Misrepresentation of LGBTQ Roles in Popular Media: Darren Criss Setting The Right Example

In today’s media landscape we can see the emergence of a larger amount of LGBTQ shows but they still have a long way to go before achieving an accurate portrayal. Every gay character in the 70’s was played by a straight man. A majority of gay roles are still being played by straight men today. This not only depletes of those who identify with the LGBTQ community of opportunities, but also denies their actual, gay, experience to breathe new prospective into gay roles. Regardless of who is playing the gay man in a television series, it is often found that these characters fall into stereotypes. One being an effeminate, flamboyant gay that is seen as less able that his straight counterparts. Another option is a hypermasculine gay who is often violent and manipulative in ways that we are familiar seeing in heterosexual male characters. Although they may seem completely different, these two stereotypes represent extreme version of the gay man. These roles limit the representations of gay men and places them in an ambivalent dialect. Another method that is used is the “straight passing gay”. This character is able to maintain their masculinity by showing little to no signs of overt homosexuality norms.

Metro News Image: Darren Criss as Blaine Anderson in Glee & Andrew Cunanon in Versace

Darren Criss is a straight actor who has had his fair share of both straight and gay roles. One of his most prominent roles is playing Blaine Anderson in the American musical comedy-drama Glee. After the series finally came to end, he also appeared on the second season of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Giannini Versace (often referred to simply as Versace), as Andrew Cunanon. These roles have two thing in common, Criss is one of the main protagonists; and he’s gay. As Blaine in Glee, we see his ability to enforce the former of the stereotypes mentioned earlier. For a majority of the shows duration, Blaine is in a committed relationship and usually does not deviate from the media-generated heteronormativity. Although we know he is gay, he is able to maintain his masculinity due to due to his subtle representation of what it means to be gay. In Versace, he plays Andrew Cunanon, a serial killer who is a pathological liar and ends up going insane.

Hollywood Reporter Image: Darren Criss winning Golden Globe for his role in Versace

Many more actors have come out over the years due to the growing acceptance in both media and real life situations. However, many of them still struggle with coming out publicly due to the impact it may have on their careers. A study from the Psychology of Popular Media culture “demonstrate[d] that merely being told a man is gay results in reduced perceptions of his masculinity”. This perception in real world situations creates reasonable fears within gay men in the industry. They have to remain in the closet in order to conserve their masculinity, a must for most straight roles. Inversely, whenever a straight man comes on screen as a gay actor, he is applauded for going to such lengths in his performance. Darren Criss himself earned a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his role in Versace. He has since then announced that he would no longer be taking LGBTQ roles as to not take them away from people belonging to that community.

The Guardian Image: Scarlett Johansson at the Met Gala in 2018

While this a good first step towards creating a more accepting, equitable industry, many gay roles are still being taken by straight men. Even as far back as Brokeback Mountain (1997), we see Heath Ledger gaining various nominations for best actor in his portrayal of a gay man. This inaccurate representation of the LGBTQ community in popular media extends to all of the other identities as well. Scarlett Johansson had accepted a role as a trans man for an upcoming series titled Rub & Tug. After facing backlash from the trans community, she dropped out her role, claiming that she has learned a lot from the community and acknowledged her mistake. Actors such as Criss and Johansson have begun to set an example for the future of LGBTQ representation on screen.

Netflix Image: Blaine singing at all-malle private school\

In his roles as Blaine Anderson in Glee and Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story Darren Criss represents two archetypical ways that gay men are portrayed in the media. In queer media, characters negotiate their place among society through their willingness to play into the heterosexual matrix, a model of gender identity that is hierarchically defined through the practice of heterosexuality. In Versace, Cunanan is an outcast who lives a highly sexual and dangerous life, although he is the source of most of that danger, while Anderson can feign acceptability, he is the “normal gay teen” (Dhaenens 2013). 

Netflix Image: Kurt confronting his bully

Kurt, one of Criss’ Glee co-stars played by Chris Colfer an out gay man, has storylines that demonstrate the ability of hegemonic heteronormative power to check violations to its order. Unlike Blaine, Kurt is portrayed as an at-risk teen at his school and suffers verbal and physical abuse because of the way he refuses to conform to traditional masculine behaviors and ways of dress. Here, Kurt’s closeted bully Karofsky, who is fully assimilated into heteronormative culture, threatens  him after being confronted by Kurt about a bullying incident. Karofsky’s decision to stay in the closet and thereby find acceptance among the heteronormal population of the school acknowledges the idea that those who behave masculinely and conform to societal standards will also benefit from heteronormative privileges as well, like supremacy over queer culture.

Netflix Image: Kurt wearing a Kilt for Prom

 In the episode Prom Queen, Kurt designs an outfit for his prom featuring a kilt in commemoration of the Royal Wedding; his father protests against the outfit believing that it is too showy. To Kurt’s surprise Blaine agrees, and tells Kurt that he wouldn’t want to give anyone a reason to cause trouble.  By contrast, Blaine states his intention to wear a simple black tuxedo to the prom commenting that it is “very discreet.” Again in this scene Blaine’s subversion of the taunting and abuse that Kurt faces every day is attributed to his ability not to disrupt the status quo, rather than challenging the prejudice that produced it. The goal of the “normal gay” character is to adhere to heteronormative standards so that, in turn, others around them will tolerate them. In this way the “normal gay” character differs from the other common gay character we see Criss play in American Crime Story: the outcast.

Netflix Image: Cunanon Murdering Lee Miglan

Gay outcasts in media come in many forms, and generally inhabit stories that place them in positions of danger either physically or sexually. These outcasts operate in marginal spaces on the edges of heteronormal culture, they can interact with it but only find community in the confines of their space. In The Assassination of Giani Versace Cunanan spends his time engaging in and pursuing relationships and friendships with gay men and using them to support him financially. Cunanan’s character, though based on a true story, represents another criminal portrayal of gay men; in contrast to the upstanding Blaine Anderson who is tolerated in his community for his adherence to masculine standards, Cunanan is an amoral character who’s misfortune can be seen as a consequence of a deviant lifestyle.

Netflix Image: Cunanon dominating local businessman

Criss’ portrayal of Cunanan brings up a few commonly expressed themes in gay media: sex work, hypersexuality and sexual encounters between people with large age differences. Because an increase in gay media coincided with greater public acceptance of the LGBTQ community there is less of a typical homonormative framework for how gay and trans people experience stages of growth. For this reason, representations of LGBTQ characters have greater formative effects on the creation of a culture within their community. For younger generations of LGBTQ people today who experience important interpersonal milestones digitally, the media has created a highly sexual culture, and set a standard of finding one’s identity through struggle and success. Homonormative relationships in films and television are most often depicted as fleeting, predatory or transactional, and these ideas resonate in gay culture in the real world. 

While Cunanan is the most dangerous character in his own story the same cannot be said for a large number of gay youths who place themselves in similar situations willingly. For them, sexual milestones replace traditional coming of age moments because the relatively few homonormative media texts that exist tell them these are the defining moments of a gay adolescence. Moreover, when straight actors portray gay roles they reinforce the negative opinions of other non-queer people towards the queer way of life. In this scene where Cunanan murders one of his older Johns Criss affirms the position that gay men readily violate the Judeo-Christian norms common in Western society.  Although Criss and other cis, straight actors who play gay roles in film and television increase the visibility of LGBT stories it could also be argued that the ways in which they tell their stories help to reinforce homophobic sentiments among non-queer people who cannot relate to their stories, preserve the heteronormative ideal of gay men, and help normalize dangerous behaviors to younger generations of a community that they do not belong to.

Pinterest Image: Darren Criss at Pride

Through the study of stereotypes that are portrayed by Darren Criss and others playing gay roles, we can deduct that internalized homophobia is still prevalent, even with relatively recent shifts in sentiment towards LGBTQ community members. Still, we also see the emergence of more actors taking a step back and letting those who have actually lived the joys and horrors of being an LGBTQ community member.

Works Cited:

Miller, B., & Lewallen, J. (2015). The Effects of Portrayals of Gay Men on Homonegativity and the Attribution of Gender-Based Descriptors. Communication Studies66(3), 358–377. https://doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2015.1018446

Rowe, M. (2001, Sep 25). Reeling in the years: Straight actor garret dillahunt talks about playing hetero, bi, and gay — the same character seen in three different parts of his life — on showtime’s leap years. The Advocate, , 56. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/215757528?accountid=7118

Merritt, P., Cook, G., Wang, M., Schnarrs, P., & Jack, S. (2013). Can a gay man play it straight? How being “out” influences perceptions of masculinity and performance appraisal. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2(3), 150–160. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030957

Vilanch, B. (2001, Feb 13). Notes from a blond: Code of silence; when asked about his sexuality, he says it’s nobody’s business. I’ve never heard a straight actor say that, have you? The Advocate, , 45. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/215745217?accountid=7118

Dhaenens, F. (2013). Teenage queerness: negotiating heteronormativity in the representation of gay teenagers in Glee. Journal of Youth Studies, 16(3), 304–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2012.718435

Elija Cassidy. (2018). Gay Men, Identity and Social Media: A Culture of Participatory Reluctance. Taylor and Francis. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315737027

Pinsof, D., & Haselton, M. (2017). The effect of the promiscuity stereotype on opposition to gay rights. PloS One, 12(7), e0178534–. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178534

Michael Green. (2013). Screenwriting Representation: Teaching Approaches to Writing Queer Characters. Journal of Film and Video, 65(1-2), 30–42. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.65.1-2.0030

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