Every now and then, when I write something on this site — or on any site — it stays with me for hours or even days after I write it. Not because I have some sort of delusion of grandeur and think that the world is mulling over my every word, but because I feel a certain sense of responsibility about tossing things out there into the universe that will stick around.
Well, writer and film critic Michelle Orange found out the very painful way about the reality of words posted on the internet coming back to bite you in the ass.
It began when she hastily panned Justin Long for his performance in “Going the Distance” on Movieline.com, including taking an undeniably below-the-belt shot at his looks, calling him “a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut.”
According to her subsequent essay about the incident at Rumpus.com, Orange woke up a few mornings following the posting of that review to find that Long had not only read her review, but went on to quote it on “Jimmy Fallon Live” to illustrate the way that negative criticism affects him: “The nice [reviews], they’re good to hear but you never really internalize them — it’s the bad ones…I read one in particular, that — it was so bad that it set the bar I think for insults for me,” he said, going on to repeat Orange’s insult word for painstaking word.
Suffice it to say, this would be enough to send anyone’s levels of cortisol through the roof, and Orange was no different: “I sat suspended for a few seconds and then closed the tab in horror, put my clothes on and ran out the door, as though my laptop had been compromised and was about to detonate,” she wrote later.
But rather than let the incident take the wind completely out of her self-esteem and moral well-being sails, Orange did the unthinkable — she took a good, hard look at herself and why she wrote what she wrote, and then, she wrote about it.
I might have said in articulating that particular complaint was that he read too immature, or boyish, but I… I went another way…I don’t really imagine the person I am writing about seeking out and lingering on my words, despite the fact that I have sought out and lingered on every word and review pertaining to my work that I have been able to get my hands on…I am acutely aware that, as recovering internet mean person Emily Gould recently put it, “it often feels as though whatever writing spotlight still exists belongs to whoever can be the most abrasive or pandering.” For working critics, it can seem like the ebbing tide has lowered all boats; there’s an option available now that wasn’t there before, and no one’s going to stop you from using it—if anything it’s encouraged; in some fields it’s the competitive option, a way to attract attention and keep the vicious commentariat appeased—or sliding inexorably toward it. That’s on you, and vigilance is required if you want to maintain a sense of identity and purpose uninfected by the internet’s constitutional grammar of incivility.
And guess what? In response, Justin Long commented on her post one of the nicest, most sensible comments ever in the history of internet commenting:
Michelle, since stumbling onto your article during a narcissistic and regrettable search, I’ve been following and really enjoying your articles (and not to worry, not only the film-oriented ones – I now know better than to categorize you that way). Of course it’s difficult to read hurtful things about yourself (though my skin is getting thicker by the movie), it makes it a lot easier when the article is so eloquently composed and genuinely insightful…keep up the good work and I’ll try to pick better projects (though I did love filming that one) but short of some reconstructive surgery, unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about my mug (blame god and/or my parents on that one). Take care and hopefully one day our paths will cross so I can compliment you in person. Until then, best wishes and be proud and confident in your role as a film critic – you’re a damn good one.
I don’t want to speak out of turn here, but this whole exchange gives me hope that the internet doesn’t have to be about meaningless and unfounded snark, and that a person can write things online that are thoughtful and mindful and still interesting.
Way to go, Justin Long and Michelle Orange. Well played.