Sunday, April 04, 2010

What the Hell is "Gay Panic" and Why is "Hot Tub Time Machine" Guilty of It?

I saw Hot Tub Time Machine last week. Funny movie. I recommend it. One habit I have is reading reviews of movies after I see them, to see if I agree with the critics and to see if they had any additional insights on the film.

So I'm reading some reviews of HTTM, and mostly I'm interested to see if the critics can give the film an endorsement for being funny, despite the raunch factor. To my surprise, the critics didn't seem to mind the raunch. Par for the course, they admitted. Roger Ebert was downright refreshed. No, the real problem was that HTTM traded in the lowest form of bigot comedy - not racism or sexism, but something called "gay panic." Well this was a new one to me.

Variety: "The pic ... later features projectile vomiting (twice), wayward pee and some of the lowest gay-panic humor in recent memory."

The Onion's AV Club: "Machine is engaging enough, but its characters’ path to redemption would be more satisfying if it weren’t greased with authentically ’80s-style casual sexism, gay panic, and frat-comedy clich├ęs."

The New York Times: "The undercurrent of misogyny and homophobic panic that courses through most arrested-development, guy-centric comedies these days is certainly present here."

Rolling Stone: "But Pink goes way too broad with the screenplay partly credited to Sean Anders and John Morris, who lift a gay-panic joke out of their own She's Out of My League."

Film Journal International: "Not all the jokes land, of course; the movie unfortunately doesn't avoid the tired gay-panic gags that continue to plague most buddy comedies..."

I could have gone on. This was a common complaint. Now, the charge of homophobia - that one I'm familiar with. Movies that make jokes at the expense of gays. I've seen those. But the charge of Gay Panic... that's not really the same is it. Gay Panic isn't Gay Bashing. It's something else.

It's something more subtle. Direct accusations of homophobia in films like Hot Tub Time Machine seem to have died down lately. And I think this is not because everyone has mellowed. I think that the line of scrimmage has simply been moved. Those who would make jokes in sex comedies about men fellating each other have been pushed back towards their own goal and are now being accused of "gay panic" rather than outright homophobia.

I'm trying to figure out what the dictionary definition of gay panic is, but Google isn't being much help. I'm also trying to figure out where in HTTM some sort of offense to homosexuals occurred, and I'm coming up empty on that too. What Google and Wikipedia are telling me is that gay-panic is a term concocted as a legal defense by those whose have committed acts of violence against gays. A hetero person discovers that someone he is talking to is homosexual, or is actually hit on by that person, and the hetero guy becomes enraged, losing all bonds to sanity, and turns violent. Gay Panic is thus invoked as a form of temporary insanity to get violent thugs off the hook.

Now I have to say, that's pretty loony. I hope no one actually skipped any jail time on that legal defense. But this definition of gay panic is clearly not the one being employed in these film reviews. As best I can tell, when the New York Times or Variety is accusing HTTM of trading in gay panic jokes, they are referring to scenes where the (hetero) characters are panicking in the context of a homosexual act that may be about to occur or that they may have to participate in.

I'm mentally going through the movie and I can think of four instances where homosexuality was referenced at all, let alone panicked over. They are:

1) In the car ride to the resort, two of the characters get into one of those back and forths of "You're gay." No, you're gay." No, YOU'RE gay."

2) Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and John Cusack all get into the hot tub naked. (off camera). The fourth guy is reluctant to disrobe and join them and has a line, something like "I just don't like the idea of a bunch of dudes naked together in a tub."

3) Rob Corddry and that same guy (forgot his name) are about to have a threesome with a woman. Corddry is very gung-ho about it, but the other guy is uncomfortable. He has a line where he says something like "Sure I'd be into a threeway, but not with another dude!".

4) Rob Corddry makes a bet where if he loses, he has to fellate Craig Robinson. He does this only because he believes his victory in the bet is inevitable. For hilarious reasons, fate conspires to make him lose the bet. There is then a prolonged scene where Corddry and Robinson do indeed panic at the idea that they will have to make good on the bet and go through with the BJ.

These are the only times in the movie where any kind of gay activity is referenced at all. If I've missed any, please let me know. Presumably the charge of gay panic is being applied to these scenes.

Now here, finally, is where we get to my main question and the point of this blog. Does Political Correctness now dictate that heterosexual men, in films or in reality, are no longer permitted to be disgusted at the thought of committing a homosexual act? Is that what being accused of gay panic means? This is what I mean when I say I think the line of scrimmage has been moved. It used to be the case that overt, anti-gay prejudice was unacceptable. Now it seems that any expression of distaste at the thought of participating in gay sex is the new standard for opprobrium. And if that's truly the case, then I call foul in a big way, and say no to the new standard.

In the four references I cited above, I think you can make the case that the first one was a bad idea - you don't need a comedy reinforcing the use of "gay" as an insult that straight guys use on each other. The 40 Year Old Virgin had the same joke if I recall. I think movies could, by and large, make a point of not having characters call one another gay, the same way they make a point of not having anyone smoke. So if you want to get on HTTM's case that the "No, you're gay" routine in the car was in bad taste, I'm on board.

But as for the other three scenes, no dice. I stand my ground. There is nothing offensive to homosexuals there. It is simply a fact that hetero men are grossed out, always will be grossed out, at the idea of homosexual coupling. Hetero men are biologically hardwired to be that way. If men weren't grossed out by the thought of gay sex, if the idea was somehow a neutral one rather than a negative one, then the animal kingdom wouldn't have gotten very far. If same-sex coitus was a sort of acceptable, runner-up activity if you struck out with the ladies that day, then what species would have survived or thrived? It's not enough to be attracted to the opposite sex, it seems to me. You must also be repulsed at the idea of mating with your own gender for procreation to work. Straight sex and gay sex can't be interchangeable in the mind.

What this means is that no matter how progressive or enlightened we are, no matter how accepting of gay rights we are, no matter how well we can, intellectually, wrap our minds around the idea of gay sex being fine and dandy for those who enjoy it, we will never overcome the natural revulsion to participating in such sex ourselves. And no campaign to overturn that reality will ever be successful. 1,000 years from now, immature boys just beginning to understand their sexuality will taunt others in the playground with accusations that hey, that kid likes to suck cock. And the lesson that such language is offensive to gays will have to be taught and retaught every generation. That project will never be over.

Many people like to point out the similarities between the struggle for gay rights and the struggle for civil rights for blacks, or suffrage for women - they compare the laws against gay marriage to anti miscegeny laws and draw those kinds of parallels. And I just kind of sit back and brood on that. To some extent, yes there are similarities. But the big difference is the one I just discussed. No one is born a racist. You have to be taught that. People are, on the other hand, born to be powerfully sexually attracted to one gender, and (in most cases) powerfully sexually repulsed by the other. Therefore, while I can envision a world free of racism, I cannot envision a world free of "gay panic". And of course gays are not immune from this panic either. What would your average gay man say when contemplating sex with a woman? Would he be neutral about it? Or would he say "Ew! Tew-nahhhhhh!"

But that isn't offensive. That's normal. So when Rob Corddry balks at sucking Craig Robinson's dick, that is, dare I say it, a normal response to that predicament. Is it Gay Panic? Well what does that mean, and what's wrong with it?

It should probably be pointed out that in HTTM, none of the supposed gay panic scenarios involved anyone actually being gay or being mistaken for gay. The real gay-panic is supposed to involve one person's sudden discovery that the other is gay. That never happens in HTTM. The reluctance of Clark Duke (I looked up his name) to get into a hot tub with three naked guys is not about his fear that one or all of the men are gay or that gay sex is somehow imminent - it's about his fear of being perceived as gay by others. And that fear, in turn, is not about the diminished social standing that comes with being perceived as gay, it's about that perception limiting his chances with women and inviting overtures from real gay men, reasons that strike me as being entirely sound, with motivation that's deeply biologically hardwired. It is, in short, normal, fine and inoffensive.

If the situation was reversed (always a handy tool to sift through PC bullshit) and it was a gay Clark Duke asked to participate in a threeway with a dude and a girl, and Duke wanted no part of it because he wasn't into girls, would I, as a straight guy, be offended? Nope. Could a film critic cry out "Straight panic!"? Again, nope. If a gay Rob Corddry lost a bet and was forced to perform oral sex on a woman, and Corddry got all panicked at the thought, would that disturb me? Uh.... no. Why would it?

So the charge that Hot Tub Time Machine is guilty of something called gay-panic falls pretty flat for me, and it concerns me that the new standard of being a right thinking person includes being forbidden to take a negative position on your own participation in homosexual sex, lest you be committing the crude faux-pas of gay panic. Being grossed out at the thought of gay sex if you're straight, or straight sex if you're gay, is the most normal thing in the world. Where's the offense?


Meghan said...

OMG I just now read the term "gay panic" in Entertainment Weekly in reference to American Idol's "dated, offensive jokes." I didn't know what they were talking about and there was basically nothing on the net to help explain it besides your blog. So, A- Thank you! I think I now grasp the understanding of gay panic:) And B- I totally am in agreement with you! The whole concept of the supposed deplorability of freaking "gay panic" is such over the top PC garbage!! I consider myself to be a pretty hardcore lefty but this is just too much. Also, I find it depressing that you wrote this a couple years back and I've just now heard of it. Guess it's here to stay. (Vomit.)

Anonymous said...

I think what these reviews are referring to is 'homosexual panic', a concept invented by the academic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick that everyone (even out gay people) have a fear of being considered gay by others within a homophobic society and/or victimised by homophobic behaviour.
This theory was developed separately from the legal defence.

darkk flux said...

i think you are right about those scenes. the first was unnecessary, the last 3 were harmless.
but going on about the animal kingdom being against gay sex, and that being related to the advancement of procreation, that was a bit off-topic. after all, we are not animals, and have something that animals could only ever dream of. what's more, HUMANS don't always have sex for procreation. i'm sure this is no shock to you, but in this film, NOT ONE of the characters is seeking sex for purposes of having kids. just the opposite, in fact. homophobia is not linked in any way with procreative instincts. for MOST men, it is a more simple, base logic: there's poop in there! that's why female gayness is generally deemed amicable, while male gayness is plagued by social stigma (which is a bit of a double-standard, to be sure).
instinct has little to do with it. it is more "common sense", and even i have a hard time seeing how male gays do what they do. i hold no HATE for them, and in fact, a gay scene would not turn my stomach, unlike most men, it just isn't my thing. being repulsed is learned behavior, brought on by paternal training, a lot of which is similar to that first scene we both agreed was unnecessary. it's the "no son of mine..." factor that keeps the male population at bay from homosexuality. it has nothing to do with the species or its instinctual nature...

darkk flux said...

one more thing: no one is "born sexually attracted" to anybody. most boys avoid girls (or boys) until puberty hits. at that point, the hormonal changes work alongside their personal experiences to determine which team they will vie for.
believing that hatred and mockery are inborn is not entirely incorrect, but it is HOW WE ARE RAISED that determines how we treat each other. that sort of childish ridicule is not limited to sexuality. any sort of differences are typically mocked, because the kids don't know how to act around different peoples yet. it could be someone who's super-short (like a midget), or homely, or has an extra finger or third nipple. or it could be their religion is different, or even as simple as them not being good at sports. if we raise kids to be hateful, they stay that way, but if we raise them to be empathetic, we eventually won't see scenes like these in films, and the transition will be seemless and the film won't suffer any without it. we would then look back at old films and have to explain to kids why that scene was supposed to be "funny", as they watch deadpan.
of course, this will likely never happen, thanks to the bigotry that parents don't realize they have, and that they knowingly impress on their own kids (and sometimes others').
i've met plenty, and nobody ever thinks they're doing anything wrong...

darkk flux said...

one last thing. i don't find ANYTHING in HTTM to be offensive. there are many films that overdo jokes that i really don't care for (Adam Sandler has been guilty of this lately), but that is just my personal sense of humor, and does not reflect on the films themselves. i tend to have a dark sense of humor, and even the scene in "I Love You Philip Morris" where Jim Carrey is butt-humping another dude just made me laugh. not just because it was gay, but because the scene itself was so abruptly displayed without warning. so much so that i'm sure it made some people sick once their minds processed what was actually happening. that made me smile a bit. it is the intolerance of others that causes their own issues. don't like it? don't watch it. no topic is taboo to comedy to me...