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Reaction Time: Jonah Hill And The 'Other F-Word'

Ariana Aboulafia |
June 20, 2014 | 2:30 p.m. PDT


"Love Conquers Hate." Jonah Hill tweets a photo as part of a campaign to end anti-gay discrimination in Russia. (@JonahHill, Twitter)
"Love Conquers Hate." Jonah Hill tweets a photo as part of a campaign to end anti-gay discrimination in Russia. (@JonahHill, Twitter)
Jonah Hill has been causing quite a stir recently, and not for the reasons you might think.

The young actor has been in many of the most popular movies of the past ten years, including Superbad, 21 Jump Street, Wolf of Wall Street, This is the End and Get Him to the Greek. In addition, Hill's latest film, the much-anticipated sequel to 21 Jump Street (aptly titled 22 Jump Street) topped the box office in its first week.

However, not all of Hill's press this month has been good.

Hill was apparently being followed around Los Angeles by a paparazzo, who seemed to be bothering him and perhaps hitting on him, making a remark that his shorts were “pretty sexy”. As Hill and the paparazzo parted ways, the paparazzo made a final statement to Hill who replied “Suck my dick, faggot.”

The main reason that this made news was because, in the past, Jonah Hill has spoken out in favor of gay rights. He has spoken in interviews about his support of his gay friends and family members, and even tweeted a photograph of himself wearing a “Love Conquers Hate” t-shirt, publicly naming himself as a part of the Human Rights Campaign’s efforts to protest against Vladimir Putin’s treatment of LGBT individuals in Russia. He has likened gay rights to human rights, saying that asking someone why they support gay rights is “like saying, why do you think people should breathe?”

So, the big questions here is what made Hill, a gay rights supporter through and through (or so it seems) use a word that the majority of the gay community (and many straight allies) find offensive? 

Hill made a mistake by saying this word – that is the first thing that should be said and understood. There is never an excuse to say that “other f-word”, especially in a situation like this, because it’s unnecessary and offensive and, at the very least, not smart for him considering his celebrity status. Jonah Hill knows this. He very quickly apologized during an interview with Howard Stern, saying that he would be more than happy to become “the poster boy for thinking about what you say." He went further, acknowledging that he should not have used the word and attempting to assure people that he did not mean it as a gay slur at all but, it seems, as more of a general term of disdain. And here is where the question comes up: why is it that the word “faggot” has become some sort of generalized insult when it has been a well known anti-gay slur for decades?

According to an online etymology dictionary, the usage of the word faggot in connection to homosexuals can be traced back to America in 1914. It is unclear where the word comes from exactly; many people believe that the word ‘s negative connotation in connection to sexual orientation goes back to an alternate definition of the word “faggot” as a bundle of sticks, presumably used for that burning at the stake, a medieval punishment for homosexuality. However, apparently that is nothing more than a myth, and the word instead most likely comes from an earlier American “contemptuous term for a woman” from the 1590s or the Yiddish word for homosexual “faygele.” Regardless of its origin, for 100 years, the word has been used to refer negatively to gay men; one of the first published incidents of this was in Ernest Hemmingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises,” where one character says to another: “You’re a hell of a good guy, and I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn’t tell you that in New York, it’d mean I was a faggot.”

So why is it that the word is used so casually today? Jonah Hill is by no means the only famous person to get called on using the word “faggot” – both actor Alec Baldwin and Tyler the Creator have made news within the past year for their usage of the word. The main difference, in fact, is not the usage of the word but rather their reactions when they were caught using it. Alec Baldwin, for example, apparently threw the word at a paparazzo and responded by denying it, saying instead that he used the word “fathead” (okay Alec Baldwin). Tyler the Creator didn’t even bother denying his usage of the word (which was probably good, considering his 2013 album apparently uses the word 213 times), instead proclaiming that the word faggot is “just a word” and as long as it is not used with someone’s sexual orientation in mind, it should not be offensive. While Tyler clearly oversimplified the controversy behind this word, he does bring up an interesting point - do words only have as much power as we give them? By making a big deal every single time a celebrity says this word, are we the ones perpetuating its power? Or, by stating that it is a big deal to use this word, are we doing the exact opposite and ensuring that it is not used casually? 

My thoughts on this are conflicted. On one hand, I do not think you can just ignore the history of the word or the numerous people who have been hurt by it. On the other hand, however, I also do not think you can disregard the intent behind a word in considering its meaning. Isn’t there a difference between someone who says the word to purposely make someone feel bad about their sexuality as opposed to someone who says it as a general insult? And isn’t there an even greater difference between someone who says the word unapologetically (hey Tyler) versus someone who says it and profusely apologizes the very next day? When it comes to Jonah Hill, it seems to me that his actions speak louder than his words, and I do not believe that a single outburst should overshadow his continued support for the LGBT community, especially because he apologized. It’s definitely best if the word “faggot” is retired from use completely, and Hill shouldn’t have used it – but I give him credit for realizing his mistake and publicly recognizing it.

It takes courage to admit your mistakes, and before anyone decides to vilify Jonah Hill for making a mistake, perhaps that courage should be factored into the equation.

Read more "Reaction Time": common sense reactions to every-day craziness.

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