Zoolander 2 is set to be released in 2016, and has already received much hype, but not always for good reasons. This week, it has come under fire from LGBT+ supporters, who say that Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of transgender model ‘All’ is “transphobic”. An online petition to boycott the film has collected over 8,000 signatures at the time of writing. Sarah Rose, who created the petition, said: “By hiring a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way, the film endorses harmful and dangerous perceptions of the queer community at large”. She also said that if the film’s producers and screenwriters wanted to fairly represent transgender models, someone like famous trans/ androgynous model Andreja Pejic could have been approached.
After recently being heralded for his moving performance as Alan Turing, and also speaking out about the refugee crisis, Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to be paving the movement for acceptance and diversity. But from the trailer for Zoolander 2, it seems like the character of All is poking fun at the transgender community. Zoolander, played by Ben Stiller, asks All if they are a ‘male model’ or a ‘female model’. Firstly, we can completely understand the offense in this statement. It directly implies that they are the only two options of gender that a person can have, and that is of course definitely untrue. Furthermore, it’s clear from the way Cumberbatch is dressed that this is a completely stereotypical representation not intended to be taken seriously, just as the way that the character of Derek Zoolander himself is both satirical and stereotyped. It seems odd to us that Cumberbatch would waste time and effort on films that endorse and support LGBT+ themes, to then overtly mock an entire group of people he has spent many years encouraging. However, we don’t think that that is the intention of the film, or any of the actors. After all, the Zoolander franchise is an obvious satire of the modelling industry. Perhaps the movie producers wanted to represent the growing number of LGBT+ models, they just misjudged the tone.
It is clear that representation for LGBT+ has surged in the last decade; it would be absolutely unthinkable to have Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine ten years ago, let alone a major character in the intensely popular television programme ‘Orange is the New Black’. In the case of Sophia, Cox’s character in the show, it is essential that a trans actress plays the trans character. But in the defence of the character from Zoolander, All, gender fluid people can surely be played by trans, cis, or any type of gendered person. If anything, the scene could maybe be intended to portray Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s characters in an awful light, asking if All had ‘a hot dog or a bun’. (It is hard to tell from a short clip of a trailer). This line is of course cringeworthy, and in our opinion should have been struck from the film. Not only is it none of anyone’s business, but it also enforces the idea that gender is linked directly to sex, and that is the most common mistake people make in terms of LGBT+ issues.
Representation has undoubtedly come far, but there is so much further it needs to go, and should be covered in all faucets of media, not just dramas and reality television. Comedy is probably one of the biggest genres to reach a mainstream audience, so while we do agree that these representations shouldn’t be offensive or play up to cis standards, LGBT+ roles can be satirised and parodied just as much as any other role, if done correctly.
In our opinion, to boycott the film just because you aren’t happy with the way a character has been portrayed is maybe too extreme. There are so many films out there that offend a certain race, religion or gender that people still went to the cinema to see, and love regardless. The South Park movie, Team America, The Interview, Robert Downey Jnr’s blackface in Tropic Thunder, the reverse blackface in White Chicks, any film by Sacha Baron Cohen… the list goes on. If you refused to see any film that has the potential to offend someone, you would be very restricted in what films you can see. At the end of the day, Zoolander isn’t exactly Oscar winning material, and is a parody film. We highly doubt someone will see the character of All and take that as representative of all LGBT+ people, that would be ridiculous. The film is obviously intended as a comedy, if that isn’t your sense of humour, fair enough. Some jokes offend people, but you don’t have to go and see the film if you don’t want to. But to boycott it could be a step too far.