The dilemma about 'The Dilemma': Why Ron Howard and GLAAD are both right, and both wrong

dilemmaWhen 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.”


Comments (166 total) Add your comment
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  • jt

    This is a well written article. Good job!

    • IMPEACH OBAMA

      Impeach this President who has destroyed our gulf, our economy, and our military!

      • Ed

        you’re an idiot.

      • googliezoo

        Do what now? Forget the fact that this comment has absolutley nothing to do with this article. I’m pretty sure Obama doesn’t head up BP, the economy was screwed before he took office (though, I concede, he hasn’t done nearly enough to fix it) and he’s done what exactly to the military? At least he’s finally ended the ridiculous war in Iraq, thus saving lives of our military members. Afghanistan needs to be next.

      • Lisa

        We can’t…he’s already left office.

      • jj

        Hate radio has fried your brain and you don’t even know it buddy.

      • Mike

        Moron….get an education…

      • Holly Castaneda

        OMG when my republican old school father died in 1998 he was so ANTI CLINTON and listened to Rush Limbaugh religiously like a nut. Everything was Clinton’s fault. A lot of people were like him. He LOVED Newt Gingrich. Now much of that time is forgotten. History is now proving all of the good that Clinton did for this country. He left it in good financial shape too. Newt is now known to be a lousy immoral husband who cheated on his wives and left one when she was in cancer treatment. What does that have to do with his politics? He was preaching for FAMILY VALUES back then and against HORRIBLE WOMANIZER Clinton. When Limbaugh was in trouble for taking all those illegal drugs – like hundreds a day – I was so sorry that my father wasn’t alive to see that his heroes shouldn’t throw stones at ANYONE.
        It seems like OBAMA is now the scapegoat for all that is wrong in the world today even for problems arising directly from the Bush administration time period.
        I am not a democrat in case you are wondering. I am just sick of “i have a stubbed toe…. its OBAMA’s fault” Its LAME!!!

    • lefty

      I was coming to the comments to say the same thing.

    • jkc888

      Yeah! I loved the phrase “protracted media kerfluffles”.

    • tJhooKer

      this article was gay

      • God

        And your statement is black, and jewish, and retarded. Sheesh.

    • Katja

      I thought it was mostly well-written, and I’m certainly in favor of getting rid of “gay” as an insult…but I’m confused on one point. Adam, you say: “Howard also notes that ‘I don’t strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate,’ nor should he.” Yet you also say he should basically have apologized and promised to “do better” next time. It seems to me that there is a contradiction here. Why do you think he should express regret for this joke and promise not to make similar jokes in the future when you also think he should be able to keep in stuff that is offensive, even to him? If he should be able to keep these jokes in, he shouldn’t have to apologize for them. Or at least that’s how I see it.

      • MC

        I don’t think Adam was advocating that Howard express regret, rather just acknowledge that people were offended by it and apologize to the offended party or parties. He shouldn’t HAVE to apologize, but I think Adam was just pointing out his whole scenario for how he feels it should have went down or would have best been handled.

    • Paloma

      Seriously! Sometimes the articles on this site seem like jokes, or just space fillers, but this was actually intelligent and well thought out. I shouldn’t have to thank a writer for doing their job, but thank you!

    • matt

      I agree that this was really well-written, but I think the point about why “Ronny didn’t compare electric cars to black people, or Jews, or the physically challenged” was flawed. Ron Howard included a joke that is representative of modern culture. He has the right to accurately capture any aspect of our world that he wants. Comparing electric cars to these other groups that you mention wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of the type of joke that the character would make. Old movies have horribly racist themes and dialogue because they are a product of the time that they were made–I certainly wouldn’t want to change them for more idealistic views.

      • Tony

        Clearly Matt, you’ve never lived in the Deep South.

      • Excelda

        Matt’s right. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying “electric cars are Jewish.”

      • Marcus

        UGH that’s the point. The author made the comparison (a good one, I might add) that saying electric cars are black, jewish, retarded, or any other cultural moniker that could be used as a pejorative is JUST as ridiculous, stupid, and offensive as someone saying that electric cars are gay.

      • calvin

        I think the author’s point is that we’ve evolved to a point where you can’t get away with making fun of Blacks or Jewish people, but for some reason it’s considered acceptable to make jokes at the expense of gays and lesbians. In my opinion, it’s no different than the kids I went to school with who picked on other kids because they were different in any way. North American culture needs a boot to the head.

      • MC

        “Matt’s right. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying “electric cars are Jewish.””

        BINGO! That’s EXACTLY the point! It’s acceptable in our culture in this day and age to use “gay” as a pejorative, but gays are just the same as any other group referenced, ie, naturally made! so why is it still acceptable to use “gay” as a pejorative? That’s the whole issue about this little “joke”, because to a lot of gay people, myself included, feel that it’s not a joke when someone says “that’s gay”. that’s someone just saying something is “stupid”, or “retarded”, or “dumb”, or whatever other pejorative you want to throw in there, so where exactly is the joke? and unfortunately, kids and teenagers use it the most with no repercussions from their parents. i even have to remind straight people that come to my house not to use it, and they immediately apologize and go on about how it’s just something that they’ve always said and never really thought about. it’s not a joke. yeah, i can laugh at gays and gay culture, and laugh at the stereotypical gays on will and grace, ugly betty, glee, and so on and so forth, but there is no joke in saying something is “gay”.

    • Duane Hanes

      Wow! Obama has been really busy if he destroyed the gulf, the economy and our military! Obviously he has accomplished far more than his predecessor…what was that guy’s name again? Dumbya, Dumbo, Dubletalk?

    • phillip

      We need to BOYCOTT this movie to send a message. Remember how Ron Howard removed all the homosexuality from his film Beautiful mind this guy seems to have a history of marginaliziing the gay community, I for one will happily picket my local theatre.

  • Matthieu

    I think you just summed what I feel about this whole situation. It’s gotten way bigger than it needed to be, and unfortunately people who are already homophobic are using GLAAD’s over-reaction as ammo. Ron Howard made very good points in his statement but does not seem to grasp why that line should not have been in the trailer. (It’s not funny, and lacking the context of Vince Vaughn’s character it does become offensive.) Just so I’m not accuse of being a humourless homo, Hot Tub Time Machine did not offend me in the least (if I were forced to eat, uh, kitty, I think I would be just as horrified as those characters).

  • Rolo Tomasi

    Ronny didn’t compare electric cars to black people, or Jews, or the physically challenged. Why?

    I know why, that’s because you are born black, jewish, and physically challenged. Whether or not you are born a homosexual is up for debate but to try to compare it to a race of people is ridiculous

    • Seriously?

      Seriously? People “are born black, jewish, and physically challenged”?! (1) LMFAO! (2) You are actually correct: Being black, Jewish, or physically challenged is immoral; however, since these people can’t help it, they should be let off the hook for their immorality. Gays, on the other hand, choose both who they are attracted to and who they fall in love with; their immorality should be called out and condemned. They will burn in hell! (3) LMFAO again! Thank you.

  • unreligious

    A very well written and thought provoking article. Thank-you for making the “exhausting” effort to write it.

  • z

    Well said! And, I am so glad that you included the Louie clip- what a powerful and totally funny scene!

    • Foxer

      Fantastic scene! I realy like Louis CK and we need many more conversations like that.

  • Liberal Retard

    “Electric cars are heterosexual”

    SEE NOW LET’S SEE IF THE HETEROSEXIST FASCIST AMERICANS LIKE IT WHEN THEY GET A BIT OF THEIR OWN MEDICINE THEY ARE SO EVIL AND PROBABLY DON’T BELIEVE IN WONDERFUL THINGS LIKE PARTIAL-BIRTH ABORTION AND THEY PROBABLY WATCH THE FOX NEWS CHANNEL

    I NEED TO GO RECYCLE AND RAISE MY TAXES NOW JUST TO FEEL BETTER.

    • Rolo Tomasi

      The didn’t say the car was homosexual. Gay has different meanings. Just stick to calling yourselves homos.

    • Nerdista

      Are you okay? I’m not sure you understand what you’re saying. I sure don’t.

      • Sheli

        I think the poster was making an attempt at being ironic. A cruel attempt, but an attempt nonetheless.

    • steve in dc

      The reason he says electric cars are gay is because the image of gay has been weak, sissy, and not very masculine. Whether or not there is any truth to that, the image is effectively communicated. It is not a statement on biology, race, or religion. It could have once been called girlish, which may have been the intended pejorative. It is not likely an indictment against homosexuals.

    • If I just go ahead and concde . . .

      That you have a bigger penis then I do will that get you to stop shouting at people?

    • gato

      fail………

    • FlaAl

      I vote for “electric cars are metrosexual” … think about it … a useless display of window dressing most often seen in an urban environment … works for me.

    • Melania

      And heterosexuals are hate filled? Yeesh go have a calgon moment before you spontaneously combust.

  • nodnarb

    Your opinion is wrong, and you are clearly a Nazi. Just kidding!! That was totally reasonable. Next controversy please.

    • The Jackal

      Exactly, how are we supposed to argue with each other if we start agreeing on everything

  • Kiki

    Groups “speaking out” against creative content has gotten out of control. If it’s not the PTC, its GLAAD or the Peruvian whatever group. I am all of acceptance and just being a nice person, but when it comes to comedy, only the writers should have a say in what is in and what is out. Then let consumers decide what is acceptable by what they choose to consume. Moreover, comedy isn’t real life, it’s an exaggeration of reality. Why does everything have to be a controversy of epic proportions?

    • The Jackal

      They are just giving this movie more publicity than it probably deserves. Just like the PTC did to those Glee photos I probably would have never seen until they made an issue out of it.

  • Pat

    The homosexual community changed the meaning of the word gay decades ago. It never used to mean homosexual. But most often today, using the term means homosexual.

    However, over the last decade or so, the term gay is changing again. While it still mostly means homosexual, in many instances, it has not come to mean stupid. In this movie, that’s what it means. Electric cars are stupid. It has no bearing to homosexuality.

    The meaning of the word gay means different things in different contexts. And anybody that can’t see that is just being politically correct.

    • Dave

      Thank you for saving me from posting the same message! When you examine the sentence “Electric cars are gay,” it is clear to anyone without an agenda what the meaning is. Obviously cars, electric or not, do not engage in sex with others of the same gender. I know of no cars that engage in ANY type of sexual activity! Which leaves the clear indication that in this instance “gay” is used to indicate “lame or douchebaggy.” Heck, look up “gay” in the dictionary; I did, and guess what? There is more than one meaning to the word, and the reference to homosexuality is not even the first definition listed!

    • MC

      And why exactly does it mean “stupid” now, huh pat? think long and hard about it and think of how straight men using “that’s gay” has come to mean “that’s stupid”… i’ll wait to see if you can put two and two together and realize that it DOES have bearing to homosexuality.

  • Independent Thinker

    I’m going to defend Ron Howard even though one of my children is gay. Yes, the joke reinforces stereotypes of gays being left-wing, effeminate, environmentalist liberals. Not too different than the images evoked by the term “redneck”. BUT Reality TV and particulary Bravo is responsible the most for promoting GAY stereotypes thru QEFTSG,Project Runway and other shows starring all those “creative” gays. Where are the gay role models in business, police, fire dept, etc..?

    • The Jackal

      Good point. It takes more courage to admit to be gay in those lines of work because those are seen as more masculine types of jobs.

    • Dee

      But rednecks aren’t 40% more likely to take their own lives (intentionally) because of society’s constant and unrelenting hatred, abuse and disapproval.

      If they said, “That car is so n*gger” would that be okay? Hell no. So why do they bow down to pressure from that minority and not another one?

      It’s simple. No one is standing at a church pulpit every week spreading messages of hate because of who that minority sleeps with.

      As long as we casually allow people to use gay as a perjorative, as well as n*gger and k*ke and other hateful epithets? We’re contributing to the problems. And if we complicently stand by without saying this is wrong, we’re all guilty the next time some kid blows his head off for being gay.

      • AcaseofGeo

        Dee I like the article’s in-depth points and I see your point too. But I’m gay and I’m not the least bit offended by this “joke”. I think we need to “choose our battles” and this isn’t the type of comment that stirs up either hatred OR violence. Its a silly comment. I’m more concerned about the slippery slope mention in the article that if something as benign as this is censored, then what can people on the other side of the table accomplish through censorship?

      • Ryan

        No one would say, “That car’s so n****r.” Not because it’s offensive, but because n****r’s a noun. Doesn’t really lend itself to description. “Gay,” on the other hand, is a perfectly useful adjective. For example, your analogy is so gay.

    • dctoronto

      They are on HBO…The Wire, Six Fet Under, True Blood…just to name a few,

    • Lindy

      ever seen Torchwood?

  • SaraJ

    I agree that the movie is showing the way some people in American still talk — especially immature high school boys.
    But as a culture we should change that, and it starts in the media. Would you ever see a white actor say the N-word in a movie these days? No. But 40, 50 years ago, it was mainstream in America. This has changed.
    And so I think we should ban the word “gay” and “f-g” as negative insults. It is not a choice, and in this culture of hate crimes and discrimination, it’s not funny anymore.

    • LittleMo

      James Caan called Gayle Sayers n____ in Brians’ Song. Granted that was years ago, but it has never been edited out and I’ve never heard anyone complain about it – not once. In the movie Thunderheart where Val Kilmer played an FBI agent with Sioux heritage, David Crosby played the owner of bar who called the Indians “prairie n____.” Again, not one complaint and no editing. If we really want to be politically correct, then maybe all mascots, sports teams names, etc. that reference American Indian tribes should address that because to the Indian population using those names and images in the way they’re being used is every bit as offensive as “gay.”

      • Jackie

        Brian’s Song was made in 1970 and a true story based on football players in the early sixties. Like Sara said, 40-50 years ago this was acceptable, but not anymore.
        And you bringing up one example shows how rare it is for this to happen in contemporary cinema. Gay should not be used as a joke anymore, because it’s not.

    • ron lawson

      SaraJ,

      That is pretty short sighted. You can’t ban things because they hurt your feelings.

      I would rather be offended than punished, because one day, you will offend somebody too.

      • joey

        Exactly. Everyone will say something that offends someone at some point, and the more people act like little babies crying to their mommy everytime someone says something they don’t like, the more they look like spoiled little kids who are too used to getting their way all of the time. what about fat jokes? what about short jokes? What about the black jokes in Guess Who? EVERY movie ever made has something in it that would offend someone, so get over it.

    • BLaT

      Blazing Saddles…directed by a Jew, staring a black and sending up everyone in some of the greatest social commentary of all time.
      “We don’t mind the N*iggers and the Ch*nks, but no Irish!”

      • SaraJ

        Again.. Blazing Saddles, done in 1973. That was 37 years ago. That line would never be in a 2010 movie. And the greatest social commentary of all time? Wow, okay maybe to rednecks like you.
        We should ban the word “gay” as an insult because it is NOT funny. Fat people, short people, Catholics or Jews, they don’t get beat up in school or denied equal rights because of these characteristics. Gay people do.

  • Independent Thinker

    When my son came out of the closet as a college age adult, he called himself “homosexual” and he said he hated the term “gay”. It has taken him 2 years to accept the term “gay”, presumably because of the lifesyle and effeminateness associated with the label. I also know that Barney Fife is not a fan of shows like Queer Eye For The Straight Guy because they undermine the overall perceptions of gays as competent and reliable people in “non-creative” mainstream professions like politics, business,etc…It is this “transvestite/effeminate” stereoptype that results in Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policies.

  • Independent Thinker

    I meant to say Barney Frank

  • AB

    GLAAD didn’t call on the government to remove the joke. They called on the moviemakers to do so. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, it’s kind of nice of them to ask them to do that BEFORE calling for a boycott, don’t you think?

    If the moviemakers want to stand by their original decision, that’s their call. GLAAD can then decide whether it’s worth calling for a boycott. It doesn’t sound like they’re actually doing that, though. They’re just condemning the decision, as we all should.

    Hopefully GLAAD just drew some attention to a joke in the movie that might otherwise have had some small, subliminal effect of reinforcing homophobia in the audience.

  • Ann

    When did the word gay mean that you were a lesbian or a homosexual. Gay means silly and happy. I love Ellen but I hate when she says she gay. She is a Lesbian. I still love her. Get the words right.

    • Frank

      Anne, “gay” has been used as a slang for homosexual in American movies since Cary Grant wore an apron in “Bringing up Baby.”

      Now go bother the African Americans and tell then they’re really Negroes.

      I am bored.

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