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What Daddy’s Home 2 tells us about career-ruining Hollywood scandals

In Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, the festive romp offers two case studies with different outcomes.

Understandably low on the list of questions to have arisen from the current sexual abuse allegations in the film industry is the matter of whether an actor’s career can ever survive such besmirchment. Audiences are not juries; they can’t be expected to forget everything they have read on their way to the cinema. And actors know that it pays to stay off the front page. “When you’re uncovered, you can no longer move quite as stealthily, you can no longer dodge the radar,” said Kevin Spacey when I interviewed him 20 years ago. “I like to stay in the shadows.” If the accusations against him are true, there may have been some confusion in his mind about whether those shadows made him a better actor or a more effective predator. Or both.

One might not turn ordinarily to an undistinguished festive romp for a prognosis. Except that Daddy’s Home 2, a sequel to the 2015 hit about a macho father who goes to war with his children’s effete step-dad, offers two case studies with different outcomes. Mark Wahlberg, the film’s star, was charged at the age of 16 with attempted murder for a racially-aggravated attack; he pleaded guilty to assault and served prison time. Crime and punishment predate his acting career and it would be churlish to insist there were still some debt outstanding, some biographical blot on his affable screen persona. No effort is needed to accept him as Dusty, who has now reached a rapprochement with sweet-but-dippy Brad (Will Ferrell), which makes them more like spouses than co-dads.

The presence of Mel Gibson is more problematic. He plays Kurt, Dusty’s boozy, unreconstructed father, for whom “ho, ho, ho” would likely imply something other than festive cheer. Kurt treats the whole family, including Brad’s teddy bear of a dad (John Lithgow) and assorted interchangeable women and moppets, to Christmas in a luxurious ski lodge. But an actor whose misogynistic, anti-semitic, racist and homophobic outbursts are a matter of recent public record, and who pleaded “no contest” in 2011 to the battery of a former partner, is bound to cast a shadow longer than his charge sheet. The lighthearted mood couldn’t be in greater jeopardy if the film were set in a children’s hospice.

In Gibson’s first scene, he leers at two young female flight attendants who are seduced by his silver mohair bouffant, his skin like ten miles of dirt road, and his Sid James phwoar face. Kurt favours off-colour gags (“Two dead hookers wash up on the shore…”) and proposes sexual harassment as a courtship technique for his grandson: “Slap your spaghetti-suckers right on her, then give her a nice smack on the caboose.” He berates the boy for using the “sissy-rail” during bowling, which might be excusable if his homophobia were discredited by the film. (It isn’t.) Gibson could scarcely hope to play a character more like himself if he landed the lead in The Mel Gibson Story.

How much cannier if he and Lithgow had swapped roles and played against type. Gibson has been at his strongest when vulnerable, such as in the thriller Conspiracy Theory or in his first post-scandal film, The Beaver, both of which cast him as men with mental health issues. It would have lightened the mood here to see him wearing silly jumpers, recommending “the friend zone” as an alternative to rampant womanising or joining Brad in his enthusiasm for gender-neutral flashcards.

Even without this actor at his most toxic, the film would be no closer to a seasonal delight in the tradition of The Shop Around the Corner or Elf. Characters fight over the thermostat but happily teach a pre-teen to shoot a rifle. (The movie is like an early Christmas present to the NRA.) Those who make it to the last five minutes will be rewarded with some jokes concerning a festive Liam Neeson action movie called Missile Tow (sample line: “Santa’s got a present for you bastards!”). It’s telling, though, that redemption and closure arrive in a climactic sequence in a multiplex foyer. The film-makers seem genuinely to believe that cinema can wash away your sins. In this context, at least, Gibson’s are too stubborn to shift. 

Ryan Gilbey joins Kate Mossman and Tom Gatti in The Back Half culture podcast to discuss Mel Gibson's rehabilitation and what makes a classic Christmas movie. Plus: Bjork's Utopia reviewed. Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist