Posts Tagged 'Tone'

Tone Deaf

Been thinking the last few days what to write about. There’s a lot going on right now, everywhere you look. My group of friends has spent a lot of time talking about Tyler Clementi and the tragedy of that entire situation. If you think it’s simple, you haven’t been paying attention. But the question is, how to write about that, really write about it in a way that says anything useful? Then this thing with the trailer for “The Dilemma” happened and people started writing about it (like Roger Ebert’s online editor, Jim Emerson. Read his opinion here and watch him misconstrue the parabola of cultural acceptability for the comedic potential of the word “gay”). The more I read about it, the more annoyed I became and here we go. The offending trailer:

Mostly, it shakes down like this. “The Dilemma” is a painfully un-funny looking movie, in which stars Vince Vaughn and Kevin James show director Ron Howard how to collect a paycheck. There’s a bland but harmless joke about electric cars being gay. Harmless? Yes. Harmless because it isn’t tactless because it wasn’t written, directed, or performed in conjunction with or response to  (and certainly not to make light of) any of the tragedies involving homosexuals that have been occurring over the past couple months. Look at the tone of the joke’s delivery. This is not hate speech. There is such a thing as hate speech. This isn’t it. This is poor timing for a movie whose release date has probably been set for a long time. If it had been released six months ago, would any of this be happening? (True, but it’s not six months ago. It’s now. Better idea would have been to use that joke as a secondary trailer around mid-late December.)

Which in any case didn’t stop Anderson “Don’t Call Me Silver Fox” Cooper from being upset about it on “Ellen” recently, and which didn’t stop GLAAD from grossly over-reacting and contesting that “it plays on the sorts of stereotypes that give license to bullies and should be taken out.” (Also let’s pause to reflect that the outrage has centered at a) Vince Vaughn and b) Universal, who is releasing the movie. What about the writers? Has there been confirmation that this scene was improv? What about director Ron Howard? What a poorly conceived outrage.)

And all of this is extremely eyeball-roll-inducing, but how’s this for some real bullshit hypocrisy: this past Sunday on “60 Minutes,” there was a story about rapper Eminem. An awful story. A pointless story. More akin to a junior high-school newspaper profile (If you have 13-ish minutes to be bored, watch it here). “Hey Em, had a hard life?” “Sure did!” It sheds no light on his mixture of self & persona. It wades only into the kiddie pool of his lyrics’ power. And the interviewer was… Anderson Cooper. He quotes some of Eminem’s lyrics – which are more incisive and offensive than anything Vince Vaughn has done since… “Made” ? – and after Eminem essentially shrugs it off by saying he don’t hate nobody, the matter is dropped.

And strangely, surprisingly, confoundingly, Cooper seems to accept this answer as sufficient. Now, I happen to be a fan of Eminem, but if I’m choosing something potentially homophobic and damaging to get pissed off about, “The Dilemma” is tee-ball compared to Eminem’s lyrics. So why all the commotion about the movie? Why not a single question in the interview about how Eminem’s lyrics could be used to incite bullying and violence?

If you watch the segment with Cooper from Ellen’s show, the discussion is focused on the power of specific words. And to an extent, I agree. Words have meaning, meaning has power. What it doesn’t mention is the all-important discussion of tone. It is tone and context, not content, that make a thing funny or mean or hurtful (or wonderful or beautiful).

Which of course makes things more difficult, because tone can be so widely interpreted and terribly misinterpreted. But the fact that it’s tricky and gray and confusing isn’t a reason to completely transfer the issue to something more palatable and limit it to a list of words that can’t be said. This simplifies a complex issue and promotes an easy solution while the issue continues to get worse. And if word usage is such a major response trigger, then where is the outrage at Eminem? Has GLAAD just conceded that fight? His albums still sell in the millions, so it’s certainly not that he’s become culturally obsolete. At the very least, to use a loaded metaphor, Anderson Cooper seems to be focussing on a tiny speck while trees fall all around him. Hence, hypocrisy.

What I find most alarming is that GLAAD thinks it has the right to demand the joke be removed from the movie. Lookit, it’s probably not going to be a good movie anyway. Hopefully it will be overlooked upon its release in January by the hoard of big budget holiday films and Oscar contenders trickling out to more and more theaters. Regardless, though: to suggest that their organization should be able to dictate the content of a film because they dislike it is more grossly offensive than anything “The Dilemma” has brought to the table. And the reason is the tone of the statement, the self-bestowed entitlement it carries with it.

Things are tense right now. Parents, administrators and activists (and also celebrities playing activists on TV) are in a frenzy trying to figure out what to do to stop bullying – nevermind any other factors that may be at play in these situations, we’ll take our problem’s origins in the form most easy-to-package/easier-to-rage-about, thank you very much. Over-reactions are perhaps understandable right now, but that doesn’t make them right, and being compassionate isn’t the same thing as giving in to the loudest voice around. Times like these, emotion trumps logic and big hearts trump sharp minds. And as a result, is it any big surprise that things are getting ridiculous?

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