Zoolander 2’s Anti-Trans Dilemma


Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, and Owen Wilson in Paramount Pictures’ Zoolander 2.

Zoolander 2 debuted its first trailer amidst a wave of complaints and apathy. Why make a sequel to a fifteen-year-old comedy that people barely remember? Can’t Ben Stiller just make Tropic Thunder 2 instead? Doesn’t Kristen Wiig have something better to do with her time? These were, of course, the typical peanut gallery complaints from the people who spend their days surfing the internet and commenting on movies they’ve never seen.

But there was another, more topical complaint against Zoolander 2: Was the movie making fun of trans people? The trailer spends a surprisingly long time with All, a sexually androgynous model played by a wig-wearing, eyebrow-less Benedict Cumberbatch. Our two main characters are clearly weirded out by this character, and proceed to ask if All has a “hotdog” or a “bun.” Aside from the feeling that this joke came straight out of the nineties (remember when SNL decided to make an entire movie based on It’s Pat?), many people were worried that the joke was making fun of the trans community, not making fun of the two idiot characters who can’t seem to understand the people around them. Judging by this single clip, the intention wasn’t clear.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Paramount Pictures’ Zoolander 2.

Ultimately, trailers are meant to represent what a film has to offer, and if the filmmakers decided to highlight this scene, then the movie could very easily be two hours of mean-spirited queer-bashing. At least, that was the concern.

When I finally watched the film, I was underwhelmed from start to finish. Characters played by very funny people (Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell) show up every few scenes and repeat the same jokes each time. (Wiig’s character has weird plastic surgery, and that’s pretty much the extent of her personality.) The two main characters, meanwhile, are predictably dumb, and their story arc pretty much repeats that of the first film.

And as for All… The character is hardly in the film. Cumberbatch is basically making a cameo, and one that barely registers at all. Perhaps there were more scenes before the backlash. Perhaps Stiller and the other filmmakers decided to trim back All’s appearances just in case. Or perhaps not. Either way, the end result is a few short, forgettable moments in a long, forgettable movie. In other words, Zoolander 2 was just too bland to be offensive.

Which brings to mind another big budget comedy that the world has quickly forgotten: 2011’s The Dilemma. This film comes from the mind of Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director of A Beautiful Mind, and it stars Vince Vaughn, Winona Ryder, and the guy from King of Queens. Ten points if you remember its existence. Another ten points if you have any idea what “the dilemma” actually is (spoiler alert: the dilemma involves whether you should tell your friend that his wife is cheating on him).

When that film’s trailer first came out, there was a very loud backlash to one of Vince Vaughn’s lines: “Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.” The character uses the word “gay” to mean “lame,” which definitely comes across as offensive. However, the moment in the trailer was so short, much like in Zoolander 2, that it’s not clear whether the joke is making fun of gay people, or making fun of a motor-mouthed idiot like Vaughn’s character for making statements like that.

Winona Ryder, Kevin James, Vince Vaughn, and Jennifer Connelly in Universal Pictures’ The Dilemma.

Unlike Zoolander 2, however, the backlash against this trailer became a movement. Anderson Cooper got involved. Universal Studios and GLAAD had some private meetings. Ron Howard even made a statement. (He didn’t cut out the offending line, however.) For a while, The Dilemma was a lightning rod. Then the movie came out and… that was that. It didn’t make money. It didn’t offend anyone. It was just… kind of lame.

Maybe that was the reason there wasn’t a more unified backlash against Zoolander 2. Perhaps The Dilemma taught everybody a lesson about reacting with indignation to trailers. If a movie is too bland to leave a mark on pop culture, then it doesn’t really matter if it says anything offensive. No one will remember it anyway.


Charlie Purcell is an American living and working on beautiful Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. He’s a teacher by day and a writer by night. His latest novel, a road trip romance called Rev Your Engines, will be available on Amazon next month. For updates on his novels and short stories, visit ThisIsCharliePurcell.blogspot.com.


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