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Greased, Frightening

John Travolta’s massages, ‘homosexual Jewish men’ in Hollywood, and the true nature of prejudice

Rachel Shukert
May 11, 2012
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Fiore Films
John Travolta at a press conference on April 12, 2011, in New York City.Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Fiore Films
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Fiore Films
John Travolta at a press conference on April 12, 2011, in New York City.Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for Fiore Films

Well, folks, it’s been a big week in gay news. On the good side, President Barack Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage and Anjelica Huston sang on Smash. On the other, the press has been all abuzz over the lawsuit recently slapped on John Travolta by a masseur claiming the star attempted to coerce him into unwanted sexual acts during a session at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two steps forward, one step back. That’s progress, I guess.

Of all the tabloid press coverage on Massage-gate, there are two details that, er, popped up at me. One is the employment of positively J.K. Rowling-esque adjectives regarding the area in question: “solid eight inches … springy” making it sound like Hollywood’s second-most famous Scientologist purchased his, ahem, wand straight from Mr. Ollivander’s. (It chooses the wizard, you know.) The second is the still-unnamed masseur’s assertion of how Travolta explained how he learned to Stop Worrying and Love Transactional Same-Sex Liaisons: By accepting that Hollywood is controlled by “homosexual Jewish men” who expect sexual favors in return for career-related ones.

It may surprise you (although probably not) to hear that I have no quarrel with the airing of the trope that Jews are prominent, even dominant, in the movie industry. The reason for this is that it’s true, and saying it aloud no more makes John Travolta a Jew-hater than asserting that there are a lot of, say, African-American hip-hop artists makes one a racist. It’s not anti-Semitic to make a statement of fact; it’s anti-Semitic to imply that there’s something wrong with it. The real question raised by this statement is the linking of “homosexual,” a descriptor that is relevant to the particulars of the accusation at hand, with “Jewish,” which is not. What, indeed, does one thing have to do with the other? And what does the almost unconscious linking of the two—whether by Travolta or merely by the recollection or fabrication of his anonymous plaintiff—tell us about the nature of prejudice itself?

Intolerance, whatever its object, is at heart a form of conspiracy theory. Xenophobia, homophobia, racism are all essentially predicated on the idea that the members of the despised group are plotting to take something away from the bigot: Immigrants have come to steal jobs and resources, undeserving inner-city blacks are siphoning away your hard-earned tax dollars, gay people are scheming to undermine society by demanding the right to contribute billions of dollars to the wedding-industrial complex and reminding you how dreadfully uneventful your own sex life is.

Anti-Semitism, by virtue of its great age and persistence, is in many ways the ur-conspiracy theory, the paranoia on which all others are founded. The image of the Jew as a nefarious operator, running everything behind-the-scenes—the hideous-octopus-tentacles-around-the-world image emblazoned on so many of our still-developing brains—has been around for so long, we even perpetuate it ourselves, making revealing half-jokes about Steven Spielberg, David Axelrod, and Lloyd Blankfein. All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Not all facial tissues are Kleenex, but we call them that nevertheless. To a certain kind of mind, all conspirators are Jews, whether they’re actually Jewish or not. It’s perhaps not quite what Lenny Bruce had in mind (conspiracy theory is goyish, world domination is Jewish), but that doesn’t mean it’s not flattering in a perverse way; as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Imagine how disappointed we’d be if they ever stopped accusing us of things we didn’t do. We’d just be some other vaguely Mediterranean-looking ethnic group, with no more hold over the public imagination than the Italians, or—God forbid—the Greeks.

But back to Travolta: Seen through this lens, it makes perfect sense why the Staying Alive star might articulate what he did the way he (allegedly) did: He posits a homosexual conspiracy to try to convince himself that he’s not one (manipulated, sure, but that’s what they do) and then tacks on the Jewish part to prove how it’s extra sneaky—and impossible to resist.

And yet, I can’t help feeling sorry for him in a way I never do for the Gibsons and Gallianos and Rick Sanchezes of the world. If true, it makes for a pretty sad picture to think of one of the biggest, most universally loved movie stars on the planet lying all alone in a hotel suite (and given his well-documented weight fluctuations, the empty chocolate cake wrappers lying on the floor make a particularly poignant touch—I mean, who hasn’t been there?) lunging at a masseur’s white-jeaned crotch (yes, in my head, he’s wearing white jeans) and then blaming a David Geffen-led cabal for his actions when he gets shut down. If every prejudice is the rationalization of paranoia, paranoia is the rationalization of insecurity, and as the prophet(ess) RuPaul (for whom I definitely intend to leave out a custom Absolut vodka cocktail at my next Seder) likes to say: If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else? Internalized homophobia and internalized anti-Semitism are just two sides of the same highly polished and wisely invested coin.

With a single (for the third time, alleged) prejudicial statement, John Travolta has neatly subverted the old maxim about paranoia, and in doing so, the essential emptiness behind prejudice itself. It’s not that they aren’t out to get you. It’s just that “they” is usually “you.”


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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.