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Scott Mendelson

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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

Posted: 11/10/2011 2:18 pm

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" than I believe any of you are homophobes for using the word "sissy." Nor do I believe that most of you hold any prejudicial inclinations toward 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. My point is that 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 an arguable 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 implausible that circumstance might be), people of color are the only ones who are likely to be 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. 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 filmmaking 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, my point being that 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 filmmaking 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. My point is that 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.

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? Please share your thoughts below.

 

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