GLAAD responds to Ron Howard’s gay joke defense

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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?