Is ‘Zoolander 2’ Really Transphobic, or Are Protesters Too Quick and Sensitive?

The Daily Beast

November 23, 2015

Zoolander, let us be clear, is not a work of gritty social realism; the now-franchise is a send-up of the absurdity of the fashion industry and its colorful population’s love of aesthetics and frozen faces. It’s parody and satire, with a massive, arched eyebrow. Everyone is grotesque, and everything is exaggerated.

Zoolander 2 looks to be pretty much following the same formula, with Ben Stiller back as the eponymous male model and Owen Wilson as his buddy Hansel McDonald, now trying to crack a murder mystery; all the victims adopt Zoolander’s trademark ‘Blue Steel’ gaze.

Before the movie has even been released, the trailer has been deemed transphobic and has already inspired a petition to boycott the film.

Its organizer, Sarah Rose, writes: “In the ‘Zoolander 2’ trailer, an androgynous character played by Benedict Cumberbatch is asked by Zoolander and Hansel if he is a ‘male or female model’, and if they ‘have a hot dog or a bun.’

“Additionally, Cumberbatch’s character is clearly portrayed as an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals. This is the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority.”

Shall we watch this offensive, transphobic trash, light the pitchforks, and prepare to slay?

Is it as bad as the Stonewall trailer, which showed a pretty white twink throwing a brick through the New York bar to kick-start the 1969 riots that formed the psychic and cultural bedrock of the modern LGBT rights movement?

That trailer turned out to be a perfect mini-encapsulation of a film that was less tone-deaf, and more totally devoid of ears. Stonewall ill-served not just its transgender, transvestite, and ethnic minority characters, but also LGBT history as a whole, and it was clunkily, badly written and directed.

The offending moment of the Zoolander 2 trailer unfurls thus: Zoolander and Hansel return to a changed world of modeling, where they are introduced to All, “the biggest supermodel in the world,” played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

All has long auburn hair, and pointy features.

“Are you like a male model, or a female model?” asks Stiller’s character.

“All is all,” replies Cumberbatch’s.

“I think what he’s asking is whether you’ve got a hot dog or a bun,” says Wilson’s character.

“Haha, oops,” says All, kittenishly.

And that is it. So, two characters who are meant to be parodies, and walking jokes themselves, say something crass that two idiots would say, and that is all. They are not words of hate, they are words of ignorance—yes—but they are ignorant characters who say them. We do not know yet how big this storyline is or how it’s written.

But this lack of information has not put off activists.

“If the producers and screenwriters of Zoolander wanted to provide social commentary on the presence of trans/androgyne individuals in the fashion industry, they could have approached models like Andreja Pejic to be in the film,” the petition to boycott the film states.

“By hiring a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way, they film endorses harmful and dangerous perceptions of the queer community at large.

Tell Paramount Pictures, Ben Stiller, and Benedict Cumberbatch that mocking transgender/androgyne/gender fluid individuals is not okay–sign this petition to pledge to boycott the film!”

At the time of writing, the petition has over 10,000 signatures. Despite being ever-primed for offense—believe me, growing up in the 1980s, you would have spent all your time writing petitions for this kind of stuff, or even for demanding the presence of LGBT characters in anything—I can’t quite bring myself to click where I am supposed to.

For one, none of us have seen the actual film; one should always reserve judgment for that.

But also, the policing of what can and can’t be written or said is becoming a little too doctrinaire to be of much value to politics, cultural change, or pop culture’s conscience.

LGBT activism used to be about opening up discourse and images; the left’s outrage-stirring zealots seek to ever more shrilly decree what it is OK and what it is not OK to see and say.

Sarah Rose and her fellow protesters may or may not have been alive when the movie Cruising was released in 1980, starring Al Pacino as a cop investigating gay S&M bars in New York to catch a killer.

Perhaps, Rose and her supporters have or have not read (and seen the later brilliant documentary based on it) Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, which showed the panoply of LGBT representation and stories that surreptitiously tried to peek through cinema’s curtains in far less accepting times.

The history of LGBT movie-making, characters, and stories on the big screen has always been one of advances and retreats—even today. Russo’s work is fascinating because it enlightens, as well as rightly angers us, while also shaming the studios who ignored and misrepresented the full diversity of us. Looking at how we are seen can also be instructive and be used as a clarion call for change.

Cruising merited the protests it garnered—this was a time when there was little in the way of LGBT representation on the big screen, and when it was presented, it was invariably negative. It was a time of legislated and socially acceptable homo- and transphobia.

Every shout and placard raised against Cruising was deserved (even though Pacino is totally hot in it, and as an evocation of gay sexual arcana, it has its own pleasures for an LGBT audience).

Placing the ignominy of Cruising alongside the crassness of Zoolander 2 makes for no comparison. The storm over Cruising makes the storm over Zoolander 2 look like a particularly asinine storm in a miniscule teacup.

The intention behind the Zoolander boycott is no doubt good—no one cares much to hear and experience blatant homo- or transphobia. But is this that? Does anyone know enough at this point to judge it in such serious terms?

Simply jumping on every passing moronic or empty-headed attempt at comedy doesn’t shame the makers of the comedy, but rather the instigators of protest, who end up—mistakenly—attaching as much campaigning importance to a piece of exaggerated parody as they do to much more serious issues of trans murders and suicides.

Zoolander—and, it seems Zoolander 2—is a comedy of extremes, and All is as much a parodic figure of indeterminate sexuality as Zoolander is of a shallow puddle of vain heterosexuality. Can we not laugh at them both? LGBTs used to be able to laugh at themselves and the stereotypes associated with them, as well as protesting attempts to degrade their lives and identities. The two should not mutually exclusive.

The other absurd thing about this petition is that Sarah Rose and the petition’s organizers are treating Zoolander 2 as a documentary, rather than comedy.

Zoolander 2’s producers and screenwriters probably do not want “to provide social commentary on the presence of trans/androgyne individuals in the fashion industry”—and why should they? Newsflash: They are making a series of jokes, not social statements.

“They could have approached models like Andreja Pejic to be in the film,” Rose states. No, because Pejic is a model, not an actor, and their film is a comedy for release in cinemas, not an HBO documentary.

Their contention that Cumberbatch’s crime is being “a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way” is simply not borne out by the clip we see, which shows a character of unknown gender identity not saying that much, and one character making a crude comment at their expense.

But as a severe transphobic slight—sorry, I don’t see it…yet.

Likewise, with the claim that the film “endorses harmful and dangerous perceptions of the queer community at large”—how can this possibly be deduced from that one scene, or clip? It cannot.

The new Zoolander film could well be shit-streaked, transphobic rot. It could spin Cumberbatch’s character out into a series of absurd and degrading plays on the hinterland of their sexual identity. If so, no problem–I’ll see you on the frontlines.

Until then, how about trying to take jokes as they may be un-hatefully intended, and saving one’s ire for the real bogeymen?