Wednesday, 2 February 2011

No offence?

Cast your mind back to the end of last year. You may recall Ron Howard forced to defend his new movie The Dilemma, thanks to a line of dialogue that featured in the trailer. The offending scene saw Vince Vaughn (playing a boorish asshole for a change) describe electric cars as "gay".

The debate ran for weeks, as gay rights activists objected to the use of the word as a pejorative, whilst Howard, Vaughn and co argued that the line was acceptable within the context of the character and the story. In retrospect, the film's producers must have been thankful for the controversy, since little else about The Dilemma seemed to garner much interest.

The film itself may have been utterly forgettable, but it has left us with a legacy - namely, enhanced sensitivity about the 'G' word. When is it appropriate, who gets to use it, and what does it really mean?

This week, it was Oprah Winfrey's who found herself embroiled in a new debate on the topic. As she prepares to wrap up her long running talk show, she's invited cameras behind-the-scenes to film her in her hollowed-out volcano lair, to see how 'Oprah' is put together. Interestingly, it takes more than a couple of therapy sessions and a quick trip to Barnes & Noble to plan a season of empowering chatter.

The new 'making of' footage posted on Oprah's website shows the patron saint of discontented housewives struggling to determine whether she'd inadvertently caused offence with a recent interview she conducted with author Terry McMillan and her gay ex-husband Jonathan Plummer.

The focus of the interview was to determine how the couple had managed to salvage a cordial relationship following the revelation that Jonathan had been living a lie. During the exchange, Oprah suggested that Plummer "...seemed gayer now...", prompting the Harpo PR team to spring into damage limitation mode.

The events that played out in Oprah's throne room stir up a host of issues concerning her seemingly innocuous observation, especially since she declares herself 'a friend of the gays'. With her twitchy PR on speakerphone, Oprah grills some of her gay employees for their opinion on the subject, with the consensus being that her comment could be seen as insensitive or offensive by audiences.

One assistant, Carlos, begins by outing himself to his incredulous colleagues (presumably they don't have functioning eyes or ears) and proceeds to admit that he was offended by the suggestion that someone could "be more gay". His argument has some merit - if homosexuality is something you're born with, how could that be something to dial up or tone down?

The problem here, is that there's a risk in conflating gayness with homosexuality. The latter is clearly a pre-determined sexual orientation, whereas the former covers a mindset, an attitude and a lifestyle choice. Oprah's observation was clearly based on Plummer's behavioural displays and mannerisms, rather than the accumulation of new bedpost notches.

It's customary, when people come out of the closet, for them to explore their new identity, like assembling a new, post-makeover wardrobe. In most cases the 'gayness' is turned up to 11, as the newbie throws themselves head-first into an unfamiliar lifestyle. They meet new people, make new friends, and attempt to identify with the shared heritage from which they may previously have felt excluded.

Just look at Ricky Martin - it's less than a year since he finally fessed up to what the world had suspected for years. And yet already, he's happy labelling himself a 'gay activist', as though he led the drag queen riots at Stonewall in 1969.

All gays and lesbians encounter some kind of homophobia when they first emerge from the closet, often in the form of their own internalised fears. It's a learning process that everyone has to go through as they first accept their homosexuality, and then work out whereabouts on the colour-coded gay-alert chart they're most comfortable.

Oprah may be berating herself for letting her mask of tolerance slip for a moment, but I think she should be congratulated. Firstly, for having the sensitivity to question her own use of language, and secondly, for opening up a grown-up debate about the words we use and the meanings behind them.

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