It’s always encouraging to see a smart film doing well – even reaching the top of the box-office charts. Yes, 22 Jump Street is a Hollywood blockbuster with A-list stars, and it’s a sequel to boot; it was never going straight to bargain bins on garage forecourts. Where it exceeds expectations is in marrying the knowingness of its writing to the gleeful, unimpeachable sincerity of its performances. Channing Tatum in particular has developed into a joyous comic actor, coasting on perfumed clouds of oblivious delirium. It isn’t that he plays his character, the undercover cop Jenko, as dumb exactly – though his malapropisms (especially a spectacular one involving the name “Cate Blanchett”, which David Denby in the New Yorker was kind enough to spoil for his readers) are sublime. He reminded me more of Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless, characterised by a lack of self-awareness that insulates him from social ravages. Ignorance is comic bliss. (This contrasts nicely with the combative intelligence of the newcomer Jillian Bell, who gives a film-stealing, star-making performance: an apparent cameo that blossoms into something bigger.)
But I was surprised to read on Indiewire an article lambasting the movie for its “meta-homophobia”. This film isn’t just homofriendly – it’s homolovely. It seems to me that you have to try very hard, and look so far between the lines that you cannot see those lines any more, in order to discern anything homophobic or even mildly hateful in 22 Jump Street. This is a film that relishes all its characters, and gives a rich gloss to even its cheapest jokes. The nearest that the movie sails to the uncharitable is in a scene involving the villain from the previous Jump Street movie; his penis was shot off in a gunfight to be replaced with a makeshift vagina. There are some throwaway gags about how his cellmate, a fellow antagonist from the original film, is coerced into servicing him sexually, but it would take an inordinate amount of effort and distortion to see this as a transphobic jibe. Being transgender is about more than having had one set of genitals replaced with another; it isn’t a dressing-up game in which we can all put on or remove prosthetic body parts. It comes from within: it is about who a person is inside. Any external equipment has to be adjusted to be consistent with the internal, but it isn’t genitalia that makes a person transgender.
To suggest that the prison scene is transphobic is to wilfully misunderstand what it means to be transgender. If you were feeling particularly unforgiving, you might even say that it is actively transphobic to see 22 Jump Street in transphobic terms, because in doing so one overlooks the true meaning of transgender. The worst you could say about the scene is that it doesn’t take seriously the subject of sex in prison. Well, guess what? It still does a damn sight better than The Shawshank Redemption or A Prophet, which cannot even bring themselves to admit that men in prison might have sex with one another for pleasure. In The Shawshank Redemption, sex in prison exists only as gang rape, and a catalyst for revenge; in A Prophet, it happens only to facilitate a murder. At least 22 Jump Street accepts it as a fact of prison life, even if there is a schoolboy snigger around the subject. It even subverts the usual dynamic by making the victim (that is, the unwilling partner) the one who has to perform the penetrative act; it is the aggressor, the man with the artificial vagina, who has to be penetrated. Too much information?
The homophobia charge is especially galling because the homoerotic, or homosocial, relationship between the two male leads – Tatum and Jonah Hill (as Jenko’s partner Schmidt) – is not only one of the running jokes of 22 Jump Street: it is the subject of it. It’s text, not subtext, and the space and dignity the movie affords it elevates it from a joke into a celebration.
We start out with scenes in which they discuss their working relationship in terms deliberately redolent of the romantic – Jenko suggests they should think about going solo and “sowing our wild cop oats”, while a college psychologist misinterprets all their talk about being “partners” and proceeds to give them couples counselling. To appreciate how homofriendly the film is, let’s imagine the traditional (that is, homophobic or patriarchal) structure for that gag.
- The cops talk about their relationship.
- Psychologist gets the wrong end of the stick.
- Cops cotton on eventually to his misinterpretation, long after the audience has, and proceed to profess disgust and repulsion, perhaps attempting a variation on the ostentatiously macho banter with which Steve Martin and John Candy struggle to cleanse themselves of their accidental intimacy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Well, the opposite happens. The psychologist assumes that Jenko and Schmidt are romantic partners, as opposed to professional ones, and asks them to try holding hands to bridge their divide. They do so reluctantly – not because they fear it is “gay” but clearly because they have so much tension between them at that point. At no juncture is the comic “reveal” of heterosexual disgust exploited – because there isn’t any. I’m not just talking about this instance: there isn’t any in the entire film. Like the Jackass boys, Jenko and Schmidt are to all intents and purposes in a loving and intimate relationship with one another. It should be our understanding that the only reason they don’t go the whole hog together is not because they don’t want to, but because they are in a Hollywood movie which isn’t quite ready to embrace fully and openly that concept. That isn’t at all the same thing as it being demonised or even stigmatised. The movie trusts us to read the true content of what is on screen; it flatters us that we are sophisticated enough to do so. And if we don’t – well, the creators of Loadsamoney and Alf Garnett will be able to tell you that it won’t be the first time an audience screwed up.
The “mistaken gayness” situation with the psychologist is repeated later in a new context when Jenko pretends to be giving fellatio to Schmidt in the college library in order to disguise the fact that they are both eavesdropping on the villains in the next aisle. Once again there is an opportunity for Schmidt and Jenko to advertise their disgust at homosexuality (the orthodox mainstream response) and once again it is passed over. Not only do we fail to get the traditional disavowal of their gay masquerade but the scene is transformed triumphantly into an attack on homophobia: when one of the villains refers to Schmidt and Jenko as “a couple of fags”, Jenko upbraids him for his homophobic language. Do not underestimate the importance of a young multiplex audience hearing this chastisement from the mouth of the film’s deeply sympathetic hero. Maybe it won’t stop them calling one another “gay” in the playground. But it will at least have planted some doubt in their minds. They can’t say any longer that they didn’t realise the impact of the word, not now they have heard Jenko’s reprimand.
22 Jump Street goes further than any other mainstream Hollywood comedy in normalising the emotional transactions between men. Crucially, it doesn’t have a gay character who acts as the “Other” and allows audiences to differentiate between the ostensibly straight heroes and the spectre of gayness. Even the brilliant bromance I Love You, Man couldn’t quite avoid the trap of showing audiences what gay people look like, so that we might comfort ourselves that the main characters do not fall into that category. 22 Jump Street is more progressive than that, and far more progressive than a film as paralysed as Withnail & I, which again uses the distraction method – “Look over there at Uncle Monty! Isn’t he monstrous? That is what a gay person looks like, so don’t you dare go thinking that the heroes are gay, no matter how intimate they get with one another. Got it?”
22 Jump Street initially plays for laughs the connection between Jenko and a college football star, Zeke (Wyatt Russell), turning it into a spoof of rom-com convention and generating comedy out of Schmidt’s jealousy over the two men’s increasing closeness. But this too is ultimately treated ingenuously. The shortcomings of Jenko and Zeke’s friendship arise out of it being purely physical – Jenko gets bored when all Zeke wants to do is pump iron. He misses the rounded, comprehensive intimacy he shared with Schmidt, which was about more than just stripping off and getting down to it. In this way, 22 Jump Street reinforces not homophobia but loving and meaningful relationships of all kinds. That’s regressive in its own way, you might protest. But then that is another argument, and one in which accusations of homophobia have no currency.
22 Jump Street is on release.