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Critical thinking gets Bamboozled

Dean Laplonge: Tropfest 2014 First Prize: Bamboozled

Dean Laplonge is the director of Factive, a cultural research consultancy which explores new ways of understanding gender in resource industries. He is also an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

Bamboozled, courtesy the filmmakers
Bamboozled, courtesy the filmmakers

In December last year, Bamboozled took out the top prize at Sydney’s Tropfest. There was a very brief moment of celebration. And then came the accusation: this film is homophobic. Or should that be transphobic? Nobody seemed quite sure. But social media went off as accusers and defenders started to spit out their definitive responses.

One disgruntled writer published her threat to “think twice about tuning into Tropfest next year.” Her reason: “The jokes [in Bamboozled] are derived from the shock that a man slept with another man.” Another writer—who identified as a friend of the film’s director Matthew Hardie—argued that the backlash was unfair because Hardie and others involved in the film “are good, kind, decent human beings.”

The ensuing argument was incredibly boring. Bad film or good film? Either Hardie was guilty of homophobia/transphobia, or he wasn’t. Now, which side will you choose to be on…?

Observing this argument (and while fighting off the temptation to get involved), I wondered how everyone who had to have their say seemed to have missed (or ignored) the debate about positive and negative representation in media texts. In the midst of trying to discredit or praise a film and its director, why was there no mention of this?

This issue has been widely explored in Media Studies and other cultural disciplines for many decades. Here, we find an abundance of discussions about what constitutes positive or negative in terms of representations of disability, age, class, race, gender as well as sex and sexuality. And one of the simplest conclusions to have come out of all this is that a single media text always has multiple meanings. The historical and cultural location of the text and its audience always affect the reading. It is, therefore, impossible to claim that any media text offers definitely a positive or a negative representation.

The argument about Bamboozled failed to pick up or explore this. Those who participated in this argument showed they were capable of having opinions about a film, but they did not show any ability to analyse the historical and cultural specificity of that film.

Instead, the debate ran its course as an overly simplified two-sided rant. Bamboozled had to be homophobic because it made fun of a man who had sex with another man. Or, it had to be a great movie because it was made by Hardie who has many gay friends—look here’s a picture of Hardie in a gay nightclub so this must prove he and his film can’t be homophobic!

In seeking to defend or attack Hardie and his film, the social media mafia also failed to identify that this was not the first time we have addressed the question of whether a text represents non-heterosexuality in a positive or negative way. They quite simply forgot—or failed to know—the queer history on which they were commenting.

The popular television show Queer Eye for The Straight Guy (debut 2003), for example, was considered by many to be influential in finally opening up homosexuality to a wider public audience. I recall at the time of its popularity how so many of my undergraduate students would cite this show as paving the way for gay liberation. Decades of struggles had somehow disappeared with the emergence of this one television show. But whether the men in this show offered ‘positive representations’ of homosexuality was questioned. Some argued that the flamboyant personalities of the more dominant characters in fact reinforced the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate.

The character of Jack in the series Will and Grace has been analysed in the same way. Will might be considered the ‘normal’ gay man, but Jack seems to represent the stereotypical gay man. Does this mean that one is positive and the other is negative? No. It means that Will is able to be seen as a positive representation of homosexuality in a culture where being ‘normal’ is good.

Jon Inman’s character Mr Humphries in the 1970s British sitcom Are You Being Served? was one of the first ongoing representations of homosexuality on television. But would such a character be considered as funny or as acceptable today within a gay culture where the ‘straight-acting’ gay man is preferred over the ‘queen’?

Queer as Folk (2000-2005)—another seminal contemporary gay television show—had a bit of everything. There were drugs, gay parenting, promiscuity, love, underage sex, lesbians, queens and even a few straights. The UK version was so popular that it was later turned into an American show that lasted for five seasons. But this show was also seen by some as further alienating gay people from the mainstream because of its daring approach.

Equally, representations of transpeople have been the subject of much debate. Some argue that the characters in Tootsie (1982) and TransAmerica (2005) made issues of gender and sexuality more visible and to a much wider audience. Others see these films as creating humour or fantasy when the real lives of transpeople often include intense medical scrutiny and daily discrimination.

Such debates can never define a character as a positive or negative representation of homosexuality or transgender. But the representations—and the responses to them—can give us some idea about how we understand homosexuality and transgender today, and how we might expect non-heterosexuals to behave.

So, is Bamboozled a homophobic or transphobic film? This is quite simply the wrong question to ask. And it’s impossible to answer definitively—no matter how much we rant in our social networks. Instead, we could discuss the representations of sexuality as they appeared in this film with reference to cultural and historical contexts.

We could consider how this film plays around with the importance of sexual identity in early 21st century cultures. We could consider, as Hardie has insisted we should, how the film responds to the media’s treatment of homosexuality as something to snigger at. We could explore how the film draws on an emerging discourse of trans-rights or trans-acceptance. We might think about how this media text differs in its representation of sexuality from similar representations we might find in reality shows like Big Brother. We might even raise questions about who has the right to speak for homosexuals and transpeople.

But fighting to destroy or save the reputation of a single film or its director is just tedious. It’s a playground battle which indicates to me that the fighters—both the accusers and the defenders—are not interested in locating media texts in culture. They’re only interested on being seen to be on the side of the ‘good.’

Dean Laplonge is the director of Factive, a cultural research consultancy which explores new ways of understanding gender in resource industries. He is also an adjunct senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 21

© Dean Laplonge; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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