Why Dan Levy's shutdown of a TV critic's homophobic insult is necessary and good for us all
To 'fey' or not to ‘fey’ — it’s not even a question.
The Great Canadian Baking Show has arrived on CBC. The culinary competition series is based on an overseas cousin called The Great British Baking Show. This edition is hosted by Schitt's Creek star Dan Levy and British actor Julia Chan. Like all new series it was subject to critical review, one of which left a bad taste in my mouth. Just to be clear, as a freelance writer for CBC Life I have no stake or care in how this show fares. As a gay man, I am very much concerned about this particular review.
John Doyle of The Globe and Mail is well known for his acerbic take on TV criticism in Canada but I dare say he crossed the line with a half-baked attempt at humour (pun intended) that comes across as clearly homophobic. After setting the tone with a few shots at the show's take on reality baking, he sets his sites on Dan, calling him an "inexplicable" choice as host. Perhaps he's forgotten about Levy's pre-acting days on MTV Live. He certainly didn't take the time to examine Dan's long love affair with baked goods as documented on social media. Alas, those opinions are just that and they are fair game. This next quote, is not.
"Into the judging roles defined in Britain by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, CBC welcomes Vancouver pastry chef Bruno Feldeisen and Montrealer Rochelle Adonis. Neither is what anyone would call a natural in the reality-TV racket. Both are a tad stiff and nervous and little wonder — at any moment, they know they might be swarmed by the feyness of Levy...."
Swarmed by feyness? I've experienced a lot of homophobia in my life and this most definitely set off my radar. It set off Dan's too; shortly after the article was posted Levy let his feelings be known posting this statement on Instagram and Facebook.
Dan's focus in his statement is dead on and he's no stranger to LGBTQ issues. He's out and proud and his character on Schitt's Creek made TV history identifying as pansexual. Instead of wasting time trading insults or validating his masculinity he calls out the homophobia for what it is and draws a line in the sand when it comes to criticizing someone's unrelated and immutable mannerisms in a television critique.
When it comes to homophobia I'm a big believer in education versus retaliation. So, in the name of understanding, here's why this is a toxic thing to say and why it should be offensive to a broader audience than gay men. "'Fey" is hurled at a man with an intent to insult, how? By suggesting that a man is feminine. It implies that to be feminine is shameful, undesirable, unacceptable, weak and less than. This is where the problem grows to encompass a much larger target: Why is being feminine an insult?
Obviously it is not, but in a highly patriarchal society masculinity is the unspoken top prize. So, if a man who is bequeathed with an assumed masculinity at birth is perceived to have forsaken that manliness, it can be interpreted as an incomprehensible and loathsome act. When I see derogatory descriptors used like this, I see roots that lead to misogyny, plain and simple. The word 'fey' is not alone in being co-opted into an antigay sentiment with ties to women. In North America the most famous gay slur "f****t" has roots that stretch as far back as the 16th century. Older widowed or impoverished women were often referred to as "faggot gatherers", referring to their need to gather sticks and wood to sell for income. Homosexuality is often derided due to perceived femininity and forsaken masculine values and so this term may have evolved from that. A term for hating women supplanted onto gay men.
It is as if we are saying "how dare you act like a woman!?". What a troubling sentiment that compounds such a seemingly one dimensional slur. Add to that decades of turning it into an insult directed at a specific minority group and you can see why it holds such power.
The delivery can drasticly amplify the sting too. Mr. Doyle's choice of verb is telling: "swarmed". Is being approached by a man you perceive to be feminine really akin to an onslaught of bees?
With such deep and complex implications I have a feeling it's going to take a long time for the word fey and many like it to lose their power. "Insults" like these can trigger traumatic memories in many gay men or cause them in the first place. Its hostile and isolating delivery throughout history has turned what should be a positive (femininity!) into a negative.
Change has to start somewhere and an apology would be a good start.
Ryan E. Thompson is a Toronto-based television producer and writer specializing in LGBT issues and entertainment.