Disney is the biggest movie studio on the planet. They have finally decided for a focal gay character in a planned movie. And they have opted to have a straight character play this role.
So let’s discuss why it matters.
Actors are actors and their race, gender or sexuality shouldn’t matter when it comes to choosing the best person for the role. Except that this attitude purges people of color, women and queer characters from being depicted correctly. There are countless examples of roles which white-washed entire plots, replacing non-white characters with white actors, or having white saviors rescue non-white cultures. This is a practice as old as live theater. It is the standard. So we should not pretend that we have always just picked the “best actor for the job”. We have never done this. So pipe down.
So when the largest movie studio – Disney – creates a gay character to be one of the leads in a new movie, and then cast a straight man instead of one of the countless gay available actors, then yes it is a problem.
Annette Benning, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Douglas, Colin Firth, Josh Gad, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Tom Hanks, Felicity Huffman, Alison Janney, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, Rooney Mara, Julianne Moore, Eric McCormick, Josh O’Connor, Sean Penn, Eddie Redmayne, Nick Robinson, Eric Stonestreet, Meryl Streep, Naomi Watts. Each of these actors have portrayed some of the biggest LGBTQ+ characters to ever grace the big and small screen, and every actor is straight. This is not a critique of how well they played their respective characters, but to assume that they were the best people for the job is ignorant at it’s highest level.
Every time a studio casts a straight, white man to play a character who is none of these things, they are perpetuating a notion that only they are the best people for roles, regardless of whether a character is queer, female or non-white. By continuing to cast these men in these roles, they not only get to lay the standard for adaptation and portrayal of protagonists but also for how queer characters should behave.
Gay characters are written for straight audiences, and presented in a way that is acceptable for them. They are inoffensive and easy to digest. Our stories are always about coming-out, relationships, romance, sex… There aren’t many roles which are complex or layered, or focus on action, political plot lines, or life-changing roles which could represent a wide-berth of people.
Jack Whitehall’s casting in this new, queer role maintains this system
Whitehall is a fine comedian who has built a career playing up his privileged middle-class upbringing, and his metro/non-typically-masculine demeanor. On the comedy game-show A League of our Own, he regularly exaggerates his limited athleticism against former sports personalities in physical challenges. It is clever and funny and depicts another version of a successful straight man who isn’t macho or butch. Whitehall is camp and happy to embrace it.
This, however, does not translate into the gay world. By casting him as this character, who so far has only been described as effete, Hollywood will continue presenting the world to queer characters through straight eyes.
When a gay man is “camp”, he isn’t playing a role; he is playing himself. When a lesbian appears “butch”, she is being herself. These aren’t caricatures created for audiences. But when a straight person plays queer using these tropes, they perpetuate a stereotype designed to be safe for straight eyes that explains queerness through gender archetypes, with a clear comedic viewpoint. Much like I said before, LGBTQ+ people are not here to entertain straight people.
It is not enough to just be seen anymore.
LGBTQ+ people don’t just need to be physically represented onscreen. We need to have our stories told in a way that shows we are just as diverse and complex as the thousands of heteronormative depictions released every single week. We each have our own unique experiences finding our way in a straight world. And when LGBTQ+ actors bring their own mannerisms, their own versions of queerness into these characters, they aren’t creating these within the parameters laid out by straight guidelines; it’s just us being us.
Whitehall may be a great fit for this role on paper, but his version will maintain the stereotype created by straight people; that “gayness” is something feminine and dainty like the traditional, hegemonic, sexist views of women. A gay man can be camp and masculine at once. These ideas can and do exist together.
It would be great to always choose the best actor regardless of sexuality or gender. But we don’t live in that world.
Take just three examples: a woman was cast for the first time as the next Doctor Who in the long-running British show; a woman was chosen to be the lead Jedi in the latest Star Wars trilogy; the next James Bond actor could be Idris Elba. The fact that people have reacted negatively, with prejudice, at these concepts shows just how little we have actually progressed. A large swarth of the population openly dismiss movies and TV shows if the lead roles aren’t straight, white or male. So when LGBTQ+ people ask for queer actors to play queer roles, we are not being unreasonable.
We need to see the stories of LGBTQ+ people, of people of color, of women. But more importantly, we need these roles and stories to be shaped and represented by people from these groups.
It isn’t enough to just be tolerated anymore, to be simply represented onscreen so people can get used to the visual of queer characters. Now we have to be accepted as rounded members of society, to be part of the mainstream.
It isn’t enough to just be seen.