Trans rights activists have criticised the portrayal of a androgynous model played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the fashion caper Zoolander 2 , which sees Owen Wilson ask the star’s character if he has a “hotdog or a bun”.
More than 9 000 people have now signed the Care2 petition saying they will boycott the film on the basis of the trailer’s portrayal of Cumberbatch’s character in the highly anticipated sequel.
In the newly released trailer, Cumberbatch is seen briefly in a long dark wig with shaved eyebrows and wearing a white fur coat, introduced as “the world’s biggest supermodel, All”. During the 10-second exchange shown in the trailer, Ben Stiller’s character Derek Zoolander asks if the model is “like a male model or a female model”.
“All is all,” Cumberbatch’s character replies. “I think he’s asking if you have a hot dog or a bun,” Owen Wilson’s character Hansel McDonald replies. The model gasps, then gives a high-pitched giggle and says “ooops”.
“Cumberbatch’s character is clearly portrayed as an over-the-top, cartoonish mockery of androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals,” the petition reads, started by a user called Sarah Rose. “This is the modern equivalent of using blackface to represent a minority.
“If the producers and screenwriters of Zoolander wanted to provide social commentary on the presence of trans/androgyne individuals in the fashion industry, they could have approached models like Andreja Peji to be in the film.
A limited public understanding of non-binary people
By hiring a cis actor to play a non-binary individual in a clearly negative way, the film endorses harmful and dangerous perceptions of the queer community at large.”
Jennie Kermode, chair of Trans Media Watch , said she understood the characters were intended to be shallow but said the portrayal was damaging because it played to such a specific stereotype, when there was a lack of alternative representations in Hollywood.
“It is difficult to form a clear impression of what Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is like from the trailer alone, but we would have preferred to see a trans person in this role,” she said.
“Not only is it very difficult for non-binary actors to find work, but there is still very limited public understanding of non-binary people. Given the hostility many encounter in their day-to-day lives, we feel it’s particularly important for producers to think carefully about representation.”
Kermode said it was heartening to see more people beginning to recognise the issues in Hollywood’s portrayal of trans people, particularly after Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, which critics said had used trans stories from the gay rights movement for light relief, rather than putting them centre stage.
A huge obstacle
Zoolander 2, which reunites Wilson and Stiller 15 years after the original, centres on airhead male model Derek Zoolander’s blunders through the world of high fashion, and also stars Will Ferrell, Penélope Cruz, Kristen Wiig and Justin Bieber.
In the sequel, Stiller’s character is set to come out of retirement to find a mysterious killer whose victims imitate Zoolander’s famous “Blue Steel” pout at the moment of their death. It is due out in cinemas in 2016.
Cumberbatch has previously been outspoken about his commitment to gay rights, notably when he played Bletchley Park’s Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, the codebreaker genius who was persecuted later in life for his homosexuality.
In an interview for Time Out, the actor said homosexuality remained a “huge obstacle” for those who wanted to play leading men.
“I don’t really know what they do to deal with it,” he said. “Human rights movements and sexual and gay rights movements have made huge social progress in the last 40 years, without a doubt, but there’s a lot more work to be done.” – (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015
Watch the trailer: