Reals Before Squeals: Netflix’s “Okja” Explores the Limits of Guilt and Outrage in Resistance


I got a Netflix account in 2005, and have watched it grow from a sort of “nerd’s splurge” to a disquieting ubiquity of American life. I was an early adopter, and my bitter anti-commercial heart is wont to imagine this was bad press for them, at least to my friends and coworkers 12 years ago. In the beginning, Netflix seemed to buy whatever distribution rights they could get, and for the people who passed my monitor at the media lab where I worked, this meant a marathon of Japanese girl gangs, 70’s BDSM, and various movies with “VS” in the title.

In its desire to be a platform for “prestige content”, Netflix has been quick to shed this image — or at least opt out of transferring the rights to some of these films to the streaming service, forcing us to pay extra for the filth, like a Guns N’ Roses shirt at JC Penny’s.

Netflix wants to dictate media norms the way movie studios once did. Some of norms are manifesting in subtle but transformative ways. For example, a Netflix show I’m currently reviewing episode-by-episode has, at least by episode 4, not given character names for the majority of women in the main cast. I have to reference IMDB when writing recaps.

There are, no doubt, some really unfortunate implications of this (i.e. a bunch of women of color don’t get names until white men in the show give them racist, sexist nicknames by which we, the audience, come to know them by), but it’s possible this is the result of whatever assholes run the content strategy at Netflix realizing that most people binge-watch their shows over a period of a few days, and so conventional narrative tools like “use the pilot episode to make sure everyone gets introduced by name” are becoming unnecessary.

There’s also a more concerning pattern, one of normalizing mediocre politics. To note the changes in programming and direction of Netflix within the last 7 months could seem a little alarmist (as, no doubt, any attempt to suggest Trump’s election has had a negative impact on queer people and people of color always is seen to be) — to sum up: I don’t think it’s coincidence that shows like Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black get to stay and shows like The Get Down and Sense8 get canceled. Not in 2017, my dudes.

I think “Okja” is meant as a harbinger for revolution. The way Netflix and premiere cable made being on a television show cooler than being in movies, this star-studded, well-acted and deftly-choreographed film, released simultaneously on Netflix streaming and in a few theaters, is meant to signify a sea change of streaming overtaking cinema.

It’s a carefully arranged hodgepodge of box-ticking. A cast of “arthouse-ish but still very bankable” guides us through a film of wildly contrasting moods and dissonant genre stylings.

It’s got homely “kid with her pet” scenes , and action-y crime heist scenes, and “guy abuses an animal to regain his manhood and we’re supposed to empathize with him, I guess” scenes — it has it all.

It’s a precisely engineered movie with a precisely engineered message:the fruitlessness of desiring systemic change.

Mild spoilers below.

“Okja” takes place in an imperfect future, where a corporation that is regularly implied to have profited from war atrocities (and/or slavery) have genetically engineered pigs to be super fat and super tasty but with very little impact on the environment. They give farmers from around the world the opportunity to raise their pigs, and the fattest and healthiest and most beautiful is a pig that lives on a farm in South Korea, raised by a little girl named Mija. The Mirando corporation reclaim the pig, Okja, when the contest is over to show it off in America, and Mija sets out to rescue her pet with help from the Animal Liberation Front.

The ALF, after initially rescuing Okja by ramming their semitruck into the one carrying her (pretty cool, actually), fit her with a wireless camera and let her be recaptured by Mirando to reveal the dirty secrets of their organization, a decision sparking a chain of events that gets dozens of activists arrested and thousands of super-pigs like Okja slaughtered.

The mission is, absolutely, a failure. While Okja and a small piglet are rescued from the slaughterhouse, the short-sighted tactics of Okja’s rescuers, hindered further by their simplistic political worldview, doom an entire species to the hellish half-life of corporate livestock.

The crux of the “mission” to liberate the super-pigs involves a hidden camera on Okja that will reveal the inner workings of Mirando’s genetic engineering. But the ALF operatives themselves have no idea what’s in store for Okja. The mission is premised on the idea that once Okja is retaken by Mirando, she will be unharmed, and thus give a wealth of evidence of Mirando wrongdoing. Instead, once Okja is in Mirando captivity, she’s subjected to rape and mutilation at the hands of her caretaker.

The ALF go forward with their plan, and broadcast the video of Okja’s time in the lab to the public, in the hopes it rouses public support. It doesn’t. No one intervenes when the private military company arrive and start bashing in activist’s heads in. No one smashes the windows of the Mirando company. It’s implied that they won’t even experience a drop in stock prices.

It’s somewhat unfair to judge the actions of the activists in Okja by “real world” standards of political praxis. The ALF, as its portrayed in the film, is clearly meant to be farcical. They’re pretentious, motivated by the thrill of the mission, and absurdly self critical (one of them is starving himself to death because he wants to leave as small a footprint on the world as possible). They’re meant as figures of pitiable scorn, like Curtis Everrett in Bong Joon-hoo’s other notable film, Snowpiercer.

At first, we identify with Curtis’ desire to rebel against the barbarism of the eternal engine — as he mounts his mission towards the engine, we are repeatedly, graphically confronted with the cost of his desire for freedom, on the people he engages with and ultimately on the future of the human race. And then it’s revealed that all the murder and carnage is part of the design of the engine itself, simultaneously legitimizing the revolution while discrediting its motivations.

Similarly, the consequences of the ALF’s intervention are laid bare. Everyone gets the shit kicked out of them. The Mirando Corporation is given back to the evil executive who admires the company’s participation in atrocities. The pigs are rushed to slaughter to recoup from the scandal.

Their hearts are in the right place, but the film makes it clear that trying to enact social change is a losing game where you have to take your small, ultimately meaningless victories where you can (in this case, Okja gets to return to South Korea with Mija).

That said, Okja has, intentionally or no, a pretty solid critique of leftist/progressive activism and its failings. Mainly, how the focus on “empathic victory”, of getting otherwise moderate people charged up on your cause by constant, in-your-face appeals to their empathy, is a losing venture.

You’ll make gains with it, for sure, the way mainstream LGBT activism has assimilated into upper-class corporate values policing by jettisoning issues around police brutality, housing inequality, and murder of QTPoC in favor of the message that “love is love”, that we’re fundamentally no different from the cishetero identity that has brutalized us since its creation.

At the very least, you can get a neoliberal to agree someone is human (or human-like), even if you can’t get them to agree that said human deserves to live.

PETA is, for all their faults, surely able to recruit new members here and there with their public stunts about the cruelty of meat.

Which, for the record, I agree with. Slaughterhouses and factory farming are barbarism. And I think people who watch Okja, or literally any video showing what goes on in animal slaughter, will come away with the same understanding. But will that guilt and outrage for the suffering of animals move them to enact change?

Statistically, it doesn’t. It might motivate you to go meatless on Mondays or buy your bath bombs at Lush, but you are likely already bombarded with media depicting the suffering of strangers, human and otherwise. How many links to medical fundraisers or candid videos of flagrant hate crimes do you encounter in a day?

We all have a barrel full of shit sandwiches we have unlimited harvest festival tickets to bob for.

You know what’s (not) great about empathy? You can choose not to act on it. And it’s usually in people’s interest, whether for maintaining power or to just get out of having to do stuff, to just not do so. How many of us have friends or family, who, despite the earnest pleading of queer activists, continued eating Chik-Fil-A after it was protested for its support of anti-LGBT institutions? How many of us have bought Sabra hummus, had its connections to Israeli occupation pointed out, and just bought it again anyway, but with a slight twinge of impotent guilt, knowing what we’re doing is wrong but feeling powerless to make any effective statement except eat the hummus self-critically? 

We gotta eat. We gotta work. We gotta pay bills. Trying to shock people into an investment in injustice, rather than engaging them on the ways in which their participation in a larger movement can overturn that injustice, plays into the burdens of life under capitalism.

Fundamentally, this is part of why leftist organizations struggle to build coalition in a serious way. This “well don’t you have a heart” attitude towards organizing and activism ultimately pits people who feel stronger about one thing or another against each other rather than in mutual aid to use collective resources to achieve all their goals.

Centering our engagement with injustice as a personal relationship and not one of collaboration abets oppression, in the same way that white liberals crying about good cops and bad cops sabotage all causes (as it undermines the grievances Black and Brown people have with the police state while appealing to some nonexistent institutional moral compass that certainly hasn’t been present amidst all this violence and definitely won’t be made apparent now that you’ve made institutional behaviors the actions of individuals who can never be identified or held accountable).

Showing videos of injustice, for the sake of establishing the illegitimacy of the government to serve the people, is necessary for political resistance. For example, sharing a video someone took on their phone of police harassing or brutalizing a Black person 1) corroborates the inherent anti-Blackness of the police, and 2) shows you, the viewer, a way in which you can participate in this prolonged struggle against illegitimate authority.

No doubt, Democrats will take the stories of disabled activists trying to shut down Congress, or socialists sitting in the offices of Congresspeople, as some cheap pathos inspiration porn to play on your empathy to get you do the absolute least effort possible to enact change (voting for some Democrat in 2020), but these actions, and all effective media campaigns, have the instructions on how to take up the fight against oppression within their presentation.

This is what hijacking a broadcast to surprise people with video of injustice (as the ALF do in Okja), or whatever freshman-level performance art PETA is doing on the sidewalk of a downtown square on a given weekend, can’t do.

It’s not just limited to animal rights — a lot of the rhetoric around Hilary Clinton’s nomination was centered on the hardships she has encountered as a woman in a man’s world, challenging us to look at ourselves and ask if we could enable this sexist abuse of her further. No policy, no vision of the future, just a plea to know if we were, as a country, willing to look the other way. And 63 million of us said we could, no problem.

And just as the sight of a pig being abused doesn’t compel the paradegoers to throw themselves in between the ALF and the private militia beating on them, the repeated spectacle of revealing Donald Trump’s inner ugliness towards women and minorities was not enough to save Hilary’s campaign, or the collapse of the Democratic party as the youth of the progressive movement have bottomed out of liberalism and embraced a growing left movement.

The ALF in Okja have the training and resources to hijack a truck, escape the scene of said hijacking and travel to New York from Seoul undetected, commandeer a live broadcast, and infiltrate corporate black sites. And yet this all squandered on a stunt that ends thousands of lives, with no indication that the corporation responsible for these atrocities will encounter even a hint of pushback at their actions. For all their talk about ending the oppression of animals, all the ALF accomplishes is enabling an eleventh-hour deal where Mija buys Okja right before she’s set to be slaughtered, using different means of animal oppression to cancel each other out.

And we, the audience, are encouraged to feel pathos and satisfaction that Mija and Okja have been reunited, in spite of the costs, willfully blinded by our vicarious personal connection to Okja to value her survival at the cost of so many of her estranged kin. We’re left with the sad seduction of accepting this small, temporal victory in the face of oblivion.

If the operatives, in the film and in real life, had used their skills to achieve improvements to material conditions that lead to long-term resistance (a motivation of the candid surveillance is to prove that Mirando has already been mass-producing the animals, which going to the secret slaughterhouse you already know exists and livestreaming your attempts to free the animals would achieve), they would’ve yielded more gains, but at the cost of depriving people of that comfort of the small victory, of getting yours in a world where most people get nothing.

In reality, resistance is a serious of Ls that you work hard to culminate into an eventual W. This is a message that can be hard to get behind, and harder to market. Which may explain Netflix’s move from more diverse programming to white-washed neoliberal apologia. The  striaght white people who didn’t like The Get Down, Sense8 or Dear White People and now suddenly had a spike in their socio-political capital following the election have feelings, too.

Netflix can empathize.

Author: Jetta Rae

Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae

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