Collateral damage: Sook-yin Lee is not Jian Ghomeshi


Many online critics of the CBC’s decision to fire Jian Ghomeshi have cited an earlier contretemps between the corporation and DNTO host Sook-yin Lee as having established the precedent that private sexual behavior is irrelevant to on-air employment at the public broadcaster. Here is how one twitter-poster put it:

Sook-yin Lee did porn flicks. She still works for them.

The comparison is inapt, and the details dead wrong.

Notwithstanding the expertly crafted, pre-emptive defense in Ghomeshi’s Facebook post, it seems all but certain that the issue in his firing is not private, non-mainstream sexual tastes, but the level of consent in specific sexual encounters with three women. According to the Toronto Star, his unnamed accusers say he acted without consent; he insists he did not.

Nothing in the Sook-yin controversy involved anything even close to allegations of forced sexual activity. Moreover, the incident concerned only one movie—not flicks, plural—and the film in question was Definitely Not Pornography (or even “a skin flick,” the phrase to which the tweeter cited above retreated when I challenged her mistake).

What actually happened is that in 2003 the CBC threatened to fire Sook-yin after filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell announced he had cast her in Shortbus, a sexually explicit movie eventually released in 2006. Director Francis Ford Coppola, rock musician Michael Stipe, actress Julianne Moore, and artist Yoko Ono protested, as did a sizable slice of DNTO’s audience, whereupon the CBC relented.

I showed Shortbus at the Cape Breton Island Film Series, and it remains one of my favorites among the nearly 300 movies we screened. The comic drama focused on a group of oddballs who patronize a Brooklyn sex salon. It included explicit scenes of apparently unsimulated sex and masturbation, but these were shot from a middle distance, with no porn-like lingering on naughty organs. In a trailer for the film, Mitchell says:

A few years ago, I thought about making a film about love and sex that do0esn’t censor itself in any way.

L'Arche Cape Breton members on vacation in Manhattan

L’Arche Cape Breton members on vacation in Manhattan

In fact, though, the sex in Shortbus seemed more like a device for exploring the loneliness of people who are outcast for whatever reason—non-standard sexual appetites merely being the case in point. The short bus of the title refers to the abbreviated school buses that once conveyed developmentally challenged students to their “special” classes. Roger Ebert called it, “a sweet, tender, playful pleasure,” and as staid an organ as Time Magazine wrote:

Shortbus, a U.S. romantic comedy set in a New York City sex salon, might have been the outrage of the [Cannes] festival, since it contained several no-fooling hard-core sex scenes., but John Cameron Mitchell’s movie brims with so much fun and heartbreak that it upset few people and beguiled many.

A year after Shortbus appeared, a group from L’Arche Cape Breton drove that community’s short bus to Manhattan on a summer vacation trip. During their visit, some members of the group dropped in on a drag show. The female impersonator was so taken with them that she invited them on stage to sing with her, which they did with robust enthusiasm. The drag queen and the developmentally challenged L’Arche core members may be marginalized for completely different reasons, but they recognized the bond they shared as social outcasts.

To me, that understanding is what makes the movie Shortbus so lovely, and I hate to see it subsumed in false analogies to the Ghomeshi case.