Filthy Dreams Founders Note: We want to give a big confetti-strewn welcome to Rebekah Fasel, our new FD contributor (we’re growing…muahahaha). Read more about her on our About page.
So love DOESN’T come in spurts? Last week, the Internet brought two videos to my attention–both comedies that centered on some unusual sex. Both are foreign and one, an Australian short that won the Tropfest Film Festival this year, provoked outrage on the Internet while the other, a segment from a Japanese game show, went largely ignored. Despite how very different the two are, both videos and the reactions they provoked are encouraging in how they shed light on the current state of the gay rights movement.
To begin with, who doesn’t love some friendly competition? Last month FilmDrunk.com published a short video from Japan: the Orgasm Wars, in which a gay man attempted to fellate a straight porn star to climax as the star stoically tried to prevent himself from coming. In typical game show fashion, the 40-minute performance was taped with a live audience of university students and a volatile announcer. The Orgasm Wars (It sounds like such a pleasant conflict!) was a truly polite and professional competition, featuring the gay man, Takuya, using what were clearly his own well-developed techniques to defeat Ryou Sawai, who early on asserts that his experience in the porn world, in addition to his attraction to women alone, will make him the obvious victor.
After some incredibly polite verbal sparring, the competition begins, with the act itself well hidden from the cameras by what can only be described as a pop-up glory hole. Ryou Sawai’s facial expressions, on the other hand, are not. His expression changes from casual amusement to incredulous pleasure over the course of 40 minutes, which, I’ll be honest, seems like an unfair amount of time. Indeed, much about the video was surprising, not least that after 35 minutes of what sounds like some very aggressive fellatio, Takuya successfully implements his final move: the Deep Throat Hold. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but…who could hold out against a professional move like that?
Most surprising, therefore, was possibly Sawai’s reaction to losing the challenge. His only emotion, except for what appears to be some slight but genuine amusement, is the small amount of shame that Matt Hurwitz of the Associated Press and Emily Shire of The Week find culturally necessary for any loser in a Japanese game show. Sawai lost the competition and therefore must formally accept his defeat and seem chastised. But despite his assertion that his sexuality will prevail against Takuya’s experience–that it will be impossible for someone to whom he isn’t attracted to make him orgasm–his defeat does not in any way change his image of his own sexuality. As he faces the camera, still heaving, he gasps, “That’s frustrating”, and he seems to be speaking of his failure to be professional. He does not, however, appear to worry about any other implications.
It hardly needs to be stated that this entire game show, and especially Sawai’s gracious defeat, would be a cultural anathema in the United States. Here, the idea that physical pleasure and attraction can be separated is less well accepted, and there are plenty of people that would have seen Sawai’s orgasm as a clear sign of his homosexuality. Of course, Japan’s relationship with sexuality is much more free than our own culture; although gay marriage is still not recognized, the only anti-gay law enacted was repealed seven years later: in 1880. That Sawai himself is unthreatened by his body’s favorable reaction to an act that isn’t emotionally pleasing is perhaps a little shocking to an American audience…and yet the comments beneath the article as posted in the U.S. are for the most part comedic without being degrading. In fact, many are downright supportive, and even celebrate Japan’s sexual culture.
On the other hand, Bamboozled, a short comedy film that won Australia’s Tropfest film contest received a hailstorm of critique from those that found the theme transphobic and homophobic. The seven minute video tells the story of Pete, who is surprised on the street by an old girlfriend: Harry, previously known as Helen. Harry tells Pete about his sex change and invites him for a beer, at which point the film turns a truly adorable montage reminiscent of any and every romantic comedy. We see the boys bonding as they slide into a rambunctious drunken evening, culminating with them sharing a gyro (a clear sign of inebriation) on the way home. When they wake naked in bed together the next morning, a frightened looking Pete tells Harry he is “confused” about the night before, but before he has time to work out his feelings the door swings open and a camera crew enters…along with the real Helen, who reveals the whole thing was a prank for a game show wherein people get back at their exes. Most disturbing is the wild laughter of all but Pete, while Helen shrieks “You slept with a man!” in glee.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the internet did not appreciate this comedy short. Take, for example, the reaction of @MerranReed, who tweeted, “The punchline of #bamboozled: Eeww, r u a gaaaaay?”. Or @JocelynBrewer, who asked, “Did I miss the memo where #Tropfest mandated entries must be homophobic, racist and include gross stereoptypical behaviours?” And Ian Roberts, a former NRL star (Americans, that would be National Rugby League) now turned actor called the film, “so transphobic and homophobic”.
While I’m not shocked at the Internet’s censure, I agree with Matt Hardie, the film’s maker, that a homophobic analysis of the twist ending has “missed the point.” He also adds that there “isn’t even a transgender person in the film” which, in combination with the fact that Pete was not at all taken aback by “Helen’s” sex change, makes it hard to sustain a real transphobic argument. There is no transgender person acting badly, but instead a heterosexual man and woman playing a mean prank. Hardie explained his view of the joke, saying, “What’s uncomfortable is a heterosexual man going somewhere he’s never thought he would go, and then all of a sudden being on national TV. He’s not uncomfortable because he’s homophobic. He’s uncomfortable because he’s never done it.” Furthermore, the people vilified in the video are those playing the prank, and they are the real butt of the joke, as they look ridiculous trying to condone their extremely offensive actions. Pete, on the other hand, wins our pity, and not because he’s slept with a man, but because of the enormity of the betrayal.
Of course, there is the issue of acceptable comedy and the well-acknowledged fact that making fun of a repressed minority isn’t funny in this day and age. That’s true. But cutting edge comedy often relies on taking a recognizable situation and making it extremely uncomfortable to its audience. Many popular shows, such as The Office or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for example, achieve their comedic value by making the viewer feel personally how awkward, and even offensive, the main characters are. Episodes in both these shows ( the “Gay Witch Hunt” in The Office or “Mac Fights Gay Marriage” in It’s Always Sunny) focus on a main character’s inability to understand that what he’s doing is incredibly offensive to gay people. Bamboozled has much the same story. Helen and “Harry” suffer from a basic understanding of social acceptability, and the joke is that we recognize the situation and understand what they cannot. We laugh at their ignorance and awkwardness, not that they tricked Pete into sleeping with a man.
This is not to say that there’s no homophobic interpretation possible. Either video could be seen as threatening due to the destabilization of heterosexuality in both main characters. Sawai has had disproven his claim that he cannot orgasm with a man, and Pete has had a heartfelt romantic night with a member of a gender to which he was never previously attracted. Both videos espouse the view that, perhaps, it is not always gender that is important. Sawai’s sexual orientation is overcome by a technical mastery of the blowjob, and Pete’s by a strong connection to a personality, instead of a physical person. Isn’t this a mirror to the often-heard (and so unfortunate) conviction of some straight men that gay men are attempting to destroy their own heterosexuality or, to put it crudely, “turn me gay”. (If you’ve never heard this thought voiced aloud, I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the American Midwest.) But this is not the case in either video because in both cases the men involved are able to reconstruct their own heterosexual identities. Sawai is certainly not concerned about his sexuality, and Pete wakes up “confused” that he has been with a man, but not gay. Neither man has really been changed by his encounter with a member of the same sex, which disputes any threat to their original sexual orientations. Further, neither video involves a gay or transgender man behaving in a threatening manner. Sawai consents to fellatio with a gay man from the start, and “Harry” was never gay to begin with, but an incredibly offensive straight man.
But it’s really quite possible to put aside the question of whether or not the film is offensive, and instead take heart from the reactions of those who considered it so. Whether or not their interpretation was correct, the outpouring of tweets and posts from those who support gay rights, and found the video unacceptable, was stupendous. One of the best things about edgy comedy (other than the fact that it’s hilarious) is its ability to start a conversation about the realities of our society. This isn’t a chance to laugh at gay men or transgender men, but instead a chance to look at our culture and see how much it has evolved. Our reactions to comedy: what we choose to ignore and what we choose to find insulting, are an extremely telling lens with which we can gauge the measure of our liberalism. That we are largely nonplussed by blowjobs given in sport, and yet rush to defend those whom we consider insulted is incredibly encouraging. No matter what your take on the comedy, there’s a fair amount to be optimistic about with both of these videos.