Taika Waititi’s tweets about trans people have raised difficult questions about retroactive shaming

Taika Waititi is best known for directing the Marvel films ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’, as well as the Oscar-winning ‘JoJo Rabbit' (Getty Images)
Taika Waititi is best known for directing the Marvel films ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’, as well as the Oscar-winning ‘JoJo Rabbit' (Getty Images)

Resurfacing. It’s a word you see everywhere online these days. Not in the sense of a swimmer coming up for air between strokes – more like a bloated corpse washing up on the shore after being inadequately weighted down. Problematic tweets, offensive interview clips, racist comedy sketches: these are the things that tend to “resurface” in the modern era. The moment they rise above the water, the gulls descend.

The latest celebrity to be caught in a “resurfaced tweets” furore is filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi. The 46-year-old New Zealander recently directed the Marvel blockbuster Thor: Love and Thunder, and was in the news yesterday (9 August) following his surprise wedding to pop star Rita Ora. The tweets – shared by Waititi almost a decade ago, in January 2013 – were, many have argued, transphobic and offensive. After making a string of disparaging comments about a beauty pageant, he wrote: “No disrespect to men who want to be/dress as women. I should have just said their make-up looks manly.” Another tweet saw him write: “My trans friends can walk in heels. but you’re right, actual kathoey are better looking.” (“Kathoey” is a Thai term with a complex history of meanings related to transgender people, particularly women.) Waititi was not a well-known public figure at the time – a small role in Green Lantern and his relatively obscure indie film Boy were his most noteworthy credits – so the remarks failed to elicit any substantial backlash until now. Responses have ranged from disappointment, to demands for an apology, to somewhat gleeful condemnation. But even if we all agree that his tweets are objectionable, is diving 10 years into the past for a quick “gotcha” really doing anyone any good?

Micro-scandals like this – online PR setbacks that never threaten to actually jeopardise a career – usually follow the same sort of pattern. After the offending material is circulated online sufficiently widely, the celebrity is forced to acknowledge their wrongdoing and vows to change, in a standardised act of self-preservation: repentance as brand management. In the past year or two, we’ve seen this happen with celebrities including (off the top of my head) actors Neil Patrick Harris and Ellie Kemper, comedians Joe Rogan and Randy Rainbow, game show presenter Ken Jennings – and many, many more. Not all of these transgressions are as serious as others, of course. I’m sure few would argue that Waititi’s tweets merit the same backlash as Rogan’s past use of the “N-word” or Harris’s decision to serve a meat platter modelled after Amy Winehouse’s decaying corpse at a Halloween party. But the process is always the same, and, more often than not, ends in a grovelling apology. (Waititi has yet to respond to the criticisms he has received; The Independent has contacted a representative for comment.)

To many people, particularly those on the political right, these demonstrations of public shaming are part of what has become widely known as “cancel culture”. While the term is too often conflated with the simple notion of accountability, there’s no denying that there are instances in which social media’s thirst for a snap exposure has inflated the severity of historical offences. The more that this happens, the harder it becomes to convince those who rally against “cancel culture” of the need for appropriate accountability from public figures today. This isn’t to diminish the hurt of people who are offended by Waititi’s tweets, of course – but society’s wider understanding of trans people and trans issues has evolved a lot even in the decade since his tweets, and language norms have changed to reflect this. Surely there are more pressing, and consequential, battles to be fought.

To some extent, the more pertinent critiques of Waititi and his relationship to queerness are contemporary. Waititi has strived to position himself as a force for positive change within the typically heteronormative space of blockbuster filmmaking.  After Waititi told audience members at a screening of Love and Thunder that the film would be “super gay”, queer Marvel fans were disappointed to learn that the film’s actual LGBT+ content was rather minimal (a same-sex kiss on the hand being the meagre highlight). Some have branded his approach to his Thor films queerbaiting – using the promise of on-screen queerness as a marketing strategy, while failing to deliver in the work itself. Waititi has elsewhere seemed to encourage a personal following among queer fans. He currently stars in and exec produces the queer-focused pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. In an interview with Out magazine about Love and Thunder’s gay content, he joked about being a “little gay icon” and told the outlet that “we’re all queer” (meaning humans). Maybe this kind of complicated relationship he currently has with queerness – and with the queer community – makes his decade-old tweets all the more worthy of scrutiny. Or maybe it makes them a distraction.

What does a retroactive public shaming hope to achieve? It could be that an apology, however superficial, is enough. There’s the argument to be made that even an utterly performative apology is useful in the long term for re-negotiating the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable to say. Piece by piece, backlash by backlash, the rudiments of hate speech get pushed further from the mainstream. In this way, perhaps we can consider public shaming ultimately an exercise in harm reduction.

And yet, it’s hard to scroll through the reactions to Waititi’s resurfaced tweets and see this kind of bigger picture staring back at you. All I can see is a man saying some inappropriate things a long time ago, unaware that his words would – or could – one day be turned against him. I’m not excusing him. But at a certain point, we’ll all have to decide whether it’s better to let the waves close over uncomfortable memories.