Word Reclamation in Politically Correct Culture

The other week, a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair Online came under fire for what many dissenters claimed to be the use of homophobic language in an article. Brett Berk, a prolific writer on culture, politics and cars, was roundly lambasted for using the term “fag” to refer to Kurt and Blaine, two openly gay characters on the hit Fox Show Glee, in his regular column. He is also, I should point out, gay.

Published on March 9th in VF.com’s popular segment, “The Gay Guide to Glee”, Berk’s word choice prompted a slew of comments on the site itself, as well as on twitter, tumblr and the Gay Interests website AfterElton, and by March 13th, Berk had altered the article and issued the following statement:

“As an openly gay writer writing in an overtly overblown style, my intent in using the word in this offhanded way was to continue my consistent efforts to confront and challenge stereotype, to unpack the way in which language works…Anyone with even a whiff of familiarity with my writing will know that I am, and have long been, a tireless agitator, here at VF.com and elsewhere, for gay rights, as well as a huge supporter of everything Glee has accomplished in advancing a meaningful dialogue about homosexuality in our popular culture—and in our youth culture in particular.”

Debate still rages between Vanity Fair readers, many comments on the article bearing dramatic vows to quit the magazine or aggressive essays in Berk’s defence, yet between all this lies the thorny issue of word reclamation and the question of whether or not a word retains its status as “offensive”, no matter who happens to use it.

Let’s hark back a bit here. Around the early to mid twentieth century, the word “queer” was a common enough derogatory term for those of a sexual/gender orientation other than “straight”. Used, in its most technical sense, as a term for effeminate gay males, it was largely taken as an umbrella term for anyone exhibiting untraditional gender behaviour. Fast forward twenty-odd years, however (and note the formation of an LGBT organisation called “Queer Nation” in March 1990) and the term “queer” is now a word often preferred by LGBT activists and those who, in whatever way, do not subscribe to traditional heteronormativity. The not infrequent addition of the letter Q to the end of the LGBT umbrella is evidence enough of its legitimate position in the community. This, in its way, is successful reclamation, turning a slur on its head and stripping it of its negative power by embracing it as something dignified, but is it necessarily proof that any negative word can be reclaimed by any community to an overtly empowering end?

If I were to be overly semantic about this (And ask the other editors. Semantics are my crack), I’d point out that words like “queer” are, nine times out of ten, ones with starkly different dictionary to colloquial definitions. This, in many ways, is where the boot can tend to fall as far as reclamation goes. “Queer”, for all its potentially unpleasant connotations, is actually only a term intended to imply a certain deviation from the perceived norm. “Fag”, on the other hand, has two connotations: one being firewood, the other being pork innards. Now, I don’t mean to get heavy here and I’m not saying it’s my place to decide, but I’m just saying that I can understand why people may find it easier to make something empowering and dignified out of the word “queer” than a fairly unpleasant term for offal. There is, as a point of fact, nothing positive about the term “fag”, right down to its etymology, and it is this which many of Berk’s dissenters seemed to latch onto. Let’s not forget that Glee itself aired an episode last season in which Kurt’s Dad soliloquized for something like ten minutes on exactly how wrong it was of Finn to use the term “faggy”, and that was only about a blanket.

Now, think about this. Is Berk’s use of the word “Fag” one or the other of the following: a means of unpacking and deactivating a deeply hurtful word or a thoughtless perpetuation of internalised homophobia? The readers of Vanity Fair were positively feral (and often painfully cavalier with their grammar) in their desire to declare one or the other but I personally can’t tell if it’s really that simple. There is, for a start, a difference between something that’s said and something that’s read. Vanity Fair, for all its claims of universality, is, at its core, a magazine with a principally straight white readership. And it is principally the straight white reader who will, consequently, be saying the word “fag”, mentally or aloud, whilst reading Berk’s article. Is it, ultimately, the same for Berk to reclaim the word aloud as a homosexual, as to put it in the mouths of others? Is it, as a point of fact, just shoddy journalism? I know plenty of people, hard-core Chris Rock fans though they might be, who still aren’t sure if they’re allowed to the say the title of his infamous “Black People vs. Niggas” routine aloud, and it could well be the same for Berk’s article. The word “fag”, even to the most open-minded and tolerant person, can still illicit an uncertain gasp, however it may be intended. As a term, it is still associated far more with the negative and people baulk to see it in print.

But should they? As one reader pointed out on VF.com, is it actually enlightened or simply oppressive for a readership of typically straight white people to claim offense on behalf of the gay community? As a gay man responding to others who had commented, the reader stated: “Many of us have reclaimed the terms “fag”, “dyke”, “queer” and reappropriated them into our everyday language. It’s oppressive of you to tell me I can NOT use those words.” The gut reaction of any tolerant person is to lambast any word commonly thought of as offensive, but whose place is it to deny whatever a community chooses to say about itself? Of course, not to imply that a debate like this is ever done, several comments on the article also expressed the exact opposite. Said one anonymous reader: “I’d like to remind you that not all gay people are so accepting. I’m all for reclaiming names, but as a lesbian, I despise the word ‘dyke’ and would never use it to refer to a group of women who are mostly straight.”

The debate over Berk’s decision to describe two young gay men on a programme ostensibly built around tolerance and acceptance as “fags” will doubtless rage on for some time, and it’s hard to come to any kind of concrete conclusion as to how his actions should be addressed, or if he was in the wrong at all. One reader may have said that “it just goes to show that sometimes we GLBT people can be our own worst enemies”, but the comment directly after his declared that “anyone with half a brain can recognize sarcasm, wit and, irony in Brett Berk’s writing. Lighten up. He’s on your side.” I’ll put it out there, but I have no idea what any of you might think.

On a side note – just because I have my reputation to maintain – I’ll just say that I’d really rather you didn’t go around telling everyone that I watch Glee. I still think it’s a hideous show; honestly I do; it’s just that this series there’s Darren Criss and his triangular eyebrows to be considered, and after all, I’m only human.

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