Tropfest is one of Australia’s largest and most influential cultural events. Thousands gather across the country to celebrate Australian creativity through filmmaking each year. The competition also acts as a litmus test of what issues have dominated the Australian psyche over the previous year. It’s not uncommon to see films that tap into hot topics – often forcing us to challenge our perspective on a cultural or community issue.
Unfortunately this year’s winner ‘Bamboozled’ shows us we have a long way to go in regards to sex, gender and sexuality in our community. The winning film follows a young man’s surprise encounter with an old girlfriend who (surprise!) has had a sex change and now lives as a man. The film then follows a drunken night ending in a twist where (surprise!) the main character has been tricked into sex with a man as part of a television “gotcha” program.
Sex, gender and sexuality can (and should be) great topics for comedy. There’s a lot to learn from a comical perspective on these themes – unfortunately ‘Bamboozled’ misses the mark.
Firstly there’s the trivialisation of the transgender, gender questioning and transitioning experience. It’s an old filmic/comedic technique we’ve seen in hundreds of films, but surely we’re more educated and understanding in 2013? The trans experience is more than just a lazy punch line. It’s a real experience that real people in our community are going through.
Then the film’s twist ending is even more problematic. In what world is getting someone drunk and tricking them to engage in sexual contact not a form of rape? Clearly the character was not in a position to appropriately consent to sex and the initiating character has been specifically engaged to trick the central character into sexual contact they otherwise would have not entered into. That’s sexual assault.
As the film’s ending twist is revealed the central character is then chided with various “you just slept with a man” jibes. Apparently in 2013 being gay or engaging in gay sex is something to be ashamed about? The central joke/twist of the film relies on an entrenched sense of homophobia and gender roles in our community to make its impact.
I don’t write this to accuse the filmmakers or Tropfest judges of being homophobes – I’m certain that was not their intention, but we seriously have to question an Australian culture where homophobia as a punch line is still acceptable. Not only that – it’s a lazy filmic cliché that our society should have moved past decades ago.
Yet, the most telling part is that this film was selected, screened, won and has plenty of people in the community willing to sing its comedic praises. I’ve already heard plenty of people defend the film as “just a joke” and been told to “get over it” but I firmly believe the best comedy in our community challenges our prejudices – the laziest reinforces those prejudices.
Narratives are powerful cultural forces. Every time we reward a narrative that relies on outdated gender roles, homophobia or questionable power structures we further entrench those behaviour sets as cultural norms. That has an impact – 5 minutes research into the mental health outcomes of LGBTI young people will show you just what this sustained and powerful narrative can do.
We might get a cheap laugh when homophobia is the punch line, but we send the wrong message when we reward films like ‘Bamboozled’ which rely on reinforcing our prejudices for their impact.