There’s no arguing about how incredibly, wildly, and gleefully gay Jackass is. Even if you wanted to, you’d be staring up the 13-inch shaft of a golden dildo as it flies 25 feet into the air directly into Bam Margera while you did it. This isn’t a particularly new or surprising revelation, and vats of ink have been spilled on the homoeroticism of the Jackass franchise.
Dicks (almost) aside, though, I want to dig a little further into why so many queer people love this beautiful, two-decade-old shitshow. I’d absolutely be lying if I said watching a bunch of guys turn themselves into human Looney Tunes for no other reason than because they can isn’t almost all of the conscious the appeal, but – and bear with me – I think it’s deeper than that.
The kind of crass, violent, playfully toxic bond the men of Jackass share exemplifies a lot of the traits that define cis-het bro culture as people currently in their 20s and 30s came to understand it growing up on the MTV hangover that was shows like Punk’d and just about any frat comedy that aired this side of American Pie. The difference is, on Jackass, everyone is in on the joke (eventually) and no one (including the crew) is above getting tazed, blown up, surprise-shaved, or whatever else they can think of.
At the turn of the millennium, in a tabloid culture rife with casually virulent homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, sexism, and just about any -ia or -ism, the media of the time, particularly comedy media, reflected and magnified those biases: think It’s Pat, White Chicks, Paul Blart Mall Cop, Norbit, Scary Movie, Shallow Hal, The Hot Chick – go to the 2000s comedies Wikipedia page and take your pick, really.
The Jackass franchise is fun and satisfying to watch not because it rises above its time, but precisely because it doesn’t at the same time that it lets men (read: white and a man, we’ll get there in a bit) be fat or short or naked or in drag or playful with each other’s bodies and all the time surrounded by American flags – right alongside rainbow flags.
Ultimately, Jackass is American meritocracy in its purest form: no matter what you look like, as long as you can take a taser to your testicles or a bazooka to your stomach (or, in Dave England‘s case, take a dump on command), you’re more than welcome to be there. Let’s get back to the basics for a second, though. If you aren’t a devotee of the franchise (and in case the dildo high striker I opened with wasn’t explanation enough), let’s unpack what makes Jackass so gay in the first place.
In Jackass: the Movie (2002), it takes all of nine minutes and fifty five seconds for the franchise’s host, star, and merry prankster Johnny Knoxville to murmur “c’mon, daddy’s gotcha, daddy’s gotcha” to a shirtless cast member as he electrocutes the skin just above his nipples. Immediately after, he electrocutes Chris Pontius‘ testicles and shouts “he likes it!” to the glee of the other four shirtless men watching the whole thing play out.
There are more homoerotic encounters to even enumerate in the first film alone, so here are some snippets of my favorites from the first two: Shooting a firework that’s attached to Pontius’ package by a string out of Steve-O‘s ass; “You drank wine off a dude’s asscrack” “Yeah but I never told my dad that!”; Ryan Dunn lubing up as everyone watches, sticking a toy car where the sun don’t shine, and going to an x-ray tech to “see what’s up there;” the “puppet show” where Knoxville uses string to control Pontius‘ dick, dressed up as a mouse and stuck through a labeled “glory hole” in the wall of the set as a snake tries (and succeeds) to bite it; “If Knoxville [does that stunt] I’ll french kiss ‘im”…. I could continue.
Absence of Women and Bro Culture
Unlike other contemporaneous bro-media, soaked in gay panic and heterosexual sleaze, the boys also almost never talk about sex with women – unless the woman in question is Spike Jonze in granny drag. The one notable exception is a bit in Jackass Number Two wherein an oversized, obviously fake “Valentine” from a “horny fan” named “Stephanie” is placed over a hole in a wall with a giant boxing glove primed to knock out any curious readers. They lure each other over to read it, giggling like schoolboys, and each gets smacked down by the glove. Not exactly lothario behavior.
This element of the franchise has the double appeal of setting it apart from the leering letch antics of hosts like Ashton Kutcher in Punk’d whose panting commentary about women during covert camera scenes is blue to say the least.
Essentially, the total absence of women until Jackass Forever this year paired with the group’s penchant for all manner of cock and ball torture, drag, and full frontal nudity make the franchise very, very queer – a fact Knoxville leans into in with “daddy” shirts, “totally straight” shirts with rainbows and unicorns on them, and all manner of costumes from sailor suits to cowboy hats and chaps. Knoxville on the homoeroticism of the films: “We’re not suppressing anything! We’re over here sitting on dicks!”
Beyond this, references to queer culture are woven throughout the franchise. Queer cult film icon John Waters hosts an early, Wizard of Oz themed stunt in Jackass Number Two (2006); that same film concludes with an extravagant musical number that includes both overt references to beloved 1940s musical director Busby Berkeley‘s choreography and male strippers dressed as firemen. The first three films conclude with gay TV and nightclub personality Rip Taylor throwing confetti and announcing the movie’s end.
On an even more basic level, the theatricality and practically whimsical style of the whole enterprise catches you by surprise: it’s camp, it’s fantastical, and it feels like a lot of well-coordinated theater kids decided to fight to the death. There are two kinds of bits on Jackass: no-frills segments that can last less than ten seconds and consist of a set-up and immediate pay-off i.e. someone skateboarding into a wall or kicking himself in the face; then, there are the highly elaborate, more high concept and imaginative segments featuring full premises, costumes, props, “magic tricks,” and whatever tools of torture they have on hand be they live snakes, riot gear, or fireworks.
Here are some examples of the second type: Knoxville and the boys dress as young children, propeller hats and lollipops included, and use an outsized teeter-totter to avoid the wrath of a bull loose below them. The last man on the teeter-totter wins. Steve-O and Pontius dress as skeletons in top hats and goth platform boots and “sacrifice” Wee Man by tying him up with stakes and feeding a vulture beef out of his underwear – out of which protrudes the shape of a boner (“it’s just me man!” he protests, and Knoxville grabs it to confirm).
The appeal is obvious: if you grew up in the totally reactionary, closed-minded culture of the 2000s queer or fat or different, you were almost certainly bullied. You were also definitely the butt of the joke in almost every piece of mainstream comedy out there.
Rather than find ourselves bullied or ousted from the mainstream in Jackass, however, that bro culture we were raised on is parodied by the insanity of the stunts paired with the theatricized aesthetic and then flipped on its head by, well, how damn queer the whole thing feels.
To some degree, as we watch, Jackass’ queer fanbase is allowed to participate in a culture that excluded us because we can almost see ourselves in it through the outrageous antics of the main cast of characters, many of whom are conventionally attractive young men who could well have been in the Frat Pack in another lifetime. Watching the several hundred pound Preston Lacey, the four foot tall Wee Man or the ubiquitously bra and thong-wearing Chris Pontius get the same amount of praise and respect as tall, buff guys like Johnny Knoxville or Steve-O is a kind of beautifully perverse, nostalgic means of enjoying the cultural milieu of our childhoods – as dumb and gross and violent and bigoted as it was.
Plus, the ultimate spirit and heart of Jackass is, well, boyish. It’s a prank show and it feels as silly as it does gross. From giggling at “the Bungee Wedgie,” to dressing like knights and jousting in convenience stores to going to a golf course and blowing an air horn when anyone tries to tee off, these men feel like boys at play – with the deathwish to match.
It feels almost wholesome at times: Every time a stunt is done, the whole group cheers, exchanges high fives, and pats the participant/victim on the back. They write their own bits, sometimes drawing them out with stick figures, and it leaves the impression of kids daring each other to lick slugs or climb the swingset on the playground. Somehow in this environment, even objectively offensive stunts like “Sweaty Fat Fuck” (a.k.a fatsuits at the skatepark) don’t manage to feel like kicking down because, in the end, everyone gets kicked. It’s euphoric.
As someone who grew up a girl, the Jackass franchise has another added bonus for me as a queer, gender-fluid person in their 20s: I can enjoy all the things I wasn’t allowed to as a girl in the aughts. Lest we forget, this was an era that, in mandating girls to enjoy all things “girly” from Miley Cyrus to the color pink while calling them brain dead and inane, practically begged girls to reject them. At the same time, girls were discouraged from allowing them to participate in “boy’s stuff” either, all of which prided itself on being both brain dead and inane. We all got a crash course in the gender binary’s Catch-22 played out over birthday party themes and what PG-13 movies to watch at sleepovers.
As anyone who ever had to argue with the McDonald’s cashier about why you should be allowed to get a boy’s toy with your Happy Meal even though you’re in a dress can tell you, anything gross and/or dangerous is most definitely not for girls. So with that in mind: Jackass is objectively gross. Each movie has at least one stunt designed to trigger your gag reflex (“Zach Sashimi” comes to mind–– google at your own risk). The rest of the stunts are insanely dangerous and painful (Steve-O wasn’t even vaguely amused doing “alligator tightrope,” and, given the number of head injuries they’ve inflicted on him, Johnny Knoxville‘s passion for bulls literally verges on suicidal). I love it. Enjoying it now feels like you finally got that Transformers toy in your Happy Meal a decade later.
The counterpoint to the argument I’m making is glaringly obvious: Jackass’ crassness can lead to stereotyping (the worst example in the entire franchise being the confoundingly incongruous and offensive “Terrorist Taxi” bit in Jackass Number Two) and light sexism (the “Gets Ass Kicked by a Girl” series of bits across the whole franchise–– though honestly I still think these bits are funny in an almost atavistic way: kick his ass!). Confederate flag imagery pervades the first several entries on everything from flight suits to speedos to bike helmets.
The very fact that the franchise is a pure shot of the precise 2000s bro culture that was so exclusionary and bigoted is unavoidable and does necessarily limit the enjoyment I find in the earlier films. It’s likely that, for many, these dated elements of the series preclude finding any fun in Jackass at all.
That said, I think the fun-and-violence-loving spirit of Jackass rises above those things as we watch the guys evolve over time and shed those remnants of the 2000s. As the year’s pass, those exoticizing and trivializing elements fade out and the cast expands to let different people in on the joke that is horribly injuring yourself for the viewing pleasure of stoners everywhere.
They still don’t quite get there; though they add three men of color and one woman to the cast of Jackass Forever, comedian Rachel Wolfson is tragically underused because, to quote Wee Man, “we don’t like hitting girls.” A woman not getting beaten up enough may be a perverse metric for the feminist merit of a film, but hey, welcome to Jackass.
At the end of the day, you could interpret Jackass’ unique cocktail of uncensored penises, glitter, rainbows, broken bones, animal semen, and paradoxical, bizarro-world meritocratic egalitarianism as America’s Funniest Home Videos by way of gay S&M porn; or you could interpret it as a trashy 2000s queer fantasia in the mold of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos; or you could view it as just another aughts gross-out franchise and not view it at all.
But the positive queer spirit isn’t subtext in these films, it’s text. To quote Steve-O in an interview with Vanity Fair: “We always thought it was funny to force a heterosexual MTV generation to deal with all of our thongs and homoerotic humor. In many ways, all our gay humor has been a humantiarian attack against homophobia. We’ve been trying to rid the world of homophobia for years, and I think gay people really dig it, too.”
And we do indeed.
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