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Straightwashing weakens queer representation

LGBT+ representation has skyrocketed over the last few years. More and more films and plays are featuring prominent LGBT+ characters and storylines, which is a trend I am all in favour of. However, a new conversation has emerged recently from the coils of discourse, surrounding the important question about who is playing those characters – specifically about how more than a few LGBT+ characters are played by heterosexual actors, something that I, as a bisexual man, have a very strong interest in

Some people argue that it shouldn’t be an issue. Yes, being LGBT+ is an experience that no straight person can fully understand, but acting is about playing people who are different from yourself. It shouldn’t matter whether or not you share the same sexuality as a character if you are able to portray them and bring them to life. We don’t apply the same mindset to other aspects of characters when we get people to play them. Chris Hemsworth isn’t really a demi-god capable of flight and summoning lightning, yet we’ve had no problem with him playing Thor for the last 9 years. Hugh Jackman isn’t capable of healing bullet wounds and growing claws from his knuckles, yet he’s been playing Wolverine without controversy since 2000. So surely, we should have no problem with an actor like Cate Blanchett, who is not a 1950s lesbian, portraying one in Carol.

It shouldn’t matter whether or not you share the same sexuality as a character if you are able to portray them and bring them to life

And the fact is that quite a few iconic and talented performances of gay characters have been performed by straight actors. Neither Jake Gyllenhaal nor Heath Ledger are gay, and yet Brokeback Mountain is considered one of the most influential examples of queer cinema this side of the century. Will and Grace is a sitcom that did a huge amount in terms of portraying gay people on TV, improving people’s views and educating them on the LGBT+ community (don’t believe me, ask Joe Biden), And yet Eric McCormack, the actor who plays Will (a gay man), is himself straight. Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight was an incredible movie that did wonders in (amongst other things) portraying queer relationships between people of colour, and was, in fact, the first film with an LGBT+ focus to win Best Picture at the Oscars. And yet, both Trevante Rhodes and André Holland are straight men. So clearly, straight actors are capable of giving fantastic performances when playing non-straight characters. Now, am I saying that I think these performances wouldn’t have been as good if it were queer actors playing the characters? Of course not. But I do think that it is fully possible for straight actors to play gay characters and still have a positive impact. And, if we were living in a world where all performers are considered the same, this surely would be no problem. However, we don’t live in such a world. And it is important for us to remember the social-political factors when thinking about this topic.

Neither Jake Gyllenhaal nor Heath Ledger are gay, and yet Brokeback Mountain is considered one of the most influential examples of queer cinema this side of the century

However, casting a straight person in the role of a gay character is denying the opportunity for a gay actor to play said role – playing a character with whom they share that aspect and would have a particularly strong motivation to tell that story in a truthful way. After all, these are actors who may have gone through similar events and incidents that the characters on screen have done. This is especially true if part of the character’s story (which is so often the case when it comes to LGBT+ stories on film) deal specifically with the prejudices and difficult experiences that come with being LGBT+. This is a chance for queer actors to be the face of their own stories, have a chance to help influence and shape the narrative in popular media surrounding how LGBT+ characters are depicted. But this is an opportunity that is denied them, and instead given to straight actors, who are able to both receive a huge amount of acclaim and career opportunities because of their portrayals, and yet go home at the end of the day without needing to deal with some of the real-world prejudices that come with being something other than heterosexual. 

And this is a big problem, because getting acclaim for portraying something you are not happens almost all the time. Take the Oscars, for example. The last LGBT+ actor to win an academy award was openly bisexual actor Angelina Jolie, for her performance in Girl, Interrupted in 1999. In the 20 years since then, an LGBT+ actor getting nominated has only occurred five times. These actors were Ian McKellen (who is gay), in 2001 for Lord of the Rings, Ellen Page (who is a lesbian), in 2007 for Juno, Jolie again in 2008 for Changeling, Lucas Hedges (who identifies as queer) for Manchester by the Sea, and Lady Gaga (who is bisexual) this year for A Star is Born. Five times in 20 years. In contrast, this year alone, 7 straight actors have been nominated for Academy Awards for playing queer characters: Mahershala Ali for Green Book, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone for The Favourite, Richard E Grant and Melissa McCarthy for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody. These are roles that could easily have been played by queer actors, regardless of how essential the characters’ sexualities are to their story, but this has not been the case.

This is a chance for queer actors to be the face of their own stories, have a chance to help influence and shape the narrative in popular media surrounding how LGBT+ characters are depicted

Having straight actors collect the praise, the awards, and the recognition for playing queer characters, giving the majority of the roles and sources of representation that can be a real benefit for LGBT+ youth, takes away the queer reality that many people face. It keeps being LGBT+ on screen and does not transfer the actuality of those situations to real life. Meanwhile, there are a huge number of queer actors attempting to get to roles in big budget, high attention movies, but being denied. And this problem is even worse for transgender actors, where what little big-screen representation there is almost entirely portrayed by cisgender actors, such as Eddie Redmayne, Jared Leto, Hilary Swank, and Elle Fanning. Beyond all the same issues mentioned above, some prominent transgender actors, such as Laverne Cox and Jen Richards, have argued that having non-trans actors portray transgender characters, perpetuates the transphobic belief that transgender individuals are just playing a role. That trans women are really just men in dresses, that they are not the gender they identify as, an action that Richards stated in a Twitter feed would “result in violence against trans women. And that is not hyperbole. I mean that literally”. For anyone interested in learning more about this issue, I highly recommend looking her up and reading her arguments on the topic. 

The fact is, while there has been a lot of progress made for the LGBT+ community in terms of opportunity and representation, being a queer actor in Hollywood does still have an impact on one’s career. There are actors who have had opportunities denied them and had doors slam in their face, just for being gay. And taking away the opportunities from these actors to tell this side of their stories, and giving it to people who don’t represent queer identities and cannot fully represent it, is depriving actual LGBT+ actors of opportunities and jobs they may not otherwise get, and denying them the right to be the face of their own narrative in the public sphere. No one is saying that heterosexual actors can’t play LGBT+ roles, and in a perfect world where everyone was offered the same opportunities, and treated and seen as the same, it wouldn’t matter what sexuality you were, whether your sexuality matched the characters you played or not. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world. And with that in mind, it would probably be best if queer actors were able to have the opportunity to play the characters that represented them, and represented our community. 

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