Zoolander 2's Trans Character Is Even Worse Than We Thought

Photo: Matteo Prandoni/BFA/REX Shutterstock.
Let's get this out of the way first: Zoolander 2 is not a good movie. In theaters today, the sequel to Ben Stiller's 2001 farce about the modeling world does have a handful of early scenes that might inspire light tittering. But it quickly gets bogged down in an overly convoluted, nonsensical plot and an avalanche of celebrity cameos. For the most part, Zoolander 2 is just plain dumb (much like its protagonist). However, two recurring threads had a nasty, retrograde sting that we couldn't shake off: trans- and fat-phobic jokes.

The trailer spawned outrage over an ill-advised joke at the expense of a trans character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). That led to a petition calling for an all-out boycott of the film. Was the fury founded? Now that we've seen the movie, we say yes.

Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson), vacuous models who have been in a self-imposed exile since we last saw them, are recruited to star in a fashion show for hot, young, annoying thing Don Atari (Kyle Mooney). There they meet fellow model “All” (Cumberbatch) and are befuddled because they can't identify All's gender. Hansel asks if All has a "hot dog" or a "bun." The gag lands somewhere between making fun of All — “All just married hermself,” Atari says — and mocking how uncomfortable Derek is with All's gender fluidity. (All, it should be noted, never self-defines as trans.)

As an audience member, you just pray that the joke boils down to, "Eek, maybe the dim-witted Derek hasn't been brought up to speed about trans and gender-fluid people during his exile." So it’s all the more disappointing when the joke does not end there. Derek and Hansel are ejected onto the runway of Atari’s show wearing signs labeling them “old” and “lame.” Then a be-winged All swoops down and whips them. “Hot dog,” Hansel cries. “Definitely a hot dog.” In this moment, the movie succeeds in fully dehumanizing All. To Zoolander 2, trans people are just a trend in fashion — one that will go away when Derek and Hansel assume their rightful place in its ranks.

Thankfully, the transphobic jokes come to an end when All exits the scene. But then the fat jokes start. A prologue explains that Derek’s son, Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), was taken away from him after his wife Matilda (Christine Taylor) died in the collapse of the The Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can't Read Good. Derek finds Derek Jr. (now a teenager) at an orphanage in Italy and is horrified to discover that his son is overweight. Derek's negative reaction cuts especially deep given that his dearly departed Matilda had bulimia and body image issues growing up.

Over the course of the movie, Derek comes to accept his son, who was overfed as part of an evil plot by Mugatu (Will Ferrell). In what's supposedly a triumphant moment, Derek declares that his child is not fat, “He’s plus-size.” Regardless, Derek Jr.’s weight never stops being the butt of jokes. Even in the coda, when Derek Jr. is walking the runway as a plus-size model, there’s a feeling that we’re supposed to laugh simply at the fact that he doesn’t look like everyone else.

When asked about the controversy over the trailer, co-writer Justin Theroux told The Wrap that "satire is a thing that points out the idiots" and that they didn't aim to "disenfranchise anyone." In some alternate-universe version of Zoolander 2, All and Derek Jr. are characters who highlight the fashion industry's prejudices and Derek's intolerance — just as Theroux intended. But that's just not how the movie plays. It just wants us to laugh at them. It doesn't help that the people Zoolander 2 is supposed to be parodying — i.e. fashion world — have embraced the movie with open arms.
Zoolander 2 was first announced on the Valentino runway. Stiller, in character as Derek Zoolander, landed on the February 2016 cover of Vogue with costar Penélope Cruz. Gigi Hadid led a parade of models down the red carpet at the film's premiere. Fashion luminaries ranging from Anna Wintour and Tommy Hilfiger to Alexander Wang make cameos in the sequel. It’s hard to take aim at something when it lets you into its exclusive club, and you're no longer on the outside looking in.

In Vogue, Jason Gay wrote that "Stiller believes that Zoolander is more about its characters than it is a satire of fashion, but the movie celebrates the industry’s absurd edges and comical self-regard as well as any film ever has." But that's just the thing: The Fashion Bible sees the movie as a celebration rather than a critique. Sure, as Gay wrote, fashion is "in on the joke," but that's because the joke is largely complementary.

The fashion world is still a place where cis, sample-size people are the norm. Despite progressive moments, like Hari Nef walking the runway for Gucci or Ashley Graham making it into the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, it can be defiantly tone-deaf to the way the world looks. Let's not forget that after Derek and Hansel walked in Valentino's fall 2015 show in Paris, the design house had an African-inspired show featuring white women wearing cornrows.

Sure, you can argue that we shouldn't take anything in Zoolander 2 seriously. It is, after all, a big, broad comedy. But the fact is, it fails at satire. All it achieves is perpetuating harmful attitudes instead of making mincemeat of the people who hold them.

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