Hurtful words are powerful, which is why we shouldn’t ban their use
If the head of SONY pictures had her way, All in the Family would have been a far different television show–and that would have been too bad. According to The Hollywood Reporter, that woman, Amy Pascal, is the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry. And at a fundraiser at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, she said, “How about the next time, when any of us are reading a script and it says words like fag or faggot, homo, dyke, take a pencil and just cross it out.”
If our craft teaches us one thing, whether we write novels, poetry, screenplays, or non-fiction, it’s that our word selection is important, but the context in which we use those words is critical. And urging zero tolerance in the use of a word or set of words, regardless of context, isn’t going to change reality. Instead, it leads to people calling for books to be banned (or movies to be shelved). It leads to controversies over Huck Finn and Harry Potter. It leads to lost opportunities.
In the late 1970s, there was a television show called SOAP. When it debuted, Billy Crystal’s character Jodie, was a stereotypical gay man. In an early episode, tennis pro Peter Campbell, played by Robert Urich, shows up and in the context of a bigger scene, Jodie leers at Peter and says his name. Although no slur is used, the scene is very stereotypical. In the first season, Jodie’s effeminate and cross dresses. (By the end of the show, Jodie is perhaps the only sane character.)
A couple of seasons later, Jodie meets his child’s grandmother, Mrs. David, an older woman–a saucy Texan. One of the lines she uses when she meets Jodie is “You’re my first homo.” The context of the scene isn’t offensive, at least in my eyes. At the time, most gays were closeted, so Mrs. David would have met lots of gays and lesbians without knowing it. She struggles with the concept of homosexuality, but is still very human in how she deals with Jodie. It’s a good window into the emotional struggles people were making, and still make, to come to terms with something that makes them uncomfortable, with trying to overcome one line of thinking for another.
Amy Pascal would have killed that scene, simply because of the word homo, which was, at least in my estimation, the right word at the right time. An older person in Texas at the time isn’t going to say “You’re my first gay person.” A lot of the power of watching Mrs. David struggle at how to treat Jodie would be lost without that word being used.
Maybe instead of challenging people to stop using those words in their work, she should consider challenging them to use them in ways that aren’t gratuitous.
So while Amy Pascal got that wrong, she got something else right–and it’s something we need to remember as we develop gay characters or any other character. She said, “Not every gay character needs to be defined by his or her sexuality. Can’t being gay just be one stitch in the fabric of someone’s life? Can’t we depict men and women who just so happen to be gay – perhaps a lawyer or soldier or business executive or scientist or engineer…”
This is good advice for any character you create. It can make the difference between good work that entertains, and great work that gets people thinking.