Bill & Ted's Sociology Adventure: Why social context matters in theme park storytelling
Published: October 23, 2013 at 4:16 PM
My initial reaction to the show was pretty much the same as it has been for the past two years: It’s not funny, the jokes are lazy and I did not have a good time. That’s fine. I know a lot of people LOVE the show to death and there’s a big difference between finding a show unfunny and finding a show homophobic. Because I didn’t care for the show much, I didn’t put in a whole lot of critical effort in my review of the event. If you liked the show last year, I figure you liked the show this year.
At some point in the last couple of weeks I heard some rumblings about the offensive nature of the show. I didn’t think much of it because, well, the show is offensive. That’s the point. They make off-color jokes that are supposed to offend people. So I didn’t think much about it until Twitter nearly combusted today as theme park sites and bloggers found out the show had been cancelled.
Phrases like “faux outrage” and “political correctness” and “you’ve never seen the show” and “context” were bandied about like play things. I get it. People are upset because a show they like is being taken away from them and it’s being taken away (in their minds) by people who have never and will never visit Halloween Horror Nights. They might be right. I think they’re missing the point.
Part of what makes off-color humor work is that comedians (usually) attack groups in power. There’s a reason that making jokes about machismo and white people go over better than making jokes about minorities: It’s not funny to make fun of marginalized groups. Now, that’s my opinion on comedy and it is obviously not shared by everyone. But to say that outrage over a homophobic joke is fake or otherwise invalid is, in my mind, kind of disgusting.
Beyond that, it’s one thing to make the joke about a group that is routinely humiliated (and still not treated as equal human beings in over half of this country, you know), and it’s another to say that their feelings — or feelings on their behalf don’t even matter. As a sports writer (I can’t go to theme parks EVERY weekend) this debate reminds me a lot of what’s happening over the name of Washington DC's NFL team right now. The rationale seems to be: The majority of Americans don’t find the name offensive; therefore, everyone who is offended is wrong. [Editor's note: Jacob wrote the name of the team, but I don't want it on the website, which shows you where I come down on that issue. - Robert]
Where that crowd gets it wrong is its belief that this is some sort of a democracy. This is not a case of “majority rules” -- this is a case where if a group is being marginalized and offended, they’re the ones we should all be answering to. I’m not gay and I do not pretend to speak for gay people in any capacity, but if there are people offended by the content of the show, that means something.
Now that’s all well and good, but it is fair to note that the context and content of the show is heavily advertised to prospective viewers. You WILL be offended and if you are easily offended DON’T WATCH is the message given before the show (paraphrasing, but you get the idea). So the comparison is made to an R-rated movie where people ostensibly don’t complain about the content because it’s known that it is created for adults.
That assumes, of course, that homophobia, racism and sexism are R-rated events that are strictly created for adults. The problem with that line of thinking is twofold: First of all, homophobia isn’t the same as gore, sex and violence. Secondly, the idea that homophobia is okay because it’s within the context of an adult event is silly. I would argue that given the context of where this country is in terms of treating gay people like human beings that the jokes are at best lazy and at worst offensive.
My point in all of this isn’t that the show was abjectly disgusting and offensive — far from it. My point is that all of these jokes happen in the wider context of our social construct. Not all jokes intended-to-offend are created equal. So while many may disagree with Universal’s decision to cancel the show, I think it’s important to show a degree of sensitivity towards the groups being targeted and to treat this issue the way it is: complicated. Spending more than five minutes thinking about the situation might lead to cooler heads and better understanding prevailing.
Update: Universal Orlando just posted to Twitter that its Bill & Ted show uses a different script and the Orlando version of the show will continue as scheduled.