Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So a Prophet, a Bear, and a Dog Walk Into a Free Speech Lecture...

While browsing through my usual internet hot spots today, I came across a video on showing a violent display of a public protest in Sweden. Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist, was giving a lecture on free speech at a local university after being widely attacked for composing a drawing of Islam's Prophet Muhammad head on the body of a dog. Many Muslim protesters attended the lecture and things quickly turned sour when an unidentified individual jumped up and possibly head-butted Vilks (it was unknown if the attacker actually made contact or if Vilks collided with a security officer during the scuffle). He was rushed from the room as protesters, many wearing keffiyahs were chanting and becoming more disgruntled in the seminar room. It took several minutes for the police to settle the crowd. Watch below.

The battle of cartoons and Muhammad began years ago when a British cartoonist drew a picture of the prophet with a bomb sitting atop his turban. Death threats ensued, violence commenced, and there was scandal rocking the Middle East and Muslims everywhere. More recently, the shock-thriving cartoonists at South Park were censored for attempting to create a cartoon teddy bear named Muhammad, poking fun at a situation in the Middle East where a teacher lost her job for allowing children to nickname a classroom stuffed animal after the prophet. They too received death threats for the fiasco.

As an individual who is torn between multicultural and religious respect and the rights to freedom of speech and expression, it is difficult for me to pick sides here. I do not agree with the blatant disrespect shown to Muslim belief and what you might call one of their "commandments" to never compose drawings or images of Allah or the Prophet. However, a fan of the first amendment, it is very difficult to draw the line in terms of what should be allowed and what should be restricted, without falling into the clutches of a slippery slope. If we can't draw a religious cartoon now, tomorrow we can't write a sign protesting a detrimental religious cult.

I do, however, hold a strong position on violence. Especially when it comes to sucker-punching (or rather, sucker-head butting) a random person during a peaceful seminar expressing not only his opinion, but his legally protected right, no matter how offensive his action. Likewise, I am not particularly thrilled at getting what I consider to be a spit in the face by individuals in the Muslim community.

Many of you know, some may not, that I was an active advocate on Queen Rania of Jordan's Youtube channel. The channel was created to bridge the gap between the east and west and shatter falsely held stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. I created videos in support of Islam, carried on discussions and debates in the chat section of the channel, got into heated arguments with family members, and even sounded off angry emails to anti-Muslim friends and acquaintances who sent propaganda to my inbox. It's safe to say it wasn't always welcomed, I took a lot of flack for my efforts, being called names, verbally abused and hassled on the net, and souring a few relationships. Unfortunately it's also safe to say that a good chunk of the west is still utterly convinced that Muslims are angry, violent individuals fueled by a hostile religion. Now imagine the slap in the face I feel when I click on the net and find Muslims, groups of individuals I consider mutually exclusive from hate-mongering terrorists, acting out in anger and violence, attacking people, affirming stereotypes, and reinforcing the walls we've been working so hard to break down for nearly two years.

The reaction to the cartoonist was not only detrimental to the individuals who were consequently arrested for the attack, or the man the attack was aimed at, but detrimental to the cause as a whole. Now I am not defending this man's cartoon or his disregard for other people's religious values, however, as Viktor Frankl once stated, we cannot avoid the actions of others, but only we can control our reaction, and that's what defines us as swine or saints. It's hard to find any successful social movement that thrived from violence and anger. The Civil Rights Movement, albeit slow, came to succession after decades of discrimination upon the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to avoid violent displays. The Nazi Party fell to ruins when using violence and anger to further their hateful agenda. As frustrating at this situation can be, and I do understand the emotions it's eliciting from Muslims, I hardly think it's beneficial to anyone to start assaulting people.

What needs to occur here, as QR would suggest, is open discussion, starting a conversation. Perhaps using calm, collected letters, emails, phone calls to individuals who create offensive pieces of artwork explaining why they are viewed as such, describing the importance of the religious practice to leave images of revered individuals undrawn, rather than death threats, cries for violence, and foul language. Hostility is the antidote for constructive communication, it spreads the animosity from the outraged victim to the haughty suspect, and fuels the disdain that drives their destructive behaviors. Now, granted letters and gentle requests for respect don't always work. One requires a psychological predisposition for reason, understanding, and just plain common courtesy in order for rational discussions to penetrate that encapsulating bone about their brains, which, sadly, is a dying quality in people. However, if you don't get the response you're hoping for, reverting to violence is still not allowed. Peaceful demonstrations, legal action, calls for boycotts are all viable means of fighting.

It seems important to point out that many people supporting the various aforementioned cartoonists are not anti-Muslim in nature. The majority of people I've spoken to are more concerned with their freedom of speech rights than insulting any particular religion or mocking holy figures. To see the point, one only has to review the offensive material we westerners have churned out on our own Jesus Christ: cartoons of Jesus smoking and drinking, making light of his crucifixion, even comic suggestions that Jesus was gay. And no one's made a death threat yet. Muslims, don't shoot yourselves in the foot, we're working hard to get where you need to be, and some of you are just pulling everyone down with you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Theater Queens and Ignorant Kings


After a disheartening publication that forced the gay community to recheck the calendar year (it is 2010 after all), Newsweek is facing a potential boycott and several angry celebrities after printing an article written by Ramin Setoodeh, mocking homosexual actors in straight-character roles. Referring to celebrities by name, he used the term "theater queen" and remarked how shocked he was to see certain homosexuals play straight, which elicited a heated response from Broadway favorite, Kristin Chenoweth.

It has long been disputed that audiences will not find openly gay actors believable in straight character roles. I'm not so sure I can disagree with this. Like many, I find it difficult to dissociate the actor from the character when I see a film or TV show. How many of us have seen a Mel Gibson film, only to recall that unfortunate drunken rampage? How many of us have watched a Russell Crowe film without remembering that bastardly telephone incident? To this day, I cannot sit through a Hugh Grant film without thinking, "really? You cheated on Elizabeth Hurley with THAT?" And yet, we are expected to walk into a theater, sit down, and watch a flamboyantly gay individual try to slip into a well-fitted suit, master the grip of a manly handshake, and seduce some poor unsuspecting woman (recall Nathan Lane doing his best John Wayne in The Birdcage), and lose ourselves in Hollywood's magical spell?

The truth is, we cannot dissociate and it is not truly believable. However, shouldn't they have the right to try, as anyone else does? Directors still hire Russell Crowe in hopes you'll forget his multiple past mishaps of assholery, and they stick a bow and arrow in his hand rather than a rotary phone. They still use Hugh Grant in roles that require a sliver of integrity. Hell they still hire Jennifer Aniston for romantic comedies as if we'll forget the forlorn state of her own sad love life. So why not let the gays contend with everything other actors struggle with anyways? Why not give them a shot to bomb a movie (with the $10m for the role tucked safely in their bank accounts)? It's not like they have a lot of other options.

The gay community is believed to have made great strides in the entertainment industry, more so in theater than in Hollywood, but Hollywood seemed to be making room for the emerging population that hid behind the curtains for so many years. They nominated the blockbuster film Brokeback Mountain for several Oscars, which drew attention to the gay movement and empathy for a once taboo subject. Milk, a biopic about famous homosexual and activist Harvey Milk garnered a few Oscars, including Best Actor for Sean Penn. But what's missing from these gay films? The queens, of course. While there was, no doubt, homosexuals behind the scenes making these films into magic (who could forget the tearful acceptance speech of the young gay Milk writer in 2009?), Hollywood couldn't help but hire purely straight actors to play the scenes.

This is a practice that has been disputed in several contexts for years. There was an uproar from disabled actors when non-disabled actors were thrown into wheelchairs for minor roles. There was even marked frustration when overweight actresses were cheated out of those rare opportunities for leading roles as the parts were handed to skin and bone actresses who packed on the pounds (apologies to my fake wife, Renee Zellweger, but it's true), along with Charlize Theron, and Toni Collette. Because let's be real, no one wants to see the "ugly fat" actresses, no one wants to feel bad for the truly disabled unless the film is brimming with an inspirational story about overcoming the odds. So we extend the fantasy of Hollywood even further by keeping the gays out too. It's almost reminiscent of those white actors who used to paint their faces black back in the days before blacks were allowed on screen, which is completely unacceptable today (unless you're Robert Downey Jr., in which case you get an Oscar nod).

Now many argue that straight actors such as Heath Ledger and Penn are given these roles because of their insurmountable talents. They are, inarguably, the best of the best, and no one could create the roles quite like they did. I agree to a certain extent. Ledger was a magical actor who handled his role and the press of a gay character with unwavering decorum. Penn, despite his delinquent persona brought a soft vulnerability to Harvey Milk that made audiences everywhere rally behind this film. However, I believe that predominantly the purpose of using heterosexuals to play gays is the same as that which bans gays from playing heterosexuals. Dissociation. As we established, audiences cannot dissociate actors from their characters, and given such, individuals who find themselves a little unsettled watching a gay character in romantic scenes still draw some comfort from knowing that this is not real, that this actor is not gay. It's all pretend, after all, and they will pull up their pants, walk off the set, and return home to their wife and kids. Ledger even found heterosexual love in former girlfriend Michelle Williams on the set in between his sadistic kissing scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal. As far as we'd like to believe we've come in our movement towards acceptance, people are simply not ready for the heavy kissing and bedroom scenes that are no different from heterosexual scenes, aside from the equipment flailing around beneath the sheets.

So they can't play gay, they can't play straight, where exactly are these actors supposed to go? Back to the sidelines, hoping against hope that a part for a hairstylist or a fashionista pops up? Forced into stereotypical roles which, mind you, are not safe from those heterosexual thieving actors either (cut to Kevin Bacon a la Beauty Shop or Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada). The march to acceptance and the movement that requires us to face our own discomfort in other people's lives is a slow one and many of us are growing impatient. But rather than make a few accommodations for those still stuck in the dark ages, isn't it time we simply continue on, in spite of them? To hire gay actors, film gay love scenes, allow a gay man to kiss a woman if he wants to, whether people will buy tickets or not? C'mon America, give a gay a chance.