digital reporter

Lenophobia? 'Gayest' gaffe draws online overreaction

Little did Ryan Phillippe know when he appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on March 20 that this wasn't going to be just another talk-show appearance. Maybe he should have seen it coming when his conversation with Leno took a turn when they discussed the actor's first-ever TV role, playing a gay teenager on "One Life to Live."

As talk veered back and forth between playing gay and the melodramatic conventions of the soap opera, Leno made a joking request. "Say that camera was your gay lover," Leno suggested, referring to the one filming them. "Can you give me your gayest look?"

Phillippe begged off, jokingly threatening to walk off the stage. But he stayed in his seat.

Still, the scene was far from a joke for playwright Jeff Whitty ("Avenue Q"). On his blog, Whitty blasted Leno for engaging in homophobic humor. He signed off with a photograph he took of himself in which he gave his own "gayest look": an extended middle finger. Soon enough, was active, stocked with hundreds of photographs of Leno-bashers flipping the bird.

No doubt different folks will have different takes on what transpired, but there is one adjective on which we can all agree: It was predictable. It seems like every moment of public life, on television or not, is captured on videotape. If the moment is at all interesting, it will end up online, where it can be endlessly vivisected from YouTube to your own blog.

And no moment has more viral potential than gross violations of political correctness. The criticism that followed verbal misfires from Don Imus, Michael Richards, Sen. George Allen, bounty hunter Dwayne "Dog" Chapman, etc., managed to ricochet endlessly among newspapers, TV and Internet outlets with an intensity few other kinds of stories can muster. How they unfold vary, but all invariably seem to end with a contrite retraction on "Larry King Live."

Leno's "gayest" gaffe hasn't quite reached that level. That might speak to a creeping fatigue over a media ritual akin to watching a carcass dumped in a tank of piranhas. Or it might indicate that the comment wasn't as egregious as makes it out to be.

Now before going any further, let me make two points clear: Homophobia is unacceptable in any context. Second, Leno really made an unfortunate choice of words.

But let's allow a little room for nuance here. There is a difference between a poorly told joke and an offensive statement, which I don't believe Leno is guilty of making.

If you review the footage of the entire segment, it doesn't seem as though Leno is mocking homosexuality as much as he is some Americans' discomfort with homosexuality.

Right before Leno dropped the "gayest" reference, they talked about what it was like for Phillippe to be the product of a small town in Delaware and a member of the Baptist church only to get his big break in the kind of role that people with his background might frown upon.

While the reality of such intolerance is unfortunate, the novelty of a kid with a provincial upbringing starting out onscreen in a gay role is humorous. The conventions of soap operas also are funny, but the problem for Leno came when he conflated the two on-air, requesting that Phillippe re-enact the overwrought mannerisms he used to display on "Life" and deeming it a "gay look."

But the question is, did Leno's comment reveal a deep-seated bias against gay people or was it simply a slip of the tongue? I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The rush to judgment is all too easy on the Internet, where consumers can make their opinion known with creative hand gestures while more tempered opinions aren't reflected.

Just because Leno put his foot in his mouth doesn't mean he deserved thousands of middle fingers waved in his face.