Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thoughts on the Brett Ratner mess: When explicit slurs become part of everyday language and how to deal with their casual and out-of-context use.

I don't think Brett Ratner is a homophobe, at least not from the current evidence.  He may be an ignorant or thoughtless person, but I no more think he is a homophobe for using the word 'faggot' then I do believe that any of you are homophobes for using the word 'sissy'.  Nor do I believe that most of you hold any prejudicial inclinations towards gypsies even if you occasionally use the word 'gyp' (or 'gypped') in everyday conversation.  There are words that have highly prejudicial origins that have just happened to become commonplace expressions in the English language.  Their original meanings have been lost to time, and they have been accepted as part of normal (if crude) conversation.  For much of my lifetime (and I presume much longer than that), the term 'fag' or 'faggot' had a meaning completely separate from its explicit use as an anti-gay slur.  It basically had a secondary meaning as a derogatory term that, while perhaps related to certain stereotypes about homosexuals (weak, uncool, etc), was not intended as an explicit put-down of homosexuals.  Point being, you can call someone or something a 'fag' without referring to homosexuality.  You probably shouldn't, as doing so shows either ignorance of the word's origins or an indifference to its real meaning, but you can.

There is a clear difference between slurs that have been somewhat assimilated into our national dialect and those whose only use and meaning refers to the specific group that they are intended to insult.  For example, while people of all races may find themselves using the word 'nigger' without intending to be derogatory toward black people (however unlikely that circumstance might be), people of color are the only ones who are being referenced when the 'n-word' is uttered in discourse. And furthermore, words like 'nigger', 'spic', or 'kyke' have not been adopted into the English language as slang terms for somewhat more generic insults.  If you call someone a 'kyke', you're probably making some negative reference to his or her real or alleged Jewishness.  However, and we can debate why this occurred, many of the insults that were specifically intended for homosexuals have slowly been normalized.  Terms like 'sissy', 'fag', 'fairy', and 'pansy' have become not only terms for which to insult homosexuality, but generally accepted insults that are commonly used by those who probably don't think of themselves as overtly homophobic.  That's not a good thing, but it is something we have to come to terms with before we can fix the problem.

So, immediate apology from the offending party and a high-profile resigning from a major job (producing this year's Oscar ceremony) notwithstanding, how should we react when someone like Brett Ratner says "rehearsals are for fags" during a recent Q&A while promoting Tower Heist (review)?  Well, first of all, I'd like to repeat what has been said elsewhere, which is that the film blogging community's general distaste for Mr. Ratner and his filmography has made him an easy target for a  pile-on, a way to overtly claim offense to show that they are oh-so sensitive and holier-than-thou when it comes to the rights and feelings of homosexuals.  Had someone with a higher artistic reputation like Chris Nolan or a preferred 'I'm just a regular guy' director like Jon Favreau uttered such a thing, I can only imagine that many of the now allegedly offended would be bending over backwards to either justify the utterance or take steps to get said auteur off the moral hook.  Moreover, I can only wonder how many of the newly disgusted were the same folks who rushed to Roman Polanski's defense when he was arrested early last year (to be fair, plenty of people who have protested Ratner's comments also were in the anti-Polanski camp).  That Ratner has a not-entirely justified reputation as a hack (I rather like Red Dragon and enjoyed The Family Man and Tower Heist) and a more justified reputation as a bit of a 'frat boy filmmaker' lacking in tact and social skills makes him only too easy a target for those chomping at the bit to be the most offended of all.

Come what may, after this altercation, it's probably a good bet that Brett Ratner will never, ever use the term 'fag' in public discourse ever again.  Moreover, it is that much less likely that any major celebrity will use that word in a public setting for fear of similar backlash.  That is a good thing.  But it is important to distinguish the language being used and its intent when deciding on the appropriate level of outrage and/or punishment.  Simply put, Brett Ratner used a crude, but (until somewhat recently) commonly accepted term that has its origins as an anti-gay slur.  He used it not to refer to gay people, but to a specific film-making tool (the rehearsal process) that he doesn't use and openly disdains. If I may, I was more offended by his cavalier dismissal of the rehearsal process, which he can and should be held accountable for.  Point being, plenty of directors use the rehearsal as a valuable tool to build performances and shape the film prior to actually shooting.  If Ratner doesn't deem them necessary (nor, for example, does Clint Eastwood), so be it, but that's no excuse for disparaging the process and those who use that film-making tool.

What is clear is that Brett Ratner used the language of homophobia as a generic insult and has come under fire for it.  There should be a distinction,  however slight, between those who stupidly use anti-gay terminology as generic insult talk versus those who actively use the language of homophobia against gay people and those who support homosexuality on principle.   Making the term 'fag' (and other gay slurs) no longer acceptable as generic insult language is a positive development, but there is much to be undone in the slow process to eradicate such popularized slang.  Point being, Ratner's choice of language deserves a token lashing and a smack on the head, not (I'd personally argue) the fires of holy outrage that seem to have been unleashed.  Save those fires for actual homophobes who genuinely pose a threat to homosexuality and the rights they are fighting for.

Please share your thoughts below.  Would you be just as offended if Quentin Tarantino or Michael Mann made the same verbal slip-up?  Is Ratner getting a bum deal or a fair lashing in the blogosphere?  Does any of this affect your thoughts on this year's Oscar ceremony or whether or not you were planning on seeing Tower Heist?    

Scott Mendelson                                             


Bill said...

"Point being, you can call someone or something a 'fag' without referring to homosexuality. You probably shouldn't, as doing so shows either ignorance of the word's origins or an indifference to its real meaning, but you can."

No. No you can't. It's a word unacceptable in "polite" company and always has been. And yes if QT is rolling around life dropping "N" words at the same level he uses them in film then he would be an ignorant bigot. But I strongly doubt that he does. Ratner has been properly chastised. Any distinction you are trying to create is pointless.

Todd Phil said...

Chris Nolan would not say "rehearsals are for fags", and if he did, he would get slaughtered. Maybe Tarantino, but let's be a little more realistic to the personalities you bring up. You are taking the history of the person saying it out of the context. This statement comes in a week where he sexually and racially disparaged Olivia Munn and then admitted he lied about "banging" her. Not to mention that he was so quick to defend himself over her accusation of an anonymous director masturbating during an audition. Who in their right mind would read that description and think, "That's me!"

7DaiseAWeek said...

This is a great and philosophically very interesting article. Hopefully HuffPo will post it but I'm going to assume that they won't. Anyways, to the topic at hand, I completely agree with the distinction that you bring up. I have tried to make the same point in personal discussions with friends about the 'n-word' versus the 'f-word' (I personally choose to not use or even write slurs because I can usually make my point without using them) and the big difference between them. I also just want to clarify that I have never defended the use of the 'f-word' but I do agree that it is, by nature, different by virtue of the history of its meaning (originally being used to refer to a bundle of sticks and then a loose cigarette) and the fact that it was not originally created or used as a slur rather becoming one over time. As far as other directors using slurs, QT famously dropped the 'n-bomb' in Pulp Fiction and even the great Scorsese dropped it in Taxi Driver but neither of them has received this kind of backlash. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head in that Ratner is an easy target because of the lack of respect he gets in the film community (not that he deserves it (although I too enjoyed Red Dragon)). Todd Phil also makes an interesting contribution noting the somewhat racially charged nature of his comments about Olivia Munn (noting that he 'banged' her before she was Asian). I think he's probably just been out of the public eye for a little bit and has probably lost the little tact that he had before achieving his success. Poor choice of words on his part and he should definitely chill out.

Scott Mendelson said...

When I say 'you can', I mean it is technically possible, not that it is appropriate or polite, or (at this point in time at last) socially acceptable.

Keith Emroll said...

Ratner's use of them isn't the same as Tarantino or Scorsese. Ratner didn't do this in the context of a film. He did it while speaking for himself. You can't compare them that way, especially since in the case of "Taxi Driver," Scorsese's use of it really originated in the script that was written by Paul Schrader. So, if anyone should have been taken to task, it should have been Schrader. But again, the instances are not remotely the same.

revgabe said...

Can't people just grow up and quit acting like fags?

revgabe said...

To quote George Carlin "they are only words....they are not bad or good they are simply words."


Related Posts with Thumbnails