More mea than culpa in Ellis tweet apology

WHEN is an apology not an apology?

WHEN is an apology not an apology? When it's written by Bret Easton Ellis. The American novelist (author of American Psycho) and screenwriter has penned a 2000-word essay for The Daily Beast in which he responds to the barrage of criticism that has flowed his way since tweeting on December 5 that "Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she's a very hot woman she's really overrated".

Bigelow, of course, is the filmmaker who won the best director and best picture Oscars in 2010 for her Iraq war movie The Hurt Locker. Now her hunt-for-Osama film Zero Dark Thirty is considered a serious chance to repeat that double whammy in the 2013 Academy Awards race.

Bigelow's area of interest is unquestionably masculinity under pressure, and her forte the action film (her other works include Blue Steel and Point Break, both cop movies of sorts). She's clearly not a director of "women's pictures", whatever that means, but to suggest she is considered a serious filmmaker only because she's a woman is outrageous.

In the past fortnight, the world has let Ellis know that in no uncertain terms, bombarding him with abuse in print, online and on Twitter. And though he claims to be inured to the barbs of critics, Ellis has evidently heard the chorus of outrage, loud and clear.

"Barraged today by people who think I'm 'sexist' and 'toxic' for thinking the beautiful Kathryn Bigelow is overrated because she's a woman," he tweeted on December 6. It was clear proof that while he heard it, he still didn't get it.

The essay posted on December 17 on The Daily Beast - the website founded by former Vanity Fair and The New Yorker editor Tina Brown, and merged in 2011 with Newsweek - tries to set the record straight, but once again Ellis appears to have missed the mark. "Dear Kathryn Bigelow: Bret Easton Ellis Is Really Sorry" runs the headline. But only the very generous would construe it as a genuine apology. Rather, it is a considered - albeit extremely self-serving - analysis of the challenges a "serious" writer faces when attempting to "have some fun" within the narrow confines of the Twitter playpen.

Ellis tries to frame his tweeting state of mind thus: "Usually I'm responding to things I'm reading that morning, or had seen at a screening that night, or was watching on TV in bed the night before. I'm usually in my office tweeting, more often than not at night, after a couple of drinks or glasses of wine . . . and sometimes stone-cold sober."

As anyone who follows his account - which has amassed more than 365,000 followers since 2009 - will know, Ellis' posts are frequently inflammatory, outrageous and alcohol-fuelled.

Above all, Ellis wants to argue, his tweets are not to be taken seriously.

"What does Twitter actually mean if that's the way I go about it?" he writes. "How thought-out are my statements? How grounded are my opinions? How much does randomness and juvenilia and alcohol contribute to each tweet?"

These are, to a degree, legitimate questions, but we all know it's incredibly difficult to create an impervious barrier between the private and the professional on Twitter. And if a bank clerk has to be mindful of the damage he or she might do to the "brand" with careless tweeting, surely an author whose brand is built on the power of his words should be too.

But for Ellis, the frivolity of the moment of inception excuses the vacuity of the comment. "Were the Kathryn Bigelow tweets really that bad given the context they were tweeted in?"

Well, to plenty of people who took offence at the conflation of Bigelow's awards and her putative hotness, the answer is a resounding yes. But Ellis has a get-out-of-jail card up his sleeve, and he's not afraid - finally - to use it.

Having played coy on the issue of his sexuality over the years, variously describing himself as straight, gay and bisexual, he uses The Daily Beast piece to come out unreservedly (for now, anyway). He confesses to a "layered sexism" that "I thought as a gay man, I could get away with since my supposed vitriol about Bigelow was coming from another 'oppressed' class". But, he concedes, "in 140 characters it didn't land that way".

It's an admission of sorts but, again, it's the limitation of the form, not of his thoughts, that is at fault. Likewise here: "Those big proclamations I made about Bigelow's 'hot' looks: where does that come from? Because clearly I haven't been mentioning her male counterparts' looks or lack thereof. And being gay you'd think I might've gone there."

Admitting he'd been blind to the not-so-layered sexism of his tweets, Ellis writes: "As someone who is not a white, male, heterosexual filmmaker, as someone who has felt like an outsider for things they couldn't help, as someone who had been bullied for exactly those things he couldn't help — I guess I should have known better."

It's the mea culpa moment. Or is it? His comments about Bigelow weren't directed "at women everywhere", he observes, and yet women were united in taking offence. Nor were his comments intended as an "attack" on Bigelow, an interpretation he argues owes much, again, to the limitations of the medium.

"The quick thoughtlessness that Twitter encourages had a lot to do with why the word 'attack' was never going to register for me until after I started reading the press. What started bothering me was: what does my thinking Bigelow is physically hot have to do with anything? What point was I trying to make with that? That her success is due to her physicality? Was there any way to get my real thoughts and feelings through in 140 characters and in a coherent and intelligent manner? Or do 140 characters (or less) determine that what you're trying to say is sometimes going to come off as shallow, or mean-spirited, or wrong?"

Ellis does concede he hasn't yet seen Bigelow's movie. Until he does, he says, he's "taking a bit of a break from Twitter". But once he has seen Zero Dark Thirty, it's gloves off. "And then, perhaps, we can start all over again," he concludes.

He doesn't sign this apologia to Bigelow "yours sincerely". Just as well. The day before it went live, he tweeted: "The most morally dubious, obtuse and overrated movie of 2012: Zero Dark Thirty." Well, at least he was playing the ball, not the woman.

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