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Jack Whitehall Getty.jpg

The Problem with Straight Actors Playing Gay Parts

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | August 15, 2018 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | August 15, 2018 |

Jack Whitehall Getty.jpg

It was recently revealed that Disney’s upcoming adaptation of their famous Jungle Cruise attraction would feature the studio’s first major gay character. Putting aside how this announcement was almost identical to the one made last year for the new version of Lefou in Beauty and the Beast, there didn’t seem to be much to celebrate with this supposed landmark. The character in question will be played by British comedian Jack Whitehall, a straight man, and the part was described in The Sun as ‘hugely effete, very camp and very funny’. It remains to be seen how accurate The Sun’s reporting is (and it isn’t terribly so as a rule), but the news elicited strong reactions and even stronger push-back.

The conversation over whether straight actors should play gay roles is nothing new. We’ve been having it for decades and little seems to have changed beyond the reach of the discussion and awareness of the topic. It’s 2018 now and we have greater visibility of LGBTQ+ actors and storytellers than ever before. We live in a world where accepting crumbs isn’t the only option, nor is it one anybody has real hunger for. Actors who aren’t straight don’t face the same industry-wide pressures to conform to heterosexual ideals to save their careers. That’s not to say that things are easy or that the scales have been fully balanced, but there are more options and we have thoroughly exhausted the excuse that ‘there just aren’t any gay actors out there’.

You cannot be what you cannot see. That’s one of the many driving forces behind our need for diversity in entertainment. Given how much of our lives are dictated and influenced by the films we watch, the television series we marathon and the internet we consume, it’s foolish for people to continue to pretend that stuff like gay characters in family films won’t make a huge impact on younger generations. When the bleak forces of politics aspire to further demonize an already maligned minority, it can mean everything for kids to see an LGBTQ+ person living a good life and being the hero in the books they love or the movie they dragged their parents to see.

Will & Grace, for example, is a very popular network comedy that had an indelible impact on an assumed default straight audience saw gay characters, particularly gay men. Network executives were still panicking over the possiblity of the show being ‘too gay’ following the cancellation of Ellen after that show’s star and protagonist both came out. John Barrowman was up for the role of Will but famously didn’t get it because he ‘wasn’t gay enough’. Eric McCormack, who did land the part, had played gay characters before but wasn’t gay himself. We can get into the semantics of who was better for the part based on talent and all that jazz, but it still feels notable that this series wouldn’t cast a gay man as a gay man (at the time, Sean Hayes had not publicly come out, and that dynamic highlights a lot about how Hollywood and the assumed straight audience want actually acknowledge queerness in their own industry). The series that Joe Biden credited with influencing how America viewed LGBTQ+ rights is still one that wouldn’t cast a gay man in an immensely influential role because he wasn’t gay enough.

Straight actors have played gay roles before and often to great acclaim. Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are wonderful in Brokeback Mountain, bringing heart-breaking nuance to a story of masculinity and societal scorn. The issue is that, by and large, straight actors have played gay roles more often than gay actors have played straight roles. Rather, it should be clarified, openly gay actors don’t get those opportunities. Back in the golden age of Hollywood, when being open about your sexuality wasn’t an option, actors like Rock Hudson were the pantheon of heterosexual masculinity. Most of our major markers of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream entertainment - the kind of stuff with big money and studio support behind it - have been played by straight cisgender actors. This is a discussion we’ve had before with trans representation. It is an inevitability that, when a minority role is written and played by someone who isn’t part of that minority, stereotypes will shine through in some way.

Think of every stereotype of queerness you’ve seen on screen, be it the psychotic gay villain or the de-sexed sissy or the helpful best friend who exists to offer fashion advice for Kate Hudson or the one that gets killed off to make everyone else feel sad. Think of how often you’re supposed to laugh at those characters or learn a lesson through their suffering. Think of how often straight actors who play those roles talk about the difficulty of the process, or how often they’re praised as ‘brave’ for taking on the task. Think of how many of those actors have won awards for that work, and how that encourages the industry to perpetuate that cycle. Think of how that entire context begins to strengthen the implication of the LGBTQ+ experience being a costume one can remove so they can return to ‘normal’, an experience to be rewarded for its ‘bravery’. Nobody ever patronisingly asks a gay actor if they were scared to kiss someone of the opposite sex for a rule.

I’ve seen some people claim that it would be unfair to box a gay actor into exclusively gay roles as it pertains to Jungle Cruise and that is most certainly an issue in the industry. The other side of that is the misbalanced nature of that dynamic. Straight cisgender actors are seen as the default who can be universal in their roles, a luxury that never applies to LGBTQ+ actors. There isn’t a plethora of opportunities for LGBTQ+ actors to tell their own stories in these major properties, nor are they out there snatching up all the cishet roles from the Chrises. If you’re not going to give actors like Ruby Rose and Laverne Cox the chance to play the Scarlett Johansson roles then at least let them play the parts Scarlett keeps stealing from them.

However, this is also an issue of ambition, expectations and abilities. Jungle Cruise is a Disney movie. The Walt Disney Company own Marvel and Star Wars among many other movie properties. ABC is theirs, and soon with the acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox, they will have control over about 40% of the media market. They are powerful beyond even the gargantuan scale of Hollywood. They don’t make many movies but almost all of them are guaranteed to be smash hits. This is a company who have shaped tens of millions of childhoods, redefined the family film and stands at the peak of an immense iceberg of influence. It may be an exaggeration to say they’re untouchable but it’s not by much. So, why are they being given such a free pass on their startling lack of LGBTQ+ diversity?

The typical rules we have lived with under duress for so long with entertainment don’t apply to Disney and haven’t done for close to a decade. We are long past the bigoted notion that stories with LGBTQ+ characters front and centre are financially unsound, and there’s only so much that Disney and company can hide behind the defence of having to appeal to overseas markets. They most certainly have the structure in place to make a $100m movie, include an LGBTQ+ actor in a major part playing an LGBTQ+ character, and release it wide. Disney aren’t out here worrying about boycotts. Remember the nobodies who said they’d refuse to show the new Beauty and the Beast because Lefou kind of dances with a guy for half a second? Boy, that sure hurt that movie’s returns. It’s not just cowardly for Disney to rely on old and archaic tropes for character and casting alike: It’s dishearteningly unambitious.

Disney can do better and so can everyone else.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

Header Image Source: Getty Images.