It’s a shame that more than 30 or so people couldn’t have been squeezed into the top floor of The Glorious Art House as The Gay Word, a documentary exploring the changing or evolving definition of the word ‘gay’, tackles a vitally important issue that many of us ignore. One of Exeter’s favourite hipster hangouts played host to Amy Ashenden’s documentary that is especially thoughtful in challenging our perhaps overly-simplistic assumptions about the issues surrounding the use of the word. Shot on a low budget, The Gay Word has a surprisingly impressive scope, taking in the views of a wide range of people. However, potentially valuable elements could’ve been added into the documentary, or followed up on in future works.
The crux of the documentary is that, in recent years, the word ‘gay’ has evolved or changed in its definition, used by many as a term to denote something that is rubbish, bad or uncool. Others would argue that the normalisation of the word as a negative term should be acted upon by society for the welfare of those who identify as homosexual. However, this view is not shared by all after viewing the programme: some would counter by advocating that the word ‘gay’ has broken all ties with its previous definitions of homosexual, or even happy, so the word is perfectly acceptable to use as an expression of distaste or frustration.
Opinions are far from defined by one’s sexuality
But, the issue is far more complex than this, and it’s in its demonstration of conversation transcending the binaries of offended homosexuals versus ignorant or uncaring heterosexuals, that the documentary shines. Some people who would identify as gay might be fine with the term used in a negative context in the same way that a heterosexual might consider it wrong or inappropriate. Opinions are far from defined by one’s sexuality, something made very clear in the wide variety of people the documentary’s creator Amy Ashenden speaks with.
Ashenden remarks to the audience at the conclusion of the screening that she made a special effort to not project her own personal biases onto the film. Although this can never be truly possible, it is clear that considerable hard work has been put in to give voice to all sides of the argument, which is to be admired. Europe’s largest gay rights organisation Stonewall, as well as many other gay people, express their feelings of offence at the word, but, this was weighed up nicely against the view to the contrary from Durham professor Mark McCormack.
McCormack, an openly gay man, held an opposing view to many in the documentary: the word ‘gay’ can be used negatively as it has since changed to not marginalise and has been divorced of all meaning from the word and a homosexual person. His section, placed near the ending of the film, is extended and allows him to fully and fairly get his point across. His statistics and sampling, like those of everybody else in the film, are open to challenge, and it’s this which gives the film an effective nuance.
The music and editing is minimalistic; emotion is provoked within the viewer naturally and allows interviewees the platform to fully lay their feelings bare. We hear about the experiences of young people struggling to integrate in school, on top of the all the other pressures a young person must deal with already. Others discussed how the use of the word prevented them from freely celebrating themselves and what made them feel special. These personal experiences are balanced well with academic accounts and statistics, giving the documentary a rich range of material for us to work with.
Ashenden has taken on a job of significant scale with this project considering the size of her budget, but The Gay Word isn’t a film that requires complex cinematography and expensive graphics to properly interrogate its subject. At times, however, there are aspects of the debate that Ashenden fails to visit, or in enough detail. This is inevitable, as this issue involves such a vast array of people, but the film is too concentrated in the south of England, and such a focus on young people without the consideration of the use of social media is an oversight.
personal experiences are balanced thoughtfully with academic accounts and statistics
Much of the film is located and shot in Southampton, with interviews taking place in town centres, universities and youth support groups. Ashenden also ventures to London, but I couldn’t help wondering how the debate would be different in the north of England or in other parts of the UK. Ashenden does touch on international comparisons, but it would be great to see international and regional concerns taken on as more of a focus in future documentaries.
It’s disappointing to see that the role of social media isn’t concentrated on more fully in a film that takes such an interest in young people, but the sheer amount of people involved in the film considering such a low budget is an excellent achievement. Ashenden is wonderfully inquisitive, and rather than imposing her view too much, she instead questions, asks as many people as she can, then sums up how she feels and adds her opinion into the mix at the end of the film. Ashenden’s opinion simply nestles alongside the views of others that are equally as valid as her own. The Gay Word allows us the freedom to challenge ourselves, our behaviour and come to our own conclusions.