Ron Howard’s Movie “The Dilemma”: The ‘Gay’ Joke in the Eye of the Storm

Talk about rough landing for a movie and the upcoming comedy The Dilemma easily moves to center court. The movie starring Hollywood actor Vince Vaughn is not set to hit theaters until January 14, 2011, but it has apparently already run some red lights in the court of public opinion, thanks to the movie’s trailer. In the movie, Vaughn’s coarse character kicks the hornet’s nest by rashly saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, electric cars…are gay.” Making matters worse, the widely reported events around the time of the trailer’s release only added fuel to the fire, from the Rutgers University freshman [Tyler Clementi] who jumped to his death after his friends posted a video of him having gay sex to the rash of anti-gays attacks in New York City around that time.

The first shot was fired at the movie by CNN’s Anderson Cooper who blasted the gay joke as offensive and just too much to accept and that it could hurt kids. Then there was another shot from comedian-actress Ellen DeGeneres, followed by gay rights groups, and soon there were calls to cut the line from the movie. But the movie’s director Ron Howard rejected the calls, stating that “[i]f storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and provoker of thought.”

Vaughn himself sided with his director, saying that comedy and joking about our differences breaks tension and brings people together. “Drawing dividing lines over what we can and cannot joke about does exactly that; it divides us. Most importantly, where does it stop”?

However, the battle lines from this debate are really those between the First Amendment’s free speech protection and today’s “political correctness”, which is in essence a genuine “law versus society” scenario, a type of tension that is nothing new.

In a classic free speech tone, Howard says that he defends the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as he defends the right for that joke to be in a film. But seriously, can Howard really keep the line in the movie, damn the uproar? Will the law let him? Short answer: Well, probably!

Free speech is very important to American democracy. Yet, there are boundaries drawn by the law around it. The common boundary lines include the use of language that “incites” folks to “violence” against others or the use of “fighting words”, which are words that would be likely to provoke a violent or similar reaction from people to whom they are directed, a common example being the ‘N’ word. Also, there is no free speech protection for the use of “obscene” language, as in the use of sexually explicit language that could provoke lustful feelings or other language of an immoral, lewd, or indecent kind.

In The Dilemma situation, as offensive as it might be, it does not appear that the “gay” line, just by itself, would “incite” anyone to go out and commit acts of violence against gays. Plus, speaking of “fighting words”, the word “gay” does not yet seem to carry with it the same kind of derision and historic stigma as the “N” word. In this respect, one could reasonably assume that the movie would have come much closer to the danger zone if it would have made a similar crack at say, Blacks or Jews or Muslims. But it didn’t.

The other free speech issue of “obscenity” does not arise in this case, given that the ‘gay’ line is not dealing with anything indecent, lewd or perhaps sexually titillating. And this greatly reduces any real chance of the movie’s opponents punishing the film with a less favorable MPAA rating.

So, as things stand today, opponents of The Dilemma movie don’t seem to stand much chance within the law to force the filmmaker to cut the ‘gay’ line from the movie, for the simple reason that under America’s free speech regime, mere offense to people’s sensibility does not necessarily give rise to a legal remedy. But that’s not the end of the matter, because, for starters, the opponents can move their case over to the court of public opinion. Their odds of success are better in this alternative court, thanks to the new reality of political correctness in today’s public attitudes, where to give offense to the sensibilities of any group can rob a movie of the audience it needs to do well at the box office.

So far, the movie’s opponents have snagged some concession that no court of law would have given them: the studio Universal Pictures has agreed to cut the offending ‘gay’ line from the movie’s trailer. Who knows what further concession(s) they might win from the studio before the movie actually hits the theaters in January 2010.

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