Homophobic 'humor' is too widespread in kids' media
By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published January 19, 2006
Several movies released in the last part of 2005 had sensitive, understanding and compassionate portrayals of gay and transgendered characters: "Brokeback Mountain," "Rent," "The Family Stone" and "Breakfast on Pluto."
So why is it that so many films made for children and teens feature casually homophobic humor?
In one of this season's PG family comedies, a princessy teenager played by the wholesome Hilary Duff is annoyed at her pesky younger sister.
In the old days, Big Sis might have called Little Sis a brat. But in "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," the insult of choice is, "Whatever, Butch!" Later in the same movie, two warring fathers are mistaken for a gay couple, a situation viewers are expected to find wildly funny.
It's bad enough that this kind of "humor" is offensive as a matter of taste and tolerance, but what parent wants to explain to an 8-year-old what the "butch" comment means, or why it is supposed to be funny that one man has his arm around another man's shoulders?
This is the place where the ratings board run by the Motion Picture Association of America is at its worst, because it does not take humor seriously. Material that would get a PG-13 or an R in a drama gets a PG or even a G in a comedy.
This means that parents are not adequately warned about material that raises two issues of concern. First, it raises issues of gender and sexuality that many parents would not consider appropriate for children. The light-hearted insults in these films can even make it harder to have a thoughtful conversation with children about those issues because they reinforce a very limited notion of what is "normal."
Second, it suggests that it is permissible to make fun of people who are gay or who do not conform to the most narrow definitions of what it means to be male or female.
In the recent PG "Yours, Mine & Ours," it is supposed to be humorous that one of the young sons of a free-thinking mother is a junior "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," advising his mother about fabrics and trim on the purses she designs.
At least her view of him is loving and accepting. Later in the film, when the older children want to come up with the prank that would most upset their straight-arrow father, their idea turns out to be dressing up two 4-year-old boys in girls' clothes and having them talk about tea parties.
"Raise your hand if your brother's a homo!" is a frequent punch line in "Just Friends," a current PG-13 release directed at teenagers. This is a high schooler's insult to his twenty-something brother because the elder brother has failed to "boink" the girl he likes.
Even the darling Disney animated "Chicken Little" has "sissy" humor, when the mother of the high-strung and fearful pig character threatens to take away his Barbra Streisand collection as a punishment. More troubling, the outspoken "mean girl" in the movie, an outstanding athlete, is transformed into a sweet, ruffle-wearing stereotypical girly-girl. At the end, we see her happily dancing with the pig.
Other characters in the film make mistakes and find their way toward becoming more grown up, but only she undergoes such a complete (and presumably humorous) transformation. It would be fine to see her learn her lesson and become more considerate, but the implication here is that she has had to relinquish her strength, competence, independent spirit -- and overalls -- in order to do so.
It's unlikely that these themes and portrayals will create any confusion in children or teens about their own sexual orientation.
But they may create other kinds of confusion, for they send troubling messages about gender roles and even more troubling messages about the way we treat those who do not conform to the traditional models.
Movies, television, and popular music help children and teenagers determine the definitions of manhood and womanhood, and all too often they focus on the extremes. They show us men who keep all of their emotions inside, demonstrating manhood through physical courage and power. And they show us women who are softhearted and seldom rely on their wisdom and judgment to solve problems, achieving power through their beauty, vulnerability and sexuality.
These depictions can be especially appealing to children and adolescents who often cling to absolutes for a sense of security as they move toward growing up.
Parents need to make sure that children and teenagers see images of characters who show some emotional vulnerability along with physical and intellectual power. Books of stories like "Tatterhood and Other Tales" (edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps), "The Outspoken Princess and the Gentle Knight" (edited by Jack Zipes); the "Redwall" series of novels by Brian Jacques; and movies "The Court Jester," (1956 comedy starring a wonderful cast including Danny Kaye), "The Great Race," (1965 comedy featuring Jack Lemmon among the Hollywood "names") and the current "Chronicles of Narnia" are the sorts of family fare that show male and female characters who are strong, resourceful, and empathetic.
But for kids, no film or book can top what matters most: the behavior they observe at home. Parents should avoid using words like "sissy" and "tomboy," and they should openly object to jokes that make fun of someone's gender or sexual orientation.
Teenagers today, even those who consider themselves sophisticated supporters of homosexual classmates, often use "gay" as an all-purpose insult. This is an age group that responds better to questions than reprimands, so it may help for parents who hear this kind of language to ask -- sincerely -- why the term is considered appropriate and not bigoted.
Families also can discuss the way that rap music has often included offensive homophobic references as a part of its macho bluster. They certainly should talk about rap superstar Kanye West's challenge to all rap performers to stop mindlessly using anti-gay insults in lyrics.
In an interview on MTV in 2005, West explained that he became homophobic when he was younger because he was called "fag" and "mama's boy" in school, but, in part because he has a gay relative, he realizes how wrong and hurtful those gangsta definitions of masculinity can be.
And since we're not likely to get rid of humor that depends on stereotypes any time soon, the most important defense parents can provide is this: teaching children and teenagers that one core attribute of being a man and a woman is respecting the honor and dignity of others who are different.
Nell Minow reviews movies each week for Yahoo! and for radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Thursday, January 19, 2006