On 21st May 2010 the world was introduced to Pimp, the latest in a long line of British drama that casts a discerning eye towards the gritty reality of our little isle’s mucky underworld. At the beginning was Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a quietly anti-establishment homage to freedom set in the dirty climbs of Alan Sillitoe’s northern penitentiary system; a depiction worlds away from the denigrating “scum of the earth” light criminals were so often forced to bathe in. A few years later and 1969 brought us Oh! What a Lovely War, an outstanding satire that pried the tightly held nostalgia from the hands of the gore glorifying establishment whilst perfectly capturing the Zeitgeist of a bygone era; all through the mediums of song and dance. Then came the timeless, untouchable Withnail and I, a film that handles depression, the depths of Thatcherism and homosexuality in the gentlest of ways. The single thing these films have in common, brilliance aside, is their willingness to confront taboos, to take another glance at a corner of society the masses had long since written off. Pimp, “A dark and gritty journey through Soho’s savage underground” and a film that took in £205 at the box-office, is exempt from such company.
The single biggest problem with Pimp and that which has seen it regularly plugged as candidate for worst British film ever made is not its appropriation of the now tired mockumentary formula. Nor the weird, nausea inducing hand held camera thing it tries and fails to pull off. It’s not even the fact that Danny Dyer actually says the words “cunt bubble”. (I can only assume this is something a little bit spherical, a little bit vadgy, but beyond this the concept escapes me.) Whilst these things do little to salvage what was always going to be a total fucking shipwreck of a film, if it weren’t for its belligerently see through attempts to sledgehammer through every thinkable cultural taboo and continually, infuriatingly laugh in the face of common decency, it might have avoided going completely Titanic.
What Pimp shows us, apart from how goddamn sexy miserable eastern European women are, is that tackling naughty topics is not by itself an action worthy of praise. This is a truth made incredibly apparent by the infamously vile A Serbian Film, an erotic thriller that disgusts and alienates in equal measure. Without an angle, filth remains filth and depravity becomes unpalatable. In the course of Pimp’s 91 minutes of bombastic misogyny, not once is a valid point visible amidst the muck. Not once is the shameless degradation of women used to draw attention to the violent sexism rife in this hugely hyperbolic depiction of a unsavoury subsection of society. The challenging of taboos in this instance is less risqué delve into the uncomfortable than it is ogling dick swinging contest.
The quality that keeps Pimp and films that successfully challenge taboos apart is its heavy handed, almost feverish attempt to make its point known. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner doesn’t need to tell us its stepping into the left field. It shows us, tentatively, through its humanising characterisation of an otherwise shunned peoples that the cultural norm may be in some part faulty. Withnail and I doesn’t shove its sex and drug agenda down the throats of its audience, reducing the complex world of debauchery in the process. It hints, implies and slowly, within the subtext, looks to overcome. The subject of taboo is in this instance revered, used to heighten the reaction but never used to cause the reaction in and of itself. It is for this reason that taboo is fundamental to great film and must be respected, not overcome at once, if the maximal effect is to be achieved.
The same adage holds true in music. Whilst Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality is now well known, for the majority of his time with Queen he was assumed straight. If we are allowed to view his musical career as an artwork in and of itself, the drawn out emergence of his true sexual orientation, through the implied, coke-snorting, rent boy renting ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and the drag donning ‘I Want to Break Free’, is in retrospect, a far more powerful statement than an out and out declaration. Although gay musicians shouldn’t be required to speak out, in a society still struggling with homophobia the gradual outing of an already substantiated, much loved cultural icon did wonders. A taboo, however outdated and degrading, was understood, slowly unravelled and shown to be wanting. And in the process great art was created.
There is certain sincerity apparent in artwork that emerges in rebellion of a social standard that is otherwise hard to capture. Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s ‘Lemon Incest’ is one of the best known incest/peadophillia/80s synth pop crossovers that, in its breathy vocals, scantily clad video and innuendo provoked wild outrage. The point of the song is not to glamorise familial, cross generational love, but to highlight and play off of a taboo. “The love we’ll never make together Is the most beautiful, the rarest, the most disconcerting .The purest, the headiest”, sings the 12 year old Charlotte, acknowledging that it is within the chase, however perpetual, not the catch, that the giddiest of heights are reached. There is admittedly a dark undertone to the song and pair’s relationship that does render this point suspect, but it is not in the song’s smashing of taboos but reverence for them, the love that will never be made together, that it finds its power. The taboo remains intact but played upon.
In his fantastic book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Gardner draws upon the power of taboo in the shaping of culture. Cold War America, terrified by the threat of nuclear war with a country vilified, however justly, by the McCarthy driven media, reacted in the extreme. Capitalism became God, teeth whiter and the swinging sixties a decade of cultural liberation. Almost anything became permissible in the desperate scramble to disassociate with the acting counter-culture. As much as the Red Scare was an incredibly damaging, inhumane overreaction to a largely unknown entity, the monolithic counterpoint helped form the pop extremities of Warhol and Rauschenberg. By the law of equal action and reaction, the bigger the taboo, the more shunned a culture, the greater the artistic retribution. This is not to validate or applaud the bigotries and stigmas our societies need to overcome, but to understand the violently emotional responses and creative rebuttal they inspire, however forcefully, in the are of the disenchanted.
Taboos are typically defined by society, and thus change as society grows and develops. However, it is typically considered taboo to be different from the ‘norms’ of society. In Western culture, this ‘norm’ is usually defined as a cisgender, straight white male, and anything other than that is considered unnatural or strange. However, people are slowly adapting to the idea that this definition of ‘normal’ actually only applies to a very small and privileged section of society, and that either the definition must be broadened, or society must become more accepting of those different to the ‘norm’. What was previously considered taboo is now being accepted in many cases, although it is still an uphill struggle for those searching for equal rights and representation in both society and the media.
One of the most prominent examples of something that used to be seen as taboo, but is now accepted by society, is homosexuality. Not so long ago, being homosexual was considered a crime, and not long before that, it was punishable by death (and in some countries it still is). Only recently did many countries, including the UK, legalise same-sex marriage, giving LGBTQIAP+ citizens the same right to marriage as heterosexual couples.
Whilst this is clearly a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go until society changes its narrow-minded view on what is considered to be ‘normal’. However, the way to equal rights and equal treatment for all does not lie in giving the same blanket approach to all situations. Many LGBTQIAP+ rights activists have an issue with applying what they consider to be outdated, heteronormative traditions to sections of society that have no desire to function in this way. Marriage is a good example of this. Whilst married couples do get certain tax breaks and benefits that mean that they are ultimately better off than non-married couples (in monetary terms, at least), many people in the LGBTQIAP+ community dispute that the best way to give non-heterosexual people the same rights as heterosexuals is to simply give them the same things. After all, many people in the LGBTQIAP+ community may not want to get married, as they view it as part of a religion that has ostracised and oppressed them for centuries. However, despite all that, it is undeniable that these sort of leaps forward for LGBTQIAP+ rights are proving that things that used to be seen as ‘taboo’ are now being considered normal, and perfectly acceptable in society.
However, whilst small steps are being taken towards equal rights for LGBTQIAP+ citizens in society, it is arguable that there is still a huge way to go before equal representation is given to them in the media. The director of Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée, has recently come under fire for casting cisgender actor Jared Leto (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of transgender Rayon) when many people believe that he should have instead cast a trans actor for the role. Vallée’s reasoning behind this decision was that he was unaware that there were any transgender actors, and claiming that he wasn’t “aiming for the real thing. [He was] aiming for an experienced actor who wants to portray the thing.” Yet despite this, many people have applauded Dallas Buyers Club for including a trans person’s story in such a prominent way in a film seen by millions of people.
In contrast to Vallée’s decision to cast a cis man in the role of a transgender woman in his film, hit TV show Orange is the New Black has been praised for casting transgender actress Laverne Cox in the role of Sophia Burset, a trans woman sent to prison for credit card fraud. Cox describes her character as “a multi-dimensional character who the audience can really empathize with—all of a sudden they’re empathizing with a real Trans person. And for trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that’s when it becomes really important.” And truly, this is what is important for people on the fringes of society – those who don’t fit into the small definition of ‘normal’ by society’s standards – being able to see people like yourself, represented in the media as more than a cheap joke or a flat, one-dimensional character (if they are featured at all).
This is partially the reason why so many people have an issue with Disney constantly featuring only white, straight, beautiful, skinny princesses in their films. Whilst there have been Disney princesses who are not white (Mulan, Tiana, Pocahontas, Jasmine), they are massively outnumbered by the likes of Ariel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Belle, etc. etc. On top of this, every single princess has been straight, with the vast majority of her storyline being about falling in love with her ‘prince charming’, or being rescued by a man. One exception to this (the other being Brave) is the most recent Disney offering, Frozen, which features two princesses, sisters Anna and Elsa. Some viewers of the film have interpreted Elsa’s power (she can control snow and ice) as a metaphor for her being queer. She is born with her powers, but is forced to hide them by her parents. Only once she accepts her powers (as shown in the fantastic song, ‘Let It Go’) can she learn to be true to herself. Yet many people take issue with this interpretation. Not only do many (homophobic) people argue against any interpretation of a Disney film that deviates from the ‘comfortable’ norm of cis, straight, and white, many people in the LGBTQIAP+ community are angry that they are forced to try and find representations of people like themselves in subtext, rather than being part of the canon story.
However, it does not look as though Disney are going to be featuring a more diverse range of characters in their films anytime soon, meaning people in the LGBTQIAP+ community will have to continue searching for possible readings of Disney films as queer, rather than actually being given some representation within the films.
Overall then, it is clear that society is slowly adapting to the idea that not everyone is a straight white male, and that people who do not define this way should not be punished or ostracised from society for it. Whilst it is taking a long time to change people’s opinions on the matter, LGBTQIAP+ rights have come a long way since the Stonewall riots of the 1960s, and hopefully they will continue to move forward until there is equal representation for all people within the media, and equal treatment for all within society. This can surely only come through the systematic destruction of what many people consider to be taboo or deviant behaviour. Hopefully one day soon, people will look back at how those on the edge of society were treated with disgust, realising that judging people based on who they are attracted to, or what they define themselves as, is seriously prejudiced and ultimately benefits no-one.