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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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You are such a waffler Patrick...

Wow, all this energy over a joke by a character who is probably being portrayed as crass and boorish. Why can't the energy of GLAAD and other activists be poured into something meaningful like eliminating the "Don't ask don't tell" policy in the service and the continuing problem with aids. We are living on the edge of a major depression which will probably end up being worse than the Great Depression since downsizing continues and those jobs will not be part of any recovery. Yet here we are reading about the burning issue of the use of the word 'gay' in a comedy; I mean, when was the last time an American comedy was labelled sophisticated and tasteful? Please!. As the United States slips into Third World status, I wonder if GLAAD and Mr. Goldstein will one day think about the energy wasted on such a silly incident. I guess when one is not affected by things like poverty and the end of the American Dtream, then one can pick and choose what one thinks is meaningful for a whole country. Amazing what a little narcissism can do to one's priorities.

This world has lost its mind... If the joke was "that is totally a white trash thing" it would be juuust fine. Mention gay,black,latino,lesbian,asian, whatever and there is an uproar!

Maybe we should stop using the word gay altogether. Historically it has been used as a derogatory term and obviously it still upsets some people if it's not used correctly. We should also abolish the use of the word straight, as it means someone who conforms to society and leads a respectable life, which implies that if you're not straight, there's something wrong. I would think being called not straight is an insult if you see it that way. Lesbian is out too since it upsets the people of Lesbos. So, let's only use the terms heterosexual and homosexual from now on.

you should see the looks i get from my friends when i talk about "jewing someone down" to get a discount. i quickly add "i don't mean that in a religious way jew, just in a man are you cheap jew."

"Political correctness" has given organizations like GLAAD (as well as individuals like Perez Hilton) to BULLY the rest of us under the guise of moral indignation. The word "gay" has long evolved into kid-speak meaning "lame and needy;" there was even a line to that effect (by Bart) in an episode of the "Simpsons." GLAAD needs to get over it!

Excellent rebuttal.

All Howard's initial defense of the slur word said to me is that some writer somewhere is linguistically challenged in the extreme. Meaning how many other words in the English language could have been chosen as that adjective in that sentence and still given the exact same sense of the Vince Vaughn character without bolstering or giving credence to a word that is, in the 21st Century, causing pain, violence, and even death to fellow human beings.

ADR, please.

Very well stated. If the joke were, "Electric cars are so Hispanic in their lame kind of way," (or fill in any other group of people), would we even be having this discussion?

GLAAD's position on the "gay" joke is interesting and I understand their position. My partner (yes I am gay) is a teacher in a private high school and middle school. One of their "out" students has been actively campaigning against the use of the word "gay" in an attempt to force all of his fellow students to stop using it. The other day, I appropriated the word in a positive way when complimented for an art project that I had done for the school. I thanked them and pointed out that my art project was "so gay." I view my "gayness" as a positive aspect of my being and responsible for much of my creativity. Gay and lesbians have appropriated symbols and words that have been used against them for centuries. I was initially horrified when in the 1980s Act Up used the pink triangle from the Holocaust. But, the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated their use of the pink triangle to protest the holocaust of AIDS. This symbol has remained a positive image for gay folk in our culture. I firmly believe that artists should be given free rein to use cultural references. The use of the word "gay" could easily becoming from a ignorant character and be a reflection of his ignorance. Or not. Let's judge Ron Howard's use of the word when the film is released.

So would Patrick Goldstein also agree that people should not use "Jesus Christ" -- or its variants "Jesus H. Christ" or "Jesus F#*@ing Christ" -- as an epithet? That word is, of course, the name of the person whom Christians worship and consider holy. Using that name as an expression of disgust or anger -- and actually often inserting the "f" word in the middle -- is hurtful and offensive to people who revere it, and who believe in a faith centered around that person.

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