December 30, 2010

Random Musing: Response to John Nolte, in Defense of Landon Palmer

One of the most culturally reflective (and divisive) cinematic conversations of 2010 surrounded a film that won’t be released until 2011. While the nation pondered its dense history of homophobic bullying after a string of gay youth suicides starting popping up on the front pages, the trailer for the Ron Howard “comedy” The Dilemma was released with a “gay = stupid” joke as its lead. What would otherwise pass by as an unexamined passive slam against an already-maligned group became no longer acceptable.

The line was unintelligibly defended by Howard, Vince Vaughn, and numerous web commentators who think that a joke too lazy and immature for anybody over 13 to find funny is the same thing as South Park-style take-no-prisoners satire. It’s lazy comedy, and the reaction to it is further evidence that we as a culture have shifted from our Eddie Murphy Delirious days: homophobes, not homosexuals, are now the subject of derisive humor. As The Kids Are All Right and Modern Family have shown, you can have great comedy about homosexuals without making fun of homosexuality.

I have culled this quote from my colleague Landon Palmer's most recent submission to FILM SCHOOL REJECTS, called "Year in Review: Top 10 Topics, Trends, and Events of 2010 That Have Nothing to Do With the 3D Debate." The debate over homophobic language in film comprises one of Palmer's "10 Topics." The following should be taken as axiomatic: The use of "gay" as "stupid" is ideological homophobia, whether the speaker intends to be explicitly homophobic or not. Palmer reflects astutely (as a third-person cultural observer) on how fascinating it is that our society — which is quite conservative, overall — actually talked about one use of "gay" as "stupid" in a movie trailer. If my own upbringing in rural middle Tennessee indicates anything, many people continue to conflate "gay" with "stupid" casually and inconsiderately (members of my own family did so as recently as this past Christmas holiday). Palmer is right that director Ron Howard and actor Vince Vaughn unintelligibly defended the use of "gay" as "stupid" in "The Dilemma." I definitely heard no persuasive argument aside from the middling "Well, that's just how a homophobe speaks, and the film tries faithfully to present that." I suppose I can accept that, and I suppose that this is also the conclusion to which Palmer comes. However, his simple rejoinder is that "comedy" does not have to pick on anyone to be funny and that films should practice more empathy in representing people of various identities.

In response, John Nolte, Editor-in-Chief of the blog BIG HOLLYWOOD, has mocked Palmer's reflection as "just neo-fascism and outright anti-intellectual nonsense." "Neo-fascism"? Is he misusing "fascism" as many contemporary conservatives do, conflating it with "communism" and any abominable anti-Western, non-capitalist, and non-democratic political system one can muster? "Fascism" is any right-wing nationalist ideology or movement with an authoritarian and hierarchical structure that is fundamentally opposed to democracy and liberalism. I strongly disagree that Palmer is "fundamentally opposed to democracy and liberalism." In fact, I would say that Palmer attempts to enrich democracy by commenting on modern discourses around homophobic rhetoric and by suggesting that we be more considerate to the "already-maligned" group of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) people. Is that so wrong? By characterizing Palmer as "neo-fascist," Nolte grossly misinterprets Palmer's empathy toward LGBTQ people as "authoritarian" and bigoted when it is quite to the contrary. One should be more careful with his word use when he sprays God-like ideological key words like urine all over another's work.

Palmer, "anti-intellectual"? Quite the opposite. Palmer is one of the smartest people I know, and his cultural commentary is certainly not "nonsense." If we take his work from a rhetorical perspective, all of the sentences of the two paragraphs I quoted flow coherently. No syntactical errors exist, and he misuses no words. If one cannot read through Palmer's jargon-free (though reference-laden) prose, then one should ask for reading assistance instead of letting fly his unhelpful, vitriolic venom.

This may be unnecessary to point out — though I believe it to be significant — but Palmer does not defend homosexuals because he has a strong political investment as a gay man who has prevailing implications in his own representations. Instead, Palmer is straight and has taken a stand with gay people — regardless of the charges made against him — which ought to be admired. Palmer empathizes with the gay community as human beings. If anyone does not stand with the gay community, it is Nolte. He claims that "this whole bullying meme" provides the urgency of false charity from groups such as FILM SCHOOL REJECTS, who advocate homosexuals as the subject — and not as the object — of comedy. "This whole bullying meme" is serious business. Is he to say that Ke$ha's, Katy Perry's, and P!nk's recent hit singles — "We R Who We R," "Firework," and "Raise Your Glass," respectively — also constitute fascism from the top down? Since all have hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, then it is obviously good oppression for them — and, obviously, the majority of unique individuals in America (who sent it to #1 through radio requests, purchases on iTunes, etc.) enjoy it.

Nolte reflects dismissively: "What attracts bullies is and always will be one thing: weakness. And if you want to prove you’re weak, a good way to start is with the whine of, don’t make fun of me." This statement angers me greatly. "The Dilemma" is probably the couple-hundredth Hollywood film to make fun of gay people (Vito Russo faithfully tallies up most of the pre-1987 ones in his seminal "Celluloid Closet"). It starts using "fag" rhetoric, and I, as a gay man who has endured my own share of such rhetoric, am supposed to suck it up and take it "like a man!?" That is a really unfair statement. Bullying transpires because of the play of ideological forces that teaches children from a young age that some people are better than others. By telling gay people to quit whining "Don't make fun of me" infuriates me. The most you could do is to take into account the ideological systems that have produced your own beliefs. I think Nolte's careful word choice — about his "gay friends" — is absurd because his other claims around it provide evidence that they are not really such.

Nolte says this PC (i.e. politically correct) whining should not be wasted on gays, who can stand up for themselves. Correct me if I am wrong, but would the gay suicide rate be so much higher than heterosexuals' if they felt like they could? Gay teens are 2-3 times more likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. "This whole bullying meme" is not an excuse; it is a source of urgency and it must be addressed. Bravo to the humans who stand up together to change it for the better.

If one of Nolte's statements offers some truth (and productiveness), it would be: "Sorry, but you can’t inoculate a particular thing or person or group from satire and/or ridicule unless you’re in favor of inoculating everyone under the same premise." I would agree with this notion. Steps have already been taken to alleviate the damage of some representations of black people onscreen. While some black films of the new millennium have attempted honest representations of social hardship ("Hustle & Flow"; "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"), you will notice that Hollywood films no longer present white characters in blackface.... However, his further contention that "The only people I would inoculate from ridicule are those who are unable to fight back" is, ironically, indefensible. Nolte suggests that "inoculating" certain minority groups from ridicule would be unfair to "Christians," "Conservatives," "Southerners," "Caucasians," "Dads," and "Fundamentalists," a ridiculous statement since few of these subject positions (especially "Caucasians" and "Dads") would ever face public scrutiny and/or derision. If I were to be called "cracker," it would roll off me easily; however, if I called someone the "n-word," I would hope to be assailed relentlessly. No place exists anymore for such egregious racial epithets. The person who uses a word such as the "n-word" is, indeed, the "neo-fascist."

I demand that John Nolte reflect to a considerable extent and to revise his opinion out of humility. One cannot erase the past (i.e. "Blazing Saddles," "The Birdcage" — comedies Nolte carefully selects for their hyperbolic portrayals of gays and other minorities), but one can intervene for a better future. If gays are Nolte's "friends," as he (politically correctly) calls them, he should treat them as such instead of telling them to suck it up and instead of telling FILM SCHOOL REJECTS and my colleague Landon Palmer to back off and quit "oppressing" them.

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