Why is homosexuality always fodder for comedy?

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Despite 22 Jump Street trying to have its cake and eat it, homophobia in mainstream comedy endures.

In 22 Jump Street, which is being hailed as this summer’s great comedy, the two lead characters, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill), finally find the bad guy at the end of the second act. Then something strange and out of of place happens. The bad guy, Ghost (Peter Storemare), hurls a gay slur at Jenko and Schmidt. Jenko immediately comes to their defence by calling Ghost homophobic, shouting, “It’s 2014 and that’s not OK.” This scene feels totally out of context from the rest of the movie, the reason being that the remainder of 22 Jump Street relies on the homophobic comedy tropes that have been used in male-centric comedies for decades.

The term ‘bromance’ was invented just to assert heterosexuality, to make sure everybody knew “all that gay stuff” was just a joke

Gay jokes have long been used for comic relief in film, but why? Is it ironic, or does the taboo topic of homosexuality simply make us all giggle? Regardless, it often ends up ridiculing homosexuality. Homoerotic tension and hyper-masculine themes are handily laid into plots for irony’s sake. The term ‘bromance’ was invented just to assert heterosexuality, to make sure everybody knew that “all that gay stuff” was just a joke. This might be a commentary on homophobia in the movies, but the actual use of such tropes makes it difficult to draw a line between the filmmaker’s intention and audience interpretation.

In the earliest days of motion pictures, gay people were presented in a way that’s often referred to as “the celluloid closet.” They were not open, but rather coded in such a way that was a wink to gay audiences. Many people working in early Hollywood were gay, so their messages worked their way into the movies (producer Arthur Freed, for example, was famous for having a production unit derisively nicknamed “Freed’s Fairies”). A 1995 documentary on the subject, titled The Celluloid Closet, explains that this coding became what we know as camp. Modern notions of camp often drift far from the source, but the basic idea is that messages played with and subverted typical notions of gender and sexuality.

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The documentary states, “from the very beginning, movies could rely on homosexuality as a surefire source of humour.” You could argue that 22 Jump Street is attempting to do some sort of work to dismantle the stereotypes. Unfortunately, one anti-homophobic scene does not speak for the whole. A huge running joke in 22 Jump Street, typical of films of its kind, is the ‘gay male love triangle’ between Zook (Wyatt Russell), Jenko, and Schmidt. The trio seem to be unaware that their actions and dialogue could essentially belong in a romantic relationship. It isn’t subtle. Zook and Jenko even have a meet cute, which they refer to as a “Meat Q’d”.

In 22 Jump Street, the overuse of comedic gay tropes bogs down the film in the homophobia it’s trying to comment on

Jenko and Schmidt even play gay in a counsellor’s office during one scene. It’s all as if to say, “Look. Isn’t this hilarious? Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if the famously studly Channing Tatum, this other hyper masculine guy, and Jonah Hill were all gay together?” This isn’t camp, because it’s not a wink. It’s ridicule of homosexuality, in a film that tries hard to flip the script and condemn homophobia, or at the very least comment on how society’s standards of political correctness have changed. Unfortunately, the overuse of comedic gay tropes bogs down the film in the homophobia it’s trying to comment on.

It’s not that this writer doesn’t get the joke, it’s that it runs far deeper than absurdity and irony. 22 Jump Street and its predecessor, 21 Jump Street, are razor sharp and witty in lots of other ways. You have to respect Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the films’ writer-directors, for that. But Miller and Lord, two straight white guys, are clearly frustrated about navigating murky waters of privilege political correctness, and they aren’t alone. There’s self-awareness and irony to so many comedy scenes where equality and discrimination are discussed and practised.

Read more: Where are all the happy queer films?

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In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen’s characters have an argument about how each knows the other is gay. They challenge each other’s masculinity by attributing certain behaviour to “gayness.” The scene is flagrantly homophobic, but there is irony in it. These men are supposed to represent brainless oafs and a more scrupulous viewer might see commentary on masculinity. Unfortunately, there are also audience members who take the scene at face value. A better way to critique homophobia and stereotypes would be to actually critique them.

In this past summer’s Comedy Central Roast of James Franco, gay jokes ran rampant. The roast featured an arsenal of some of the biggest male comedy stars in the US, from Seth Rogen to Jonah Hill, nearly all of whom had a heavy comedic reliance on just calling Franco gay. Andy Samberg’s self deprecating set ended with the drawn out closer, “I sucked James Franco’s dick.” Aziz Ansari took the stage immediately afterword. He pointed out how stupid and derivative these gay jokes had been, the first comedian on-stage to offer a real critique of just how untrue, lazy, and boring this type of comedy was. Perhaps that’s what’s most offensive about this type of offensive comedy: it’s all been done before.

Read more: The real cost of modern sitcoms

 

Featured image: Columbia/MGM

Inset images: United Artists; Universal

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