Based on the trailers I’ve seen, I’m guessing Ron Howard’s comedy The Dilemma won’t shatter any box-office records when it hits theaters in January. And yet The Dilemma is already one of the most memorable films of 2011. And all because it offended Anderson Cooper, who last week, during an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, criticized the film’s trailer for a line in which Vince Vaughn insults electric cars by calling them “gay.” Maybe it was the authority of Anderson Cooper, or maybe it was the timing of the controversy – during the same week that horrible, real-life cases of anti-gay bullying and torture were making headlines – but Universal quickly took notice. The studio pulled the trailer from circulation and said it wasn’t meant to cause anyone “discomfort.”
And that’s the problem: Using “gay” as an insult (as in “That’s so gay”) doesn’t cause us nearly enough discomfort. We’re desensitized to anti-gay humor, because it’s everywhere, especially in films targeted at young men. Some justify it by pointing out that “gay” has two different meanings: On the one hand, it’s a non-pejorative term meaning homosexual. On the other, it’s simply an insult meaning silly or ridiculous. This distinction is, of course, total bulls–t. “That’s so gay” is undeniably rooted in the notion that to equate something with gay people diminishes it.
In the wake of the Dilemma flap, I’ve seen lots of blog comments all over the web from people saying that we should all lighten up, that calling something “gay” is harmless and funny. Obviously Universal and Ron Howard and Vince Vaughn and screenwriter Allan Loeb thought so too. In fact, I’m sure they’re horrified to be accused of bigotry. Filmmakers have every right to use the word “gay” however they want. But at least now, more of them are aware that using it as an insult is, in fact, an ugly, bigoted put-down, no matter how funny they think it is. And we have The Dilemma to thank for that.