When the trailer for the misbegotten Vince Vaughn comedy The Dilemma came out in September, it sparked plenty of overdue debate about the abundance of gay jokes in comedy. It wasn’t just that the Vaughn character made a disparaging joke about electric cars being gay, it was that the marketing team for the movie was blithe enough to put it front and center in the first few seconds of its trailer, a tone-deaf decision that was nevertheless emblematic of how Hollywood’s man-child comedies have been unapologetically filled with gay jokes for years. In the wake of that controversy, studio execs trotted out the usual-usual about how they’d reevaluate their upcoming movies and pledge to make a change — yet when The Dilemma finally came out in January, Vaughn’s remark remained. What’s more, nearly every big-screen comedy over the past season has been filled with gay jokes, and no one’s said a thing. Has anything really changed?
This weekend’s Your Highness goes heavy on the gay panic (often making self-professed homophile James Franco the subject of the jokes), as did the recent Paul, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Adam Sandler’s hit or miss when it comes to gay representation onscreen — Big Daddy had a remarkably forward-thinking gay kiss, but I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was just one gay joke after another under the cover of a late-in-the-game “gays are people, too” message — and Sandler’s February comedy Just Go With It featured Dave Matthews as a closeted, sailor-lusting gay man whose primary skill is the ability to pick up a coconut in the cavern between his butt cheeks. Yeah, that happened.
The weirdest strain of homophobia this spring came from Super, James Gunn’s comic-book deconstruction starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page: In a movie full of off-kilter moments, nothing topped the cognitive dissonance of the gay-friendly Page shouting “faggot” and “gay-ass.” Super is an unusually self-lacerating film — though Wilson and Page are dressed like heroes, they do some bad things, and Gunn baldly puts it all out there — but its gay slurs stand out all the more for being directed at others, not within.
So where’s the change — and more important, where have all the people gone who were criticizing The Dilemma for its gay jokes? Was that initial burst of activism too tiring? Even the Dilemma outcry actually came late in the game: The trailer had been out for weeks before Anderson Cooper briefly alluded to it, and gay watchdog group GLAAD hadn’t made a peep. Part of the reason the media latched onto Cooper’s complaint is that it tied into a larger, developing narrative about gay suicides as the result of bullying, and yet those suicides continue, just as the gay jokes do. The only entertainment-related complaint the studio-friendly GLAAD has made in the last several months was against Saturday Night Live, and even that was was awfully late; though the organization was rightfully protesting a mock ad whose sole joke had a transphobic undercurrent, the writing staff headed by Seth Meyers has been punctuating almost every single sketch with a gay joke for years.
Though plenty of Hollywood figures have recorded videos over the last few months that promise things will get better, at this point, everything remains the same. We’ll see what happens next with the arrival of The Hangover Part II — few protested its instant catchphrase gay jokes (“Paging Dr. Faggot”) the first time around, and since then, director Todd Phillips has said he considers the slurs hurled at gay people and imitated by countless moviegoers to be part of the “collateral damage” of comedy. It begs the question, though: When that collateral damage keeps hitting the same group of people every time, doesn’t it begin to add up?