Posted in entertainment
May 10, 2010

The gay double-standard?

Update: I’ve written a follow-up post to this, but it’s worth reading this one, before moving on to the next.

Newsweek has a pretty strange piece that was posted last week about why gays can’t play straight characters. Straight actors do it all the time, and typically to much acclaim, but somehow gay actors fail. The author’s words, not mine.

He claims that Sean Hayes (most known for his protrayal of Jack on “Will & Grace”, and who recently came out as gay) isn’t believable in the Broadway revival of “Promises, Promises” because we all know he’s gay. Another target of Ramin Setoodah? Jonathan Groff of “Glee” (Jesse St. James), who happens to be gay.

Argument after argument of his centered on his belief that closeted star’s appearances were rendered as no longer believable once their sexuality was known. Really? It seems to me that’s more of his problem, than a worldwide phenomenon. My mom, who is extremely tolerant, and my grandmother (who is less so) both still watch Rock Hudson movies and swoon. I never once watched The Brady Bunch and thought that somehow Robert Reed’s performance as Mike Brady was lessened because he was actually gay.

He claims that straight actors have been able to play gay and do so without a problem. Yes, Heath Ledger played gay and didn’t suffer for it- but that’s because he’s a brilliant actor. Not because he was straight. Eric McCormack, who is straight, played gay Will of “Will & Grace” for several seasons. Despite the fact that he’s extremely talented, he’s been unable to gain much traction in TV in a straight role.

The problem with Sean Hayes isn’t necessary the knowledge that he in real life is gay. It’s that for so many years, he was Jack MacFarlane, the gayest of gay men. Because he didn’t immediately try to do something different, to remind us that Sean Hayes is someone different from Jack, that’s the part that’s dwelled in our mind. And apparently, that’s what is bothering Setoodah.

It’s sad, because his argument is essentially that closeted actors should beware- if they come out it will irreparably damage their careers. Surprisingly, Setoodah didn’t include Rupert Everett’s belief that coming out killed his career.

I don’t doubt that it might have had an impact on Everett’s career- but I think that other factors were at play. It’s difficult for younger British actors to cross over to America as romantic leads. Orlando Bloom excelled in his roles as Legolas and Will Turner, at the box office at least- but those were ensemble films. In his own projects, he’s had mediocre success compared to US actors of his age. Another example of how difficult it is to cross the pond is Bloom’s co-star in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies- Jack Davenport. Despite being a critically successful actor in the UK, as one of the stars of “Coupling,” and even after his prominent role in “Pirates” he hasn’t been able to gain much traction here in the US. He had a small role in “The Wedding Date” and larger roles on television (the canceled “Swingtown” and “Flash Forward”, currently on ABC). So, what about Rupert Everett? While he hasn’t had many large roles since “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” he did star in “The Next Best Thing” as Madonna’s gay best friend. While the movie flopped, everyone argued that he was the only good thing about the film. Not only that, but he was the voice of Prince Charming in the immensely successful Shrek movies, and has begun to act on Broadway. He might not have become a leading man, but he’s certainly gained critical acclaim as a supporting actor. While it might not be the career he wanted, he’s still working, and getting good reviews for it. If it were true that being gay ruined his career, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” wouldn’t still be a favorite chick flick. Women would have deemed it unbearable and stopped buying it. Yet, I still see it stocked at stores, so clearly there’s a demand.

While “Spring Awakening”s Jonathan Groff has only appeared in a few episodes of Glee, he’s already a fan favorite, especially among women. Week after week, I see swooning posts on Twitter or Facebook from women who adore him. Some who know he’s gay, some who later found out… and none who cared. Cheyenne Jackson, an openly gay Broadway star, has been a theater hunk in straight roles… and nobody cared. He’s appeared on 30 Rock, and still the women swoon, knowing he’s gay. Adam Lambert is openly and flamboyantly gay, and yet he still gets underwear and sex toys thrown at him on stage.

While Mr. Setoodah seems to have a problem separating the actor’s personal life from the role, it’s clear that women overall haven’t. Kristin Chenoweth had some harsh words on the Newsweek piece, pointing out that as Sean Hayes has been nominated for several awards (including a Tony) that critics clearly were able to as well.

It is a legitimate concern for the gay community, and one which does keep many actors in the closet. However, it doesn’t take much examination to see that clearly, Mr. Setoodah’s hangups are his own. His piece is an opinion piece. There are no studies to say that people aren’t buying these actors in these roles. It’s his opinion. Even where there seems to be evidence that it’s hindered someone’s career, there are also other factors that could have contributed as well.

I’m not denying that there is a double standard. It exists, though to a lesser degree than Setoodah implies. Logically, if you believe that a gay person can’t play a straight person, then you could argue that a person can’t play a different ethnic group, or that you have to be a serial killer to play one realistically. If those are true, then someone should tell Cote de Pablo she should stop playing Ziva, who is from Israel- while Cote is Chilean and born Roman Catholic. And we should all be wary of Sir Anthony Hopkins, who must secretly wonder which of us would taste nicely with some fava beans and chianti.

Obviously, those thoughts are ludicrous. As is the idea that a gay person can’t be accepted for playing a straight character.

So what do you think- did the blogosphere blow this out of proportion? Was Setoodah describing his own personal hang-up or a belief that the world doesn’t want gay actors to succeed? Or, is there something else at work here that I’ve missed, too?

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