Recently there were complaints on the GayExpress website about the movie, Sione’s Wedding 2, being homophobic. These critics argue that there are two offensive jokes in the movie. The first is when ‘the boys’ are on K-Road and, after seeing a group dressed as angels, Sefa (played by Shimpal Lelisi) says, “They’re probably drag queens or something, and there’s no way I’m following a drag queen down a dark alley ever again.” The second is about a personal trainer that Sefa’s girlfriend has hired. “He’s gay”, Sefa says to the group. Michael (Robbie Magasiva) replies, “All girls tell their guys their personal trainers are gay.” Sefa then says the trainer’s name is Marcel, and Michael replies, “Okay, that does sound pretty gay.”
Why am I writing about this? TV and movies are just about entertainment right? New Zealand has shocking levels of child poverty and other disastrous things like the National-led government’s proposed asset sales. While the jokes may be in bad taste, no one’s inciting a gay hate crime. Plus, these jokes aren’t even that bad! Well I still think it’s important, and maybe more so because it slips under the radar. Judith Butler argues that what is at stake for many of us who don’t fit mainstream subjectivities is having a ‘culturally intelligible life’. By this she means one which is recognised as having value and meaning. I wonder how the value of a drag queen’s life is impacted by the joke in Sione’s Wedding 2? What forms of subtle homophobia, packaged in a particular Pacifica/Aotearoa context are recycled through these seemingly harmless jokes?
I like TV and movies and sometimes I even like stuff which could be considered sexist, racist or homophobic. I recently read a blog post about this called How to be a Fan of Problematic Things. The writer’s examples included Lord of the Rings – sexist and racist because there are few women characters and whole ‘darker’ races are inherently evil. Also mentioned is the movie Scott Pilgrim Versus the World – homophobic because the room-mate played by Kieran Culkin has sex with loads of different boys, thereby perpetuating the idea that all gay men are sluts. I appreciate these critiques but also enjoyed the films. I like to think I’m committed to a more just and equal socio-economic world, which can be a difficult thing to reconcile with liking something which may not reflect this. So recently I have been thinking about what it is I want from popular culture? Do I just want to watch an entertaining or rollicking story? Do I want it to comment on the current socio-political moment? Do I want it to challenge stereotypes by presenting more ‘real’ stories?
For me the examples above raise two related issues. Firstly, what types of characters are in TV shows and on films? Do we see the same old recycled stereotypes and prejudices, or people who are more subtle and complex? Secondly, how do these characters’ stories play out; how are they treated and talked about by other characters? One argument in support of stuff which some consider racist, homophobic or sexist is that it is just reflecting real life. In other words, popular culture is reflecting back to us how society really is. While I accept it is important to show the (often) horrible realities of the world, sometimes I wonder about the point of reinforcing only these stories. Isn’t it time we got some new ones?
I asked a friend about the issue of characters recently – mainly in relation to gay characters. He suggested that we would never expect a straight guy to ‘represent’ all straight men. But it is often expected that gay characters (or substitute whatever marginalised under-represented group you want) are somehow expected to represent the sub-group in its entirety. He thought that was unrealistic. I wondered whether such a character would even be recognisable as a real human being, or just a meaningless stereotype?
I remember recently watching a scene in the first season of The Wire. The cops are busting some young drug dealers at one of the low-rises and one of the young black dealers kicks an older white cop onto the ground. Kima Greggs (played by Sonja Sohn), the black lesbian cop comes running over and I think, ‘Oh, she’s going to diffuse the situation (being a woman she’s good at negotiating conflict in non-violent ways, right?)’. Instead she starts laying into the young drug dealer and beats him up worse than any of the other male cops. This was interesting as it subverted my expectations of this character, while also challenging my gendered assumptions about women police officers. It complicated her. I don’t think I liked her any more or less as a character but I wondered why I had assumed she would act in a certain way. What ideas about gender and police work was I projecting onto her? It made me wonder why she acted like this. Did she act like this to fit in with the macho culture of the Baltimore police force? Was this a way of gaining a certain kind of work place legitimacy from her male colleagues? Or was she just really pissed off and wanted to kick some ass?
Kima’s actions caused me to stop and re-think. And while I haven’t and probably won’t come to a conclusion as to why she acted like that, it reminded me of the subtle gendered norms we all negotiate every day. Years ago I mowed lawns for the Hamilton City Council and one day during a tea break a male workmate made a joke about having sex with a woman against her will. All the other men laughed. I left the room and waited in the truck outside. Later in the truck another workmate said how he thought that joke was a bit off. I asked him why he had laughed and he said it was just easier. Some people suggest that we live in a post-feminist, post-racist or post-gay world. I can’t agree. It may not be that gay hate crimes go unreported anymore or that women can’t vote. It may just be that we feel we have to laugh at a joke we think is nasty to feel like we ‘fit’ in.
So how does this all relate to TV and movies? Well in thinking about what I want from popular culture, I really enjoy it when on-screen characters step outside of the social expectations placed upon them. When they somehow either challenge a norm or their story shows how they are trying to imagine something different; when they complicate what it means to be somebody who societal discourses try and fix or constrain in certain ways. Sione’s Wedding 2 didn’t do any of that as far as I can tell. Drag queens remain something for straight dudes to laugh about (the slightly dangerous ‘other’) and effeminate (or European I’m not really sure here) sounding names remain ‘gay.’ Perhaps in the next Sione’s the writers could try and widen the representation of masculine sexualities. Maybe include a character who complicates societal assumptions about ‘Drag Queens,’ or displays some of the more nuanced understandings of fa’afafine in Samoan culture. Now that might be worth watching!