Last week Captain Owen Honors, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, was relieved of his duties after Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported on videos he’d made for the ship’s “movie night” in 2006 and ’07, including one in which he used the word “fag” to insult a fellow officer. Boldly going where no earthbound Enterprise captain had gone before, the fellow officer was played by Honors via the magic of editing and camera tricks.
The Navy’s message is clear: self-deprecating meta-comedy and impressive low-budget production values will not be tolerated in today’s military.
Or, if you want to look at it from the civilian side of things, it’s good and right to support the troops who protect our freedom, but let’s not go nuts supporting their freedom of speech.
In the video described above, which can be viewed at Wired.com, Honors, dressed as a “cool” Air Force aviator, calls Honors, dressed as a “nerdy” Surface Warfare Officer, a “fag SWO boy.” But he’s using the gay slur the way kids in Little League use it, before they have any real clue what homosexuality is — or, for that matter, who Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove are.
On January 5, one day after Honors’s dismissal, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “Are Americans Wusses or Just Fond of Trash Talk?” in which Jeffrey Zaslow writes that “linguists are noticing that our word choices [regarding issues of human weakness, such as ‘wuss’] are often unwittingly rooted in sexism or homophobia.” Late last month Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell called the United States “a nation of wusses” after the NFL postponed an Eagles-Vikings game on account of snow, but when asked if he knew the origin of the offending word — a combination of “wimp” and “pussy” — he admitted he hadn’t a clue.
“There are those who believe a word ought to always mean what it always meant, but that’s not how language works,” Michael Adams, an English-language historian and author of Slang: The People’s Poetry, told Zaslow. “Words like ‘wuss’ and ‘wussy’ can end up de-vulgarized after awhile.”
A word like “fag,” on the other hand, is by no means devulgarized or any less charged in today’s culture — unlike “gay,” it doesn’t have a sex-neutral meaning unless you’re a smoker who lives in England — but it’s hard not to think that if the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban hadn’t been repealed last month, Honors would still have his job. Does it matter that when Honors’s aviator alter ego calls his SWO alter ego a “fag,” the SWO returns the compliment with his middle finger? The SWO’s masculinity is being challenged, but not his sexuality. It’s the difference between, say, “homosexual” gay and “my parents are chaperoning the dance” gay.
Wait, why does that sound familiar?
Oh, right, it’s because back in September, in the wake of anti-bullying protests from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Universal Pictures yanked its initial trailer for The Dilemma, the new Ron Howard-directed comedy starring Vince Vaughn that opens this Friday. In the retracted (redacted?) trailer Vaughn’s character pitches his auto-design company’s new engine by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, electric cars are gay. I mean, not ‘homosexual’ gay, but — you know — ‘my parents are chaperoning the dance’ gay.”
Look, I understand how “fag” can raise anybody’s hackles, but why does the sexual orientation of Herbie the Electric Love Bug constitute anti-gay bullying? Honestly, the worst stereotype perpetuated by The Dilemma is that guys who look like Vince Vaughn and Kevin James end up with women who look like Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder.
I’m guessing this film won’t be shown as part of the Enterprise‘s new “zero-tolerance movie night.” (The revised, anti-“gay” — but not anti-gay — trailer for The Dilemma features Cee Lo Green‘s big hit of 2010, “Fuck You,” as background music, though it’s the radio-friendly version of the song, which is titled “Forget You.” Coincidence?) But does this mean Anderson Cooper has finally come out of the—
On second thought, it’s probably best that I don’t wade into those waters, which now seem almost as treacherous as the ones the crew of the USS Enterprise have sailed into near Iraq and Afghanistan. But, after all, that’s their job. And as Bruce Fleming, an English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, wrote in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post last Friday, “The military’s mission is to exert force and possibly kill people. It cannot work within the rules of civilian office culture.” In other words, running out of staples can be a bitch, but running out of ammo is something else entirely.
Fleming added, “Yes, the captain uses a slur [in the video], but not to make fun of gay people. Everything depends on context — in this case, the insular confines of a ship at sea.” Honors’s videos were produced for sailors — who, from what I’ve been told, traditionally like their language on the salty side — not the general public back on dry land.
“Since his dismissal,” reported the Baltimore Sun‘s Susan Reimer, “several thousand sailors have risen to support him on Facebook and in the media, including gay and female sailors. Not only did they find him an excellent leader, but they thought his movies were funny and good for morale.”
Not everyone on board the Enterprise liked the videos, however. (Remember, comedy is subjective. The Hurt Locker may have won Best Picture last year, but I didn’t laugh once.) Honors mentions in the video posted at Wired.com, in the guise of his “alternate personality” aviator, that some Enterprise crew members had made anonymous complaints regarding “inappropriate material” in his videos, which included jokes about masturbation in close quarters and co-ed showers on the ship.
Fleming stated in the Post that his empathy for Honors’s situation “comes from 23 years as a civilian professor at the Naval Academy, living daily the increasing divide between military and civilian culture. I think you have to take a stand about coarse stuff such as this, and mine is not the captain’s. I had a gay brother who died of AIDS, so I start each semester by telling the midshipmen they may not, in my classroom, criticize something as weak or unconvincing by calling it ‘gay.’ Their whole generation does so, so it’s spitting in the ocean, but you have to start somewhere.”
Much like the military’s demotion of Honors, GLAAD and Anderson Cooper’s attempts to wise up Hollywood may just be a drop in the ocean when all’s said and done. But it’s a free country thanks to officers like Honors, so why condemn them for going a bit overboard while entertaining their privates? (That one’s for you, sailors. Make me proud!)
Similarly, I appreciate the intention of NewSouth Books to keep Mark Twain’s novels Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer on squeamish schools’ reading lists by publishing them in new editions that change the word “nigger” to “slave” in each of 223 instances. But as Twain himself once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.” And when the misunderstood context of one word sinks the career of a dedicated military officer with a somewhat irreverent sense of humor — never mind the historical context of a word used in service of a classic story that decries slavery and racism in 19th-century America — that’s no laughing matter, either.