Director Ron Howard and Vince Vaughn have spent the last month or so flopping around in some hot water. Their upcoming film The Dilemma has been getting a lot of bad press for how the word “gay” is used in a particular scene. The controversy confuses me as much as the joke in which the word appears. But then, I have a strange history when it comes to supposedly inflammatory words.
When I first moved to Buenos Aires, an Australian friend pulled me aside at a party to warn me that I might hear the word “negro” being bandied about over the course of the evening. He’d already reprimanded his boyfriend for using it in front of me (I hadn’t even noticed), but what came out of the mouths of strangers was beyond his control. “No offense,” he said. “So don’t freak out.” For those unfamiliar with Spanish, “negro” equals “black,” and although Argentina has its share or racism (a topic for another post), here “negro” is used between friends as a term of endearment as well as to indicate a person of a specific color.
Forewarned is forearmed. Everywhere I go in BA, I hear people addressing people other than me as “negro” when there isn’t another black person in sight, and it never fails not to offend me. My favorite song by Mercedes Sosa, the recently deceased Aretha Franklin of Argentine folklore, is a popular lullaby called “Duerme Negrito” (“negrito” being the diminutive of “negro”). And recently, a friend of mine received a break-up email with “Hola Negra” in the subject line. That was the least of my — or her — concerns.
Even without my Aussie friend’s explanation, “negro” never would have offended me. It’s not that I’m thick-skinned (on the contrary, delivered with just the right dose of venom, words can inflict emotional pain as handily as sticks and stones might lead to severe physical pain or, worse, broken bones), but I’m probably the least politically correct gay black guy ever.
For example, I never understood why white and black people in the U.S. started using “African-American” as a euphemism for “black.” I mean, since when is “black” a dirty word (in Spanish or in English)? Not only is “African-American” unwieldy, but it’s often not even accurate. I was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, so I suppose that I’m technically African-American. But my mom and dad are from Antigua and St. Martin, respectively, which, at the time of their births were colonies of Britain and France, respectively. (St. Martin is still divided between France and the Netherlands.) Looking at mom and dad, one would not necessarily know their place origin, so like so many other blacks of Caribbean or European ancestry, they would erroneously receive the African-American tag.
What’s so bad about calling them, simply, “black”? It’s accurate, concise, efficient, and it more easily rolls off the tongue. And what about white people born in the U.S. to one or two South African parents? If Charlize Theron, who is South African, and, say, Edward Norton got married and had 2.5 kids, would their children be called African-American, despite possibly being the whitest babies ever? As a euphemism intended to soothe psyches wounded by the legacy of racism in the U.S., “African-American” simply doesn’t work, and for the 20 or so years that it’s been in heavy rotation, I have refused to use it.
“Gay” is the latest word to the make it onto the PC shit list. The original trailer for The Dilemma (which opens January 14, 2011), was blasted by gay groups and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper for its use of the word “gay.” In the promo, Vince Vaughn says, “Ladies and gentlemen, electric cars…are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance…gay.” Though Howard is keeping the line in the movie, Universal Pictures has removed it from the trailer. Three years ago, Katy Perry didn’t get this much flack over her song “Ur So Gay,” but that was before bullying and gay suicide became a hot-button topic.
I’m probably in the gay minority here, but I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. “Gay” is not a dirty word. Anderson Cooper’s and GLAAD’s hearts are in the right place. They say that using “gay” pejoratively perpetuates homophobia by sending the message that it’s okay to use homosexuals as a punchline. I understand their point, but anyone who might go out and bully a gay teen into committing suicide probably wouldn’t be inspired to do so by the trailer for a cheating comedy that costars Vaughn, Kevin James, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Queen Latifah and Channing Tatum.
Unlike “nigger,” which has but one meaning, a particularly nasty history behind it, and is offensive whether it’s used by a a white person, a member of the KKK or a rapper, “gay” is a legitimate word with several meanings. It’s generally used to refer to people of the homosexual persuasion, but it also can mean happy, or as slang to describe something that is totally uncool or just plain dumb (like the Dilemma joke). I’m not a fan of the latter. To me, it’s in the same category as “white trash,” a seemingly benign phrase with implied bigotry that goes over the heads of most people who use it. I think “gay” as “uncool” or “dumb” promotes homophobia far less effectively than a moral majority and a U.S. government that resists granting gays the right to marriage, arguing that it somehow soils the sanctity of marriage, and by extension, suggesting that gay people are somehow lower than straight people on the evolutionary ladder.
Furthermore, this is how people talk in real life, folks. I hear far more offensive words being used in movies and on TV all the time. These words and phrases are facts of life. I don’t think they promote homophobia or racism any more than shoot-’em-up films, or Judas Priest albums, lead people to go on killing sprees; movies featuring gay people inspire sexual experimentation; movies about infidelity, like The Dilemma, encourage extramarital affairs; or saying “bitch” onscreen glorifies misogyny. Despite the good intentions of Cooper and GLAAD, isn’t insisting that the line be excised from the film, basically censorship dressed up as political correctness?
I don’t know Vaughn or Ron Howard personally, but I wouldn’t be quick to assume that either one of them is homophobic. Neither is, I suspect, Stephanie Rice. When I was in Australia, one of the top news stories was that the Aussie swimmer got a bit too enthusiastic about an Australia-South Africa rugby match, and tweeted “Suck on that faggots!” directed at the losing South African team. National scandal ensued. Her thoughtless tweet spawned major controversy and the ire of her gay fellow athletes. Embarrassed and obviously contrite, a tearful Rice publicly apologized, but she still lost her Jaguar endorsement deal.
To her credit, as far as I know, she never used the old “Some of my best friends are gay” excuse, but considering that she’s a 22 year old from the third most populous city in Australia (Brisbane), that probably goes without saying. I wasn’t offended by what she said, though I fully understand why others were. Yes, she could have chosen her words more wisely, but who among us is without the sin of using offensive slurs from time to time?
Months ago, I was called a “nigger” and told to go back to picking cotton on the plantation where I belong by an Argentine guy after I politely declined to go on a date with him. Afterwards, I asked my Facebook friends if they’d ever privately or publicly used the word “nigger” in anger and if, because of that, they would consider themselves racist. I was surprised by the number of people who had used it, and not one considered themselves racist. I’m sure the number of people who have dared to utter “fag,” “faggot” or “gay” (in The Dilemma sense of the word) would be even greater, and most of them probably wouldn’t consider themselves homophobic either.
Would I let them off the hook? It depends. Context is everything, and using words like “nigger” and “faggot” in anger says a lot about who you are. Though I think Rice was unfairly crucified for using the word “faggot,” I do agree that it was a stupid move, and she deserved to be called on it. But to snatch away her endorsement deal — and request the return of her on-loan Jaguar — seems like such a harsh move when there is so much more in the world to rally against.
As for Vaughn, Howard and The Dilemma, they’re off the hook with me. It’s obvious from the context of the joke that gay people are not the intended target. If anything, the movie is guilty of delivering a joke that simply isn’t funny, not one that is homophobic or that spreads a message of hate.
There are plenty of people who are doing an excellent job of that, bashing gay people and bullying them into suicide. I think it’s time to ease up on Howard and Vaughn and whoever came up with that unfunny line and start fighting the real enemies. They’re out there, using fists, video recorders, assorted deadly weapons, and words that are a lot more dangerous than “gay.”