What I learned From Trolling James Franco for Half a Decade

I’ve kind of given up on the Internet, because news--any news, really--makes me anxious, and my skin is way too thin to participate in a forum or comment section. Yet despite this aversion to conversations and knowledge of current events in general, I’ve been succesfully blogging on the Internet since 2007. So I’ve been involved in some nasty trolling threads. And the worst thing about anonymous commenters and trolls is when you call just how hard they are reaching to come up with the perfect burn.

Golden god. (Sundance)
Golden god. (Sundance)

I’ve kind of given up on the Internet, because news—any news, really—makes me anxious, and my skin is way too thin to participate in a forum or comment section. Yet despite this aversion to conversations and knowledge of current events in general, I’ve been successfully blogging on the Internet since 2007. I’ve seen my share of the dark side: the nasty, anonymous attacks and the soul-crushing trolls that populate forum threads and comment sections. And the worst thing about the Internet’s worst dregs of humanity is when you call just how hard they are reaching to come up with the perfect take-down then ends up sounding totally labored.

For example, here’s one of my personal favorites.

“You’re the worst.” Simple, devastating.

Or noting that a person “literally cannot give it a rest.”

Calling someone “a total psycho pervert.”

“A model of how to use social media to convince the world that you’re straight.”

Without even technically falling into the realm of cyberbullying, you can “review” someone’s writing and dismiss it as “resembling an insane, incoherent essay, and  “the prose that reads like a high-schooler’s first attempts at dialogue.”

Or, this one sticks out as a particularly laborious burn: calling someone’s artistic expression “a weird inside joke that even their other personalities aren’t finding funny anymore.

That wasn’t my proudest moment. In fact, none of those things I just read were… oh, yeah, sorry, let me back up. I wrote all those things. About one person. (I was quite the prolific power blogger in those days.) I don’t think I’m a mean person, but if I had to pinpoint a moment where things went wrong, it would have been in 2009, when I wrote the following on my Tumblr.

“You shouldn’t approach James Franco with your movie ideas in class,” I wrote with all the bravado of someone who knows what they are talking about. “That is, unless you want to appear in his next homoerotic movie.”

James Franco. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)
James Franco. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Under the auspicious title, “The Best James Franco story ever told,” I had relayed a tale told to me by an NYU student whose friend had friends that were getting conned into participating in Franco’s student film “The Feast of Stephen.” To be fair, the stories were bizarre. Here’s another quote:

“And when the student gets there, it’s him, Franco, two other actors from their class, and this kid Alex. And Franco is in a wheelchair, with a blanket over his legs like FDR, and a camcorder in his hand. Alex hands this dude a script for a shoot…and it’s basically a simulated anal sex porn scene in Central Park.”

That last part ended up in New York mag’s profile of Franco in 2010, but attributed only to “blogs (that) spread bizarre secondhand rumors about his film shoots.” Which at the time really pissed me off but in hindsight I’m really grateful I wasn’t named. But based on my post, I did get my first full-time writing gig at Crushable.com. It was the first full-time job I’d ever had, and it was going to alllow me to write for a living. And I was so, so… insecure.

Because, well… what was I even good at? Well, I knew people liked it when I shat on James Franco. So I decided to keep doing that, relentlessly, for just a little over five years. In that time, I left Crushable to work at Salon, where my Franco headlines became increasingly unhinged.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: Science’s worst idea yet

James Franco promotes self-mutilation as art (“His contribution to the exhibition involved someone filming him while he carved the name Brad Renfro into his arm with a switchblade.”)

– James Franco’s long-con of sexuality and fake art
– The James Franco academic pyramid scheme

That last one is important, as it marked a change in the tone I used to berate Franco. You see, now I was RIGHTEOUSLY angry for what I perceived as an abuse and misuse of higher eduction.

His class is Warhol factory that farms out his own work to other students under the guise of “teaching,” while he himself barely participates. )  Shame on the universities that are letting him get away with it just because he’s famous.

I remember at the time being legitimately furious about James Franco’s various degrees, the stories of which I tracked obsessively. This is why I had to stop reading the news: I was like one of those rogue agents with an entire wall of my house covered with photos and pieces of string that let the audience know, “Oh, she’s gone crazy.” Except instead of crime scenes, my insane vision board had pictures of the Green Goblin asleep during a lecture.

And, let’s be clear, it’s not like I was overly-concerned about facts and truth. Thinking myself a satirist, I found mocking James Franco in fiction just as entertaining. One of my first pieces for Salon was about James Franco trying to get into the Grammy’s to pick up an award for Best New Artist, and not being let in by the bodyguard because he hadn’t actually made any music.

“Franco,” said Hank, motioning to the bit of paper, “This isn’t your song. This isn’t even a song. This is just the lyrics to Katy Perry’s hit single ‘Firework,’ except you replaced all the references to fireworks with your own name.”

James nodded seriously. “Exactly.”

Portrait by James Franco.
Portrait by James Franco.

Oh man.

But for all the trolling of James Franco I’ve done, something around 40-50 blog posts that I got paid for, all that venom and indignation and foaming at the mouth over his hosting of the Oscars, I finally, finally struck a nerve. James Franco wrote back.

On May 16, 2012, James Franco took to his Huffington Post column for the second time ever to write an innocuous-seeming post, “On Commencement Speeches.” There are a ton of jokes I want to make there, but I can’t just be reading my best hits, so I’ll just dive into what he wrote.

“The New York Observer — a newspaper owned by Donald Trump’s son-in-law that is perhaps best known for publishing a sex column in the mid-1990s — took issue with a piece I wrote in The Huffington Post about ghost tours in New Orleans.

(Originally this read “best known as New York’s second best pink colored newspaper,” but I think after our editor in chief at the time Elizabeth Spiers jumped in the melee, he changed it.)

Then he writes, “This was the writer’s opening sally:”

I think he meant “opening salvo.” But we all make mistakes. Please keep that in mind while I read the thing I wrote that finally managed to get his Franco’s attention.

“James Franco, the real voice of our generation, has taken time out from his busy schedule of Art and Teaching and also Learning to begin a Huffington Post diary. It’s about time!
So what important issue of our times is Mr. Franco tackling? President Obama’s stance on gay rights? The construction of Marina Abramovic’s performance space over on the Hudson? His new album, perhaps?

Those are all great guesses, but James Franco is actually here to talk to us today about a matter close to his heart: Haunted tours in New Orleans that he took with his Nana. (Which is the name of his Japanese hairdresser, not his grandmother.)Ew. Not my best. Nothing I wrote about James Franco was ever my best work, but in my defense, this sally was particularly rushed because I needed to just get through my intro and block quote his entire inaugural piece. I’m only going to read you one graph from it, bear with me, this is just amazing. For context, James Franco is hanging out with Nic Cage and touring all his New Orlean haunted properties.

It was the site of horrific medical/carnival experiments on slaves in the vein of Human Centipede. Living and dead victims with a variety of mutilations: amputations, limbs exchanged between people, sexes switched (meaning dicks were sewn onto women), skin flayed in designs to turn the victims into “human caterpillars”and other grotesque monstrosities. The house is still occupied, but it has not had a single owner for more than a five-year period.

Ironically, I thought this was one of Franco’s better pieces of writing. My post about it wasn’t a thing unto itself so much as just a necessary mouth and butthole in the human centipede of my James Franco coverage. If it had been a character, that particular blog post was like a generically attractive, blond college co-ed with unrealistically large breasts, sewn somewhere in the middle of the daisy chain. Just like… don’t get too invested.

James Franco got invested. He continued his HuffPost Livejournal chronicles with:

Yes, this is all. I didn’t write about the president’s stance on gay rights — I figured there was enough talk about that already.* (Plus, who wants to hear an actor’s take on it anyway?) I didn’t write about Marina, but only because we are doing an episode ofIconoclasts for the Sundance Channel together and I figured everything one would want to know about her would come out then. And yes, I am working on an album with my art school band, but I wouldn’t want to write an article for HuffPost that promotes my own work. Instead, I wrote about New Orleans and ghost tours because I think there is something interesting about the way we are repelled by violence, on one hand, and attracted to it for its entertainment value, on the other. Maybe the great journalists at the New York Observer should stop wondering why I am not covering Obama or Abramovic — and start asking themselves why, instead of covering pressing world issues, they are covering my writing, which they claim to consider petty.

This, this is what it had all been about, what my career had been building up to: a pissed off movie star telling me publicly and personally, to fuck off. The dream!

But instead of being thrilled, I read Franco’s response–which after that veered completely off-track into a story about how this one time he DID meet Obama and got really good advice about commencement speeches, and how he was still pissed that UCLA never let him give the address to his graduating class– with a growing sense of guilt and shame. That blustering defensiveness that Franco employed? That voice that equal parts anxiety, barbed sarcasm and an almost pathological sense of martyrdom… everyone here knows that voice. That’s the voice you hear in your head after you’ve been trolled by assholes on the internet.
I knew how this felt because, as a writer on the Internet, I’d been a victim as well as a perpetrator of nasty comment culture. I pulled a couple choice quotes for example, so you know that if I was a monster to James Franco, it had all been quid pro quo.

-(This first one is a response to someone mentioning my now husband.)
“He’s fucking Drew Grant, who remains the worst person I have ever met.”
-Drew Grant is dumb beyond imagining. not just dumb as in “slow”, dumb as in “this bitch must be fucking with me”.
-Also, a terrible, terrible writer. She had a stint at Salon where her every post was just a new low in bad writing, about stupid shit. Before I knew it was a she, I thought they had hired a 14 year old boy, the writing was about that level.
-Is she lazy or is she just dumb? Or does she not give a shit? Anyway, her posts include mistakes and oversights and typos and grammatical errors more often than not, and it has bugged me since she was at crushable.
-“this bitch must be fucking with me.” I’m so relieved others have noticed.
-“this bitch must be fucking with me.” I’m so relieved others have noticed.

That was all from one thread, by the way.

All I can say in my defense was that by the time Franco responded, I’d cease to think of him as human being with feelings. I had in fact managed a pretty successful career trading in unverified gossip and bitchy comments under the justification that celebrities aren’t real people. I didn’t hate James Franco; he was my meal ticket. It wasn’t personal. If anything, I was probably too obsessed with him, but I never once cashed in a paycheck thinking, “That’s my hard-earned reward for trolling someone on the Internet.” I guess a part of me never considered that he might actually READ it. That something I wrote off the cuff, just to fill space, could actually hurt someone and make them feel as bad as I do when I read shit people write about me.

And I’m no James Franco.

So, after that (not immediately, because first I needed to respond to his response of my response of his blog post about Nic Cage human centipede ghost tours), but EVENTUALLY I deleted James Franco from Google Alerts. I stopped searching for reasons to call him out on his still-dubious academic record and pretentious side projects. Most impressive to myself, I made it all the way through the Sony hacks with only like, one tweet about how it WOULD be just like James Franco to create a shitty comedy that the whole country now feels patriotically obligated to watch. And since then, I’ve only written one tweet about James Franco, which wasn’t even that mean. This from April 17, 2015.

“Sorry but when James Franco says something is a #TrueStory, my first instinct is to call bullshit.”

Hey, no one’s perfect.

Except maybe James Franco. What I learned From Trolling James Franco for Half a Decade