has rendered formalized criticism a medium whose relevance is withering. And so, its purveyors are attempting to will it into significance with extreme language and piping hot takes. “Dangerous” ups the urgency, presenting criticism as if it were metro news locating specific, physical harm that must be avoided by all means.
In recent years, many movies (and some shows) and the ideas contained within have been deemed “dangerous” to suggest that they should be avoided: Call Me By Your Name, La La Land, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Nightingale, Zero Dark Thirty, Inside Out, American Sniper, God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness, Unplanned, A Star is Born, Game of Thrones, Hidden Figures, Crazy Rich Asians, and BlacKkKlansman among them. Beauty and the Beast is “the most dangerous” Disney movie, according to the University of East Anglia’s Dr. Victoria Cann, “because the Beast always feels on the verge of violence,” and Belle has Stockholm Syndrome. The R-rating for trans-teen flick 3 Generations was “dangerous,” according to GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, because “it sends the message that something about being transgender is somehow not appropriate for children.” (Ellis and GLAAD, who teamed up with the movie’s distributor Harvey Weinstein just months before the sexual harassment and rape allegations effectively canceled his career, willfully ignored that the movie contained five instances of the word “fuck,” which clearly had more to do with its rating than its storyline; once they were edited out, the movie was reclassified as PG-13.)
Regarding HBO’s once-planned (now seemingly canceled) Confederate, activist Bree Newsome said “it’s dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts.” She was commenting not on the show but its premise of portraying a United States in which the Civil War ended in stalemate and slavery remained legal. Her opinion was based on a widely criticized press release announcing the series. The rush to judgement well before any film could roll was described by Newsday’s Lane Filler as “a dangerous campaign” against the show. If you were listening to everyone who had something to say about Confederate when it was announced two years ago, and God help you if you were, each path was dangerous. We couldn’t live with it or without it, depending on the commentator.