Editor's note:Michael Eichler lives in Washington DC and works in urban planning. When he's not designing new bus rapid transit lines, he enjoys nearly-vegan cooking, cycling, making music, his rockin' boyfriend, and contemplating deep questions about the queer experience at The New Gay.
A recent Monday Upper on The New Gay was one of a small series of things that got me thinking about the way gays are used to comedic effect in movies and TV programs. It's no secret that writers of comedy films use gay and trans characters to get laughs out of us. All of us. I still laugh when the flamboyant fraternity brother wins the javelin throw in part due to his limp-wristed throwing style. I still laugh when a husky voice actress gets outed as trans on live daytime television. I have been laughing for 20+ years now at the zany, fey air traffic controller who is handed a weather report print-out and is asked "What can you make out of this?" only to reply, "This? I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl!"
But is okay for me to laugh at these things? Are the writers of these comedies and their knee-slapping, guffawing straight audiences laughing with us, or at us? Am I feeding into the omni-present homophobia that comes with using gay characters to get laughs out of audiences because I feel that these scenes are often very, very funny?
One analytical approach would be to imagine whether these characterizations would be considered funny or offensive if a different minority group was used. The movie Hollywood Shuffle comes to mind. In this brilliant 1987 movie, Robert Townsend plays an actor who is sick of playing stereotypically Black roles. Yet throughout the film, they cut away to imagined movie clips and quasi-dream sequences where these stereotypes are exploited to the ultimate degrees in really funny ways. (Where's my activator? My activator?!?) Of course, the point of this movie was to expose these stereotypes and the roles that Black actors often find available to them. Perhaps this isn't the best example, but if humorous portrayals of these stereotypes were no-nos to the Black community, the film would have gotten "the finger" instead of accolades.
Perhaps the issue lies in the nature of humor itself. There are many different things that trigger a humorous reaction. Anyone who's watched a children's cartoon knows that violence often gets chuckles. (Think Tom and Jerry, or their parody Itchy and Scratchy for that matter.) I find that a sudden realization of a double-meaning often gets a good laugh. ("That's what she said!") So, what is funny about these gay caricatures? It could be that watching behavior that falls outside of the social norm is what triggers the humor response. That could be the case for some of the examples cited above ("And Leon is getting larger!"), but perhaps it's something else. Something darker.
Think for a second about what's so funny about watching Lamar Latrell, the Black gay fraternity brother from Revenge of the Nerds, toss the specially designed javelin using his "limp-writsted throwing style." (See the video above.) When I hit the slo-mo button on my emotional response, the first thing that comes to me is embarrassment for poor Lamar. He's making a huge fool of himself, prancing down the field in knee-high socks and carrying this big, silver, wobbly phallus. Upon realizing that he's won the event, he rushes back to his brothers at the sidelines, arms held wide open and flung back, with his chest forward and head held high. Again, I'm embarrassed for him. I can't help but think, "He's such a FAG!" It hurts me to be so judgmental of him. I want to be there on the sidelines and hug him, too, to make up for the fact that I'm such an asshole. And just when the empathy gets to be too much, I laugh out loud, boisterously. It all happens in the blink of an eye, but that's the emotional reaction.
I'm then reminded of a small section of one of my favorite books, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. At one point, the main character states that he's figured out why humans laugh: we laugh because it hurts too much. Perhaps, on some level, pain and empathy is at the root of most (all?) laughter.
I have to include here that Revenge of the Nerds paints Lamar in the most endearing light. He is later featured as the lead singer of their Kraftwerk-inspired musical competition performance, rapping with an airy, fragile voice and air-walking in a Thriller jacket. (See below.) They win this competition, too, and yet again Lamar is the star as well as the source of a lot of emotional discomfort on my part.
So, at the end of this brief analysis, I still don't know. Is it wrong to find humor in the portrayal of gay stereotypes? Even if the gay character is the one that saves the day?