The real reason we should care about Disney's 'gay' character

Jack Whitehall recently announced that he will play a role in the Disney film "Jungle Cruise," reportedly th...

Posted: Aug 15, 2018 11:31 AM
Updated: Aug 15, 2018 11:31 AM

Jack Whitehall recently announced that he will play a role in the Disney film "Jungle Cruise," reportedly the first major openly gay character in a Disney movie. Whitehall, best known for his role as J.P. in the British television series "Fresh Meat," has reportedly been cast as the gay brother of Emily Blunt's character.

Immediate backlash ensued over yet another straight man being selected to portray a gay character. Some have dismissed the issue as "manufactured outrage," while others have pointed to the struggle many openly gay actors, especially those who do not present as stereotypically masculine, face in getting access to substantive roles. However, both reactions obscure the point of the larger discussion, which is about representation. What does it mean to "play" straight? What does it mean to "play" gay?

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Hollywood's representation crisis is the issue, not Whitehall. Disney was criticized for having its first black princess be a maid who appears as a frog for 80% of the film. Disney was also slammed for decades for Cinderella lies and Snow White fantasies. Disney -- and Hollywood in general -- is not the place you go if you're looking to break new ground when it comes to portrayals of sexuality -- or race or gender, for that matter.

A source quoted in The Sun described Whitehall's character as "hugely effete, very camp and very funny." But being camp and funny isn't synonymous with a particular sexual orientation. Ricky Gervais and James Corden are "camp and funny" and they are straight men. So what exactly makes Whitehall's character a gay man? Is his sexual orientation crucial to the storyline or does Disney believe effete, camp and funny are accurate representations of one of their few openly gay characters?

Whitehall can play whatever character he wants, although this may not be the gay character that anyone should deem groundbreaking. (Ironically, if a gay actor did play this "campy" character he would arguably receive backlash for being a stereotype, which was what the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" experienced). But the issue of representation isn't manufactured outrage. There is a long history of public figures who lived and died in fear that being naturally who they were would demolish their careers.

The Whitehall flap may bring to mind the backlash Scarlett Johansson received for accepting the role of a trans man in the film Rub & Tug. Trans representation and gay representation are different issues because sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same. The trans community, unlike the gay and lesbian community, is nearly invisible in Hollywood and Johansson was certainly taking a role away from a trans actor.

Trans actors are also virtually never cast to play cisgender roles; therefore, there was rightful outrage about Johansson. As trans actor Trace Lysette, who worked on Amazon's "Transparent," wrote on Twitter, "I wouldn't be as upset if I was getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles, but we know that's not the case." Johansson later dropped the role.

If all things were equal, actors would play any character they deserve. That said, while there is a ton of work to do for trans actors (kudos to FX's "Pose" for casting all trans actors to play trans roles, giving it a specific authenticity), the work is not finished for gay men in Hollywood.

When a straight man plays a gay character, he is seen as "brave" and "edgy" and receives an Oscar nomination -- think Colin Firth ("A Single Man"), Heath Ledger ("Brokeback Mountain") and Tom Hanks, who won the Oscar for "Philadelphia." These were all iconic performances, but we must ask: did a gay actor even have access to these roles?

The late, great Ledger said about his Oscar-nominated role in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," "The idea I had to make out with Jake ... just wasn't the easiest thing to do. It is a beautiful story, a beautiful script. It was definitely a real sense of accomplishment once I finished. I had so much fear for the project and the story and, you know, had to be brave."

Yes, to many it was "brave" that he kissed a man on camera. If openly gay actors Rupert Everett or Neil Patrick Harris had played Ledger's character, there would likely have been no Oscar nomination.

The "transformation" on screen from straight to gay is admired as a performance, but it obscures a dark reality. While we may think stories like Rock Hudson's -- the famous 1950s actor kept his sexual orientation secret until his death from HIV/AIDS-related complications in the 1980s -- ended eons ago, there are still many gay actors who live in fear of being outed. Moreover, they know they are more "marketable" as a perceived straight man playing a gay character than as a gay actor playing a gay character.

I recently spoke to a friend who is comfortable with his sexuality but is not openly gay as a professional actor (and didn't feel comfortable using his name for this article). A former acting teacher once told him, "It's important to show that you can play a 'man.'"

And therein lies the problem, which permeates to every aspect of our culture. Gay men are not seen as real men. A "real" man can't be effeminate. For a "real" man, manhood equals hypermasculinity, which fans the flames of homophobia and misogyny even as it negatively impacts every man, regardless of sexual orientation.

Straight actors should play gay actors, as long as gay characters have the same access to play straight characters -- and not just Neil Patrick Harris and Ian McKellen. Unfortunately, we aren't there just yet -- close but not post-homophobia in Hollywood. Don't think the gay BFF in a romantic comedy, or the tragic closeted gay man in a tearjerker means the days of Rock Hudson are over -- in Hollywood, politics (Ed Koch), music (Luther Vandross), or for an average man working a 9-to-5.

This op-ed has been corrected to reflect that it was Jack Whitehall, not Disney, who announced Whitehall's casting on social media.

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