Can you tell the difference between Richard Pryor and a general issue mailbox? Can you tell the difference between Marlon Brando and a radiator? How much drug intake would be needed for you to confuse these dead celebrities for those items? Now imagine yourself back in the 1970s: Pryor and Brando are both prominent in popular culture. Do you now need a higher or a lower drug intake to make the same mistake?
Granted, the comparisons were metaphoric, but metaphors reveal something about the beliefs about the world made by those who use them. Quincy Jones’s recent interview to publicise his 2018 ventures has caused a bit of a stir among many for the supposed frankness of his talk. He reveals what he makes of various other celebrities, and includes details about his own sex life and those of people he has known. Nothing worth more than a glance, and a slightly raised eyebrow: ‘knew that, didn’t know that, that’s surprising’.
The responses to Jones’s revelations reveal the homophobia which still runs deep in the contemporary political economy, even in those centres of progress for queer politics in the northern hemisphere. Apparently Pryor and Brando had sex with one another, Jones said, and Pryor’s widow confirmed. Nothing surprising. Anyone who had paid attention to Pryor’s stand-up career, or who had followed Brando’s career, would hardly be shocked at Jones’s ‘revelations’.
But in the feeding frenzy which has followed Jones’s interview, we have also learned (once again) how deep the roots of heteronormativity and homophobia still run. The terms in which Pryor spoke of those sexual encounters in his stand-up, even for his time, were disturbing, and it was not always clear whether he was choosing the provocative terms to shock his audience and distance himself from them, while getting them to laugh, or whether he used the offensive terms to draw himself into their circle. Whichever it was, they guffawed, even as Pryor’s terms and expressions reduced his interactions to mechanics, rather than emotionally textured relationships involving complex human beings.
Even the stand-up comic's widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor, in response to Jones, uses similarly dehumanising terms. We are asked to understand any sex between Pryor and Brando as the consequence of drugs, not as an aspect of the men’s exploration of being human. In fact, both men are compared to objects, thus domesticating the threat their human sexual interaction poses to heteronormativity. It was not one man having sex with another man; instead, it was Quaaludes and cocaine that made them do it.
Several questions remain unanswered. How large a dose of drugs would be required to get one to the point to mistake Marlon Brando for a mailbox, or Richard Pryor for a radiator? How much more would be needed to send it flowers the next morning, which ironically implies some kind of emotional connection? How deep does the homophobic denial have to run to deny Brando’s or Pryor’s sexual allure?
Sometimes, in deploying metaphors and hyperbole, more is revealed about the speaker than about the subject spoken of. Perhaps this incident is not just another little salacious celebrity gossip, but reveals that we may have travelled a long distance since the Stonewall riots in the United States and the affirmation of LGBTQI rights in South Africa’s Constitution and law, but casual and destructive heteronormativity (and its excrescent twin, homophobia) remain with us.
We in South Africa need only look to the femicidal treatment of lesbians and the horrific extirpation of men deemed effeminate men in our country to remind ourselves what the extreme end of the spectrum results in. But we should also watch our words at the more polite, suburban, palatable end of the spectrum of homophobia and heteronormativity. Words matter, and if we cannot even describe the sexual interactions of people long dead as something that happened between human beings, we may not be quite as progressive or as advanced in the world as we like to imagine.
Can you tell the difference between Marlon Brando and a radiator? Would you be able to distinguish between Richard Pryor and a mailbox? It is not a riddle. It does reveal something about your world view. As the South African writer and critic Zoë Wicomb reminds us in 'Another Story' (1990), 'Lexical vigilance was a matter of mental hygiene: a regular rethinking of words in common use, like cleaning out rotten food from the back of the refrigerator where no one expects food to rot and poison the rest'. We should all rethink the words in common use, even when describing things we think extraordinary.