• Benedict Cumberbatch in Zoolander 2 (PARAMOUNT PICTURES)Source: PARAMOUNT PICTURES
The intentions of those protesting against the trans representation in Zoolander 2 may be progressive, but their grasp of context was learned in a school for ants, writes Helen Razer.
Helen Razer

25 Nov 2015 - 9:18 AM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2015 - 9:18 AM

It is vitally important that all the world’s citizens be free to protest the things that they despise. If this precious liberty is lost, so many will be deprived of the pleasure of laughing ‘til we piss. There’s real joy to be found in the thick earnestness of others and, personally, I don’t want to live on a planet that doesn’t make demands like, “no plastic packaging on my organic fruit”. 

I celebrate the narrow and selfish ambition of “green” consumers who care less about the fact of non-biodegradable wrappers than they do about the fear that they might personally encounter these on their favourite heirloom tomatoes. Not On My Black Russian!

(If you think that’s a racist slur and not an open pollinated nightshade, feel free to protest this post at change.org.)

Dumb protests that don’t consider the broader context of the forces they protest are great fun. I like the fruit one and I especially like the one that “rejects” Tony Abbott.  More than 120,000 Australian idiots have signed a petition that is (a) still live, notwithstanding Abbott’s “rejection” by his own party and (b) a fairly optimistic approach to democracy. Call me old-fashioned, but I suspect that the best way to vote an unpleasant government out is to, you know, vote them out.

And I suspect the best way to be a good ally to trans and genderqueer people is not by means of a boycott of Zoolander 2.

 It is likely that you have read accounts of this petition. A user called Sarah Rose has urged patrons to avoid a film whose trailer, she says, contains 10 transphobic seconds.

Let’s be clear: transphobia is the worst kind of pants. Even if it only lasts 10 seconds. Personal and institutional revulsion for those who won’t or can’t adhere to rigid gender categories is not just mean, it’s often fatal.

Transpeople have every cause to be shat 10 ways to Sunday by the brutality of life and, to be blunt about it, by the cruelty of the “proper” gay community. If you think your straight Uncle Ted has some inflexible views on gender, try talking to a homonormative barfly on Oxford Street. Gays are “normal”, don’t you know. 

“Normal”, of course, is a concept that can only survive by the presence of its opposite. “Normal” is what got us into so much trouble in the first place. “Normal”, it seems to me, is an idea that underscores Ms Rose’s well-intended protest. Despite her stated desire to build a world that accommodates all relationships to gender, she craves “normal” depictions.

Which would make more sense if we were talking about a naturalistic drama and not a movie franchise beloved for its absolute refusal to depict anything real. 

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Rose’s critique, now endorsed by 11,000 people, is that genderqueer character "All" is (a) “clearly portrayed as an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery” and (b) played by cis actor Benedict Cumberbatch. While it is true that the Hollywood routine of casting cispeople as transpeople is a labour practice as naff as blacking up—or, for that matter, of spacking up—it is also true that “over-the-top, cartoonish mockery” is democratically applied in Zoolander, a universe peopled by those who playfully shower each other in gasoline and fire to the hits of Wham!

This is a site whose inhabitants point to no real-world counterpart. There is nobody so really, really, ridiculously good-looking as Derek Zoolander and no one so cognitively inert. When Matilda, the film’s only character even passably linked to the real, confides in Derek that she has been bulimic, he says “You can read minds?”

This petition is such an act of misinterpretation, it’s tempting to enrol its author in The Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

And, no, fantasy is no rationale for out-and-out intolerance. But the character of All, in my view, does not appear to have any link to the real more substantial than the foam on an orange mocha frappuccino.  All does not represent lived experience because nothing in this spectacularly stupid franchise does.  All is not a cruel parody of, say, Andreja Pejić any more than Mugato is a parody of Isaac Mizrahi. And, even if one makes the case that Zoolander is clear satire and not, as I believe it to be, delightful nonsense untethered to the real, everybody knows that Derek and Hansel are thick as shit. If these midlife-crisis male models are making fun of a genderqueer person, the audience immediately knows this is the wrong thing to do. DEREK CAN’T TURN LEFT, FOR CHRISSAKE. Why not protest the inappropriate casting of Ben Stiller? The guy is clearly not a male model.

This petition is such an act of misinterpretation, it’s tempting to enrol its author in The Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

Rose’s intentions may be progressive. Her grasp of context, however, was learned in a school for ants. To demand a “normal” and non-cartoonish genderqueer representation in Zoolander is to demand marginalisation. Everyone else is cartoon.

If you want realism in cinema, you’re probably right to boycott Zoolander.  But this failure to buy a ticket is itself no ticket to becoming a decent ally.