At the onset of Hulu’s new social media satire Not Okay, a content warning appears. “This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist. Viewer discretion is advised.”
The film is a dark comedy about a near-terminal case of poster’s disease, about a young online media person named Danni (Zoey Deutch) who pretends to go to Paris “for the gram” only to photoshop herself in front of the Arc de Triomphe before it is blown up in a terrorist attack. Her presumed proximity to the tragedy launches her to fame, though for someone who had always felt like no one ever paid enough attention to her, Danni doesn’t do too well with her newfound notoriety.
Danni is an obvious Caroline Calloway stand-in (Calloway herself is in the film), lazily drawn and sheepishly portrayed by Deutch, who perhaps sympathizes with her character as another woman in the arts who has been on the brink of happening for far too long. Danni’s peer is congratulated for the great job she did on “that RBG retrospective,” even though the faux-Vice website they all work for is called “Depravity.” Why a website called Depravity would turn down Danni’s essay on being sad she missed 9/11 (she was on a cruise with her family) defies a type of editorial logic I alone might be grasping for, but until the Depravity style guide drops, the ball is in their court.
The issue is not really Danni’s innate unlikability so much as it is the film’s innate unlikability. Danni’s suffering — she is excluded from queer bowling night by her more popular, more LGBT coworkers — is rationalized, if not also empathized with. We’re supposed to see how a straight person with an Instagram account could be radicalized by, what, diversity hiring at a major media company? She is, despite her actions, a relatively likable female protagonist, all things considered. She is awkward and left out, ignored and mistreated (the opening of the film features a montage of Danni’s cancellation, ranging from threats of sexual violence to Instagram mainstay Michael James Schneider using his trademark balloons to call her a cunt). It’d be one thing if she was skating by, but her perceived slights — which the movie wants us to feel — justify her insanity on her terms, at the very least.
Like its content warning, Not Okay is smug and a little too impressed with itself, convinced it is a groundbreaking parody of an entire generation. That its warning went the wrong type of viral this weekend only goes to show that films about the ills of social media will always be two steps behind the real thing. Is it that the content warning isn’t funny? Is it that when people see white font on a black screen they automatically take it at face value? Whatever the case may be, viewers were confused, as evidenced by the list of tweets Variety put together this morning, headlined “Hulu’s ‘Not Okay’ Ironic Content Warning About ‘Unlikable Female Protagonist’ Causes Confusion.”
The tweets run the gamut from a self-described “reformed SJW” making a misguided point about content warnings going too far to a clear joke that Variety itself misinterpreted as an earnest critique. The majority of posts, however, are from the exact type of people who may seek to cancel Not Okay’s protagonist. Luckily, director/writer Quinn Shephard addressed this prior to the movie’s release, explaining to Indiewire: “The content warning was borne out of, to be honest, our test screenings. We un-ironically and consistently got responses from people who were quite literally like, ‘Why would someone make a movie with an unlikable woman?’” If Shephard wanted to take her own movie’s advice, she might learn to fuck the haters and make a piece of art that stands on its own two legs, even if they need to be photoshopped in.