When Twentieth Century Fox geared up to market the new film in their blockbuster franchise X-Men: Apocalypse, their goal, of course, was to stir up attention about the movie. But the studio ended up casting a spotlight on something else: domestic violence.
And it ignited a huge backlash.
In this particular instance, it made perfect sense that Fox would want to showcase Mystique (played by box-office golden girl Jennifer Lawrence) in their promotional materials. And by heavily featuring the film’s super villain, Apocalypse, in the movie poster, you could probably say that Fox was simply taking a page directly out of Hero Movie Marketing for Dummies. It’s a genre standard to pit the underdog hero against the Big Bad Villain in action movie posters.
Then again, the artwork was not just a part of the marketing campaign for X-Men: Apocalypse, it was the central image of the whole promotion. Designs that focused on other franchise favorites, as well as some that featured the whole cast of assorted X-Men, were plastered on billboards and buses, as well. But without context, the static image of the petite Lawrence, terrified, helpless and blue, in the grip of a physically imposing, cold-eyed and heartless male captor, is objectively chilling.
Which raises the question: How could any single art director, marketing professional, or Hollywood studio head think that magnifying an image like that and putting it on a gigantic platform was a good idea? Forget the fact that this campaign went through hundreds of rounds of revisions that involved multiple layers of people in various positions of importance.
The studio execs at Fox were wrong about what their market demographic would find acceptable, and the bottom line of their film may have even paid a price. The X-Men: Apocalypse poster demonstrates that our cultural attitude toward violence against women is a moving target—a thing too slippery to grasp, more indicative of moment-by-moment trends than a society motivated by understanding. The question is, why?
We Are Confused About What Domestic Violence Is.
There are few that would argue for the social value of domestic violence. But for many who have never encountered it, the idea is an abstract one. Just last week, the Brock Turner verdict demonstrated the pervasiveness of the belief that only a stranger can rape you. But only a quarter of reported rapes are instigated by people the victim does not know. The outstanding majority (nearly 75 percent) of rape is committed by friends, former partners, or relatives of the victim. Over two-thirds of rapes occur inside someone’s home.
Fox might have recognized the problem with a poster of Apocalypse wielding an object to hurl at Mystique. That’s the image many people have of domestic abuse. It’s not quite accurate, though. The American Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that only 18 percent of intimate partner violence involves a weapon. In only 5 percent of cases was an object thrown. In contrast, 36 percent of women were grabbed, pushed, hit, held against their will or choked during their assault. For over a third of domestic violence survivors, the image of a looming Apocalypse villain may be uncomfortably close to a reality they experienced.
We Are Confused About How to Feel Toward Women Who Experience Violence.
Though we would like to think that we’ve made bold advances toward being a culture that advocates for the safety of women, the evidence tells another story. Rape and domestic assault are the most under-reported crimes in our country. Women who experience assault are terrified, ashamed and embarrassed to reveal what happened. The illusion that women can act, dress or speak in a way that “asks for it” is, somehow, still a thing. Victims worry that if their assault is revealed, they will be somehow found at fault.
The fear is a valid one. All too often, communities do “side” with the abuser, rather than the abused. When Amber Heard made the decision to come forward last month with allegations toward her husband, Johnny Depp, the outcry against her was astonishing. Depp’s fans rushed to name Heard a “gold-digger,” “manipulator” and a “liar,” among other (much worse) things. Though Heard has produced photographs, text messages and accounts from first-hand witnesses that back up her claims, there seems to be very little empathy for Depp’s soon-to-be ex-wife. People love Johnny Depp too much to leave room for believing Amber Heard.
Regardless of Depp’s guilt, or Heard’s motives, the outright rejection of Heard’s allegations is representative of the fears so many victims of domestic violence live with. Reporting a domestic assault or rape very likely will not lead to any jail time for the aggressor. It does, however, bring a risk of retaliation, whether from the antagonist or his friends and family. Women themselves admit to not wanting to get their rapist in trouble, or feeling as if the violence against them is not worth reporting. This shows how very confused we are as a society about whether or not violence against women is something we must simply accept.
We Are Confused About How We Feel About Depictions of Violence.
There is something primal in us that is excited, invested, and ultimately satisfied when we see depictions of violence. While we may believe that we are incapable of committing heinous acts we see on our screens, it doesn’t stop us from wanting to watch the acts take place.
One of the main arguments for the X-Men poster is that the action in the poster isn’t real. The two people “involved” are both actors, wearing costumes, handsomely compensated and facing no threat of actual danger. It’s “cartoon violence”—the kind that allows us to experience the thrill of escaping a threat, without any of the physical pain or exertion.
The counter-argument would be that “cartoon violence” of any sort, whether it’s against women, children, or men, sends a mixed message. We condemn the violence that takes the lives of those we love, while we glorify those very same acts when they happen on screens. Psalm 5:6 tells us that “the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty.” While we are quick to use this verse to demonstrate God’s protective nature, it is a little harder to use it for self-examination. If God hates those who seek to physically harm one another, what does that mean for the willing participants of those bloodthirsty acts? Does buying a movie ticket and spending two hours thrilling ourselves with gore make us a complicit accomplice to violence, even if it is staged? These are questions of personal conviction, of course, but they do demand answers.
The studio behind X-Men assumed that audiences interested in watching a violent film would be attracted to a violent poster. When you think about it that way, it really isn’t much of a stretch to see how it got approved. Their decision likely says more about who we are, as an audience, than what Fox is, as a studio.
For as long as we remain unclear on the prevalence and impact that domestic violence has on men and women alike, we will fail to establish a precedent that keeps women safe. This lack of clarity will continue to mutate and evolve, occasionally manifesting in an offensive movie poster or two—but more often resulting in lives shattered, shame carried and hope lost. It is this heartbreak that we should be seeking, always, to remedy. Replacing a threatening movie poster addresses the symptom, not the disease, of domestic violence. Reaching for understanding about how it got up there in the first place might be a better start.
Kathryn Watson is an arts and culture writer based out of New York City, asking questions about who we are and what we are becoming. Kathryn contributes essays, culture coverage, and reporting for national publications like Medium, PASTE, and Brit + Co. Follow her on Twitter @whatkathrynsaid.