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GLAAD responds to Ron Howard's gay joke defense

Vince_vaughn If you've been reading this blog in recent weeks, you know that there's been a lot of heated debate over whether it is perfectly appropriate or patently offensive for Vince Vaughn, the star of Ron Howard's upcoming fim "The Dilemma," to joke that an electric car is "gay." Universal Pictures, who bankrolled the picture, pulled the joke from its trailer after getting criticized in many quarters, starting with CNN's Anderson Cooper. But Howard made news again a week ago by writing to me to say that the joke will stay in the film.

Howard defended the joke, reminding people that just because a character in a film says or does something inappropriate doesn't necessarily mean that the filmmaker agrees with it. I've been in Howard's corner on this issue, believing that if we start making value judgments approving one joke over another, we're on a slippery slope to the arid wasteland of political correctness, especially since there have been gay jokes in "The Office" that didn't arouse any of the indignation directed at "The Dilemma."

But there's another side to the story. I've been speaking to the people at GLAAD, which works to prevent defamation of gays and lesbians in the media. GLAAD has been outspoken in its opposition to the joke, believing that it plays on exactly the kind of stereotyping that gives license to bullies. GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios took me up on an invitation to make his case for why the joke should be removed from the film, along with why some gay jokes, like the ones in "The Office," should be viewed through a different lens than the humor in "The Dilemma."

I think Barrios has a compelling point of view that is worth hearing. Here's what he has to say: 


When is a word more than just a word?  I’m sure it seemed innocuous enough to the writers of "The Dilemma" when they had the film’s main protagonist (played by Vince Vaughn) say “electric cars are gay” then qualify that he doesn’t mean “homosexual, gay, but, you know, my parents are chaperoning the dance, gay.” To people who don’t hear their identity used as a synonym for “undesirable” or “worthy of ridicule” on a daily basis, I’m sure it seems as though groups like GLAAD, concerned moviegoers, and public figures like Anderson Cooper are making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s just a joke, right? And Vaughn’s character even said he didn’t mean US.

But he did. After all, why has the word “gay” come to mean “something to be made fun of”? It’s because people who are gay or are perceived to be gay … have been historically ridiculed. Sure, it may seem like just a word, and for most people, that’s what it is. But for people who have spent their entire lives hearing their identities used as an insult, it takes on an entirely different meaning.

GLAAD is not a censor.  We’re here to educate.  It’s not “censorship” when someone tells you that your behavior is causing harm and you decide to stop doing it. From grade school straight through to the workplace, gay people are constantly bombarded with this kind of speech.  These words are usually not meant to hurt, but they establish a climate in which we are seen as inferior.  Is it an accident that gay people experience lower self-esteem, higher levels of depression and a lamentably large number of us make the sad choice never to come out of the closet and live their lives openly?

So when is a gay-related joke OK? Ron Howard claimed in his statement last week that “our film is taking additional heat as an emblem for many movies and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative characterizations and language.” In this very column last month, "The Dilemma" was compared to some gay-related humor on NBC’s "The Office." Here’s the difference.

"The Office" used a gay context to find humor in the ignorance of what was being said, rather than making a joke at the expense of all gay people.  In the episode,  boss Michael Scott and underling Dwight are interrogating openly gay coworker Oscar while trying to track down the source of Michael’s cold sore, which he briefly (and obviously incorrectly) thinks he may have gotten from Oscar.  Dwight begins by saying “I’m going to need a list of every man you’ve ever had sex with; I’m talking train stations, men’s rooms...” Michael continues the list, saying “Flower shops, fireworks celebrations...” and so on.

Anyone who has seen this show would understand that the joke is on Michael and Dwight, particularly as their list of locations grows more preposterous.  The humor comes from the fact that Michael and Dwight’s notions about gay people quickly reveal their own ignorance, bizarre imaginations and distinct social awkwardness.  In no way is the audience meant to identify with Michael and Dwight. The audience is meant to find their behavior absurd. Viewers identify and sympathize with Oscar in this scene, as he finds himself on the receiving end of Dwight and Michael’s idiocy, as he and every other employee in this fictional setting do on a weekly basis.

Ignorance should be a punch line. Identity should not. Humor can be a tricky thing to analyze and can be easily (and lazily) defended against criticism by saying “it’s just a joke.” Vaughn himself, when defending this line in his film, said “Comedy and joking about our differences breaks tension and brings us together.” And while Vaughn is wrong about the joke in his movie accomplishing this end, "The Office" is a perfect example of humor getting it right.

"The Dilemma" is hardly the first movie to use the word “gay” in this way, but it has come along at a watershed moment in our culture.  Hearing one’s very identity regularly used as a synonym for “inadequate” or “undesirable” on a daily basis does more than just hurt feelings.  Recent events have made it abundantly and tragically clear the effect that anti-gay language and attitudes can have on young people who are gay or are perceived to be gay  AND on the bullies who target them.

Would it change hearts and minds if Howard had made the decision to pull this line from the film? Would bullies suddenly realize the harm their behavior was causing and stop tormenting their victims? Would spontaneous hugging break out in the hallways of America’s schools? Of course not. But it would create a tiny space in our culture -– a window in which people could draw their own conclusions about what it means to be gay, without being told it’s something negative.

Both Goldstein and Howard asked if “comedy will be neutered” if Vince Vaughn’s character didn’t use the word “gay” to mean something to be made fun of. The answer is no. Acceptance of ridiculing gay people under the guise of “humor” would be neutered.  And honestly, comedy might be better off if writers found more creative ways to make us laugh. Maybe a pie in the face?

Photo: Vince Vaughn at a Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field in Chicago. 

Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (106)

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For Christ's sake, it's slang - it means something is silly, or not cool. It's got nothing to do with sexual orientation.

It's supposed to be funny because it's exactly the type of stupid thing that a bigot would say - or a fifth grader - or a bigot with the mentality of a fifth grader. Are we now saying the gays, ooops, I mean GLB front don't WANT to poke fun at bigots?

Now THAT'S gay!

I can see both sides of this but nevertheless feel compelled to point out an irony that many seem to be missing.
I am old enough to remember when the word gay had no homosexual connotations, indeed it meant colorful, happy, bright.... When the homosexual community self-identified as 'Gay' there was a confident challenge in the choice of this word - it replaced the odious 'queer' with something that implied 'yes I'm a wild flaming homo, you got a problem with that?'
Now GLAAD are trying to turn the word 'gay' into a neutral word - something that just defines a person's sexuality but carries no other implication... While I decry all prejudice, I also know there are no words that are so simple -- and when it comes to a word as laden as 'gay' - well that baby just won't go back in the closet.

I do see the point of the writer from GLAAD; I just wonder how far we will go so as not to offend a certain class of people - would the writer take offense at the terms trailer park trash, white trash, hillbilly, or redneck? These play on the negative stereotypes of poor, uneducated white people. So, yes, we use the word gay in negative contexts, and yes, it usually does mean something negative about homosexual behavior. I think it may refer to the negative aspects about homosexual behavior that most heterosexual people are uncomfortable with. The more flamboyant behavior usually only seen in gay pride parades by most of us, since that's when it hits the news. It's negative, because most of middle America, while they may support gay rights on an intellectual level, are still uncomfortable seeing 2 men kissing in public - it's been in the closet for a long time, so yes, we're still uncomfortable when it's right in our face. And I don't feel comfortable seeing anyone kissing in public anyway.

GLAAD is treading on wishy-washy grounds. Between Ron Howard and GLAAD, you could use the "n" word and have the same results by neutering the impact with a, "Not as in..."

I'd have to wonder... personally I find making a joke at anyone expense wrong. Freedom of speech you say? Does that mean freedom to tear anyone down at will? I don't think so. I don't think that is what our founding fathers had in mind with the term was coined. Why is it, that it's acceptable to bring down Gay people in this society? Would Ron feel the same if the line was... Look at that n-word car or that looks like a J canoe? Not only would Ron pull such a message, but would condemn it as well. Shame on you or anyone else whom feels such talk as being acceptable. Shame on you Ron. You should know better. And yes, I find using the N word or saying Jew canoe as most offensive, just as offensive and I find it when someone uses "that's Gay" do describe something in a negative light. (by the way, I tried to use the N word actually spelled out, and the LA times would not allow me to use it. Talk about censorship.)

Imagine a world where gay doesn't mean "homosexual".... what if it meant "happy" or "fun-loving" instead? Then the line "electric cars are gay" would be properly understood to mean "electric cars are fun!"

Personally, I think that's a better world. Won't you join me?

Amazing lame defense. Did Ron Howard's movie feature any gays unlike "The Office", which did? So the imaginary gays in the movie are offended, whereas "The Office" had an gay (who appears normal and non-gay in his portrayal) wasn't the joke although the joke was on the straights. In other "The Other" episodes, Oscar was made a joke of his gayness. That seems to pass muster since the word was never spoken.

In the reference to THE OFFICE gay joke, this article says that the list of places a gay man is thought to have had sex is absurd.

I'm gay, and that list is not absurd at all. Let's not pretend that gay men are not generally promiscuous. We are. Is it wrong? Probably not. But I'd prefer not to whitewash the truths about gay men -- to do so is to participate in self hatred, exactly the opposite of the goal in conversations like this one.

Unless GLAAD wants to have everything backwards, the word gay usually gets "used as a synonym for 'inadequate' or 'undesirable'" because it implies that the person in question is too sensitive/ too easily gets their feelings hurt.

Accordingly, using "[it] does more than just hurt feelings" as a defense of why the word "gay" shouldn't be used as an insult -- well, that sort of perversely proves the point. Get over yourselves, you electric cars.

Identity is not sacrosanct. If all throughout the last two decades, we've been forced to watch stories about nerdy uptight white guys learning to laugh at themselves, it's about time gay people get a sense of humor about themselves and how ridiculous their "identity" is.

Sometimes people make fun of you because you're lame. Not "I'm worthy of ridicule on a daily basis", lame, but, you know, "a group of 'gay activists' like GLAAD has no business censoring the movies or deciding what is & isn't funny", lame.

This whole article was gay. Now it's up to you to decide if I'm haplessly ignorant or maliciously diabolical. If you spend more than 3 seconds of your life on this decision you're gay too. (both kinds)

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