Content warning: This piece contains mature themes and explicit content
I was 19 years old when I saw “The Room.” The quirky boy I had a crush on invited me over to watch it. I laughed when he laughed, seeking approval. When I remember that first viewing I’m not sure whether I was aware of the expectation to overlook its misogyny and accept it as comedy. I certainly wasn’t aware that this expectation would persist throughout my life and well into adulthood.
For years, “The Room” irked me. Initially, it was a form of cultural capital. To have seen it made you cool. To quote it, you were cooler. Film buffs shared stories of how Tommy Wiseau had allegedly made the film, and how he genuinely felt it was a masterpiece. Combined with its utterly terrible sound design and incoherent plot, the real humor is in the making of “The Room”. To appreciate “The Room” the viewer needed to have some understanding of film style as well as an appreciation for black humour- hence why the film remained in the “cult” film community for so long. This dedicated fan base appreciated the unconventional viewing experience that “The Room” delivered.
As I pursued a degree in Film Studies, “The Room” continued to lurk. It was quoted in class discussions and eventually screened at my university. It developed an eccentric cult following characterized by energetic live screenings in independent cinemas. Its cult status was embedded in its rejection of standard narrative and technical convention, obscured by its strange dialogue and ridiculous characters. Cult film lovers enjoy the rejection of mainstream devices, allowing cult films to develop a community or subculture bound together by their appreciation of revolutionary or ironically enjoyed content. Many cult classics (ex. the work of John Waters) are rooted in audiences which collectively reject the norms of dominant society. Audiences engage in repeated viewings, quotations of dialogue, costuming and spectator participation. In the case of The Room, the rejected norms are primarily that of film form. Bad shooting, terrible sound design, porno sex scenes and an incoherent plot are what characterize the film’s claim to fame, earning the title “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”
Despite my passion for many cult films, as I grew older I felt progressively more uncomfortable when I revisited “The Room”. I became aware of Wiseau’s sexist commentary and more offended by the plot’s demonization of female characters, specifically Lisa.
Lisa’s character delivers the age-old trope of the sexually irresistible but villainous woman. She relies on Johnny financially. She lies about domestic abuse and a fake pregnancy. She uses sex to get what she wants. In contemporary times, the prominence of these female tropes directly impacts the validity of female voices.
For example, women are not believed when they admit they’ve been raped or assaulted – Statistics Canada reports that 1 in 5 reported assaults actually goes to court, where likelihood of pressed charges is maximum 10%.
Why is this the case?
Because women are not considered reliable witnesses, instead they are commonly charged with lying. Generalizations like this substantiate why it is reported by Statistics Canada that only 6% of sexual assault cases are ever reported, and only 2%-4% of those are false reports.
In “The Room” Lisa is one of two female characters. They are both flat and unlikeable, and are repeatedly called names, sworn at and shamed by “The Room’s” male characters. In one scene, Johnny yells at Lisa that she is lying about domestic abuse …and then, ironically, he violently pushes her into a couch. Johnny confides in his friend saying, “I can’t figure women out. Sometimes they’re just too smart. Sometimes they’re just flat-out stupid. Other times they’re just evil.” This line directly expresses the problematic portrayal of women in “The Room”: Instead of complex, human individuals, women are supposedly one of three things, and all of them are bad.
My slow-grown awareness of “The Room’s” problematic content points to how accustomed my younger self was to sexism. It was so normal; I couldn’t identify it as sexist. I soon realized that “The Room’s” blatant misogyny was perhaps the unspoken element to which so many were drawn.
At screenings of this film, it is custom to scream “because you’re a woman” in any instance of casual or blatant onscreen misogyny. As I spoke with more women I realized that I was not alone in feeling that “The Room” provided a sounding board for misogynistic sentiment. In “The Room”, when audiences scream “because you’re a woman!” it’s excused on the premise of satire.
As a teenager I found the absurdity of “The Room” hilarious. At that time, the notion that women be two-dimensionally generalized as distrustful, deceitful and dependent on men was so unimaginable to me that I could find it funny.
Today, I am a grown woman who’s been called a slut, gaslit, and told that I’m an unreliable witness to my own life. It is not funny to me anymore. This is my reality. It is possible for the expression of misogyny in media to operate satirically, so as to comment or critique. We see this well implemented in CBC’s Baroness Von Sketch, as well as in Broad City, and in the stand-up comedy of Wanda Sykes
Acknowledging bigotry is not the same as critiquing bigotry, especially when the dialogue points to serious social issues. While the intent behind “The Room” may not have been comedy, the cult fan-base following this film has construed it as comedy.
When consuming media which is so aggressively misogynistic we may feel disgust, but our tendency is to resort to laughter. Perhaps because when we laugh we can frame it as a critique, or we can laugh as a form of escapism. But ultimately it is impossible to know if one’s compliance in the “humour” of “The Room” is rooted in satire or in an innate belief that it is true. In speaking with other women, they felt the same discomfort I do – too much discomfort to be able to laugh.
I want to acknowledge that I don’t think people who watch the film are cognizant misogynists. I myself enjoyed it at one time. There continue to be moments in my adult life when I realize that I have contributed to the gendered power structures that govern our society. My hope here is to illuminate how normalized it is to derive pleasure from problematic content and to overlook sexism in the media that we consume. My hope is that viewers will watch The Room with the ability to recognize, acknowledge and discuss its problems.
Now, it is 2018. Harvey Weinstein’s systemic abuse of women has been exposed, and many more powerful men have been taken down in his wake. Just this week, James Franco has faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and coercion.
Attendees of the Golden Globes wore black and donned pins in support of TIME’S UP, a legal defense fund which provides subsidized legal support to those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace. TIME Magazine says that the #MeToo movement is the person of the year. Deemed “The Silence Breakers,” the movement gave a voice to survivors of harassment, mistreatment and rape. Sexual assault has been at the forefront of discussion in recent months, especially in the context of the workplace – and certainly in the context of the media industry. In this “progressive” moment of highlighted discussion and awareness, the release of The Disaster Artist has baffled me.
“The Room’s” casual misogyny has warranted a Hollywood-made spin-off featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen. I guess we’ve all forgotten that Franco almost found himself on the sex offender list in 2014. I have not seen “The Disaster Artist,” so I don’t know how it treats the misogynistic context in which “The Room” was created. But, I do know that “The Disaster Artist,” which premiered at TIFF, is and will draw the same audiences who love “The Room”. It is garnering fresh praise and attention, new fans, and ultimately contributing to the popularization and canonization of “The Citizen Kane of bad movies” (ex. 43 cinemas across the USA are offering free screenings of The Room in honour of The Disaster Artist). Except, we’re supposed to think it’s bad only because of its poor sound design, incoherent plot, and b-roll footage.
The content of “The Disaster Artist” is insignificant. The issue is the fact that its source material reflects the very thing that society is so openly questioning right now. Tommy Wiseau exercised his male privilege in creating “The Room”. Ironically, the writers, producers, and principle cast behind “The Disaster Artist” are all male and in deriving a profitable film from misogynistic source material they exercised that same male privilege, the privilege of creating a spin-off without considering the gendered implications of its source. The privilege of making a film which will contribute to the canonization of “The Room.” The men who can love “The Room” because it doesn’t make them uncomfortable, doesn’t make them cringe, doesn’t make them recognize its ridiculous treatment of women as reality are privileged. Now, they also have the privilege of loving “The Disaster Artist”.
By Erin Elizabeth Hynes
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page