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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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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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Good grief! Not only do we have to put up with the fact that they wear their sexuality on their sleve, but they're so sensitive as to cause an uproar at any time, for any reason, and even for no reason.


I don't buy it. Only because a movie doesn't say certain words doesn't mean bullies are going to stop and change their ways. Bullies are bullies because of their own insecurities not because some guy says an electric car is gay. I say keep the line and let GLAAD pout.

This is so gay. That is correct. I think it is gay to talk about the word gay in a movie. So gay that I feel gay taking the time to talk about this topic but also so gay that it makes me want to talk about it. So let's discuss. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to taking on who can say what and how they can say it.
Film is art, you have a choice to go see it or not. I was not the least bit offended when the character Borat threw money at cockroaches because he assumed they were Jewish and that is want they wanted in order to leave him cockroach-free.
I laughed so hard and yes as you guessed it, I have Jewish blood flowing through my veins. I also think it is so gay that we still have to put change in meters, I suppose I could use the word archaic but who talks like that, maybe a commentator from National Public Radio who can spend two hours on a Sunday talking about how to cook mushrooms. Not sure if that show even exists in radio history, but that would be so gay and I would rather listen to some good music. Gay. Gay. Gay. My mother's middle name is Gay, friends of mine I have known for over two decades who are openly over the top in your face Gay always joke about how gay something is and very directly make jokes about men they see in public. In fact, the gay community at large is much less sexually repressed then the straight community. If we start deciding who can say what and how and when and under what specific circumstances we very quickly start to loose the very magnificent beauty of the few freedoms we truly have left to enjoy in this wonderful but sometimes dark and glorious world. Men, women, children, even dogs do things that make others assume they may be gay. We now live in a Western Society that has become so obsessed with jumping the gun on every issue imaginable and making a my way or the highway roadblock that we end up doing/becoming the very thing we so badly want to believe we are protecting ourselves from and that is so gay. GLAAD like the ADL, PETA, the GOP and practically every lobby group in America, including AIPAC and oil and energy, and lobby groups to keep subsidized corn syrup subsidized so soda can be as profitable as possible and folks in D.C. can have their pockets stuffed with offshore bonuses start off on the wrong foot and never look back to see what damage they are leaving behind because they are so hyper-focused on accomplishing one mile of entitlement at a time. Where does this leave any breathing room for children, teenagers and young adults trying to cope with their own sexuality and having a moment to think for themselves without feeling they need to walk on egg shells like the very people Anderson Cooper choose to put pressure on to simply remove a word from a film that they deem unacceptable. Maybe we should start looking at every sentence that comes out of every person in front of a camera. We should have computers analyze how each word is said, was the laughter in the room after to loud, was the pause creating a mixed message.
It will become this sooner then you can imagine if we keep up this gay behavior.

Typical heterosexual commentary here.

Not a care in the world as to the millions of gay citizens heterosexuals degrade in their sophomoric attempts to degrade one another.

Stay classy, heterosexuals.

Always do stay classy!

Another way to interpret the joke is that an electric car is not masculine or macho but feminine. Not bad or good, just descriptive in our culture.

"gay" is the new term for "lame". Chill out everyone.

Barrios makes the point "why has the word “gay” come to mean “something to be made fun of?". My mother also often complained about the change in the usage of the same word, except her complaint was that the word 'gay', which she had grown up using in its original meaning as a fun, jolly and lighthearted activity or person, had been lost to her. Who mourns for the older meanings of the words "ass", "queer" or "spunk", all of which were at one time entirely innocent and meant something quite different than they do today? Words change meaning over time and across place, and resisting it like this is farcical. GLAAD needs to be a little less touchy.

Simple question.. what if you replace the word Gay with Jewish, Black or Mexican? How would you feel about the joke then?

for folks that are supposedly comfortable in their own skin it sure is thin!

The large number of homophobic comments here shows just how these "jokes" are based on prejudice and ignorance - and how these "jokes" play into, and add to, intolerant attitudes. They cause harm to many people.

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