Cringe-inducing. Misguided. Fatuous.
Sound familiar? These were some of the words tossed around to describe the portrayal of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Decades after the film dropped in 1961, critics slammed the decision to cast a Caucasian actor as a Japanese man using slathered-on make-up and clunky prosthetics. Soon, Mickey Rooney’s over-the-top caricature came to be known – rightfully – as one of the most glaringly offensive and morally repugnant ethnic portrayals in Hollywood history. (Which, when you think about it, is a feat in itself.)
Fast-forward to 2016, and it looks like we’ve done a loop and dumped ourselves back at square one. Except this time, it’s Ben Stiller’s latest flick that has steam pluming out of people’s ears. And we can’t brush this one off as a hallmark of the era, either. This isn’t the 60s, with the civil rights movement taking its first few tottering steps. We don’t get to wave that get-out-of-jail-free card around. We know better now – or at least, we should.
When it emerged that Benedict Cumberbatch was slated to appear in the much-anticipated Zoolander sequel as an agender model named All (not Al like Al Capone, but All as in the exclamation of “all right, it can’t be that bad” before watching the trailer and realising that it is, in fact, that bad) some bristled. After all, there are boatloads of gender-fluid personalities out there – Angel Haze, Ruby Rose and Tilda Swinton, to name a few. So as much as we love the Sherlock star, he’s not our first pick for a delicate role such as this one.
But that’s not the worst part. When Cumberbatch sashays onto the screen, he’s almost unrecognizable. Swathed in a white fur coat like the pelt of a polar bear, but otherwise bare-chested, his eyebrows are hairless ridges, his hair a long, greasy spill, and he speaks in titters and giggles. This, we’re told, is what a gender-fluid person looks like – a 6-foot freaky alien who refers to themself in the third-person.
Sure, Zoolander is absurdist, which means it exaggerates things to the extreme in the name of satire. That’s the point of lowbrow humour like this – it coasts along on the bizarre because it doesn’t offer much in the way of actual, like, wit. Which is fine if you’re into that sort of thing.
But here’s the rub: when Ben Stiller preens and prances around, we know that not all male models are airheads with IQs in the single digits, because there are a million examples pointing to the contrary. In contrast, representation of gender-fluid peeps is like spotting the Loch Ness Monster – virtually unheard of except for a few hazy, ambiguous exceptions. What else are viewers expected to assume than that Cumberbatch’s hyperbolic, exaggerated portrayal is the norm for those on the gender-fluid spectrum?
When we should be ratcheting up representation in motion pictures, stunts like this throw up a smokescreen. Really, Benedict Cumberbatch in a fur frock is no better than Mickey Rooney in yellowface. Though at least Rooney apologised for his involvement. Despite this petition demanding an explanation from Stiller, Cumberbatch and Paramount Pictures, none has been forthcoming.
So, no, I won’t be hauling butt to see Zoolander 2 when it hits theatres in February. I think we can raise the bar a little. It's about time.Support Villainesse