Summer leisure time or attempts to beat the heat may find some of us looking for on-screen recommendations. If you have already exhausted Netflix’s store of Dawson’s Creek in all six seasons of its teenage soap operatic glory (that was my June. True story.) or have the good sense never to do such a thing, I suggest checking out an interesting documentary called Fagbug.
The title character, so to speak, is a VW Beetle owned by Erin Davies of Troy, New York which was vandalized in 2007 with the word “fag” spray painted in red on its front driver’s side window and “u r gay” on its hood. I have fellow WIT blogger Megan McCabe to thank for bringing to my attention the film in which Davies traces her remarkable and unpredictable response to the crime. While I realize I’m a bit late jumping on this particular Volkswagen-bandwagon – Fagbug appeared in 2009 – I suspect the “Best Gay Car Movie of the Year” (thank you, Vanity Fair) may have slipped under the radar for many. And I think it’s a story worth sharing.
Davies determined that the incident was not personally motivated, though she still pushed to have it treated as a hate crime. While she happens to be a lesbian, the vandal’s act appears to have been precipitated only by an ever so thin rainbow sticker affixed to the Beetle’s rear windshield. Well, that and said vandal’s virulent and apparently “artistically” inclined homophobia as well as the complex social apparatus that shapes such convictions. In the midst of negotiating with insurance agents and local police, Davies’ initial impulse to have the slurs removed abates. In fact, after gauging responses during a couple days’ commute to her graduate school and with the creative prompting of a friend who coins “fagbug” (and registers a website, to boot), she decides that this hateful scarlet lettering is fated for another, more hopeful purpose. So begins a 58-day cross country driving tour in which the then-stickered now-spray painted VW becomes Davies’ springboard for addressing homophobia and hate crimes throughout the U.S. and Canada. With camera rolling and myspace blog active, she conducts hundreds of interviews with folks she encounters, receives encouraging and disparaging notes, attends a handful of Gay Pride parades, and schedules several speaking events. I won’t give away too much if I say that a few kind and a few not so kind souls are intent to remove the window decoration. Nor will it come as a surprise that Christianity’s roadside spokespeople present, at best, a fairly dismal picture on the LGBTQ front (although several other interactions with church types inject alternative perspectives). Following Davies’ journey, a VW-sponsored makeover of the originally dark gray fagbug into its current bumper-to-bumper rainbow state ensues and, I gather from the content of fagbug.com, propels her continuing advocacy work on these issues.
What I liked most, I think, was the down to earth register of the project, as Davies interacted with people at gas stations, motels, delis, and auto service centers; the road trip allowed for a kind of focusing of people’s casual, spontaneous reactions when confronted with her slur-to-slogan vehicular social experiment, including both their interpretations of the fagbug and LGBTQ issues more generally. What the anecdotal results may lack in statistical sampling methods, they gain in vividness and variety.
That said, I should mention that I did not find this to be the most riveting or tightly constructed documentary, even as the genre goes. One reviewer critiques Davies for putting herself and her own story at center stage, supposedly sidelining her message; the documentary itself records allegations that she made the whole thing up and/or was merely out to turn a profit. Now, I may well be favorably disposed toward diminutive, soft-spoken, female protagonists, but I also don’t believe the messenger’s experience in this instance ought to seen as oppositional or irrelevant to her message. And while I do have some concerns about commercialized leanings as Davies undertakes to make “fagbug” a brand (not to mention the environmental impact of so many miles!), her creative efforts to raise awareness are laudable. Consciousness campaigns might sometimes sidestep the real and arduous work of making palpable cultural and political changes, but they can surely function in their service as well.
Especially when it comes to hate crimes. Davies’ itinerary includes the sites of three murders of young men for their perceived gayness. Matthew Shepard, killed in Laramie, WY in 1998, is probably a familiar name. Sean Kennedy, killed in Greenville, SC in 2007, and Ryan Skipper, killed in Wahneta, FL in 2007, were not to known to me. And if that is a product of culpable ignorance, then all the more credit to Davies for finding a way to spur better recognition of the materially violent edge of heteronormativity and homophobia. Like some of the people she encounters on film, I was prompted to educate myself on current statistics and legislation relating to anti-gay hate crimes. Davies’ experiences with family, friends, and neighbors in these locales also offer a chilling visual of the politics of justice, mourning, and remembrance in this country. For these reasons more than anything I find Fagbug a worthwhile watch. Perhaps we could quibble with aspects of the packaging, but we would do well not to dispense with the reality at the core of Davies’ documentary.
Fagbug is available for instant viewing on Netflix and for free at hulu.com.
(p.s. – If anyone has seen it or ends up watching I would be interested to discuss the tangled gender dynamics at play as well.)