Straight Actors Playing Gay Roles: Is This A Representation Issue?

In recent years, Hollywood has been applauded for their increasing acceptance and portrayal of gay relationships in major films. However, the vast majority of these roles are played by heterosexual actors. What are the consequences associated with continually casting straight actors to play gay roles? Should this be considered a representation issue or should heterosexual actors continue to be rewarded and encouraged to portray people of a different sexual orientation.

The following images are a collection of stills from mainstream Hollywood films that have cast straight actors in prominent gay roles. Although many of these actors received accolades and praise for their work, the implicit homophobic casting choices for these roles denotes an overt preference for straight actors in Hollywood. Equal opportunity should be provided for LGB actors to tell their own stories, and Hollywood’s preferred norm of excluding gay actors from films like these should be challenged and questioned for the reasoning behind these choices.

Call me by your name

-Photo from Digital Spy-

Call Me By Your Name opened in late November to overwhelmingly positive reviews, with a number of critics remarking on how two straight men, Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, so beautifully played the two lead gay roles. This image above features both lead actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in one of the more intimate scenes of Call Me By Your Name. However, despite the positive feedback, the film has garnered some pushback regarding the casting choices and the lack of intimate scenes that would force the audience to fully confront the reality that the movie is indeed a story about a gay relationship. One could argue that Hollywood has an investment in making movies that are marketable to both heterosexual and gay audiences, but the larger issue is whether this story should even be considered a realistic portrayal at this point.

On an even broader scale, there is such a long history of Hollywood preferring to cast straight actors in gay roles that to chalk these choices up to marketability seems to be a little too naive to be believable. The impact that media has on our society is immeasurable in its scope, and is “…a powerful tool that societies can use to create and proliferate the values, assumptions, and stereotypes of their society to the populace” (Lucas, Raley, 2008). Is palpability to a broader audience a good enough excuse in this day and age to repeatedly deny gay actors from being cast in roles that tell their own stories?

gaybaitingArmie Hammer

-Photo from US Magazine-                                 -Photo from Paul Hansen-

Why is it that straight actors are repeatedly cast into gay roles when there is no shortage of qualified gay actors to play these characters? When Luca Guadagnino, the director of Call Me By Your Name, was questioned about his casting choices by the Hollywood Reporter, he responded by saying, “This film is about the blossoming of love and desire, no matter where it comes from and toward what. So I couldn’t have ever thought of casting with any sort of gender agenda” (Lee, 2017). Although Guadagnino may personally have not considered any gender agenda while casting, the consequences behind his choices contribute to the overarching Hollywood gender agenda of systematically excluding gay actors from films depicting their relationships.

Both of the lead actors in Call Me By Your Name are ostensibly heterosexual, and Armie Hammer is pictured with his family in the photo above. Timothée Chalamet has also dated several women including Madonna’s daughter Lourdes Leon. However, on the media circuit and while promoting Call Me By Your Name, both actors emphasized their chemistry and strong personal relationship, with critics accusing the actors of “queerbaiting”.  The actors’ continual emphasis on their personal relationship off-screen could simply be a marketing scheme to promote the movie, or possibly represent a more sinister side of Hollywood’s continued reluctance to fully accept gay actors in these types of roles.


 

Brokeback_Mountain

-Photo from Stanford Daily-

Brokeback Mountain is another example of a critically acclaimed film featuring straight actors cast to play gay lovers. Similar to Carol and Call Me By Your Name, this film was nominated for numerous awards, and received praise for depicting the raw and complex emotional and sexual relationship of two cowboys. Poole summarized the significance of Brokeback Mountain as an “…opening dialogue with heretofore off-limits straight groups and as a location for personifying the ultimate fantasy of two “real” men having passionate sex and falling in love” (Poole, 2014). This film explores the spectrum of sexuality and attraction through contrasting both characters heterosexual relationships with the romantic, and often volatile relationship that they share.

However, this film also follows the fairly consistent theme among these types films in Hollywood of under-representing gay actors. Movies depicting gay relationships should be relatable to gay people. But many suggest that these films cater to a straight audience more than they do a gay one. These movies commonly exploit gayness as a mysterious spectacle.  When actors play gay characters, they’re often applauded for their “bravery”. Colin Firth may have summarized the irony of this situation best when he said, “If you’re known as a straight guy, playing a gay role, you get rewarded for that, if you’re a gay man and you want to play a straight role, you don’t get cast — and if a gay man wants to play a gay role, you also don’t get cast.”

heath ledgerJake Swift

   -Both photos from E! News-

Pictured above are the two lead actors of Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, with their respective partners. Both of these men outwardly depict characteristics associated with hegemonic masculinity, and in real life, are far from the effeminate cowboys that they portrayed onscreen. Brokeback Mountain made history by being the first movie depicting a gay romance to crossover to the mainstream. One could argue that perhaps Hollywood was not fully willing to accept the reality of homosexuality by going so far as to cast an openly gay actor in the first widely released film of its kind. However, over 10 years later, this trend of essentially non-representing gay actors in these types of films continues to be an issue.


 

carol

-Photo from Giphy-

The film Carol differentiates itself by being arguably the first mainstream film to depict the complexities of a romantic relationship between two women. Carol is also unique in that the film explores a time of sexual repression in the 1950’s while viewers see the film through a modern-day lense. In all of the films however, “…heteronormative masculinity is challenged, but in a way that reidealizes American manhood as one that is predicated on effete style and taste and mandates a visually upper-class identity as a key component” (Clarkson, 2005).

cate-blanchett-e1530315855913.jpgmara

 -Photos from Daily Mail-                                                                      -Photo from PopSugar-

Carol is another example of a film where straight actors play gay characters. It is also worth noting that every actor from all three of these movies is white. This issue may seem independent from the topic at hand, but it is in fact relevant due to the underrepresentation of both minorities and gay actors in these roles. The concept of a dominant identity exploiting an identity with less social power remains consistent among both issues.

As consumers of media, it is important to understand the factors at work behind the films that we see and the actors who portray the characters. The lack of openly gay actors portraying characters that share their own sexuality should be considered a representation issue in Hollywood. All three of the films analyzed undoubtably represent important milestones for mainstream media wanting to hear stories from a diverse group of people, specifically non-heterosexual romantic relationships. However, the systematic exclusion of gay actors from telling their own stories should not be ignored and an emphasis should be placed on equal opportunity.


 

Sources:

Poole, J. (2014). Queer Representations of Gay Males and Masculinities in the Media. Sexuality & Culture,18(2), 279-290. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12119-013-9197-y#citeas.

Lucas, J. L., & Raley, A. B. (2008). Stereotype or Success? Prime-Time Television’s Portrayals of Gay Male, Lesbian, and Bisexual Characters. Journal of Homosexuality, 51(2), 19-38. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/doi/abs/10.1300/J082v51n02_02.

Clarkson, J. (2005). Contesting Masculinity’s Makeover: Queer Eye, Consumer Masculinity, and “Straight-Acting” Gays. Journal of Communication Inquiry,29(3), 235-255. Retrieved June 29, 2018, from http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0196859905275234

Lee, A. (2017, February 8). Why Luca Guadagnino Didn’t Include Gay Actors or Explicit Sex Scenes in ‘Call Me by Your Name. The Hollywood Reporter.

 

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