Sunday, May 16, 2010

This Just In, no, OUT, From The Atlantic: On Gay Actors Playing It Straight

[image of not the current cover of The Atlantic magazine offline is from here]

Okay, A.R.P. peeps. Here's the latest analysis on dominant culture and "gay" stuff. My comment is at the bottom. Why is it ALWAYS last?! Well, better last than "DNF"... Get used to it. Sites like the one you're about to see love the abbreviations. (SYTYCD = So You Think You Can Dance. That's the only one I'm giving ya.)

But before we get to that, I'll try and answer some of the pressing questions raised on that past cover above.

SHOULD WOMEN RULE THE WORLD? Yes. (Why can't all questions be this easy to answer?)

WILL BLOGS KILL WRITING? No, video games already did writing in. Anyway, blogging is to writing what reality tv is to reality. Only much more varied and therefore better. And without commercials including infomercials.

SHOULD CHILDREN HAVE SEX CHANGES? If the change is to not having to be one or the other that's assigned and enforced? Definitely. But not with knives. Just with radical ideological and institutional change.

CAN CANADA SAVE AN AMERICAN FOOTBALL TEAM? "America" includes Canada. Whether Canadian football = soccer, I can't say. Can Canada save a U.S. football team? Is THAT what they're asking? The answer is: who cares? Canadians care about hockey, and the U.S. cares about baseball and basketball... OH, and warfare, racism, and sex tourism, of course.

IS CREDIT DEBT A GOOD THING? Only if by "a good thing" you mean "not a good thing".

I can't make out the other questions, but I see the whitest, most conservative "liberal" gay man's name listed there on the "far left". (Funny that.) It's "Andrew Sullivan". Don't get me started on him or we'll be here until a week from Thursday. His idea of "gay politics"... please. I told you: DON'T get me started!!

But this DOES makes for a lovely segue, or shall I say, "segay"? Okay, okay. Segue. Geesh. You readers are so persnickety sometimes. Not as persnickety as moi, of course.

Of Course Gay Actors Can Play Straight
MAY 15 2010, 8:00 AM ET

Derek Thompson
Derek Thompson is a staff editor at Atlantic Business, where he writes about economics, business and technology. Derek has also written for BusinessWeek and Slate.
Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh wrote an article a few weeks ago arguing that gay actors had a hard time playing straight people, and the outcry basically broke the Internet. Blogs ripped Setoodeh into confetti. Actress Kristin Chenoweth called him "horrendously homophobic." Glee creator Ryan Murphy called for his fans to boycott Newsweek.

Setoodeh's argument was silly. The response was silly, too. Setoodeh saw a play called Promises, Promises starring Sean Hayes (the best friend from Will & Grace) and didn't think Hayes was a convincing straight guy. Also, he watched an episode of Glee and thought another gay actor playing straight came off like a "theater queen." In the real world, two unconvincing performances in a week is, you know, two unconvincing performances in a week. For Setoodeh, it was part of a larger trend: gay actors can't play straight!

He probably should have kept the thought to himself. Or rented Return of the King. Gay actors play straight all the time: Neil Patrick Harris in How I Met Your Mother; David Hyde Pierce in Frasier; Ian McKellen in Lord of the Rings, and X-Men, and everything.

Gay actors face serious challenges in film and television. The last thing they need is Newsweek knocking their chops because a couple of them weren't sufficiently macho in musicals some guy saw last week.

But the response to Setoodeh's article has veered into weird territory, too. West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin, in an articulate piece, challenged the idea that "playing gay" is even a thing.

An actor, no matter which sex they're attracted to, can't "play" gay or "play" straight. Gay and straight aren't actable things. You can act effeminate and you can act macho (though macho usually ends up reading as gay), but an actor can't play gay or straight anymore than they can play Catholic. The most disturbing thing to me about this episode is that the theater critic for Newsweek didn't know that.

Oh, come on. You can't say gay isn't actable in the same sentence you say overly macho acting reads as gay. Either there exists a certain set of characteristics, expressions, and vocal modulations that can indicate sexual orientation to an audience or there aren't. And it's pretty clear that there are.

When Ricky Martin told the world he was gay, the Internet's collective reaction was some variation of: "duh." We didn't know Ricky. Why were we so certain he was gay? Well, we just ... knew! It was the way he ... danced? ... sang? ...shook his bon bon? Who knows. But it turns out there's a science behind what some folks call gaydar. One study found that 75 percent of gay men sounded gay to a general audience over tape-recordings. The biological and cultural implications of that finding deserve a fuller treatment, but for the purposes of our discussion, suffice it to say that it is a finding. Gaydar detects some sort of gendermap of characteristics that can indicate homosexuality. And actors draw on this "gendermap" of characteristics to play gay -- or straight. Is it terribly homophobic to point that out?

At the heart of Setoodeh's piece is idea that gay and straight people act a certain way, and that actors who are well-known to be gay might have a higher bar to clear to be persuasively hetero. I don't disagree.

Julian Real's comment:
The whole matter doesn't only rest on what characteristics the viewer [read "presumed straight person"] is deciding is or isn't gay. Does [the straight] audience accept Jodie Foster as heterosexual--or not--in The Accused or Contact? Were Cher and Meryl Streep believable as a lesbian couple in Silkwood? (And why do straight men want ALL women to PLAY lesbian and no het man to BE gay? Hmmm. Answers may follow.)

The undercurrent, not quite spoken out loud, is that being gay ruins it for an audience who wants to believe het performances are for het actors--because heterosexuality in men is valued more. Hollywood doesn't have to give a..consider whether het actors playing lesbian and gay ruin it for us--lesbian and gay people. Reverse the sexual orientations of the entire discussion above this comment and see what gets revealed.

"The problem" is being gay, again. Why, through most of my life, has the only problem for straight actors playing lesbian or gay been how it would negatively impact their careers? Why did Ricky Martin have to wait so long to come out, and why do only white folks seem to reply "duh", while the rest of humanity gets the significance of a Latino performer coming out? Why aren't we as concerned with how unbelievable it is that out het actors just can't transcend our knowledge of them being THAT way for us to buy them in a role where they are not? If being gay wasn't stigmatised (and socially despised), we wouldn't care one way or the other. And if being a straight man wasn't naturalised (and socially adored), we would care more about the reverse happening.

This discussion could play out with regard to race in the U.S.: "we" (pssst: usually meaning whites) don't mind if non-Black actors play Black (think Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart) but when "we" (meaning Black people) do care, it's our problem, not whites'. And "we're" seen as irrationally complaining. (See this as an example: Little white boys in the middle of the last century played "cowboys and Indians", without complaint from whites. But objecting to the objectionable Cleveland Indians logo and name is, well, really going too far. (You're seeing the pattern, I hope?) Non-Indigenous and non-Latina/o actors play American Indian and what the U.S. government calls "Hispanic". (Think Natalie Wood in West Side Story.) The audience is always presumed to be white and heterosexual, and too often, also male. And good luck to Taylor Lautner if he's typecast as "The Indian", because he'll be working on TV and major motion pictures once every decade.

And then there's the little matter of dominants getting almost all the damn acting jobs, so it's a little annoying, as well as economically impoverishing, when the dominants to be able to play it all and the socially subordinated are only allowed to play what they are seen to be by dominants (read: only gay/lesbian/Black/American Indian, never "just human").

All the whites are "we" again, unless otherwise indicated--just like in U.S. history books and the way whites tell stories... "So there were like five people shopping at the 7/11 and then this Black guy comes in... ". We couldn't possibly buy it if a Black actor wants to play a, you know, just plain ol' All American human. Because this is the point: het (and/or white and/or male) = the All American human, so the straight white U.S. male actor is believable, or hilarious, all the time as whatever kind of human he plays, but gay (and/or non-white and/or female) = that kind of human, who, once identified as that way cannot be unseen as that because that is them and they aren't "we". What we're all being told is that being "that way" isn't quite as human as being het/white/male. And, alarmingly, being Black truly isn't "as human" in the U.S. white imagination, as is being white. So whites, yes, can allow one another to play Black; and when and if they do so so stereotypically, whites don't complain: it wasn't primarily white opposition that stopped minstrel shows; it was the presence of African Americans as human beings who got to have a voice* that mattered almost as much as the white voices impacting white audiences bigotr..tastes. (*Just the one voice usually, maybe two: you know, Doc Martin and the Malcolm who wasn't in the middle.)

We're not supposed to negatively stereotype the dominants in any social hierarchy (like, say, as "always complaining about something", uppity, dirty, diseased, or terroristic), and if we do, we'll hear about it from the them who militantly refuse to be identified as a them. (If one more straight white guy tells me how negatively stereotyped he is on TV "all the darned time"... not realising exactly how many times The Greatest American Hero is on TV, doing everything, like reporting the evening news, selling trucks, judging singers, sportscasting, and getting honored for killing people of color... well, I won't scream, to spare you the reinforcement of a negative stereotype.) We're only supposed to negatively stereotype the socially subordinated in any hierarchy. Male contestants on SYTYCD are never told they're dancing it too straight. And what does *that* mean?! Ask me. I'm gay. I'll tell you. You het guys are most hilarious--or is it dangerous?--when you don't even know how friggin' straight you're acting.)

So men [straight or gay] who PLAY women don't play diversely human people--like say, women--but that's what we say the fellas are doing, without complaint by men. And WhiteStraightMale God-forbid if women complain about that, or, well, anything at all really. (Because that'd make her a [rhymes with kitsch]!) We say Robin Williams is hilarious when he "plays gay" but when he's hilarious when not playing gay, he's never hilarious *because* he's playing straight.

Being socially subordinated is an endless source of humor for social dominants. Just watch practically any SNL skit since the 1970s. Watch Bill Hader play the oh-so-gay kinky Manhattan club reviewer sitting next to *normal* Seth Meyers. Is Seth funny because he's not gay? Betty White as sort-of-Black = funny [to whites, who are the majority demographic who even watch that very racist program, without ever "complaining" about the racism]. But Betty White playing white? Wait, what does that even mean? How does a white person play white? Ask people who aren't white. Whiteness is, actually, utterly hilarious. I laugh all the time about it with my friends--the ones who are "non-white", that is. (The white ones just look all confused and irritated.)

The issue is who is socially statused and who is stigmatised, and we can't have stigmatised socially subordinated people play statused dominant ones, believably.

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