How did this happen? What began as the silliest gossip item of the week -- irritating celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and overexposed Black-Eyed Pea will.i.am's brawl outside a Toronto hotel -- has somehow transformed itself into an opportunity to discuss some of the biggest issues in feminism and gay rights. The drama played out in true 2009 style, with Hilton tweeting that fans should call local police after someone (allegedly Black Eyed Peas manager Liborio "Polo" Molina) punched him in the face and both Hilton and will.i.am vlogging about the incident. Amid the self-righteous posturing, one particularly sticky detail emerged: During the scuffle, Hilton had called will.i.am a "fucking faggot."
Now, as anyone familiar with Hilton knows, he is proudly and openly gay. When the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) heard about the slur, they issued a statement asking the gossipmonger to apologize. And Hilton responded exactly as you might expect: He refused to apologize but did say, "I wanted to hurt [will.i.am] with the word I chose, not anyone else. Unfortunately, the one who got hurt was me and, subsequently, a lot of other people. I wish none of it had happened."
Meanwhile, John Mayer incited a Twitter war with Hilton. "Last year P!nk kneed me in the nuts outside Chateau Marmont," he wrote. "I was pissing blood for days. Did I make a scene?" Mayer's comments, in turn, prompted Newsweek's Kate Dailey to accuse the musician of victim blaming. (Now, when was the last time you heard that term outside the ladyblogosphere?) "Perez is a pain; a pain who ridicules both gay rights activists and gay right critics when not drawing crude genitalia on paparazzi photos," writes Dailey. "Did he deserve a beating? No: no one does." Dailey went on to provide a feminist analysis of the situation:
This whole discussion is just a 21st century version of what women and assault victims have been hearing for years. The logic that it falls on the victim to prevent irrational actions of the assailant is really outdated and really, really dangerous. Many victims of violence—and especially domestic violence—will tell you that the slaps, punches, and shoves perpetrated upon them didn't happen when they were just sitting their minding their own business. It came during some sort of disagreement. Maybe she snapped at him out of frustration. Maybe she hit on a particularly sore subject. These are all things that happen during the course of an argument—we're never at our best when tempers are inflamed. But that doesn't make it right, ever, to take the fight from cutting remarks to physical violence.
As much as I dislike Hilton, I have to admit, Dailey has a point. No one -- no matter how odious -- deserves to get punched in the face. But it strikes me as a bit of a stretch to equate this isolated incident with the experience of battered women and rape victims (who are routinely asked whether their short skirt or low-cut top means that they share the responsibility for their own sexual assault). Overusing a term like "victim blaming" cheapens it for everyone.
Next to join the fray was Anna North at Jezebel, who responded to GLAAD's criticism and Dailey's defense of Hilton with a post denouncing the blogger's out-of-control misogyny and wondering why he's gotten away with calling women old, slutty and dumb without provoking any outrage from the same feminist groups that jumped on David Letterman a few weeks ago. Hilton's "views on gay marriage (which, for the record, support actual equality as opposed to 'an evangelical view of marriage equality') don't preclude him from being a thoughtless jerk who uses crude language to demean people," writes North. And she's absolutely right. But personally, I find myself in the middle ground between North and Dailey: I think it's perfectly reasonable to use this opportunity to call Hilton out on his active misogyny and casual homophobia, even as we denounce will.i.am's associates for using him as a punching bag.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. In the wee hours of Thursday morning -- in what may be an attempt to keep his name in the news or, as Gawker suggests, preserve his career or avoid "Public Incitement of Hatred" charges in Canada -- Hilton saw fit to apologize for using the word "faggot." "I am sorry," writes Hilton, "that any good work I have done for promoting equality may be tainted by me reclaiming a hurtful word -- that's been personally used against me and the gay community -- to hurt someone that was verbally attacking me. It was stupid."
Let's forget, at least for now, that Hilton's "good work" always seems to have more to do with promoting his brand than with actually aiding the gay rights movement. In his apology, he (perhaps unwittingly) touches upon yet another issue that has been at the heart of struggles for women's, gay and minority rights: reclamation of slurs. There is a powerful tradition of activists and artists reappropriating derogatory terms, from the LGBT community wearing "queer" as a badge of honor to rappers taking ownership of "nigger" to '90s riot grrrls scrawling "slut" on their stomachs. Done right, reclamation can defuse a noxious slur forever.
I know plenty of gay men who have reclaimed "faggot" in their lives or in their art, but Perez Hilton is not one of them. As GLAAD points out, Hilton was reinforcing -- not challenging -- the word's power to demean and defame. Just because you happen to be attracted to men doesn't magically mean that when you use "faggot" as an insult, you're "reclaiming" it.