The Nelly Menace
We live in wondrous times indeed if a bug-eyed amphibian who sways when he ought to swagger is the new enemy within. Meet Jar Jar Binks, the latest cosmic critter to emerge from the Star Wars merchandising mill. This loveable Gungan, who tags along with the Jedi knights as they sally forth against evil, was supposed to pull in the kiddies and he's fit for the task, with bulbously cute features that pop out at you from the shelves of Kmart. But the team that dreamed up this creature must have drawn its focus groups from a distant planet. Here in earthbound America, Jar Jar has become a flash point for misgivings about The Phantom Menace. Not since Michael Jackson has an alien raised such hellacious hackles.
"A Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen": that's how Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal's film critic, describes Jar Jar and he's hardly alone. Critics across the country have complained about racial stereotyping in The Phantom Menace, sending the marketers at Lucasfilm into a disavowing tizzy. ''Star Wars is a fantasy movie set in a galaxy far, far away, [whose denizens] speak in various dialects, tongues, beeps, and synthetically created voices," the company contended in a statement last week. "To dissect this movie as if it has a direct reference to the world that we know today is absurd."
A bit disingenuous for a director who never met a movie-serial trope he didn't like. But this time, George Lucas has done the days of Tonto and Sabu proud. There's the elephant-nosed merchant who haggles with a Semitic accent, and the villainous Trade Federation whose agents sound like Ming the Merciless. But no character in The Phantom Menace has drawn more fire than Jar Jar Binks, and not just because he behaves like a disembodied darkie. Morgenstern's quip about crossing Stepin Fetchit with Butterfly McQueen betrays the real anxiety, which has less to do with racial dissing than with gender bending. Even C-3PO is perturbed by Jar Jar. "I find that creature to be a little odd," sniffs the prissy Droid. "He's very odd, indeed."
Meanwhile, on the Internet, where every rumor is its own domain, word is out: Jar Jar is gay and that being the case, naturally he must die. About a dozen sites with this mission have popped up since The Phantom Menace opened last month. There's Kill Jar Jar, Jar Jar Binks Must Fucking Die!, and the International Society for the Extermination of Jar Jar Binks. There are pleas for Lucas to cut the Gungan sissy out of his film, instructions for deleting him from your own DVD version, and a poll in which the option heavily favored by Netizens is "Jar Jar must die by my own hand."
Why the murderous rage? The most common explanation is that Jar Jar is "annoying." But the real story is inscribed in the hate pages that feature sexual fantasies about this aggravating alien. On one site, a nude drawing of his lanky frame comes with a circle around the missing genitals and the caption "Well, that figures." More common is the image of Jar Jar as a rapacious pansy out of Brian De Palma. Visit Jar Jar Binks Ate My Balls and you'll discover that this cosmic queer has "fiended for balls every second of each waking day," using his long, darting tongue to grab the tasty testes from "10 clicks away." It's no surprise that Jar Jar's ultimate dream is to "eat Jedi testicles."
Of course, this is harmless hyperbole of the sort that makes the Internet so hip and cool. Or is it? Click on Jar Jar Sucks and it's déjà vu all over again, especially if you're old enough to remember the heroic campaign that went by the motto "Disco sucks!" This music of the gay emergence was also called annoying, not to mention banal and boring. At the height of the crusade, thousands of righteous guys participated in Disco Demolition Night after a ball game, burning records and sparking a riot. We're much more civilized now; the attack is purely digital, but the mission hasn't changed. Croons there a baby-faced boy band whose appeal to young girls hasn't inspired real men to out its members?
There are temples in the culture where the sacred codes of manhood are kept, and these tabernacles must be defended against the odious Unmen. Dennis Rodman, Ricky Martin, Jar Jar Binks: these defilers and their ilk must fucking die! (Think this is just a fantasy? Last week, a high school student in Massachusetts had the word homo carved into his back by two classmates. His crime, according to the suspects, was liking "a gay band" Queen.)
Star Wars is the ultimate Temple of Dude. It takes place in a Yankee Doodle universe, where the heroes speak American, the sages have British accents, the aliens seem oddly "ethnic," and the villains would make Hitler's haberdasher drool. This is a man's cosmos, organized in a rigid (but just) hierarchical order. "Always two there are," says wise old Yoda from his chair at the all-male Jedi Council: "a master and an apprentice." Jedis rule by right over "pitiful life forms" (in Obi-Wan Kenobi's words), while hooded blackguards covet their power and princesses adore them.
To boys who came of age in the '70s, when Star Wars first appeared, this scenario spoke to the yearning for a world of alpha men and devoted betas. After all, this was the first generation of white boys that couldn't take its skin and dick privileges for granted. They desperately needed the Jedi gestalt, and apparently they still do. All the more reason why the Brotherhood of the Modem must rise against this latest incursion on their temple: the Nelly Menace.
"he's long and he's strong, but he's not gay," Ahmed Best, the actor who plays Jar Jar, told one interviewer. Best has been trotted out to quell all the nasty rumors. The studio itself is so reluctant to get involved that, when a Fox spokesperson was asked whether Jar Jar is gay, she replied that the entire publicity department at Lucasfilm was on vacation and therefore unable to comment. (As the glitzy Gungan himself might say: "How wude!")
Though there's no evidence in the film that Jar Jar hits on chicks, Best insists, "He's very much swinging straight." As for the allegation that his character is a coward (which certainly would make him gay), Best says, "Didn't you see how he faced those Battle Droids?" In fact, Jar Jar does things no Jedi would, such as tossing an exploding sphere at the enemy the way you'd expect a sissy to throw a softball i.e., the wrong way. So the fateful question remains: Is he a homo?
Well, let's see:
Compare that to the way a real man acts in Star Wars:
Dude Jar Jar is definitely gay!
Now that we've got that straight, what's the problem? After all, he doesn't accost young Anakin Skywalker (as any real homo would) or diddle Obi-Wan Kenobi in the shower. In fact, Jar Jar doesn't do anything sexual. Clearly, he's a plaything meant to induct the youngest viewers into Star Wars, as loveable as Barney and a lot more limber. There's the rub.
If Anakin is the perfect Jedi boy willful, resourceful, and raring to fight Jar Jar is a genuinely futuristic child: open, loving, and at ease with his sensitivity. What's more, his attributes are natural to juveniles of his species, not the result of failure. If there's something free-to-be-you-and-me about all this, it's no accident. Lucas was obviously hoping to tap the New Age demographic by creating a flouncy alien who, for all the comic relief he provides, ends up being honored as a hero. It's a great fantasy for every boy who worries about his image, but it violates the first commandment of trad masculinity: Thou shalt not be a pussy.
Is Jar Jar male? Only in the sense that every living thing is a "he" until proven otherwise. Can he possibly be gay, since he isn't equipped to commit sodomy? Only in the sense that gayness is a stand-in for the larger issue of effeminacy. Back when Star Wars made its debut in 1977, real men didn't swish and they still don't. But in the age of Bill, guys can bite their lower lip and still get a blowjob. Hey, you can't even spit on a sissy these days without getting hauled into fucking court. How fitting that, in cultivating the post-macho market, Lucas should alienate his core constituency: the very guys who were raised on the Jedi saga and still see it as a refuge from real life. Men like these are easily unhinged by change, as we learned from the recent panic over a purple doll who carries a purse.
By now, Tinky Winky phobia has entered the annals of wacky American history, right up there with black helicopters and alien abductions. But there's a real connection between Jerry Falwell's fuming and the imprecations being hurled at Jar Jar. Both are responses to a significant shift in the way children are inducted into gender. We are moving toward a time when boys can carry purses and girls can wield swords without endangering their identities. But when something as fundamental as masculin-ity begins to evolve, there is bound to be a backlash. Which is why Tinky Winky is rarely put on display with the other Teletubbies. No toy store wants to be accused of promoting homosexuality. Not that Tinky Winky has a sexual orientation unless it's polyester perverse but he's become a gay icon because he stands for something that threatens the manly code.
Get used to it, guys. Preachers may rant and knights of the Net may rave, but the culture has spoken. The force is with the Nelly Menace.
Research: Steph Watts