By Tom Comi
Words hurt. I don’t think anybody can dispute that sentiment, and we are constantly reminded of it through PSAs by the cast of Glee. But sometimes I wonder if we have become too politically correct for the sake of doing so, and one need look no further than what is going on with the 2012 telecast of the Academy Awards as evidence of that.
For those not following along, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided many months ago that it wanted its next Oscars telecast to be cutting-edge and energetic. They hired talented but often outspoken director Brett Ratner, who in turn brought along his Tower Heist star Eddie Murphy to host. Bottom line: The Academy knew it was severely pushing the envelope when both of these men came aboard.
Fast forward to this past week when Ratner once again put his foot in his mouth when promoting his latest movie and said he thought “rehearsing is for fags.” Instant uproar ensued, gay groups rallied, the obligatory apology was issued, and Ratner was eventually pressured to step down after making additional crass but non-homophobic slurs on Howard Stern’s radio broadcast. Murphy followed Ratner (who was replaced by Brian Grazer), and Billy Crystal tweeted today that he has been signed on to host.
“Words have meaning, and they have consequences,” Academy President Tom Sherak said in a statement. “Brett is a good person, but his comments were unacceptable.”
Typing the word “fag” admittedly makes me cringe, because we have all been conditioned to justifiably view it as a hateful slur against homosexuals. But as somebody who uses words for a living, I do think some history and context is needed if we are going to advance a much-needed discussion on why words can be hurtful. I had no idea until today that the origin of the word dates back to the 16th century and was initially meant as a dig against older women. I also think Ratner’s intent should count for something here.
Before anybody responds to this blog in anger or disagreement (which you have every right to do), I want to pose one question: Who honestly believes that Ratner was using the word “fag” as a homophobic slur? He obviously doesn’t believe that only gay actors should rehearse while straight people are permitted to lounge around or hang out at the craft food table, so perhaps we can instead address the sentiment behind his comment.
This is where I think Ratner is ignorant and needs to be educated. Although he obviously was not attempting to put down the gay community, he unintentionally did so by using the word he did. He was absolutely wrong to do so, and he deserved to be called out for it. But this was also a great teaching moment that could have been handled with discussion rather than hostility.
Far too often words are used in a derogatory manner with no thought as to who they are derogatory against. A perfect example of this is when someone says something is retarded or gay. The intent is obviously meant to categorize that something as dumb or inferior, but the implication is hurtful because it indirectly references people who are mentally challenged or homosexual.
We as a society are constantly evolving to alter our vocabulary to be more understanding of others. Can you fathom that there was actually a time when it was generally accepted to refer to little people as midgets or African Americans as colored people? Through education and discussion, we can all learn together to be more compassionate of others and more tolerant of the intolerant.
I’m not here to speak on behalf of Ratner, because I think his off-putting comments over the years speak to his character (or lack thereof). But the Academy knew exactly who they were hiring when they brought him on to direct next February’s Oscars telecast. And when he opened his mouth as history indicated he was prone to do, a great opportunity was wasted to further a much-needed dialogue on why words can and do hurt others.
In the movie Oscar-winning film Philadelphia, Denzel Washington plays a homophobic lawyer who takes on the case of a gay man (Tom Hanks) who was unjustly fired by his law firm. Washington’s character demonstrates his ignorance by using every gay slur in the book, but he evolves over the course of the movie to realize words do have an impact and that everybody should be treated equally.
That film prompted a lot of great conversations, and that also could have been the case with the Ratner incident. Instead, it has sadly been swept aside like it never happened. And that really is a shame.