Digital Culture

Mulligangate? Harveygate? Varietygate? The Failures in Digital Publishing

May Owen

Whatever you want to call it, Variety magazine’s recent faux pas has proved that you get what you pay for in digital publishing. Or is it what you don’t pay for? Developing since early last year, Variety and actor Carey Mulligan have established a feud of sorts, after its film critic Dennis Harvey reviewed her film Promising Young Woman.

Harvey described Mulligan as an “odd choice” to be portraying its femme fatale figure, and she had done so “like bad drag”. Instead, he suggested the film’s producer Margot Robbie should have been cast, for such an explicitly sexual role. This article ran for months without comment from Variety.

Mulligan responded almost a year later in a New York Times interview. She didn’t feel personally slighted, just shocked at Harvey’s transparency. That given the time in which we live (a post MeToo era), and especially given the content of the film in question (sexual harassment of women), Harvey’s criticism was ignorant, as well as being lazy and unoriginal. As Mulligan herself says, “I just couldn’t believe it”.

This controversy gained further traction after Mulligan collaborated with Zendaya in Variety’s Actors on Actors series earlier this year, explaining that she reacted because “it made me concerned that in such a big publication, an actress’ appearance could be criticised and…that could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism”. Online, Harvey was attacked for being sexist, and only then did Variety issue an editor’s note on his original review, apologising for “insensitive language” about Mulligan’s performance. They did so without consulting Harvey, essentially throwing him under the bus.

External critics have labelled this incident as a curb on freedom of speech, or representative of the sensitivity of female actors nowadays, but they’re missing the point: how did an established publication like Variety think such a comment would go unnoticed? They had so many opportunities to resolve it, but didn’t. When your online presence largely dictates your future, why risk it?

Variety magazine is a venerated site known for its wide-ranging content on pop-culture news. But it requires neither payment nor subscription to have full access to it. In comparison, digital newspapers like The New Yorker operate as metered subscription models. Non-paying readers are limited to only 20 free articles or items a month. At Variety, the lack of financial incentive has compromised quality control. 

Digital publishing is becoming really oversaturated, everyone has an opinion, so everyone becomes an author of sorts (think Instagram poets). Sites like Variety are struggling to compete, but ultimately fail by putting out too much unchecked content. Writers aren’t being edited, compromising their own reputations, as well as the sites they write for. Harvey is entitled to his opinion, and it’s not to say his review shouldn’t have been published. His comment, based in the process of type-casting, was fair-but poorly phrased. He’s not sexist, just overly relied on. The ever-present fear of being ‘cancelled’ nowadays means leading publications owe it to themselves, and to their writers, to be extra vigilant.