On Thursday, April 3, it appeared as though 35-year-old James Franco had been trying to hook up with a 17-year-old girl via Instagram. The news instantly inspired a flurry of outrage (as well as some confusion over why anyone would use Instagram to sext), but soon many outlets drew the connection between the Insta-storyline and the release of the "Palo Alto" trailer -- a film based on James Franco's collection of short stories, one of which chronicles a soccer coach (played in the movie by Franco) who takes advantage of a teenage girl.
So, was the Instagram messaging a stunt aimed at self promotion? And if so, can it still be considered really creepy? HuffPost Entertainment's associate editors Ryan Kristobak and Lauren Duca tried to figure out the implications of Franco's most recent use of his public persona. Here's what they came up with.
Lauren: Let's talk about this whole James Franco Instagram scandal. Off the bat, I feel like we're both leaning toward the complex conspiracy theory that this whole Instagram sexting thing was at least intended as a promotion for the "Palo Alto" film, yes?
Ryan: Yeah, I think there's a really good chance that the two are connected. A coincidence just doesn't seem to fit. Although, I'm not sure if that intention makes his texts innovative or still problematic. Which way are you leaning?
Lauren: Well, the idea of promoting a film with your public behavior (rather than relying solely on traditional advertising) is at least interesting, but doesn't really excuse a 35-year-old man sexting a 17-year-old girl / generally behaving like a creep.
Ryan: In most cases, I would agree with that, but for a moment, let's say this isn't a stunt. I think Franco made a great point in social media being "tricky." This is not to say that he didn't know what he was doing going into the situation, or that he didn't necessarily have certain intentions, but situations can become a lot more confusing and complicated than person-to-person contact. Again, not an excuse, but I think an observation that is important to take in before making a judgement on one's character.
Lauren: Oh, definitely! I think celebrities handling social media themselves can be particularly revealing (and get complicated quickly).
Ryan: However, to address the possibility of him setting up an Instagram sext chat in order to promote his movie ... it's certainly unorthodox, but Franco doesn't ever seem to be one for the ordinary. Smoking two packs a day while playing James Dean and riding around in a hot air balloon after "Oz the Great and Powerful." The dude hits those extremes, so this kind of a stunt doesn't seem too far out of the question. If this is a stunt, I hope it comes out that Lucy Clode and her family knew about it.
Lauren: Sure, but given his past crazy-air-balloon antics and just penchant for pseudo-existentialism, this seems like Franco deliberately manipulating his public persona in some way or other. So, that leaves us with two questions: 1) Do we think this was "real" or simply staged? 2) Is this kind of anti-promotional activity creatively respectable / something other artists should consider (via behaviors other than ... Instagram sexting)?
Ryan: Let's start with the first question. I'm going to argue this was a stunt. The timing of the "Palo Alto" trailer dropping and Franco's responses like a tweet saying "I HOPE PARENTS KEEP THEIR KIDS AWAY FROM ME," just make me feel like this all some absurd promotion. I'm probably wrong ... your conclusion?
Lauren: Agreed. Probably in a few days we'll find out that the teen sexter was Jimmy Kimmel. And I think the fact that it was interpreted as a real exchange is what led to all of the backlash and excessive media coverage. Although, I'm not sure that disingenuousness makes it less creepy and terrible. In the New York Times, Franco wrote about "[experiencing] distance between his true self and his public persona," which makes sense but also isn't an excuse to use predatory behavior as a fun little hoax.
Ryan: Especially because it went so viral, this isn't something we can just dismiss, just because it was a stunt.
Lauren: Right, he's still responsible for his "fake" behavior and in this case that involves a major disparity in regard to both age and power. It's just a really negative idea to reinforce, even as "performance art" or however he's perceiving his actions this week. But on to that second question. Can this kind of thing -- using public behavior to promote a film -- be effective in non-creepy-and-terrible ways?
Ryan: Well, if there is a way to not do it, this is it. But I do think it can be done in a way that is more tasteful. Why not use that power -- in both celebrity and the free machine that is social media -- when you have it. And I think it can approach sensitive subjects like (online) predatory behavior because those conversations need to opened from all angles to really help capture the reality of it. Do you think it can be? And what might be a good example?
Lauren: I think we can take an inversion of what Franco did as an example. What if he staged a predatory interaction (between, say, "Lucy" and some other bearded Instagram creeper) and then interfered in some way? I mean, that's very "save the children" of me to suggest. But the point is he could have drawn attention to himself and the subject matter and still managed to achieve the same effect, without propagating the idea that it's cool to prey on teens.
Ryan: That would definitely would have been better. You don't want to take advantage of real, horrible situations just to your own benefit, but be able to produce a message that benefits all parties (except the creeps).