Jonah Hill’s Apology and the Power of That Gay Slur

For anyone who might have missed the latest thing an incensed celebrity said to a paparazzo, last weekend, Jonah Hill told one such pest to “suck [his] dick, faggot.” Last night on Jimmy Fallon, Hill earnestly apologized for the slur, saying that while he meant it as generically hurtful and not homophobic, “how you mean things doesn’t matter — words have weight in meaning. The word I chose was grotesque, and no one deserves to say or hear words like that.” He attempted to turn the offense, and public image calamity, into a lesson, saying, “If you’re watching this, and you’re a young person especially, if someone says something that hurts you or angers you, use me as an example of what not to do, and don’t respond with hatred and anger, because you’re just adding more ugliness to the world, and again, I’m so sorry.”

The apology was heartfelt, and his attempt at martyrdom could actually be productive; his focus on the repercussions of a momentary, unthinking act are, indeed, a good lesson, and broadcasting it nationally was big of him: other celebrities who’ve been filmed using pejoratives have claimed not to have said them at all. Indeed, how much shit can we give someone for a mere moment? To do so would be hypocritical — we’ve all had our ugly moments; I, for one, could have thought before farting up the elevator this morning. Rather than attacking Hill for his meat-headedly uninventive retort (as seen in this Fallon clip, he isn’t usually a meathead), and rather than trying to parse his past interviews and public appearances for grains of homophobia, it’s of course more important to examine why the word remains on the front lines of so many people’s army of insults, why the word took charge of such a moment, why it flipped Hill’s defense against a paparazzo’s invasion into an offense – not just to the paparazzo, but to the the public to whom Hill is inextricably linked, and by whom, thanks to the featured cameraman, Hill is surveilled.

Whether or not Hill is a closet homophobe — which, if we’re going to give into this triviality, he probably isn’t — is irrelevant. Hill’s assertion that “faggot” was the first place his mind went when looking for something hurtful to say suggests that the word needs to further be stripped of the violence it connotes; even devoid of its typical homophobic meaning (which it actually wasn’t here — let’s not forget the “suck my dick” intro to the word), it’s potent because it bears the weight of a history of violence. It suggests that it’s still floating at the top of the collective hetero (and perhaps even non-hetero) subconscious as a derogatory term, whether or not it bears a directly homophobic meaning.

For it to spontaneously surface here as a defense mechanism implies that even in Hollywood, even among sweet, generally thoughtful actors who’ve dubbed themselves “allies,” the word’s negativity is no relic. As an openly gay man, the word “faggot,” in so much as it implies homosexuality, isn’t insulting for its definition alone; it’s frightening for the somewhat obvious reason that it carries the weight of centuries of antagonism and oppression. Hill heedlessly perpetuated it this weekend, adding another notch to the word’s plus-sized historical belt of bullying. But perhaps, weirdly, with his unfortunately not-too-uncommon slip up, he’s shown that “faggot” hasn’t gone obsolete in our store of verbal weapons, and that it’s something that needs to be addressed until loses its potency completely — until it stops surfacing in decent people’s blind moments of frustration.