by Alexander Quaresma | @SavageSteamboat
Part 2 of 4 | IN DEFENSE OF SUNNY OLIVIA
Sometime around late July or very early August of 2015 a myfreecams.com model that went by the name “Sunny Olivia” shocked the Internet when she appeared on camera dressed as a Gestapo agent while giving a very Nazi-esque type of speech- all while standing behind a podium with a badly hung swastika flag perched above her head. Olivia’s Nazi-themed webcam show caused an uproar on twitter, message boards, as well as the myfreecams.com website itself. A #SuspendOlivia movement immediately followed and soon thereafter Olivia was indeed suspended from the myfreecams.com website.
The peculiar case of “Sunny Olivia”
The furor surrounding Olivia’s performance would go on to make the rounds in the news. “The Young Turks” was critical of Olivia’s show, the “New York Daily News” ran an article on the incident, and the YouTube channel “ThinkTank” produced a video on the matter with the intent of really going out on a limb to make sure everyone knew how much they (Hannah Cranston and John Iadarola in particular) disapproved of Olivia’s Nazi-themed show.
Meanwhile, Olivia defended herself with the only defense she could possibly use, and as it turns out the only defense she should have needed. Olivia cited that she had rights afforded her under ideas behind the concept of freedom of speech. Olivia’s position was that she was simply putting on a comedic performance- a provocative comedic performance, but a performance nonetheless.
When one considers that we are supposed to be living in a society that is predicated on the individual right of people enjoying the freedom to express themselves how they want to, it was most unfortunate to see such vitriol and outrage being directed at a performance artist - which is what Olivia is - for simply putting on a show. However, when you look at the developments in the social landscape over the past few years the tone of the reactions coming in weren’t exactly a surprise either. I’m sure Olivia was well aware that putting on that kind of a performance was sure to ruffle some feathers. But that Sunny Olivia’s show was stupid, in bad taste, dull, offensive, poorly produced, or any other criticism one might want to say or hurl at it is irrelevant. Olivia was expressing her right to ruffle feathers while enjoying the liberty to be silly. And quite frankly, Olivia’s lack of political correctness should have been as welcomed as it was refreshing.
Before proceeding, something has to be addressed in order to avoid any confusion. The following question and answer must be posed and provided: "Does the act of voicing support for Olivia’s right in a free, open, and democratic culture to wear Nazi garb and put on a Nazi-themed performance piece equate support for every despicable thing the Nazi’s stood for?" The answer being of course it does not. And if you think that it does you’re part of the greater overarching problem.
Supporting Olivia’s right to put on a performance – any kind of performance she or anyone else so chooses to put on – has nothing to do with supporting what it is her show seemingly may or may not be aesthetically or symbolically in support of.
The disastrous “ThinkTank” video
The YouTube “ThinkTank” video covering Olivia’s performance contains many of the more unsophisticated and naive opinions in regard to Olivia’s show in one five minute suite. I’m sure Hannah Cranston and John Iadarola are very nice people and had only the best of intentions when they recorded and published their video. I can’t say I know much of anything about either of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I’d have far more in common with them than not in common. And I should also add that their video should be afforded all of the rights that protect free speech as anything else. I’m in no way advocating the removal of their unfortunate video from the Internet in spite of its ill-formed content as well as its ill-informed opinions. In spite of that, “ThinkTank’s” video has to be called out for the pro-PC fascism propaganda piece that it is.
To begin with, in the “ThinkTank” video Hannah Cranston states of Olivia’s Nazi-themed web performance: “This is one you need to not do.” It’s not the most sophisticated of arguments. But I would simply ask: “Why?” Why is it something she, or anyone else for that matter, “needs to not do?” Is Hannah under the impression that dressing like a Nazi as part of a provocative performance on the Internet is equal to supporting all of the death and destruction the Nazis were responsible for? While I would be open to the argument that in certain instances, yes, it could, depending of course who it was that was dressed as the Nazi and what it was they were saying. But that was not that was going on with Olivia's show. I’m sure deep down Hannah knows that, but why would she waste a golden opportunity to find offense at an easy target so that then she can get onto a public forum and come across as holier-than-thou? People drool and foam at the mouth just waiting in the weeds to be able to do that thanks to social media.
I wonder... would Hannah - and the rest of the angered Internet for that matter - have been as outraged if Olivia were dressed as Genghis Khan? The Mongols were responsible for as much death and destruction in the halls of history as the Nazis were. I understand that the pain the Nazis inflicted is still with us today, as we still have the generation of people who survived the Nazi concentration camps with us. I do not, however, believe that someone seeking to use history or to satirize it for the sake of putting on a performance should be prevented from doing so, let alone punished, all as a result of some people finding it distasteful.
So long as Sunny Olivia, or any artist, is not openly advocating or promoting the infliction of harm upon any other individual they should be left alone. Dressing like a Nazi and displaying a swastika as part of a comedic performance is not the open promotion of inflicting harm on anyone.
In the same “ThinkTank” video Hannah Cranston also finds it “incredible” that Olivia was able to rake in $30,000 for her performance that night. “Look how many anti-Semitic people there are!” she exclaims. While I understand that there are a lot of anti-Semitic people in the world, and anti-Jewish sentiment in the western world is a deeply disturbing phenomenon, Hannah’s statement here is a gross hyperbolic claim and a misinformed one as well. To assume that the people that were giving Olivia money that evening were doing so because they were anti-Semitic is wrong. In fact it’s so wrong that a new word needs to be invented to express how truly and obscenely wrong it is.
Olivia made $30,000 that night because Olivia has cultivated a fan base that appreciates her irreverence. Olivia could have been dressed like a toothless hobo and made about the same amount in a given night. In fact, Olivia has done just that. A toothless hobo was just one other character in a throng of characters Olivia has performed in her past shows. To try to accuse anyone silly enough to give Olivia their money simply for acting like a Nazi as being anti-Semitic is unfair, unjust, and potentially dangerous. Case in point: imagine if you heard this: “I can’t believe Star Wars-The Force Awakens made a billion dollars in two weeks! There’s so much Third Reich imagery used in the film to parallel the First Order. Look how many anti-Semitic people there are!” Now that might not be the best parallel, but can you see where I’m coming from?
Hannah Cranston even admits: “I don’t know what she was thinking doing this.” Well, while I can’t speak for Olivia personally, I can venture to make a few guesses. What she was probably thinking was, one: “This could generate a cash flow for me.” But secondly, and most importantly, she might have been thinking: “How can I put on a relatively unique show that pushes the envelope?” Because guess what- that’s what a lot of artists like to do; push the envelope. Are we really going to pretend that the Nazi “envelope” is some magic roped off subject that isn’t allowed to ever be pushed? If so, how is that fair? There is no sound logical reasoning for such censorship. Not in a society that is supposed to be able to freely and openly express itself, anyway.
John Iadarola makes the claim: “Best case scenario she is either extremely ignorant and this might rile people up. She might think of herself as a satirist or something.” Well, yes, she is a satirist. That’s exactly what’s going on. So if it makes John Iadarola of “ThinkTank” feel better, it is the best case scenario. But I don’t see how this makes her ignorant. Is satire only acceptable for John Iadarola when it’s a “Why did the chicken cross the road” joke? Is Mel Brooks ignorant because he wanted to throw in a theoretical ironic musical about Nazis in The Producers? Nazis and Nazism, like anything and everything else under the sun, is a subject that is allowed to be explored for satirical purposes. Why John and Hannah would think otherwise is very very peculiar to me.
Hannah, who really makes an effort to emotes as much exasperated outrage in the video as she can muster, also states: “It’s not funny. It’s so anti-Semitic and it’s an awful notion that’s going around our country and around the world and it needs to be stopped and things like this where she’s trying to be funny and trying to be provocative just make it worse.”
A few things about this statement, Hannah basically admits here that she knows that what Olivia was doing was just in fun and was in no way meant to be taken seriously. But I guess she just finds playing the role of outraged victim so appealing that she wants to overlook that. Anyway, carrying on, I would simply argue no, things like this actually do not make it worse. I’m sure that might have sounded like a cogent statement when it flew out of Hannah’s mouth at the time, but there is no reason or rationale to back up such a statement. Anti-Semitism is made worse by a wide encompassing range of geo-political factors that I’m probably not even qualified to speak about, so I won’t. But what I do know is that silly, even stupid, shows like the one Olivia put on is not a factor - one way or the other - that makes anti-Semitism worse.
Of everything Hannah Cranston says, the one thing that really stood out was the: “It needs to be stopped?” Really? That's the kind of languag that would be spoken like a true dyed-in-the-wool fascist. Hannah, without probably even realizing it, just put forth an argument for fascist-like thought policing. This is incredibly ironic given the situation at hand.
Meanwhile, John Iadarola goes to make the beyond outrageous claim that people who protested Olivia’s channel being shut down were “most likely anti-Semitic.” In spite of trying desperately to come across as if the video has only good intentions in mind, what the “ThinkTank” video in response to Olivia’s show essentially stands for is everything that’s wrong with a hyper-politically correct society in action.
I’m sure neither Hannah Cranston nor John Iadarola support fascism and would take exception at being accused of producing pro-fascist propaganda. And that’s what’s so scary. Using their logic it would render virtually the entire series of “South Park” as something that “has to stop” because it is “anti-Semitic” - “South Park” being anti-Semitic of course because of all the lampooning of Jews and the occasional satirizing of Nazi propaganda that goes on in the series. Meanwhile, as far as I am aware, Olivia didn’t make any anti-Jewish remarks in her Nazi-Gestapo performance. And most assuredly it doesn’t mean that Olivia or any of her paid followers are anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizers. Surely I can’t be the only one who sees how preposterous and ironic the position that “ThinkTank” takes is.
In examining Olivia’s ordeal over the summer, the old adage “Freedom of speech isn't to protect popular and acceptable speech; that doesn't need protection. It's here to protect unpopular and unacceptable speech” comes immediately to mind.
We cannot and should not feel it is in our interests to begin to pick and choose what kind of popular or negative speech is or is not allowed; so long as it does not advocate, endorse, or promote the physical harm of other human beings. The idea that this sort of performance “shouldn’t be allowed” because the performer displays Nazi symbols and wears a Nazi costume is a notion which can lead to a very rocky road that ends at a very slippery slope.
The backlash Olivia experienced bordered on what could roughly be described as punishment over an elementary form of thought crime by the segment of our society that is looking for an opportunity to be outraged. So because Sunny Olivia wished to put on a Nazi-themed web cam show she was roundly attacked by a large portion of her cam model colleagues, a large portion of the website’s customers, and of course the holier-than-thou sector of the free and independent web based media edifice. All of this came at the expense of the ideas behind a fundamental predicate of Western civilization: free speech. That such a thing seems to happen in the same way time and time again in is deeply troubling and should be cause for alarm.
Art and the Nazis in history
To illustrate my last point, let’s put Olivia’s performance into perspective. Many of her critics felt that her show was not artistic because it was Nazi-themed. Her performance that summer evening was not in good taste, nor was it meant to be. But this doesn’t mean that her show wasn’t artistic.
The Olivia-myfreecams.com story caught the attention of the “New York Daily News’s” Meg Wagner. In Wagner’s story she quotes a twitter user as having tweeted: “This is not performance art. This is offensive.” While I am willing to accept that it was offensive, what I cannot accept is the idea that what Olivia was doing was not performance art. It very much was performance art. Throughout history lots of art has been offensive. In fact, a valid argument can be made that art isn’t good if it isn’t offending somebody or some group. I don't know if I necessarily agree with that point fully, but it is worth contemplating.
In 1975 a pornographic film entitled Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS was produced starring Dyanne Thorn playing a character based on a very real Nazi guilty of crimes against humanity: Ilse Koch. The film was replete with gratuitous sex, nudity, and violence, all of which were taking place (according to the film’s pornographic plot) at a Nazi death camp.
It’s a horrible film on every conceivable level. Yet this film, as it should be, is considered art. In fact it’s commercial art, as it was produced with the intent of being released in theaters with the idea that paying consumers would watch it. Later, with the advent of the home video industry, the film was mass produced as VHS cassettes with the idea that paying consumers would want to own it. All of this was aimed at turning a profit. And again, not only was the horrific setting of this terrible piece of commercial art a Nazi death camp, but the film is replete with Nazi mannerisms, stereotypes, regalia and symbolism.
In spite of all of this, as I previously just mentioned, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS has always been accepted as art. It is bad art, offensive art, even stupid art; but it’s still art. The film still tells us something about the time it was made, how it was made, why it was made, etc. It still has a place in cult anti-pop trash culture. Are we supposed to say it isn’t simply because it involves sex and the Nazis? We are doing everyone a disservice if we were to take that stance as it begs us to ask the question of where it is we draw the line when there is no line required to be drawn at all.
Are we supposed to emphatically denounce anything that displays Nazi regalia in the performance as a gross exploitation of history and circumstance? Are we supposed to brand the person who partakes in such productions as unsavory and then cut off their means and rights to supplement their income?
How many World War II-era movies use Nazi regalia and symbolism as part of the plot? Schindler’s List (1993); Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Saving Private Ryan (1998); The Dirty Dozen (1967); The Tin Drum (1979); The Pianist (2002); Mephisto (1981); Das Boot (1981); Inglorious Basterds (2008); etcetera etcetera etcetera. All of these critically acclaimed films make use of Nazi regalia and symbolism in an effort to advance a performance narrative. How about American History X (1998)? Is that not art? Well that was a film about anti-Semitic racist skinheads. Oh, wait, maybe it’s because those film aren’t meant to be funny. Nazis aren’t funny, so art should stay within the lines; right? Well then what about the television sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes” (1965-71) which was set in a Nazi P.O.W. camp. What about a comedy such as Life is Beautiful (1997)? How about Dr. Strangelove (1962)? What about Carl Sandberg’s recent little masterpiece Kung Fury (2015)? These films exist because art and the artists working within a given medium have the freedom to do so, where no topic is deemed untouchable. In fact, some comedy simply doesn’t work if the Nazis aren’t used as part of the joke. Again, I’ll cite Mel Brooks’s The Producers. Every film I’ve just mentioned is either a dramatic expression of some of history’s horrors or is using history’s horrors to push a narrative that is ironic or silly. They all make use of Nazi regalia and symbolism. Are we supposed to just not make films like that anymore in the post-social media age because Nazi symbolism is too harsh on our modern sensibilities?
If the filmmakers of the motion pictures previously mentioned were allowed to use Nazi regalia and symbolism in order to push a narrative in order to create works of art, while also making a profit, why isn't Olivia? Is it only allowed if it’s been vetted by the Hollywood system? Well that goes against everything a democracy, and more importantly a democratized Internet, is supposed to stand for. A film like Kung Fury (2015), for example, exists to show us that we don’t need to rely on the Hollywood system anymore for quality cutting edge visual experiences. Kung Fury doesn’t exist without the Internet; nor does Sunny Olivia for that matter.
Art isn’t always what is ideal. In fact, sometimes the purpose of a given work of art is to explore that which is the opposite of ideal. When an individual encounters such art they should be free to interpret as he or she wishes. This allows that individual to either learn or affirm things about themselves. It also helps other people in a free and open society learn or affirm things about other members that make up that same society.
At best, I believe Olivia's critics had their hearts in the right place, but they fail to grasp just how nuanced the argument they’re interjecting themselves into really is. As a result they do more harm than good. At worst, however, is that this gang mentality is indicative of a sea change; the same sea change that has allowed the slow swinging wrecking ball of fascist political correctness to gain momentum. It's seen the rise of professional victims propped up by both corporate and social media and potentially holds dark things in our future if as a society we continue down this path.
The one aspect of “ThinkTank’s” video I do agree with, to which “The Young Turks” makes a similar point in their coverage of the incident, is that myfreecams.com does indeed have the right to pull Olivia off of its website if they so choose.
If they believe her show is bad for business they had every right to pull her cam feed in order to protect their website and their business. Earlier I mentioned that Olivia defended herself with the only defense she needed to make: that as a performer she should be afforded the freedom to express herself anyway she so chooses so long as nobody comes to physical harm. And that she does, if we want to believe that we live in a free and open society. Unlike members of Pussy Riot, nobody came to arrest Olivia and throw her in jail over her show. But even I, as a supporter of Olivia’s right to express herself, understand that myfreecams.com had every right to suspend her.
I think ultimately it wasn’t the right tact to take, but my thoughts are irrelevant on that matter. As it is myfreecams.com’s business, and it is myfreecams.com that pays for the servers and bandwidth and any other incurred costs in order to keep the website up and running, it was myfreecams.com’s decision to make. This is the risk performance artists who like to play with the blurred lines of artistic boundaries such as Olivia run into when they seek to push the envelope. It comes with the territory.
Ultimately myfreecams.com reversed their decision, which was the moral and ethical thing to do. While I like to believe myfreecams.com reversed its decision as a means of righting an unjust wrong, I somehow believe it probably had more to do with the fact that Olivia was one of the website’s top earners.
A lot of fellow myfreecams.com models took the wrong approach and wasted no time in throwing "Sunny Olivia" under the bus. Many were calling for her removal from the website. The cynic residing in me tells me that there was probably a more practical basis as to why their outrage manifested itself in the way it did. Though "Sunny Olivia" is a colleague with all of the other models on the myfreecams website, she’s also their competition. With "Sunny Olivia" forcibly removed from the picture the door would be open for other models to fill the void she’d leave behind.
Regardless of this, each and every model has a right to her feelings and to express those feelings. It’s just extremely unfortunate that these feelings involved missing the larger grander picture that’s being questioned and challenged when hashtag movements spring up because of a performance piece that merely caused feelings to be hurt. I would simply say in matters such as these if you don’t like what you're seeing, don’t watch it. But it seems to say that in the post-social media era is simply beating a dead horse.
The models who expressed outrage at Olivia’s show should understand that they’re not doing themselves any favors by advocating disciplinary actions levied against one of their own for putting on a controversial performance. It sets a bad precedent and it hamstrings creativity; something you’d think webcam models would want to rely on in an effort to stand out against the crowd.
Jacob Steinblatt of vocativ.com wrote a story on the matter and mentioned a model who decided to donate half of what she earned that same night to the Museum of Tolerance. If someone wanted to criticize Olivia's actions this model did so in the most constructive and resplendent way imaginable (I’ve never argued that Olivia’s show was above being criticized).
Rather than finger wag on her twitter account this model decided to make a beautiful gesture (assuming she followed through with her donation) and the best possible protest one could ever begin to hope for in matters of disagreement such as this. This fellow myfreecams.com model made no aggressive moral judgments and took what was a negative for so many people legitimately angered and outraged by Olivia’s show and turned it into a positive.
In December of 2013, on the last night of Hanukah that year, NBC produced and aired The Sound of Music Live! It featured pop-country superstar Carrie Underwood as Fraulein Maria and in spite of being a critical failure, was a ratings bonanza for NBC Universal. Coming back from one of the commercial breaks during the show that evening a camera zoomed in and focused itself on a large Nazi swastika flag. There was no backlash. There was no threat to boycott Carrie Underwood concerts for having taken part of the show or NBC Universal for putting it on; nor should there have been. It was part of a performance. It was part of the show. And that is all Olivia that was doing, putting on a performance. Her performance that evening just so happened to include the stunt of dressing up and acting like a Nazi. It doesn’t matter if the production value was not up to par of a feature film or a televised musical. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t designed to be popularly or generally accepted. None of those factors make it any less of a performance.
The irony I’ve been alluding to here and there is that while Olivia was dressed as a faux fascist as part of her show the end result was that it caused a real fascist menace to come crawling out of the woodwork. They all sought to come down on "Sunny Olivia" using dictums like: “It’s not funny,” “It’s not art,” and “It shouldn’t be allowed.” While Olivia was merely playing a Nazi fascist on camera many of her critics came out in support of real fascism. This should not be lost on us.
Yes, indeed, horrible horrific things have happened in history, even near history. But to simply white wash it, or to rope off certain aspects of it, is dangerously misguided. We cannot stand idly by and watch as the freedom to express oneself is unfairly attacked, even if what is being expressed is disdainful. As the saying goes, it isn't popular speech that needs to be protected, it's unpopular speech.
If you listen to Olivia’s loyal fan base and watch Olivia’s video montage, you’ll see Olivia has parodied Fidel Castro, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator film, Middle Eastern shahs, construction workers, Native Americans, Jihadists, Catholic prefects, ballerinas, boxers, etc., etc. And yes, she even parodied a Nazi. If you really want to be specific about what it is Olivia is doing, she is a performance troll – which makes what she’s been doing on myfreecams over the years all the more genius.
She’s been trolling everyone from her viewers, to the webcam business model, to the people who don’t get her, to people who are outraged by her, and on and on. She’s not a malicious troll, she’s a playful one. She found a niche on a pornographic website which afforded her the opportunity to do comedic troll performance shows that aren’t pornographic yet found a receptive audience which recognized her ingenuity and love her for it. It doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes her an innovative thinker.
Nobody is making the claim that "Sunny Olivia’s" devoted paying fan base is a bevy of art connoisseurs either. They’re not giving her money because they’re trying to support a noble artist. These people that are giving Olivia their money are essentially part of a gathering- or I’ll even say a cult. They’re part of a cult and Olivia is the cult’s fetish object of veneration. They see something in Olivia and her performances that make them want to contribute to the overall happiness of the group they find themselves immersed in via the Internet. The way they contribute is they make the model/performance artist happy. It’s an act of submission and beneficence on the part of the cult’s laity in an effort to please the goddess-head. There are little to no actions or performances Olivia could partake in that would not cause her following to worship her with their monetary donations. This does not make them bad people- it might make them other things, though. But that’s of no importance. Like Olivia, they’re not hurting anyone; they’re simply having a good time.
We get it, Nazis are bad. But if you want to pat yourself on the back for denouncing Nazi-themed parodies and calling for the removal of people like Olivia from the Internet, or even partake in #SuspendOlivia social media protests- while I’m sure your heart is in the right place, you’re guilty of not only ignoring the real danger but contributing to it.
The real danger isn’t an Internet webcam model dressing and talking like a pretend fascist. The real danger is a person lending support to a developing trend leading towards very real forms of fascism. A fascism that dictates what forms of artistic expression are and are not permitted. When it becomes the ethic of a culture for its people to begin imposing fascist rules on themselves we can rest assured that a fascist representative government will appear before too long. And just like the Nazis, such an authoritarian body won't need to force its way into power, it will be elected into power.