The problem with going on hiatus is that you invariably miss the year’s most important events, e.g. controversies over racial/sexual overtones in talking food. Probably, you already heard that Sausage Party has been added to the long list of Seth Rogen movies we agree to remember as funny.1 The film garnered mostly positive reviews, including one from Autostraddle written by a freelancer and subsequently unpublished. The site took down that review and ran a lengthy retraction/apology last week. It reads, in part:
After we published the review, we heard from Latinx readers who believe the portrayal of Salma Hayek’s taco was racist and that it reinforced harmful stereotypes. We heard from readers who were upset that we labeled the taco a lesbian when it seems more likely that she was bisexual. We heard from readers who questioned the consent of the sexual encounter between the taco and the hot dog bun. We heard from readers who found the taco to be a damaging portrayal of a predatory queer woman.
They are not kidding.
I’m not going to attempt a close reading of that passage, because there are so many trees to distract us from the forest. As much as I would like to imagine the readership that first parsed the sexuality of an animated taco and then wrote letters about it, I think it’s better to look at broader forces. Two issues seem particularly important here. The first is neatly captured in this quote:
On Saturday we received a pitch from a freelancer who enjoyed Salma Hayek’s portrayal of the animated queer taco in Sausage Party; she found it to be surprisingly nuanced. Hers was the only pitch we received about the film. None of the senior editors saw the film or wanted to. I spent about an hour reading reviews over the weekend.
The editor of the review, Heather Hogan, goes on to explain that the reviews she read implied that Sausage Party played to stereotypes so broadly as to imply satire. I want to say the hamburger is German or whatever, but I didn’t see it. Neither did any of the editors at Autostraddle, which seems like an oversight problem. How did they know the review was any good? At best, they only knew whether it agreed with or contradicted the opinions of other reviewers, which is hardly how you run a subversive queer culture site.
But the second problem is more interesting. Having learned the review was potentially problematic, the editors did not then go watch the movie and decide for themselves. They might have made their own aesthetic decision about whether Hayek’s Latina lesbian taco was stereotypical or subversive, and then used that to make an editorial decision about whether to run the review. Instead, they set aside their own judgment to focus on the identity of the author. I quote their Slack transcript, which I want to make clear I am not making up:
heather: Salma Hayek Is a Surprisingly Endearing Lesbian Taco in “Sausage Party”
how’s that [headline]?
i can’t see how a latina woman voicing a lesbian taco in a seth rogen movie could ever be a good thing, but this review says it is nuanced and sweet
riese: is the reviewer white
heather: i don’t know
Definitely, you don’t want to take a white person’s word for it that stereotypes are actually good. That’s when you go watch the movie. Instead, Heather asks Yvonne, who is queer and Latina but also has not seen the movie. This move effectively declares her identity a substitute for knowledge, implying Yvonne will know whether a cartoon taco is offensive through some sort of queer Latina ESP. It’s like asking Buzz Aldrin if the next Star Wars movie will be any good, but with race and sexuality instead of space. Hogan goes on to acknowledge this mistake, but she still thinks of it in terms of identities rather than editorial processes:
First and most damning: we allowed a non-Latina writer to cover a story about a caricature of a Latina, and while the review didn’t specifically mention the film’s stereotyping, by praising the film as a positive portrayal of a queer Latina, we allowed a white writer to, in effect, condone that stereotyping. Second, when I was looking for reviews, I…didn’t specifically seek out reviews written by women of color, generally; or Latina women, specifically…Finally, we put the burden on Yvonne of being the conscience and voice for all queer Latina women.
Again, let us not abide a criticism in which white reviewers declare stereotyping by white directors fun and subversive. But at the same time: how many latin and/or queer characters can be in a film before it’s wrong to let a white or straight person review it? I love Blood In Blood Out, but just saying that is probably an act of cultural appropriation. This system will remain unjust until only black critics review black films, gay critics review gay films, perky white critics with limited talent review Jennifer Aniston films, et cetera.
Now that I type it out, that doesn’t sound so great, either. It seems uncomfortably separate, albeit equal. This editorial draws our attention to how two good, modern values are currently in conflict. We want to transcend the centuries of prejudice that made race and sexuality into totalizing identities. We also want to respect the authority of minority voices in questions of representation. But the second value often contradicts the first. Maybe the problem only arises when we try to apply these values to Seth Rogen movies. Or maybe even a good idea can become a bad one, if you simplify it relentlessly enough.