Brow Beat

The Original Zoolander Might Seem Homophobic—but It Was Sneakily Ahead of Its Time


© 2001 Paramount Pictures

It’s a difficult question for conscious culture consumers, and one that will only grow more pressing as society evolves toward greater inclusiveness and recorded media become ever more accessible: How do we deal with art that has aged poorly, from tolerably off-color to genuinely offensive? Because the LGBTQ civil rights movement has achieved widespread tolerance and a number of major legal successes so rapidly relative to other causes, movies and TV shows that played queer people or queer stereotypes for laughs even a handful of years ago are quickly becoming embarrassing. Lazy gay jokes based in stereotypes of effeminacy or predation are almost impossible to put in mainstream products these days without sounding horribly off, and trans jokes, though not yet uncommon, feel like they aren’t far behind. In fact, at this point, even a whiff of trans mockery in a trailer is enough to draw thousands to a petition—just ask Zoolander No. 2.

With that film set to hit theaters on Friday, I wondered if the original—which hangs in one’s memory as having a certain … flamboyance … about it—would hold up in our slightly more enlightened times. And if it didn’t, would I be able to stick with my sense that engaging with problematic art is better than ignoring or banning it? So I revisited Derek, Derelicte, and the Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good—and what I found was actually far more interesting than a 2001 satire about vapid male models and a corrupt fashion industry might lead you to expect.

To answer the most obvious charge, Zoolander is not homophobic. Watching it for the first time in at least a decade, I was actually impressed by how carefully it avoided the nancy-boy humor it could so easily have relied upon. It manages this in large part by casting Dereck (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) as straight, almost bro-y guys, who, while pretty and painted, never hint at a queer sexual orientation. (The gym/tanning/laundry fellas on Jersey Shore were close cousins.) That they participate in an all-comers orgy with Matilda (Christine Taylor), the tightly wound journalist with whom Zoolander eventually has a kid, merely demonstrates their interest in her and openness to a wild night. Mugatu, Will Ferrell’s designer villain, gives off more of a gay vibe, particularly around his queeny assistant, Todd (Nathan Lee Graham), who is the most clearly coded character. But Mugatu’s absurdist design sensibility and megalomaniacal fits are played for laughs, not his sexuality. And as for Todd, he passes my test for homophobic representation: Do I know a queen more-or-less like that? (Yes.) And is this presentation mocking him, or just taking advantage of his natural ability to entertain? The latter is true here, so we’re good.

Indeed, the closest any of the characters in Zoolander come to a standard gay stereotype is in terms of what we might call fussiness. All of the men in this film are overly concerned with their looks and their relative “hotness,” and, it being a farce, they’re all a bit silly. (There is nothing sillier than a bunch of pretty boys blowing themselves up during a freak gasoline fighting accident.) But if fussiness in the hands of otherwise straight or vaguely gay guys sets off your Problematic Alarm, there’s a chance you need to recalibrate. A fussy man is not necessarily a gay one; and even if a gay man is fussy, there’s nothing wrong with that—as long as the joke is on the fussiness and not the gayness. After all, fussiness is funny! We’re allowed to laugh at that, and Zoolander extends precisely the right kind of invitation to that laughter.

In fact, the most poignant scene in the film actually explores this issue by having prissy Derek spend some time in the coal mines with the other Zoolander males. The exchange between Derek and his father in The Mine Shaft bar (amusingly the name of a once-infamous gay haunt in New York) has the feel and script of a familial gay rejection—but sexuality isn’t actually the problem here. It’s masculinity. By all accounts, Dereck dates women; but he’s too much like them, too girly aesthetically, to fit in with the roughnecks down south. That many gay men have experienced this scene doesn’t mean it’s only a gay story. Plenty of gays are butch, and plenty of straight men are femme. The movie seems to get this, and plays with the nuance beautifully.

Part of the reason that Zoolander feels questionable now is that we’ve moved from a time in which the deployment of a certain colorful gay sensibility—but not necessarily the depiction of actual gay people—was common in Hollywood comedies, to a point where the situation might be reversed.  Zoolander feels to me of a piece with something like Death Becomes Her, a dark camp classic in which it’s not individual characters who are gay, but the aesthetic of the entire project that is. Zoolander is a “gay movie” from a different era; viewing it in a moment in which direct gay representation has grown more considered (good) and earnest (eh) may feel odd, but that doesn’t mean it’s offensive.

What is offensive about the movie is Matilda’s random transphobic line (“That she-male Katinka’s not messing around”)—made all the more painful by seeming to have been overdubbed after filming. And there’s a current of lazy category humor related to eating disorders, little people, and certain ethnicities that mars the fun as well. But for all the cringes that these flaws inspired in me, I think Zoolander’s intelligence on gender, sexuality, and queer aesthetics—especially considering the moment in which it was made—is enough to recommend it, orange mocha frapaccinos and all.