Let’s Just Be Friends: How I (Almost) Rescinded My Crush On Catfish’s Max Joseph After Watching His Sexist EDM Movie
On the indelible link between the Catfish sexual harassment scandal & Max’s objectifying blockbuster fail
The Critics Have Spoken, and Is That Really What PCP Is Like?
We Are Your Friends was documentary maker Max Joseph’s debut as a Hollywood blockbuster director. The film came out in the final days of Catfish’s season 4, also known as 2015, to some less-than-five-star reviews:
“Zac Efron, in the central role of Cole, does a lot of that funny thing with his eyes that he mistakes for acting, while director Max Joseph concentrates on pointing his voyeuristic camera at Emily Ratajkowski's chest.”
-Matthew Bond, The Mail On Sunday
“We Are Your Friends is a movie accompanying a soundtrack rather than the other way around. It is a movie about a DJ and we all know how rough the plight of a DJ can be.”
-Philip P., Rotten Tomatoes
And the only review I’ve seen that even remotely addresses the film’s sexism comes from DJs Complaining, via Vice:
“Women, you see, don't really understand music. They're just there to be blank-eyed underboob machines, soullessly wiggling in front of Zac as he pounds the cue button on his CDJs and, as he puts it, "locks on" to these simple creatures' 120BPM heart rates and "brings them up" to the "ideal" 128BPM. Of course, their inferior intellects won't be able to fully grasp the intricacies of this clever piece of manipulation.”
This review also taught me the word “sex-pest,” which is how British people call someone rapey. It was used when describing the four friends, who spend most of the film “marginalizing women into roles of objectified window dressing.”
One of the things I loved about the rave scene was that I didn’t feel objectified.
I wanted to like this movie. Having come of age in the Midwest ‘90s rave scene, I remember a depth to techno culture that went beyond what we see in the film’s advertising. And in spite of two lackluster trailers, it felt like a treat to watch a film by Max, who I’d gotten to “know” through his role as Catfish co-host (until season 7, when he took off to pursue filmmaking full time). In true creepy-Catfish fashion, when I asked my partner if I was allowed to have a celebrity crush on Max, he responded with “Depends how obsessive it is.”
While apparently EDM culture itself has been called out for its sexism, one of the things I loved about the rave scene as I knew it was that I didn’t feel objectified. I - and other girls - wore the same clothes as guys, the requisite uniform of ginormous baggy pants, various-color camo, T-shirts with Caffeine logos, and Adidas visors often crowned with neon-colored plastic hearts and stars, and rainbow plastic jewelry called candy.
Clearly things have changed.
I shudder to realize that if I only had We Are Your Friends to go on, I would have never attended a rave in my life. After all, who waits with paranoid anticipation in the security line for an amusement park they drove four hours to, only to leave three minutes later to run aimlessly through Vegas casinos and somehow manage to book a random hotel room while under the influence of ecstasy?
Apparently Cole, played by Zac Efron, the stoic-shy minimal-acting Gen Z Jared Leto (who more recently played Ted Bundy, looking around confused in a way where the viewer can presumably place themself in his perspective. It’s like he’s waking up wondering how he fell into this particular group of just-this-side-of-sketchy blue-collar-turned-white-collar-criminals. His mission: To compose the one track that will make him a real DJ, and to fuck the too-beautiful-to-fuck Sophie. Replete with unclear plot twists and unrealistic depictions of people the morning after taking hard drugs, this film, pegged as drama, really should have been a comedy.
A Nev-from-Catfish cameo was not enough to convince me, though an artistic animated under-the-influence-of-PCP scene (same scene as Nev) nearly was. I spent much of the ‘90s wanting to try PCP, but just not knowing where to get any, probably a blessing in disguise. Though you wouldn’t know it from WAYF. As DJs Complaining put it, getting PCP-spiked by a middle-aged stranger should have been “a highly traumatic experience” for Cole. Yet it was instead a cinematic work of art as Efron’s character instead “finds himself cascading into some kind of euphoric iPod commercial” which was apparently convincing enough to convince this Erowid user to try PCP for the first time.
Inspiring the youth
If there was a light at the end of the K-hole, it was Wes Bentley. This PCP-spiker stole the show. The former teenage creepy-nextdoor-neighbor-with-a-camera from American Beauty (I knew I knew him from somewhere!) played the washed up, likeable-narcissist mentor to Cole, the realest person in the entire film. The late-30s Max himself would more closely identify with this character than the lead. And perhaps this would explain why Bentley's character is more poignant, especially with gems like “You're not even a real person until you're 27,” or “There will be things that break you,” but in the end it's Bentley’s own performance that shines.
The film’s final montage almost saves it, making me feel I was just watching a music video this whole time, a very inspirational music video that inspires me to do more than try PCP, pushes me to do the things I've already been doing, with writing and art. It encapsulates the film’s combination of partying and working hard, the idea that the more you have fun, the more successful you will be. These abstract ideas, in the form of the dancing outro bios of the famous actors I’d never heard of before, worked better than the film itself, making me hope to see more Max commercials, Max music videos, and Max short documentaries, though not another Max Hollywood Blockbuster anytime soon.
As one YouTube commenter pointed out, the film was “ill-placed in the market,” and sexist as it sounds to say, that men wouldn’t choose it because of the genres and women wouldn't like it because of the story. It seemed this film didn't know who it was for, but if the answer was “everyone,” it should have been more inclusive. That goes for the whitewashed cast. It stood out to me, perhaps even more because I watched this in Mexico, that every actor and extra seemed to be white, save for the exception of a seemingly Latina woman being evicted from her home in Southern California, the only other woman besides Sophie who seemed somewhat human, as she also seemed to fill the role of victim #2, after Sophie’s manipulative relationship.
Max, have you even done PCP? High-AF Efron with that guy from American Beauty
Down the Plot Hole
Sexism aside (for now), there were many basic plot issues I felt unnecessarily confused by. Had Cole ever completed his set on the night he was PCP-spiked by his future mentor? They made a big thing out of him spinning at the prime time of 11 that night, yet we saw nothing more than him briefly stepping up to a keyboard, easily forgettable by the time he woke up the next morning, with me in a state of panic for him, thinking he had fucked up his prime-time chance.
Then later, when he actually does fuck up his chance by fucking the girl of his dreams, he gets it back almost magically, simply for apologizing to the guy who’s girlfriend he slept with, the mentor who had given him this chance. But there wasn't enough of a struggle. It was just too easy, and I didn't see the weight of the characters’ dilemmas in their actions.
He can somehow have it all while misbehaving sexually…
Characterization is weak at times too. The final scene where he supposedly proves himself as an authentic DJ, though well shot and presented, still somehow came too easy as well. As if his big battle were simply proving that he could write a song that would inspire large crowds to dance. We’re led to believe Cole could damage his chances of making it big by choosing the girl, and that the Big Choice he has to make is between girl or dream. But by the end we’re left to wonder, How is it a choice at all? He can somehow have it all while misbehaving, sexually at that, not to mention his violence at the Stanford reunion party. He even takes part in a subprime mortgage scheme (albeit a few years past the financial crisis) and still receives his great reward, the inspiration to create the perfect track and its brilliant reception (the same reception I must imagine Max expected of this film, his own dream in Cole’s universe). Does only marginally engaging in the sexism surrounding him, being the one to speak up about (but do little against until the very end of the film) the subprime scheme earn him the title of Good Guy? Cole’s character is just a step above The Good Place’s Jason Mendoza, the EDM bro with a dream who’s just too dumb to understand right from wrong, though at least Jason had the power to amuse us.
Poster child for EDM, Jason of The Good Place
The pacing felt off as well. There needed to be more time to between the “Are we ever going to be better than this?” diner scene and the ‘We made it’ pool party scene, rather than putting them back to back, even though success didn't actually come in the form of a dirty money house. Ultimately the film didn't spend enough time establishing things before expecting us to feel something about them.
And, touching upon sexism (finally), the nicely shot drug-induced-romance-in-Vegas scene right in the middle of the movie is like an oasis, the eye in the storm. But it starts raining again (figuratively at least) as soon as the scene with a stereotypically beautiful woman deciding to eat fried foods without guilt is sullied just a minute later, when Sophie shames herself with the line “I'm stuffing my face.”
“Don't ruin it, don't ruin it,” I said at the screen.
An Insensitive Reading
It's hard to believe Max Joseph co-wrote the screenplay for We Are Your Friends with a woman. I would guess this was Max's first screenplay, though I couldn't say for sure, and from the outside we see it as his first attempt at fiction to my knowledge. As a novelist and content writer, I would say it's much easier to go from fiction to nonfiction than the other way around. Max is a talented documentary maker and a charismatic TV host, and yet taking on a Hollywood film, through his connections no doubt, was ambitious, even with such a simple story.
Having written my novels since the age of 18, I have very occasionally been the victim of an anecdote by some acquaintance who decides suddenly that they should write a book (always said in a careless tone), as if my lifelong dream and passion were something anyone could just drop in and become successful at “on the side.” I remember Ashlee Simpson (who was often rumored to ride the successful coattails of her sister) landing a lead role in a film in her early 20s, saying it was nice to put her focus on acting “for a second.” But Hollywood is a magical place, where singers become actors, or the singers have clothing lines, everyone trying to do everything that they don't know how to do just to capitalize on every spare piece of artistic real estate. (Though I will admit to once being that annoying person who auditioned for the lead role in a horror film on a whim, without any acting experience or interest prior. I didn’t hear back.)
Max was one of those guys who thought writing a screenplay with a woman would cover his ass.
I hesitate to say that Max was trying to be too many people, just the same way Cole’s mentor told him in the film, but I think if he really wants to be a fiction filmmaker, he needs to be open to criticism. I'm not sure where he found cowriter Meaghan Oppenheimer (she’s listed as having nothing but TV writing experience prior to We Are Your Friends) or how he thought she would save him here, but perhaps directing a screenplay written by an experienced fiction screenwriter would be a good place to start next time. I would have really loved to see Heather Maidat, the screenwriter from Slow Learners, on this one, as she has a great knack for writing believable and hilarious “friends hanging out” scenes for both women and men.
I fear that Max was one of those guys who thought that writing a screenplay with a woman would cover his ass. If she weren't offended by the film’s contents, what other woman could possibly be? It still baffles me how Meaghan allowed a lot of this stuff to get through, but I know that the old chestnut of just asking “my woman friend” doesn’t work any better than “my black friend” or “my trans friend” or any one person calling out isms for everyone.
Sensitivity readers, who’ve become popular in the publishing world over the last several years, are just one person at a time too, but at least they train themselves to view art through a particular lens and include groups even outside of their own to the extent they are able, when they see parts of stories that stand out and feel wrong. They are not the creators, not just the director’s friends with anecdotal evidence, but professionals whose livelihood comes from a helpful critique. I would have loved to see a sensitivity reader or three on WAYF.
If I, as a one-person company, can take the initiative to hire two sensitivity readers to review my previously published novel (already a book whose focus is feminism) before I re-released it, you would think an entire studio with millions of dollars to make a movie would be able to do market research with (more than) a few women, not just teenage boys.
3 Out of 10, On A Good Day
But I knew what I was getting myself into after I watched the trailer. From the moment I saw that pink-bikinied ass sauntering by, I had doubts, but the anonymous ass’s on-screen time was much longer in the actual film, so that it felt like it was dragging, as I looked away out of respect, or disgust. I can’t imagine that faceless extra even got a credit at the film’s end, and what was this ass really adding to the film, especially where it appeared? Perhaps the ass suggested that this party was a new level of (sexual/career) opportunity opening for Cole, though I have to assume that the filmmakers, Max included, did not think this through. Yet it still begs the question of what these objectifying shots really add, when there’s already so much missing. The film’s genre is marked as “music videos” on Amazon, but even a music video wouldn't allow such a long shot like this when there were many important plot points that didn't appear or get resolved. The film ended at exactly 1 hour 30 minutes, making me think they struggled to come up with enough content to fill it. I would have preferred 1 hour 29 if it meant taking out stuff like this.
Cole’s friend loyalty is called into question when he puts a ho over his bros
The first 10 minutes of the film alone contained the following offenses:
“If they look like you, bring ‘em all.” (objectification of women)
“Your nose job looks great.” (street harassment of women)
“the porn industry and ditzy girls” (general environment of sexualizing and degrading women)
“pull out on you” (sexualized/pornographic metaphor)
“I’ll give you fuckin’ head” (workplace sexual harassment)
“alpha mega sluts” (objectification of women, sex-shaming)
“Bring ‘em all. The girl with the dimples” (objectification of women, beauty issues)
“Your body’s 85% water, and I’m thirsty” (street harassment of women)
Ogling girls in skirts walking by at diner (objectification of women, street harassment of women)
Referring to character’s own dad as a “dick” (sexism, hostiley sexualized environment)
“She wants me in the sack” (objectification of women, aggressively sexualized environment)
Ogling girls outside club (street harassment)
“Oh you look so fucking professional with that clipboard” (workplace sexual harassment)
“A dick” again…
…And remember, that’s only the first 10 minutes.
It seemed this film didn't know who it was for, but if the answer was “everyone,” it should have been more inclusive.
Innocent Cole, the predator?
As I watched Cole’s band of friends, I started to think these were the kind of guys that put numbers on women, between 1 and 10 that is.
And soon enough, Cole’s friend teases him with: “She better have been an eight and a half, like on a bad day” after he left them in the club for the untouchable Sophie. To them, even she was just another number. Max is a funny guy, but I struggle to find this funny. I suppose the “and a half” was a nice touch, but it was sad that the one woman in the film who had not yet been subjected to that kind of objectification then was. It may be trite of me to suggest that Max take his own advice, the advice given by mentor James to Cole about being one’s true self in art, yet it wouldn't be the first time I told a funny screenwriter that they were holding back in omitting their sense of humor from their work (though the “When you guys jack each other off…” line was pretty gold.)
As I think about the sensitivity readers I used when I rereleased my book Nightmare in Silicon, and their comments on potentially problematic scenes, I remember how I would sometimes use the excuse that a villain, or at least a character who was not the protagonist, had said those sexist or transphobic lines. After all, my book was actually meant to address sexism. And sometimes sexist characters can be used to illustrate sexism in the world too.
In this case, it was Cole’s friends who made many of these comments. This movie being titled We Are Your Friends and all, it would seem the importance of their friendship implies that Cole’s friends saying this stuff is almost the same as him saying it. He is, in some way, guilty by association. And yet there are many attempts in the film to show some sort of distance between Cole and his friend group. Just based on the casting, he doesn't look like he even belongs in that clique to begin with. When Cole tells them to be cool at a house party he’s DJing at his fancy mentor’s house, the friends quickly devolve into a brawl that takes place in a pool (another missed opportunity for comedy this film could have benefited from). Cole is kicked out along with his friends, and we see their bad influence on his budding career. If only he could extradite himself from these guys, maybe he wouldn’t be such a sexist loser. Yet Cole contributes to the sexism, mansplaining DJing as described by DJs Complaining above, as Sophie rolls her eyes in horror.
Who wore it better? Zac as Ted.
Catfish Sexual Harassment Charges and #MeToo
After watching this film, I went back to binge watching Catfish, and realized that it was the positivity, combined with a somewhat-deluded chivalry, applied to all genders, that attracted me to the show. But what I really liked about Catfish was feeling like I'm one of the guys. And I think that says more than anything, as if somehow when women were there with Nev and Max, they couldn't feel at ease enough to completely be themselves, in the same way some men may feel when I am present. Yet there was not a lot of censorship I could see going on in Max's film when it came to his sexist views of women. Perhaps he was taking his own advice to be himself after all.
It's strange to think that the kind of sexual harassment that Ayissha Morgan spoke out about happens on the same show that I feel so comfortable being immersed in, where the guys wear Planned Parenthood and “Feminist” T-shirts, promoting Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA rights, where trans people tell their stories (granted at times while being slightly vilified for lying to others about their hidden identities online, a disclaimer on trans rights slapped up at the end).
I felt I’d become a kind of accidental expert, being obsessed enough to watch WAYF solely out of interest for Max while just having binged-watched nearly the whole of Catfish backwards, from season 7 to 1.
Suddenly, there was a link in my mind between the sexual harassment claims and the film.
Ayissha accused Nev, the show’s host, of sexual harassment during season 4 of Catfish. She alleged that he attempted to convince her to become straight, bragged to her about his dick size, and tried to get into her room, asking her if she wanted to cuddle. Ayissha also said that a female production assistant brought beer to her room and climbed on top of her after Ayissha had fallen asleep. Afterwards, Ayissha said, Nev came to her room, grabbed her arm, and suggested she perform on him whatever sexual acts Ayissha had, in his mind, performed on the production assistant.
MTV temporarily halted filming but resumed, according to Ayissha without ever having spoken to her. She said she was advised by her lawyer not to talk during the few-week period MTV was “investigating” the claims, and she apparently never heard from them either. “They cannot expect me to have the same number from three years ago,” she said. “It’s hard to believe they ‘texted’ me but didn’t reach out via Facebook or Instagram? And they have about three of my emails.”
You mean to tell me CATFISH wasn't able to find her? The show that prides itself on hunting down the people behind fake internet profiles?
“This is a person that is good at manipulating women, and it terrifies me that he is in a position of power,” Ayissha said of Nev. “One of the main reasons I waited to come forward is because while observing his authority with those who work for him while filming, I knew that this was someone who can make any situation work out in his favor.”
It’s hard for us to argue with the fact that Nev manipulates people as his job...into saying yes to meeting the online lovers they have catfished. Nev is a professional stalker, empowered by the knowledge that the catfish themself is the perpetrator of an online lie, while Nev and Max are simply the heroes who come to chivalrously rescue the catfish’s victim.
Dead inside while hugging from behind. Nev with Ayissha.
One of the Good Guys
Suddenly, there was a link in my mind between the sexual harassment claims and the film. If Max could make such an objectifying film about women while appearing to be a good guy, why couldn't the saintly Nev similarly objectify women through his own work?
I myself had experienced sexually harassing and sexist comments from a boss who seemed like the nicest guy in the world. And when I brought these comments up, he seemed genuinely baffled, two minutes before firing me, or rather laying me off due to “financial reasons.” Did that make him a monster? I don’t think so. Just ignorant. And sexist. And yes, taking advantage of his position. Because, as he explained to a female colleague and myself over lunch one day “Men just have an inherent need for power.”
Oh, okay, cool.
Just because a San Francisco law firm I consulted told me they wouldn’t represent me if I didn’t have proof of harassment does not mean I lied about the words my boss uttered and the questionable professional actions he chose to take. And just because MTV closed the Catfish investigation doesn’t mean nothing happened. It was certainly possible that Nev made comments to Ayissha (and others who never came forward), whether they were misconstrued or interpreted the way he intended them, thinking nothing would come of it, that it wasn't that big of a deal - or that he knew what power he held and acted inappropriately in spite of it.
Nev and Max have made a living out of calling people out on their bullshit, their romantic and sexual manipulation of others, so they can’t complain too much if I do the same to them. When Nev started out, in the original movie version of Catfish, he was the seemingly-unwilling star of his brother’s documentary, reading his own private sexts to his catfish Angela (aka “Meagan”) as he lay in bed (and hid under the sheets) before the camera. The same way my boss hired me to work out of his home office, his home that he shared with his wife and girlfriend in a polyamorous utopia (of sorts), where he surely felt comfortable to be his complete self, Nev too probably found it hard to draw the line. From just joking around with his filmmaker buddy while putting numbers (from 1 to 10) on women, to being in the position of comforting and advocating for catfish victims, maybe neither my former manager nor Nev ever completely became professional about it. We're all friends here after all, right?
Even Max had referred to his co-screenwriter Meaghan (different from Nev’s catfish Meagan) as his friend and described in a TED Talk how the L.A. celebrity bus, which happened upon them walking down the street together, started rumors of them being in a relationship. Perpetuating the American sexist cliche that if a man is even standing next to a woman, it implies a sexual relationship, as though there's no other reason they could possibly want to speak to one another. Blurring the lines once again.
I can understand being someone who cares so much about these issues, and at the same time might offend someone whose side I’m on...
But isn't that the problem with the crimes that started the MeToo movement, which was based in Hollywood to begin with? Men in power with cameras who didn't know when to stop, what was real or fiction, what was personal life or a professional environment in which they had to restrain their own dark urges. From We Are Your Friends, you would think that men like Max, and men in general, make a career out of ogling women, constantly scanning for female bodies to mate with, and rarely looking at a woman and seeing just another human being, just someone they had to respect, without making it about sex.
Nev, just another creepy guy with a camera?
Perhaps, ironically, it is Nev and Max’s views of women that make me feel I am one of the guys as I watch. Because being “one of the guys” wouldn’t matter if they acted the same around everyone, around women. Or if they were like the guys I hung out with, trusted, shared with. Maybe they represent an old type of boys club, even as they parade progressive logos on their show.
But that's not to say they don't believe them, that it’s all just a farce. At the same time, even in the Trump era it still seems the bare minimum to endorse these progressive movements, even if many Americans still view it problematic to acknowledge the need for reproductive rights or equal treatment of all genders and sexual orientations. The film came out the year before the 2016 election, a time when many chose sides and finally decided to speak out for something. Despite the offenses we’ve seen under the current administration, I still struggle to think that Max could have made a movie like this today in 2020.
In the end, I can understand being someone who cares so much about these issues, and at the same time may fuck it up, might offend someone who’s side I’m on, when I come from that pure place of artistic creation where I'm not censoring myself. When you grow up in a world that has these views, how do you completely rid yourself of them? Yet we as artists have the responsibility to the next generation, the teenage boys who will view this movie and think that this objectification is normal, that this oversexed view of men-as-dehumanizers is what they should aspire to, and if they don't, that there is something wrong with them.
Presumably Max wasn't there when and if Nev was making these comments to Ayissha, nor when the female crew member lay on top of her, potentially spiking her beer. Yet we’ve seen on the show how close Nev and Max are, their friendship the very reason why Max is on the show to begin with. Surely Max had to at least condone, if not also participate in, this behavior on Catfish, Nev surely sharing who he was on some level, right? Before I saw We Are Your Friends I may have thought not, but if Max can condone this behavior in the protagonist characters he wrote, then it's not a far stretch to think he could let slide this behavior in his own friend.
Knowing what I now knew, how could I continue to idealize this person I didn’t know?
After MTV’s investigation was closed, Nev and Max returning to Catfish, Ayissha faced more harassment - this time from Catfish fans on social media. But what Ayissha’s haters don't understand is that it doesn't always have to be the devil in disguise. That someone can be sexist and still a good person, just a person with something to learn. And accepting that her claims may still have validity does not mean one must feel guilty about continuing to benefit from the show’s positive message, one of self-improvement, facing one's demons, and moving forward with honesty to build a better life. Just because Nev and Max still have learning to do doesn't make them failures. Does it make you a piece of shit to continue to watch the show? I should hope not, as I near my reverse-binge-watching from season 7 to 1, though part of me wishes I had pirated them all rather than pay good money (especially for season 4, where Ayissha’s since-deleted episode means that no one can buy the entire season, and viewers must purchase each individual show on Amazon, hiking up the price even more for the noticeably incomplete season).
The haters don't understand that Ayissha doesn't need to be blamed just because Nev wasn't found guilty (by his own employer, or by his fans). Even if, for some strange reason, she had completely made it up, she wouldn't be that much different from the catfish, whom the audience, or at least Nev and Max, continuously forgive and draw a positive story from. Ayissha’s story is now just one more excuse to troll, while Nev gives interviews about how hard it was to be investigated to begin with, for such a short period at that.
As I watched backwards to season 1, I looked on as a black gay male catfish, who we'd thought was a white straight female, cooed “Max is the cutest” as Max entered the room with his camera. Even after everything, I said “Stay away from Max” at the screen automatically, but it just wasn't the same. Knowing what I now knew, how could I continue to idealize this person I didn’t know, which after all is what a crush really is? Maybe it was time for me to do with Max what Catfish has done all along, seeing the human behind the mask before they part ways, always on a slightly positive but ambiguous note.