The Perils Of So-Called Straight Talk

We obviously have a long way to go in any honest conversation about sexuality and pop culture — sparked recently by the Newsweek article doubting gay actors can play straight. Curiously, actors seem to get it more than Newsweek does.

To catch you up: Last week, Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh, himself a gay man, wrote about the Broadway revival of "Promises, Promises," starring Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenoweth. He identified a "big pink elephant in the room":

Frankly, it's weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play's most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. Is it funny because of all the '60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?

Drunk and clueless women are, of course, always good for a laugh. It's always possible that this is not about Hayes being gay. Maybe it's just that he doesn't seem to be a very good or versatile actor, although he has received plenty of praise for his performance. That his schtick happens to be associated in our culture with being a gay man may be what's confusing Setoodeh. It's hard to know from television and film, because, it appears, the most well-regarded actors have little incentive to come out, lest it ruin their career on the grounds of Setoodeh's own reasoning.

Just ask Colin Firth, who said not long ago,

"There might be risks for a gay actor coming out. The politics of that are quite complex, it seems to me. 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 now, you don't get cast.

Or writer-director Glenn Ficarra of I Love You Philip Morris:

"People have asked us, 'Why didn't you hire gay actors to play these roles? Well, there are no gay actors in Hollywood! None of them are out of the closet. With the exception of Ian McKellen, who is too old for the part, it's exceedingly rare to see that. And it sucks because they're actors. If a straight guy can play gay, why can't a gay guy play straight? It's just as convincing. But there's this perception in marketing, somehow the public can't overcome this idea of, 'There's a gay guy kissing that straight woman – my God!' I don't understand that."

Most of these conversations center on gay men, perhaps because arguably, male gender roles have remained more rigid in the face of social change. But there is an afterthought for women in Setoodeh's piece, at the end:

Lesbian actresses might have it easier-since straight men think it's OK for them to kiss a girl and like it-but how many of them can you name? Cynthia Nixon was married to a man when she originated Miranda on Sex and the City. Kelly McGillis was straight when she steamed up Top Gun's sheets, and Anne Heche went back to dating men (including her Men in Trees costar). If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet tomorrow, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It's hard to say. Or maybe not. Doesn't it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?

In response, Glee creator Ryan Murphy has called for a boycott of Newsweek. GLAAD demanded an apology. And in a letter originally left in the comments of Setoodeh's piece, Hayes' co-star Kristen Chenoweth wrote,

This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian. For example, there was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile. Setoodeh even goes so far as to justify his knee-jerk homophobic reaction to gay actors by accepting and endorsing that ‘as viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker room torture in junior high school.' Really? We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives? That's so sad, Newsweek!

And that's the key here. Instead of examining his own assumptions or society's expectations and prejudices surrounding gay men and anyone who challenges heterosexual norms, Setoodeh enshrines them as immutable fact. Chenoweth continued,

We're actors first, whether we're playing prostitutes, baseball players, or the Lion King. Audiences come to theater to go on a journey. It's a character and it's called acting, and I'd put Hayes and his brilliance up there with some of the greatest actors period. 
Lastly, as someone who's been proudly advocating for equal rights and supporting GLBT causes for as long as I can remember, I know how much it means to young people struggling with their sexuality to see out & proud actors like Sean Hayes, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris and Cynthia Nixon succeeding in their work without having to keep their sexuality a secret. No one needs to see a bigoted, factually inaccurate article that tells people who deviate from heterosexual norms that they can't be open about who they are and still achieve their dreams.

Aaron Sorkin weighed in too:

I don't think Setoodeh was being homophobic. Just wrong.

The problem doesn't have anything to do with sexual preference. The problem has everything to do with the fact that we know too much about each other and we care too much about what we know. In one short decade we have been reconditioned to be entertained by the most private areas of other people's lives.

This is convincing to some extent — who could not have been distracted, for example, by Angelina Jolie's very Angelina Jolie-ness in A Mighty Heart, regardless of how good she was and how heartbreaking the story? That said, it's willfully obtuse to act as if the scrutiny affects every actor in the same way, gay or straight.

Yesterday, Newsweek responded by saying, "We'd hoped to stir discussion of why there are still so few openly gay performers in Hollywood, but that message was overwhelmed by readers who thought we were being hurtful and small-minded in our assessment. When a story is so widely misinterpreted, it's obvious we failed at making our point," and hosting a discussion between Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios. As apologies go, it was rather "I'm sorry you're offended." But the respondents did their best to school the magazine.

Black disputed that Setoodeh's sentiments reflected the public, even as he located them within a particular worldview of femininity and masculinity:

I'll take it a step further, too- this idea of femininity and sexuality, which I think we also have to confront. I'm from the Mormon church-I'm not active anymore-but [in that church] heterosexual men are encouraged to be not stereotypically masculine. So a lot of Mormon people are often called very, very feminine, and people mistake them as gay....I don't know this writer, but it felt like this writer had a lot of issues with femininity and heterosexuality, and the connections between masculinity, femininity and sexuality. It started getting blurred to me. The heterosexual people in America don't seem to be having that problems with these performances, or seeing that, but this writer did. And to me it felt like it became more about this writer's issues with sexuality and masculinity than it did the success of these performances.

Barrios said he thought that progress had actually been made on this front, that the American public was more open than ever to seeing gay performers in a variety of roles, especially on television. "The trend seems to be going in exactly the other direction from what this writer has asserted," he said.

"But we're not talking about leading men in big budget movies that are in fact the role models for so much of what goes on in Hollywood," Newsweek culture editor Marc Peyser responded.

Black said that while actors like Neil Patrick Harris were making great strides, the agents and managers of Hollywood were helping maintain the status quo when it came to big budget leading men. Why? "Well, because they worry that their client will be outed and that will somehow hurt their career. They worry that articles like the one in Newsweek will say a gay person can't play a straight role and people will believe it."

In the end, Barrios said, "We can't predict when it will happen but our job is to create an environment in which it can possibly happen."

The assumption that airing your prejudices uncritically and as empirical fact is somehow brave straight talk — see Grace, Stephanie — is really the problem here. It provides a more intellectual patina to the same old shit, a more acceptable refuge for people, gay or straight, who want to see their laziest suppositions confirmed. None of which, to borrow Barrios' words, creates an environment in which change can possibly happen.

Gay Rights Group Demands Apology From Newsweek [CBS News]
Kristin Chenoweth Attacks Newsweek Article On Openly Gay Actors
Straight Jacket [Newsweek]
Straight Talk, Continued [Newsweek]
Now That You Mention It, Rock Hudson Did Seem Gay [Huffington Post]

Earlier: Hollywood's Gay Paradox: Ever Onscreen, Ever In The Closet