Brüno, Marvin and Me

Last night my beau and I saw the Brüno film. Seems we were not the only ones; it will be the number one film in the US this weekend. Marvin Bloom also saw Brüno. This former ex-gay and now gay Christian Jew for Jesus didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did (which you will learn from Marvin’s video below.)

Like Marvin various groups have come out against the film. At least one anti-gay Christian group would like to see the film banned, and Rashad Robinson at GLAAD has also panned it.

The NY Daily News interviewed various comedians asking them to weigh in on the movie. Comic Reese Walters describes the genre of humor Brüno creator Sacha Baron Cohen uses,

“It’s very character-based humor. It’s almost like unscripted, character-based improvisation, is the best way I could describe it. One of the things I like about him is that he does outrageous things, but he does them true to the character. He just stays in character, stays committed to the character, and I think that’s one of the things that makes what he does work for me. I feel he does outrageous things [like handling a bag of his own excrement in “Borat”] but it doesn’t feel like he’s doing it just to be funny—it’s just the character is funny, and that is what the character would do.”

As a character actor myself, I appreciate the art and the skill behind what Cohen does as well as the social satire he presents. Does he mock gays? No. He mocks what some people believe to be true of white gay men, and he mocks what many white gay men and LGBT organizations have fought so hard to deny–campy guys who enjoy sex.

In the past few years we have been groomed and presented as gender normative, “straight acting,” asexual beings in hopes of not offending the straight voting majority. It may have been a clever political strategy (albeit with mixed results) but it has also reinforced that there is a good and a bad way of being gay. Act NORMAL. Don’t reveal the freaks among us. Don’t let people know about the sex part of our sexual orientation, in fact, don’t even say sexual orientation–just say that we are gay.

Seeing the flamboyant oversexed Brüno reminded me of my initial reactions to the “gay community” when I exited the Love in Action ex-gay program. After 17 years of trying to straighten myself out, (so crazy I made a comedy about it!) I came to my senses and accepted the reality that I was gay and couldn’t change it. That didn’t mean I was happy about it. My first forays into the Memphis gay scene appalled me.

Highly critical of anything thing outrageous or over the top (even glitter!) I resolved that I would show the world a better example of what it meant to be gay. I felt embarrassed around one of my new gay friends who couldn’t help but be a queen, and I shuddered (and not with delight) when one guy told me of his recent sexcapades in New Orleans. The hostility towards all things stereotypically gay ran deep, and although I no longer actively pursued to alter my orientation, I did wish we would all just behave.

Ah, I am so glad that I have learned to appreciate the rainbow flavors of LGBTQ folks. Some people really are bisexual–they are not confused or greedy. Some folks are not gender normative; so much of their beauty and strength come from their gender variance. Many lesbian and gay and transgender and bisexual people exude a healthy sex-positive attitude that our puritanical dishonest US society desperately needs.

No doubt the Brüno film has gotten people talking. Mostly straight people will have seen it by the end of the weekend. They will realize that someone like Brüno could never survive straight OR gay America. What Brüno does do is shock us in a way that many “self-respecting” gays have fought hard to avoid. We have dishonestly presented to the public a warped picture of who we are–a white washed version that denies the existence of our diversity–a false image designed to trick rather than invite into genuine honest public discourse.

Like much good art, Brüno will stir up discussion and debate.

I will let Marvin have the last word…


This post has 24 Comments

  1. Mary Ellen on July 12, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Made me think.

  2. Mary Ellen on July 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Also – Marvin is hilarious! (Just catching up on his video blog – his encounter with Samson was a hoot.)

  3. Dharma Kelleher on July 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Awesome post, Peterson! My thoughts exactly. While I don’t particularly care for the Sasha’s “candid camera”-style humor (which is why I didn’t see Borat either), I think it is important that we in the LGBT community deal with our internal flamophobia (fear of flamboyant or otherwise obviously queer people).

    I admit that I struggled with this at some point in my journey. I’d go to pride and see the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence or flamboyant men in Speedos or a transwoman that doesn’t “pass” as well as others, fearing that these people would “hurt” our cause.

    Eventually, I realized that they ARE our cause as much as anyone else. And if someone has a problem with them or makes nasty, judgmental flamophobic comments about them, I’ll be the first to get in their face and call them out.

    When diversity gets watered down to conforming to someone’s ideal of normal, something has gone terribly wrong.

  4. ZackFord on July 12, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    ZackFord Blogs:
    Brüno: It Takes Silly Absurdities to Reveal Harsh Realities

    I think it’s the difference between attempting to portray “normal” and a super exaggerated stereotype, so exaggerated that it’s absurd.

  5. Joe G. on July 12, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    “flamophobia” – I love it!

    As Chad might say, “Yummy!”

  6. p2son on July 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Zack, great blog entry!

    Dharma, for once I agree with Joe about something! Love it!

  7. e2c on July 12, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    Peterson, while I appreciate the points you’re making, I think Baron Cohen’s “humor” is really more about mocking and cruelty than it is about empathy… and to my mind, that cancels out what he really *could* do if he tried.

    It’s kinda like his infamous “Throw the Jew Down the Well” sequence: *if* it worked to somehow open the minds and hearts of the people who happily sang along with him, it might work for me. But I don’t think that happens… and I think the man is actually wasting his considerable gifts in trickery, shock and just plain meanness.

    That’s not (to me) very funny. At all.

    (Not that it matters, really, but I’m a straight woman.)

  8. John on July 12, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    ROFL. I love you, Marvin!

    And thanks, Peterson, for the thoughtful commentary on Bruno. I’ll admit I had decided not to go to the movie… until I heard he has an interaction with an ex-gay man at one point in the movie. My interest is piqued.

  9. Sheria in SA on July 13, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Peterson, why do you feel the need to introduce Marvin to your stories? Is Marvin there to just entertain, or is he there to send out a vital message which the public may happen to miss? Who is Marvin’s target?

  10. e2c on July 13, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve got the same question as Sheria, if only because… well, for me (and I’m middle-aged) he seems to draw on a lot of ethnic stereotypes that I was raised to reject as demeaning and cringeworthy.

    I think he’s an interesting character, but… well, maybe if he were more like one of Anna Deveare Smith’s larger cast, I would feel better about him. (I grew up in a partly-Jewish neighborhood and some of my friends’ parents had experienced a *lot* of discimination – in fact, it still came up, even in the supposedly “progressive” 70s and 80s…)

    I don’t mean to sound unkind or hypercritical – I guess I would feel more comfortable with Marvin if you were Jewish, y’know? 😉 (Seriously.)

  11. e2c on July 13, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    One more thought: I kind of feel sorry for Marvin. He’s not so much funny to me as he is a sort of profoundly sad clown (a la Pagliacci) – and maybe that’s what you’re aiming for? (I’m honestly not sure…. which is one of the reasons I feel conflicted about him.)

  12. p2son on July 13, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    e2c and Sheria, in addition to the nearly dozen YouTube videos out there chronically some of his journey, Marvin appears in two of my plays–Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House and The Re-Education of George W. Bush. He is a complex character built on a combination of people from my life. He also appears regularly (although he took the summer off so far) on the Trans-Ponder Podcast. Marvin is a study in contradictions, and just when he can be the most confused and confusing, he suddenly says something profound, even prophetic.

    As to the appropriateness of me playing Marvin, well the stage would be a very constricting place if we only were expected to play ourselves.

    Thank you for raising the questions and for engaging me. You stimulate my thinking.

  13. e2c on July 13, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Oh, I’m not suggesting that you not play him – more that a *lot* of people (especially those born prior to the 1970s) might have something of a knee-jerk response to someone who’s not Jewish playing an obviously Jewish character with a certain accent…

    (My observations here might also be a clue to why someone my age might not see anything especially humorous about Sasha Baron Cohen, too…)

  14. e2c on July 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    And many thanks for your reply, Peterson!

  15. lower case paul on July 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I still haven’t seen this movie, but intend to. I think it’s great when art can shake the comfort zone, beat on the walls of the status quo.

    I love Marvin too John.

    I think “Marvin” is pure genius Peterson. He is an amazing character.

  16. Emily K on July 20, 2009 at 4:17 am

    I’m going to have to disagree that we as gays have white-washed ourselves. Many gays who came of age before AIDS will say, “why are we becoming prudes, just to please the purtanical straights in society??” When really, I think that the opposite has happened – the “prudes” have “become” gay. That is, gays grow and develop just like straights do: diversely. Gayness does not discriminate any one personality type. Some gays really aren’t trying to please greater society; some really are reserved sexually. Some really are square and straight-laced; some really are as run-of-the-mill as you can get. And, since being gay has nothing to do with political affiliation and everything to do with who you are attracted to on a basic loving human level, why can’t there be proportionally just as many “boring” gays as there are “boring” straights? It seems to make sense to me. I don’t believe that people are trying to be “normal like straights,” I beleive that we actually genuinely are normal.

    I also don’t believe that a “sex-positive” attitude simply amounts to vividly flaunting one’s sexcapades without reserve. I believe I grew up in a sex-positive household – defined by the very fact that my parents fearlessly and honestly educated us about sexuality. And when my mom wasn’t able to answer my brother’s increasingly complex questions, she bought him a book on the subject. When I came out almost 10 years ago, telling them i liked girls was almost as eventful as telling them about the weather.

    I think that diversity cuts both ways.

  17. p2son on July 20, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Emily K, wow, so nice to see you over at my blog. 🙂

    Yes, I agree that there is all sorts of diversity among the TBLGQ folks in the US and beyond. This diversity needs to be displayed and respected.

    The white-washing I refer to in my post has to do with what has been done by the Gay Establishment in the form of our larger LGBT marriage-equality organizations. The keepers at the gate of these group often trot out the most gender-normative, “attractive”, traditional family type gays and lesbians of a certain class and race in order to convince Middle America, “We are just like you,” instead of showing the vast diversity of families, relationships and gender presentations to proclaim, “You are just like us. Your family and life may not be like the traditional structure this country seems to prize above all others, and you can come out and be yourself regardless of how your family is structured and how you present.”

    Like many minority groups, our leaders may try to protect the movement by promoting one part of our diversity over the other. An imbalance seems to have occurred. Within a people who have been shamed and shunned–stigmatized, we can and do react to some of our own who we view in the extreme wwith shame and revulsion.

    What I find refreshing about the Bruno movie, even with its ridiculous over the top portrayal of being gay, is that we don’t have to shy away from the more flamboyant and openly sexual parts of our community as if they were our creepy uncle who we are ashamed of and hope doesn’t show up for the wedding.

  18. Emily K on July 20, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    I think what people are concerned about – myself included – is that the flamboyant sexed-out parts of the gay community (especially the male gay community) have been SO visual and SO apparent for SO long, that it feels like stepping back into 1980. Harvey was right when he said the closet is the greatest enemy; and since the flamboyants have been out longer than any other type of gay, they’re the ones that have gotten the most attention and the most stigma. The “normals” have only been coming out half as long, as far as I know. I don’t blame the marriage equality political organizations for “trotting out” the so-called “normal” families. Let’s face it, many people still don’t believe they even exist – but seeing Brüno on film, they’ll absolutely believe a guy like that exists. After all, he’s gay, and isn’t that what gay men are generally like? But I’ve found that, among all the gays I’ve met, guys like Brüno are the exception rather than the norm. Maybe I’ve been hanging around too many young Jewish professional gays. Who knows. But I have yet to meet a guy like Brüno outside of center stage at a pride parade, an event I frequent less and less.

    It’s obvious we’re not going to agree on this one (although i don’t have a problem with the movie as of yet, nor have I seen it) – whatever. But I disagree with the notion that the Brüno’s of the queer world could act as a queer representative. We’re too diverse.

  19. p2son on July 20, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    Emily, I have faith in most people being smart enough to know that Sasha Cohen’s portrayal of a gay man is way over the top. But you are correct, we most likely will not agree on the film, although I almost think we are talking about two different things here.

    In a blog post I wrote called, I Can’t Embrace You: I Can’t Let You Go, I quote Erving Goffman writing about the stigmatized person and the complications being stigmatized brings,

    Whether closely allied with his own kind or not, the stigmatized individual may exhibit identity ambivalence when he obtains a close sight of his own kind behaving in a stereotyped way, flamboyantly or pitifully acting out the negative attributes imputed to them. The sight may repel him, since after all he supports the norms of the wider society, but his social and psychological identification with these offenders holds him to what repels him, transforming repulsion into shame, and then transforming ashamedness itself into something of which he is ashamed. In brief, he can neither embrace his group nor let it go.

    In my blog post on Bruno I write about my initial coming out experience and the negative reaction that I had to all things gay. This makes sense since I so desperately tried to de-gay myself for so long. I rejected out of hand a whole group of people who I thought were not “normal” and who I believed were just creating trouble for the rest of us. I have since grown to understand that the public needs to see all kinds of LGBTQ people–the gender normative, nuclear family gays and all the rest of us. If not, we may find that instead of queering straight institutions, adding our own insights and experiences, thus making them richer and more relevant to all, we may find that these institutions will simply serve to straighten out the queers. (and I am not talking about orientation here).

  20. e2tc on July 20, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Emily – Just wanted to say that I appreciate the discussion you’ve started, as well as many of the points you’re making. I’m a bit older than most commenters here – which means that I’ve seen a *lot* of what you refer to as “more flamboyant, sexed-out” folks, especially during the 70s and 80s.

    I’ve got a number of gay and lesbian friends who have always felt very uncomfortable in what is often portrayed as the gay mainstream… because they’re pretty shy, buttoned-down types who are about as obvious as I am (in other words, not very) in their personal and professional lives. (I’m straight; am referring more to the fact that I’m on the shy,. quiet side and am definitely not the kind of person who sticks out in a crowd…)

    Although I haven’t seen Baron Cohen’s new movie, I do think he’s more interested in sensationalism (and cheap laughs at other peoples’ expense) than he is in doing anything that’s actually productive in terms of helping people to laugh at their own foibles and flaws – and in so doing, perhaps become a bit more openminded toward other people (who don’t look or act like them) in the process.

    I keep thinking of his “Throw the Jew down the well” act (on Da Ali G show and in the Borat movie) and shivering inside…


    I guess I just don’t see sexual orientation as *the* biggest part of the picture, or the most important thing, about any given individual… And I’m as happy about hearing about straight peoples’ “sexcapades” as I am hearing gay peoples’ – which is to say, not. So many of the people I’ve been around in churches find it all but impossible to believe that there’s actually a very broad spectrum of personalities (and behavior) among LGTBQ people because all they’ve been exposed to are the folks who grab the most media attention…. So they’re shocked when they find out that many LGBTQ people care as much as they do about issues like child welfare, education for handicapped kids/adults, health care for elderly people, etc. (I’m citing real-life situations here – with the caveat that these church folks likely *do* know more than a few LGBTQ people whom they haven’t realized are gay because they don’t adhere to the flamboyant, campy model that’s been depicted so often in the media.)

    OK, I’m just rambling now… but again, thanks to you, and also to Peterson, for providing a place for dialogue and discussion!

    all the best,

  21. e2tc on July 20, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    I have faith in most people being smart enough to know that Sasha Cohen’s portrayal of a gay man is way over the top

    Peterson, this may well be true for people who’ve grown up in relatively diverse environments (like cities), but I would be *very* hesitant to make this assumption about the US population as a whole.

    Example: I’ve seen/heard otherwise intelligent – and educated (K-12) people wonder aloud about things like “Where are those folks in New Orleans going to take their farm animals?” (at the height of post-Katrina flooding). These are nice, normal people… who didn’t even know that N.O. is a city and who have probably never visited a city themselves.

    There are lots of others like them… and I’m not writing to either mock or blame them. It’s just how things actually are, out here on the ground – even with 245 satellite TV channels, streaming Netflix movies, and more.

  22. Anonymous on July 20, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    Emily and Peterson, I think you both make some powerful points here. Emily, it seems to me your observations speak to the dynamic of stereotyping and sensationalism. Dominant groups always notice a minority population’s most “different” characteristics and then generalize based on that. So all black people end up living in ghettos and talking like Big Daddy Kane; all lesbians are radical feminists with hairy armpits who adopt lots of cats and like folk music. This difference also drives media coverage, e.g. of the pride marches, where TV will inevitably focus on the leather daddies and the dressed-up queens.

    Peterson’s observations speak to minority groups’ tendencies to run away from the elements of their own cultures that generate this stereotyping. If I disown these elements, perhaps the dominant culture will stop stereotyping me? I think he is right about the “PR” for the LGBT movement–notice that HRC will send a man in a suit and a woman in a smart dress to defend ENDA. Forget the flamboyant drag queen, however smart and articulate!

    It seems to me the disagreement here may not be as fierce as it first appears. Presumably everyone can agree (a) the dominant culture’s stereotyping is unfair and (b) we need to celebrate diversity in our communities and not run away from the people our oppressors like to focus on when they stereotype us?

  23. e2tc on July 20, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    I think you’re right about presenting people as a kind of “model minority” rather than as a diverse bunch of folks. (Very much so, in fact.)

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