Before fighting over crumbs, you might ask where the loaf is.
LGBT people are long used to questioning representations of LGBT characters in movies and TV. There are not nearly enough LGBT characters and stories on screen, and not enough out LGBT actors either—and so the attention paid to LGBT-themed shows and films, and LGBT actors, is intense.
The characters that are on our screens are rightly studied, then praised and criticized according to their depth, and the level of intimacy they’re allowed to share with on-screen partners.
This week, the velocity of accusations that the actor Ruby Rose is not LGBT enough has led her to leave Twitter. Her critics say they want a Jewish lesbian to play the Jewish lesbian lead character in a reboot of Batwoman. Ruby Rose’s gender fluidity is also being used against her: She is being judged to be not lesbian or Jewish enough to play a role.
This brouhaha came after a straight British actor, Jack Whitehall, was chosen to play an effete, gay character in a new Disney movie. Why couldn’t the part have gone to an openly gay actor? asked Whitehall’s critics. (Completely ignored, but arguably more significant: Why is Disney’s first significant gay character, on paper at least, a gay stereotype?)
If these arguments seem absurd, or at least elements of them seem absurd, the bedrock of people’s anger is all too plausible.
At the heart of both controversies is how poorly TV and movie producers and studios do when it comes to its LGBT themes and roles for LGBT actors. If equality had been achieved in Hollywood, these controversies wouldn’t bloom with such toxicity.
GLAAD’s most recent report on Hollywood LGBT representation, published in May, showed studios falling woefully short not just in terms of the numbers of films out there but also the quality, depth, and nuance of the characters within them.
We still live in a culture where LGBT characters, LGBT-themed projects, and LGBT actors remain in the minority. In this small, contested space, passionate storms around representation inevitably erupt.
The struggle to get these stories told, to get these characters into the cultural mainstream, to encourage these actors to be out, has coincided with a time of feverish identity politics, where even the slightest perceived transgression—around the politics of sexual and gender identities—is grounds for condemnation on social media.
These intramural fights obscure a harsher truth: There remains an appalling under-representation of LGBT lives and experiences on screens, big and small. The most radical LGBT-themed project on mainstream television in recent months has been the excellent Pose, the FX drama about a group of trans women and gay men of color, and the universes (queer and otherwise, with definitions of “family” proudly redrawn) they orbit in 1980s New York City.
Not only is Pose a well-written and -crafted drama, it also partners characters and issues plausibly and movingly, and features a group of trans actors in trans roles. It is groundbreaking on-screen and off.
Reel in the Closet, a brilliant documentary surveying the home videos made by LGBT people from the 1940s to the present day, reveals another kind of radicalism.
It does not feature big stars or a big director. It did not have millions thrown at it. Nor did it arrive ready-packaged on a wave of hype.
Reel in the Closet defies all of those categories, but what it does is show ordinary LGBT lives, stolen moments at home and on vacation, on the streets and on the couch; the look of love and intimacy between partners, flirtations, drinks, the regular churn of life—and most of it shot at a time when LGBT people were criminalized as well as stigmatized. Mainstream producers, take note: It showed the full range of LGBT humanity.
The recent Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band featured a big-name, all-gay cast, and watching Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells, and co. wasn’t just an exercise in stunt casting but a symbolic reclamation of the heart and soul of a modern gay classic.
A straight actor, a group of straight actors, could have taken on the play, but it meant something more that this group of gay actors had transported this 1968 play to 2018 with such spirit and lived knowledge of the gnarly issues at its core.
Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet is another vital historical primer. It sketches the glimpses of LGBT life and humanity that directors smuggled past the censors, as well as the sometimes violent, sometimes casual homophobia in Hollywood history—and then (Russo wrote the first edition of the book in 1981; the documentary premiered in 1995) the green shoots of LGBT pride and rounded characterization.
Debates around LGBT representation are not new, but we have moved from the “where are we” of 20 years ago to “this is how we should be seen,” even if we haven’t really answered the first question yet.
Whether it matters if an LGBT actor plays an LGBT character is a secondary question if popular culture hasn’t addressed LGBT lives and characters in sufficient enough depth, if films and TV shows still lack sufficiently diverse LGBT characters.
Beneath all of this is fear. Hollywood, no matter that many, many LGBT people work there, is scared of LGBT material. It is scared of how to sell that material. Does it think Middle America is so fragile that it can only take one kind of gay person at a time, that the plurality of LGBT identities will somehow lead to exoduses from cinemas and couches?
Hollywood must fear this, or there would be a diverse array of LGBT characters and stories emerging from its maw. But is the fear real? Has it been surveyed? Or is it such an omnipresent and invoked bogeyman?
Hollywood sells sexuality, femininity, and masculinity to audiences, and for years its parameters for doing so have been narrow, and oppressively patrolled.
Hollywood’s deeply embedded fear and conservatism breeds caution and fear on the part of storytellers and actors. The LGBT characters in films and TV shows tend to exist in isolation, and tend to carry the burden of their representation.
Meanwhile, while a growing number of LGBT actors have come out in recent years, those who have not are echoing the atmosphere of Hollywood, where a fear of openness affects the movies that are made, who makes them, and who stars in them.
We can argue about the rights and wrongs of who gets to play who—but more grave than that is changing Hollywood’s entire climate of fear and reticence about what it makes and shows in the first place.
If we want more LGBT actors playing LGBT roles, there needs to be—first—LGBT roles for them to fill, and an environment where careers are not imperiled because of an actor’s desire to live openly as who they are.
And for that, Hollywood itself has to come out, and grow up.