When I saw the first trailer for The Dilemma, opening with Vince Vaughn proclaiming “electric cars are gay,” I remember thinking first, “Ugh, not another lame gay joke,” thinking second, “Ugh, not another lame boneheaded-dudes comedy,” and thinking third, “Whoa, Ron Howard directed this?” And then I didn’t think about it at all — the trailer and the movie left my brain immediately. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Anderson Cooper obliquely referencing the trailer while discussing the recent rash of coverage of anti-gay bullying and gay youth suicides on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, I don’t think I would have given another moment’s thought to The Dilemma — save the decision not to see it when it comes out in theaters Jan. 14.
Instead, thanks to Mr. Cooper, GLAAD, Universal Pictures, Vince Vaughn, and now Ron Howard, I’ve given many a moment’s thought to this movie, more so than it likely deserves. And what really cheeses my Jell-o is that yesterday’s latest development — Howard’s statement to the Los Angeles Times that he’s not pulling the “electric cars are gay” joke from the finished film, and GLAAD’s recrimination of that decision — has proved to be the development most worth thinking about, and discussing at length, in this whole protracted media kerfluffle. Because, dagnabit, it turns out Howard and GLAAD are both right, and both wrong, in ways that make plain just where we are as a culture when it comes to censorship, sensitivity, and protracted media kerfluffles.
First, Howard is absolutely right when he says, “I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought.” Howard also notes that “I don’t strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate,” nor should he. Howard should be able to make whatever movie he wants — which is to say, whatever a studio wants to pay for. And Universal should be able to release whatever it wants — which is to say, whatever movie theaters want to put on their screens. And we, as moviegoers, have the right to protest whatever we want — which is to say, not shell out money to see bad and/or offensive movies.
This is such a fundamental part of the American way of life, it feels a bit odd to have to spell it out. It’s also why the fine folks at GLAAD calling upon Howard and Universal to cut their gay electric cars joke isn’t just wrong, it’s wrongheaded. Condemn the joke, sure. Organize a boycott of the movie, even. But demanding filmmakers change their films to fit your worldview (however just and honorable that worldview may be) does your cause few favors. How would GLAAD feel if Focus on the Family demanded director Lisa Cholodenko cut all the same-sex smooching in last summer’s The Kids Are All Right? That’s a specious comparison, I know, but that’s pretty much what “a slippery slope” is meant to evoke.
Of course, one would hope we can all at least understand where GLAAD’s overreaching is coming from. It has been a particularly distressing few months for gay Americans, thanks especially to how visible gay suicides have been in the national media. (And let’s be clear: According to statistics from the Trevor Project, we’re not living through a surge in gay suicides and homophobic bullying; we’re living through a surge in coverage of gay suicides and homophobic bullying.) In his statement condemning Ron Howard’s decision to keep the gay electric cars joke in The Dilemma, GLAAD president Jarrett Barios was nonetheless right on the mark when he noted that the uproar surrounding the film ”will help schools, media and parents understand the impact of the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative.”
One would also hope Howard, an Oscar-winning filmmaker with a well-earned reputation in Hollywood as the nicest of nice guys, would perhaps be keen to step into that discussion. Instead, to the L.A. Times, he offers the explanation that Vince Vaughn’s character Ronny Valentine “has a mouth that sometimes gets him into trouble and he definitely flirts with the line of what’s okay to say. He tries to do what’s right but sometimes falls short. Who can’t relate to that?” Howard goes on to call Ronny “flawed,” “far from perfect,” “outrageous,” “offensive,” and “inappropriate.” At no time, however, does he appear to acknowledge, let alone understand, that making Ronny outrageous and offensive by in part having him crack a casual gay joke says volumes about what we as a culture are willing to tolerate in outrageous and offensive studio comedy characters. Ronny didn’t compare electric cars to black people, or Jews, or the physically challenged. Why? Because the audience would’ve hated him for it, and he wouldn’t have won our sympathies as the film’s protagonist. But calling electric cars “gay”? Apparently, no worries there.
Indeed, Howard appears more annoyed that his film is taking heat for a sin perpetrated by “many movies and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative characterizations and language…. We never expected [the joke] to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or those of us who made it.” Well, first of all, if you don’t want a gay joke to speak for your movie, don’t put it in your trailer. Second of all, yes, movies like The Hangover, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Wild Hogs have all served up crasser homophobia as fodder for comedy. But that doesn’t suddenly absolve The Dilemma for its watered-down homophobic humor.
Yeesh. This is exhausting. At the risk of being Captain Hindsight, if only GLAAD had put out a simple statement denouncing The Dilemma‘s gay joke and asking audiences not to see the movie, and if only Ron Howard had responded with “You know what, my bad, it was in poor taste, I’ll strive to do better,” and if only GLAAD had replied by thanking Howard for his candor, we all could have been spared this wearying, monthlong back-and-forth. Put another way, if everyone had behaved with the kind of clear-eyed honesty and great good humor displayed in this fantastic (and hilariously NSFW) scene from FX’s Louie, we would have all truly learned the role comedy can play in, to quote Howard, “pointing out differences and unifying us through laughter.”