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Why Are There So Many Straight Actors Playing Gay Characters?

and is it ok?

by Vanessa Friedman

This holiday season, we are being gifted three movies that center their narratives around the stories of queer women. Considering the shocking lack of representation of queer women in mainstream Hollywood films, we should be jumping for joy. But of the six queer lead roles in these three projects, only one is played by a queer actor. So what?

America has a not-so-flattering track record when it comes to treating its LGBTQ citizens with respect, dignity, and basic human decency over the course of its history, so it should be no surprise that Hollywood, an industry and institution that supposedly exists to tell stories for and about the American people, has never done a great job representing the LGBTQ population. Beginning in 1895, queers have been portrayed as villains, stereotypes, punching bags, deviants, liars, plot devices, and punchlines on the big screen, though to be honest the most common practice seems to be pretending they do not exist at all. 

As a way of both highlighting the horrible job Hollywood is currently doing representing queer folk in film and as a way to hopefully encourage major studios to do much, much better, GLAAD created the Studio Responsibility Index (SRI) in 2013. In the introduction of this year’s SRI one can find a description of what the document sets out to do. The SRI “track[s] the quality and quantity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) representations in mainstream Hollywood film.” Of the 114 films tracked this year, only 20 (17.5 percent) included depictions of LGBT characters. “Sadly, the mainstream film industry has continued to lag far behind other media when it comes to portraying LGBT people,” Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s president and CEO, writes at the beginning of the 2015 SRI. She continues to say that GLAAD hopes to “hold studios accountable for what their films depict.” 

In a thorough and nuanced breakdown about what this year’s SRI means when it comes to representation of queer women in movies, (titled, depressingly, "GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index Reveals Queer Women Basically Don’t Exist In Movies"), Autostraddle senior editor Heather Hogan concludes, “For now, Hollywood blockbusters are a straight white man’s game, and there’s no end to that paradigm in sight.”

With the reality as grim as it is, should we really bother complicating the conversation about representation of queer women in Hollywood by asking for something other than just basic representation that passes the Bechdel Test and the Vito Russo Test? Well brace yourself, because that’s what we’re about to do.

Let’s talk about all the queer movies starring straight women (and men) released this season. Freeheld, released October 2, stars out actor Ellen Page and straight actor Julianne Moore. Carol, set for a December 18 release, stars straight actors Cate Blanchett and Roonie Mara. The Danish Girl, set for a November 27 release, stars straight actor Alicia Vikander and straight cis actor Eddie Redmayne as a trans woman. That’s six queer female roles given to one queer woman, four straight women, and one cis man.

The merit of the films, and the success of the actors cast in them, is not necessarily what we’re questioning. Freeheld as a film has garnered mixed reviews, but critics across the board have praised Page and Moore for their individual performances. Hogan, at Autostraddle, called Carol “even better than you’ve heard...maybe the best lesbian movie ever made.” And while The Danish Girl has received warranted backlash over casting a cis man in the role of a trans woman, the reviews of the film itself are positive, many specifically praising Redmayne’s performance.

So, what’s the problem? If the job of an actor is to act, and if the humans cast in these roles do a splendid job embodying their characters, is there really any issue with casting straight actors in queer roles? As an out, opinionated queer woman, I have complicated feelings about this. I spoke to many people while researching this article, and found myself being swayed in a million different directions. Each conversation, whether it was an official interview or a casual chat with a friend, yielded more material to mull over, and I’m still not convinced I know the right answer—the answers range from yes, no, maybe, and everywhere in-between.

In an ideal world, perhaps an actor’s sexuality would not matter one iota when taking on any given role. The straight folks playing queer characters certainly seem to feel this way. Blanchett, after being misrepresented as queer by an article in Variety, pushed back on the idea that her sexuality should matter at all when it comes to her work. “In 2015 the point should be: who cares?,” Blanchett is quoted saying in The Telegraph.

“Call me old fashioned, but I thought one's job as an actor was not to present one's own boring, small, microscopic universe but to raise and expand your sense of the universe, to make a psychological and empathic connection to another character's experience so you can play them. So you can present another world to an audience. My life is of no interest to anyone else. Or maybe it is, I don't know. But I'm certainly not interested in putting my thoughts and opinions up there.”

Redmayne defended his role as trans woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl in a similar vein, with The Independent reporting him saying, “Look, I’ve just played a man in his 50s with motor neurone disease. I’m acting,” in response to Hollywood’s persistence in casting cis actors in trans roles. (He was referencing his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor earlier this year.)

But both responses, though I’m sure they come with positive intentions, reek of the tone-deafness a straight person is privileged with employing when it comes to sexuality. Explaining to queer people that it’s 2015 and we should no longer give a fuck about a person’s sexuality as a way of explaining why it’s okay to take on a queer role and then continue to benefit from the privileges and comfort that your straightness affords you is naive at best, condescending at worst, and above all, sort of missing the point. If there were hundreds of opportunities for queer women to play a variety of roles in Hollywood, it might not matter who plays what. If we lived in an age when audiences could suspend belief and allow openly gay actors to play straight leads, we’d be having a different conversation. But it’s 2015 and that is not the world we live in.

Brittani Nichols, a queer writer and performer living in Los Angeles, spoke to this and more when we talked via Google Chat last week. When I asked her if she thought a straight actor could do a good job playing a queer character, her response highlighted why we were having the conversation. “Maybe it's not about them doing a good job,” she said. “I think tons and tons of people can do a good job. It's about elevating queer performers.” As a fellow queer person, I understood her perspective immediately. I asked if she felt frustrated when a straight actor is cast in a queer role. She said yes. “It really does feel like an insult.” Why? “I don't know that there is a clean way to dig into why. But imagine if that Lena Waithe role in Master of None had gone to a straight woman. It would just be like, why did you do that Aziz? Are we not good enough? Do you not know anyone? It's like if I can't get these roles that are made for me, what the hell am I even doing?”

While talking to Nichols, it was easy to get lulled into the idea that if only we had more queer women writers, directors, and producers, we might be seeing more queer women characters being written and more queer women actors cast in those roles. But it doesn’t always work that way, and not necessarily for the reasons one might expect.

Joni Lefkowitz is an out queer woman who co-wrote (with Susanna Fogel) and produced a film with many queer roles—in fact, parts of it were based on her own lived experiences—but ended up casting mostly straight women to play those characters. The film, Life Partners, follows a pair of best friends, one straight and one gay, as their friendship grows and shifts when one of them enters a serious romantic relationship. Lefkowitz now works as the executive producer on ABC Family’s Chasing Life, a show that has been praised for its accurate and inclusive portrayal of bisexuality.

I reached out to Lefkowitz via email to ask about the casting process for Life Partners; I was curious to see if she regretted casting so few queer women in a movie that could have been filled with queer actors.

“Susanna and I fortunately had a good deal of say in the casting for Life Partners,” Lefkowitz wrote me, “...As a gay woman myself, my main concern going into casting was that the actors we cast in queer roles felt ‘realistic,’ naively thinking my own gaydar would serve as a good guide. Then of course, an actor I advocated for in part because I assumed she was gay in real life turned out to be straight. It was a good wakeup call for me, because as much as stereotypes of what it looks and sounds like to be gay can often be true, they are just as often false.”

The fact that stereotypes of what it means to look or sound gay are unreliable, yet still relied upon by straight and queer people alike, speaks subtly to the double standard that exists in Hollywood, wherein straight actors playing queer (like Blanchett and Redmayne) insist that an actor’s personal life and sexuality are irrelevant to the roles they play, and easily get cast as queer characters, but queer actors often feel anxious about revealing their sexuality, lest it negatively influence their job opportunities.

“I think there is still a huge double standard when it comes to gay actors playing straight roles, as evidenced by Matt Damon’s recent misguided statement that audiences shouldn’t know anything about an actor’s sexuality or it takes the mystery away from their performance,” Lefkowitz wrote me via email. “Clearly, he didn’t mean himself, as when you Google 'Matt Damon wife,' you find pages of coupley photos of them on red carpets. But unfortunately, he isn’t entirely wrong. I’ve heard from some of my gay actor friends that they feel nervous being out about their sexuality before they book a role, in case someone on the casting side is narrow-minded about suspending their disbelief.”

Queer people, of course, are often master actors, whether they’re aiming to be professionals or not—the climate surrounding queerness, even in 2015, sometimes necessitates that we play straight to stay comfortable or physically safe.

“I think there should be enough queer roles that queer actors could only ever play queer characters if they wanted to,” Nichols said, when I asked her if she would ever play a straight role. “That is in part why I think [one] should give queer roles to queer actors. Because we shouldn't have to play straight. We've probably done that for far too long and to much acclaim before we even started acting.” I wondered out loud if Hollywood’s double standards would prevent Ellen Page from ever being offered a role like Juno again, now that she’s out. “I wonder if Ellen would wanna play another Juno,” Nichols replied. “And if she doesn't what is there for her? To me it makes no sense that there haven't been 42 lesbian rom-coms starring Ellen Page.”

In that vein, Nichols recently wrote and co-produced a feature film called Suicide Kale, which she starred in with four other queer women. The film features five characters, all queer women, and the film is cast with five queer actors. Actually, almost everyone associated with the film is a queer woman, and in a Facebook post announcing the project Nichols called it “an incredible testament to women in film.” When I asked Nichols if she would have considered casting a straight woman in any of the roles, she barely paused before saying, “No.” Why not, I asked. “I know too many talented queers to give those roles to a straight person. It just would never even cross my mind.”

And that’s the crux of it. Of course straight actors can play queer roles. They do, convincingly, all the time. And of course it would be lovely to live in a world where actors were able to transcend the boundaries of their personal lives when portraying a believable character for an audience in a movie theater, but unfortunately we do not live in that world yet (and with social media and celeb stalking on the rise, not the decline, it seems unlikely we will ever live in that world). So in a world where queer female characters are still woefully absent from the big screen, where queer female actors still struggle to find work because of typecasting and stereotypes and double standards and plain, old sexism, and where queer women are desperate to see themselves represented in authentic ways, it does matter when Hollywood takes six queer female lead roles and proceeds to cast only one queer female actor and five straight ones. It sucks.

At the end of all my reporting for this article I ended up feeling sort of hopeless and depressed, uncertain if Hollywood will ever get its act together or what that could even look like. I asked Lefkowitz and Nichols how they thought the Hollywood industry could be more inclusive and supportive of queer women and queer narratives, hoping they would use their kickass-queer-woman-storytelling-skills to make me feel better.

“I’ve pretty much accepted that Hollywood is its own money-driven beast that I have no control over, but the way I personally try to support queer narratives is by writing them,” Lefkowitz said. “It’s a personal mission of mine to have at least one major gay role in everything I write.” Nichols articulated a similar strategy. “I don't know how things on the grand scale are going to change or if they will,” she said. “It's all depressing and I don't think anyone has the answers. I just know I will do my best with the things I have control over. And if everyone did that, I think we might start getting somewhere.”