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When the gay media watchdog GLAAD wrote an alarmed letter to Kevin Smith last month, they couldn’t have predicted that this director of controversial comedies would become an even bigger celebrity as a result of their concerns. But in the weeks since the opening of Smith’s latest laff riot, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he’s been a darling of the hip-hugging media, appearing with Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and Howard Stern. GLAAD shouldn’t be surprised. Ever since Eminem proved that you can brag about stabbing gays and be hailed as a hero, it’s become hard to criticize homophobia in pop culture. As queer baiting spreads from hip hop and shock radio to teen dating films, letting your phobe flag fly has become the mark of cool.
Consider the critical response to Jay and Silent Bob, which sets a new record for fag jokes. They pop up about every two minutes—so often that Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times sniffed, “It grows a little tiresome.” (Would twice an hour suffice?) More typical was Peter Travers’s defense of Smith in Rolling Stone: “This sly, fearless satirist can’t make a movie without getting his ass kicked by special interest groups.” Richard Roeper, Roger Ebert’s new partner, chimed in with a “memo to GLAAD: Lighten up.”
True, these activists aren’t up for yuks like”See you in hell, cock smoker” or “Fuck you, faggot,” not to mention the ubiquitous high-school term for clumsy or stupid: “That’s so gay!” After his brush with GLAAD, Smith agreed to add a statement about homophobia to the end of the movie. At the showing I attended, the theater was empty by the time this decidedly hedged disclaimer appeared, right after the obligatory crawl about not harming animals. It read: “No gay people were hurt during the making of this film.” Meanwhile, Smith has played the misunderstood liberal to the hilt. His intention, he insists, is to “preach tolerance by hiding it in humor”—and the critics agree. “What’s sad,” wrote Travers, “is that Smith has to justify his right to parody prejudice.”
The silence of the critics is a major reason why hate has become hip—and the mechanism that allows them to maintain their cool is irony. As long as an artist provides this insulating veil, the substance of his bigotry can be ignored. It worked for Eminem, who has a much less practiced wink than Kevin Smith. This filmmaker’s in-jokey style allows the “knowing” to join in the phobic fun while pretending to be above it. Anyone who can’t take the fag jokes is called “witless,” which is the hip way to say, “Dude, that’s sooo gay!”
At the risk of being pussies—a mark of honor for humanists in a revanchist time—let’s look below the slippery surface of this film. To examine its structure is to understand why Kevin Smith is not the preacher of tolerance he claims to be. He’s a backlash profiteer.
In case you’re too busy bitch slapping to check out Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, let me fill you in. It’s the latest addition to the genre Elvis Mitchell has dubbed “slob comedy.” In this meta-funky form, two terminally inept dudes embark on an (ultimately excellent) adventure. Their travails are as close as pop culture gets to the picaresque tradition, and their hapless regression makes them highly appealing creatures of pure libido. The most iconic figures in this genre—from Cheech and Chong to Bill and Ted and the pratfalling pair in Dumb and Dumber—are far from losers. In speaking truth to competence if not power, they are more like holy fools.
At first glance, Jay and Silent Bob fit right into this fraternity, but they are hardly the gentle jugheads that their predecessors were. At the film’s conclusion, they beat up kids who have dissed them on the Internet. But their most distinguishing trait is an unrelenting paranoia about homosexuality. Fag jokes are their shtick, and it marks them for ridicule—or so most critics maintain. They don’t seem to have noticed that the true targets of mockery in this film are not Jay and Silent Bob but anyone who seems gay-friendly, or who evinces any sort of sympathy, even for animals. These are the real dweebs. Jay and Bob may be idiots, but at least they have the balls to be bigoted. If Smith means them to be losers, how come Jay wins the grand prize in the dude status game? He gets the girl.
It’s not as if there are are only two phobes in this film. Everyone joins in the battery. Those who aren’t slinging slurs are fending off accusations that they’re queer. Meanwhile, sodomy is a constant possibility, and the most unlikely guys can suddenly turn gay. This fantasy may play like part of the film’s progressive pose, but it goes with the backlash territory. After all, the purpose of homophobia is not to banish homosexuality, but to establish a hierarchy and assure that it remains intact. Men police each other through gay baiting, and those who seem least vulnerable to the charge—or most likely to get away with belittling their peers—usually end up on top. Fag jokes serve the same purpose as stars and stripes on a uniform: They are insignias of the order.
The most radical aspect of the slob comedy is the absence of a male hierarchy. Beatific buds like Cheech and Chong or Bill and Ted are equals in their imbecility; there’s no top or bottom in these relationships. But Jay and Silent Bob harks back to the rigid code of Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis. In these odd couples, it’s very clear who is the top man and who is the flailing or spastic nerd. He may be more lovable, but the top man gets the girl—just like in Smith’s retro comedy. Silent Bob, who spends much of the film suffering Jay’s accusations that he “loves the cock” (and who privately admits as much), ends up smooching an ape.
Does this sound like a parody of prejudice? I guess that depends on where you stand in the hierarchy—or where you’d like to be. Since most pop-culture critics were once teenage nerds, it’s easy to see why they would sooner identify with the aggressor than defend the victim. This is not so different from the dynamic that drives high-school bullying. The top boys actually do the bashing, but hardly anyone objects. Most of us are too anxious about our own places in the pack—and all too willing to savor the designated scapegoat’s pain.
What makes it possible for ordinary people to stand against bullying is a culture that identifies it as wrong. We haven’t quite gotten there. We’re prepared to condemn race-baiting, but where homophobia—or for that matter, sexism—are concerned, we’re not so sure we want to disrupt the male order. And we find the bully sexy (since he is the top boy). This conflict is particularly hard on liberals, who end up torn between pleasure and their principles. Smith’s success is his ability to provide the former without threatening the latter. That’s the virtue of irony. It gives liberals permission to be as nasty as they wanna be.
Get past the pretense that this film is a parody of prejudice and you’ll notice that the joke isn’t really at Jay and Silent Bob’s expense. The laughter you hear is the sound of solidarity.
Research: Adrian Leung