Accolades of Queer Oppression: Should Cishet Actors Play Queer?
Examining Hollywood’s Queer history, America’s Queer oppression, media’s influence, and Hollywood’s problematic perspectives to answer this controversial question
North America releases more than 700 films a year, which yields a lot of competition for awards. History has proven Queer stories offer ripe material for distinction. The first film to win the Academy Award for best picture was a subverted Queer story featuring the first gay kiss in cinema. Since 2000, 40 actors have been Oscar-nominated for their portrayal of Queer roles; at least 10 of those actors won, and yet none were openly Queer.
In 2017’s Love, Simon, and subsequently in 2020’s Love, Victor, cishet (cisgender heterosexual) actors portrayed the leading Queer roles in [allegedly] groundbreaking film and television media. These stories aimed to positively change America’s understanding of Queer identity. Yet, Hollywood centered these Queer stories around cishet actors in the real world.
As a Queer person, it frustrates me to see cishet actors in these roles still. My feelings forced me to examine why, today, I feel so strongly that Queer people need to be in these Queer roles. The question, should cishet actors play Queer, is a complicated one, and it deserves a critical response.
By posing this as an absolute question, we ignore the circumstances under which we must evaluate a response. We must first consider what Queer stories should aim to accomplish and how we can best achieve these goals. When we do, the question becomes not one of ability, but rather, one of appropriateness.
Where circumstances once created a situation when only cishet actors could portray Queer roles, the circumstances today require us to put openly Queer actors in front of the screen. Hollywood holds a deep history of misrepresentation of Queer people. However, without cishet actors playing Queer roles in the past, we might not have reached the progress we have attained today. Still, there is a nuanced history we must delve into, in order to determine whether it is appropriate for cishet actors to play Queer today.
We must also consider America’s history of Queer oppression to understand how attitudes towards Queer identity have shifted over the years and shaped Queer visibility on screen. Additionally, we must acknowledge the powerful influence that film and television hold as agents of change in the world. We must leverage this power for good. Lastly, we must deconstruct the tools of Queer oppression which remain in Hollywood today. Only after examining all the circumstances can we critically answer the question.
Circumstance: Queer Visibility in Hollywood
“The earliest representations I saw on screen of gay people were always people to be mocked.” Anderson Cooper, Visible: Out on Television (2020)
Visibility and representation are often discussed interchangeably and usually misunderstood as synonymous terms. However, they are two distinct concepts for examining how Queer identities are considered both on and off-screen. Visibility is the state of being seen, whereas representation is the description or portrayal of someone in a particular way. Neither are inherently guided by positive intention, as we have seen throughout Hollywood’s history.
Queer people have been visible in film and television for over 100 years but predominantly represented by non-queer people. The Apple TV+ series Visible: Out on Television (2020) examines Queer visibility throughout television’s history, from a time when approximately 85% of Americans believed homosexuality to be morally wrong, which created circumstances preventing Queer people from being represented authentically.
The first film to win the Academy Award for best picture in 1929, Wings (1927), humanized Queer characters and showed the love between two men without exploitation. It featured the first gay kiss in film (I mean, it tried). Wings is an example of how many films in the ‘20s approached Queer characters, subversively. However, not all films of that time approached Queer storytelling with such sensitivity.
A set of conservative, religiously-backed, self-regulating film guidelines came into play in 1934. The Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code) significantly led to the dehumanization and erasure of Queer people in America. Because of the Hays code, Queer people were depicted only as homicidal, mentally ill, or sexually perverse caricatures. Abidance to the code ultimately reduced Queer characters to tropes of entering the screen as a joke, to kill, or to be killed. The code came to an end in 1968 with competition from foreign films, controversial directors, television, and legal intervention. But, not before inflicting and perpetuating negative stereotypes and harmful tropes of Queer people upon the public for 34 years, which have followed Queer visibility in film and television to this day.
This history has shown that Queer people are not authentically represented simply by being visible as characters on screen. It has demonstrated that our stories and identities are highly susceptible to problematic and misleading portrayals when represented by people who exist outside of our culture. When non-queer people speak or act on behalf of Queer people, the results can be disastrous without guidance, understanding, and positive intention.
“Television has a power to normalize something that people don’t understand.” Peter Paige, Visible: Out on Television (2020)
In the ‘70s, positive and sympathetic portrayals of Queer people resurfaced, as described in Visible: Out on Television. Examples include Norman Leer’s All In the Family (‘71-‘79) and The Jeffersons (‘75-‘85), as well as television films That Certain Summer (‘72), A Question of Love (‘78), and An Early Frost (‘85). These roles and characters were an improvement from the Hays Code era, but they were far from perfect. It is important to note that it was controversial for cishet actors to portray Queer roles in this manner at this time in history. Doing so posed a risk to their careers, as Hal Holbrook describes in considering his role in That Certain Summer. In accepting that risk, we can see the credibility in their portrayal of Queer roles to advance social acceptance.
Reality television was another turning point for Queer visibility. An American Family (‘73), the first reality-inspired show, brought the first openly gay recurring character to television. In the ‘80s, when America turned a blind eye to the AIDS crisis, The Real World (‘92) introduced Pedro Zamora, an openly gay man living with AIDS, to millions of American families. This visibility helped humanize not only Queer people but people living with HIV/AIDS. Through courageous, openly Queer people in television, the industry continued to advance positive visibility for Queer people.
In 1994, My So-Called Life featured the first openly gay actor to portray a series-regular Queer character. Soon after, Queer characters succeed as leading roles on prime-time television in Will & Grace (‘98). Even though the show has been criticized for its issues, it helped pave the way for more Queer visibility in shows like Queer as Folk (2000), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003), and The L Word (2004).
“What does it mean to go into cultures that you don’t exist in and tell those stories? And how do we have a critical relationship so that we learn?”
Laverne Cox, Disclosure (2020)
Representation in film and television encompasses not only the role of actors, but also writers, directors, producers, and many more involved in bringing stories to life through film and television. In this sense, representation means acting or speaking on behalf of someone or a group. Queer people can be represented visibly as characters, and they can be involved in storytelling to represent the Queer community’s needs.
While many Queer stories today proclaim the latter form of Queer representation, the relationships are not always critical enough to empower Queer people. Off-screen Queer representation is also not always overtly visible to the audience. Another concept comes into play to address this need.
Visible Queer Representation is seeing and knowing the people telling the story are Queer. This idea works to amplify the voices of all Queer people involved in storytelling and to show the world Queer people can succeed in various careers. Through interviews and other public opportunities, the Queer people behind the screen become visible.
In 2018, Pose proved to the world the success of Visible Queer Representation. Pose has not only an unprecedented number of Transgender performers, but it also features Queer talent behind the screen. Pose has received 55 nominations and 19 wins, including six Emmy nominations.
This history of Queer visibility in Hollywood teaches us that we must develop critical relationships with those who wish to tell Queer stories. To ensure our stories and history are told with accuracy, authenticity, and positive intention. Authentic Queer representation can guide Queer visibility, both on and off-screen, to achieve the goals of Queer storytelling — and ultimately, the goals of Queer liberation.
Circumstance: Queer Oppression in America
“Then there was the raid, the whimper heard round the world, the fall of our gay Bastille.” New York Public Library, The Stonewall Reader
Throughout most of America’s history, Americans have understood homosexuality as a mental illness, and sex between members of the same gender was illegal. Even the mere act of dancing with someone of the same gender was reason enough for arrest in some places. Queer people have faced oppression from every angle, including in government policy and in society.
In 1941 The US Army, Navy, and Selective Service started banning Queer people from service. In 1945 the Veterans Administration began a policy of denying benefits to veterans discharged on the grounds of being Queer.
In 1950, Congress circulated a report, the Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government, constituting homosexuals as security threats to the nation on the claim that homosexuality is a mental illness. The Lavender Scare ignited a hunt for Queer people in government employment, leading to the 1953 Executive Order 10450 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The order essentially banned Queer people from government employment on the grounds of “sexual perversion.” For over 40 years, America expelled tens of thousands of Queer people from government jobs.
Socially, Queer love was deemed morally corrupt, perverse, and criminal throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. These views and laws meant Queer people faced the risk of being locked up in jail or in psychiatric detention. They lost not only their jobs but also the custody of their children. During this time through the ‘70s, Police regularly targeted and raided Queer bars and harassed Queer people, which erupted in two significant uprisings in Queer history, the first in San Francisco at Compton’s Cafeteria and the most pivotal at New York’s Stonewall Inn.
In the ‘80s, America turned a blind eye to the AIDS crisis, which ravaged the gay community. Primarily due to homophobia, the government refused to respond to the crisis. Through this epidemic, the American public distanced themselves further from Queer people, and doctors refused to treat those infected with HIV/AIDS.
In 1993, Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT),” which further worked to oppress Queer identities. DADT served as an alternative to Eisenhower’s order, discharging more service members.
In 1996, Congress passed The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, further oppressing Queer people. Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked in 1998, and left to die for being gay — it took ten years for the government to respond to this notorious hate crime, ultimately passing a federal law to protect Queer people (Hate Crimes Prevention Act).
It was only in 2003 that Americans became free from classification as criminals when state sodomy laws finally ended (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003). The first same-sex marriage was only recently performed in Massachusetts in 2004, with the supreme court ruling it legal across all fifty states eleven years later (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). Still, this right and many other protections earned for Queer people are under attack every day.
There is much more Queer history in America to discuss than I can provide in a few paragraphs. The argument is that Queer oppression in America is far from over. Queer people continue to fight for freedoms, liberties, and equality. Our victories are under constant attack, as are our identities and our lives. In 2016, the Pulse Nightclub Shooting was the deadliest attack on Queer people in American history, and violence against Queer people continues every year.
Circumstance: The Influential Power of Hollywood
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
Television reaches over 90% of Americans weekly, and more than half of American T.V. households have a subscription to Netflix. 1.3 billion movie tickets were sold across North America in 2019. The Rio Summer Olympics drew in 3.6 billion television viewers capturing half the world’s attention. Without a doubt, film and television can reach the world, influence action, and change minds.
Through film and television, Hollywood offers us experiences that we may not otherwise have access to. It teaches us how to react to the things in life we do not understand. While the vast majority of America now knows someone openly gay or lesbian, less than 30% of Americans know a Transgender person. Whether we know someone openly gay or lesbian, transgender, or gender nonconforming, Queer identities are not homogenous. We each bring complexity and uniqueness to our identities, and we are also not solely defined by them. There is still much to learn about Queer identities, not only for the world but also for the Queer community.
For Queer people like myself, film and television offer an accessible, safe space to explore and learn about our identities. The world is quick to tell us we are different, but it provides no information about our differences. It was only in seeing parts of myself reflected in television that I understood not only who I was, but also that I was not alone. Still, that portrayal by a cishet actor taught me to hide who I was, because while the world tolerated Queer stories, I learned it was still not ready to accept Queer people.
Passing in Queer culture holds a complex history that is important to understand in discussing this thesis. Passing considers the facets of one’s Queer identity as not overtly visible, whether intentionally or inadvertently, thus offering a convincing presumption of heteronormativity.
The complexities and potential problems of passing lie in this presumption and the effect a desire or necessity to pass, have on a Queer person’s psyche and self-worth. When passing is used as a tool for safety from violence and discrimination, it perpetuates a life ruled by fear, and questionably, dishonesty. When passing is used as a tool for acceptance, that conditional acceptance can perpetuate a life ruled by shame, which suppresses self-acceptance and leads to depression and self-hatred. Passing can also be used as a tool of superiority within the Queer community when we value our ability to pass as acceptance.
Will & Grace offers an example of the problematic notion of passing. The Queer characteristics of Jack McFarland, along with his turbulent career in the arts, were negatively contrasted by the heteronormative characteristics of Will Truman and his success as a lawyer. The character of Will passed as a straight man and often rejected the authenticity of Jack’s overtly Queer identity. This narrative reaffirmed the notion of passing as the only way to gain acceptance and succeed in society. It created a superiority in the behaviors of two Queer characters. Further aiding this problem was the casting choice of a cishet man to play Will and a Queer man to play Jack.
Understanding the implications of passing on Queer people is crucial to evaluating the problems we face when cishet actors aim to pass as Queer characters on television. When non-queer people take to the screen to portray Queer roles, they are further perpetuating problematic notions of passing.
When Queer people struggling to accept their own identity see cishet actors playing Queer, it further embeds the idea that acceptance from the world is gained only through heteronormativity. For non-queer people who don’t fully understand Queer identity, this action reaffirms the notion that our identities are merely performative acts, aiding the debate that identity is a choice.
Circumstance: Queer Oppression in Hollywood
“We need to debunk this terrible stigma that we put on, especially young actors, that they can’t get a full audience if they’re honest or play a gay character.” Chris Colfer, Visible: Out on Television (2020)
Moonlight won the Academy Award for best picture in 2017. In the following year, Call Me By Your Name was nominated for best picture and won the award for best adapted screenplay. In 2019, The Favourite received ten Academy Award nominations including best picture, and the award for best actress went to its lead Queer role.
These films have near-perfect critic scores on Rotten Tomatoes. With budgets of $4 million, $3.5 million, and $15 million and worldwide gross earnings of $65.3 million, $41.9 million, and $95.9 million, respectively. Queer films have proven their award-worthiness and financial viability.
There is no question of social appetite, credibility, nor profitability for Queer stories in film and television. Yet, the perspective of Hollywood producers, executives, and agents remains that Queer people are not marketable to a full audience. Queer audiences crave authenticity in our visibility and representation in Hollywood, but we are continuously served cishet actors in our stories.
The Myth that Queer Actors Are Un-marketable
It is a vein gesture to produce Queer stories on the premise of advancing positive social change, but to not see the value in empowering Queer actors to lead in the portrayals of these stories. This thinking contributes to Queer erasure by reinforcing the narrative that Queer actors must remain in the closet to succeed.
Actors, Ellen DeGeneres, Raven Symoné, T. R. Knight, and Chris Colfer discuss in Visible: Out on Television, how this narrative prevailed in the people they knew who were not publicly out. They share how it had been forced upon them throughout their careers and had negatively affected their lives.
In 1997 Ellen DeGenerous, and her character on her leading sitcom, simultaneously told the world, “I’m gay.” This brave decision ended Ellen’s sitcom after ratings dropped. Twenty years later, she discusses the difficulty of her choice, the backlash, and the impact of announcing her truth. Today The Ellen DeGenerous Show is in its 17th year and has nearly 80 million followers on Twitter. Ellen DeGenerous has been awarded 30 Emmys and 20 People’s Choice Awards. The viability of an openly Queer person to succeed on screen can no longer be debated.
Hollywood’s perspective is based on a time when America overwhelmingly rejected Queer people. Today, with 63% of Americans supporting Gay marriage, it is time to give Queer people the leading Queer roles they deserve.
The Guise of Authenticity
In a Vulture interview, Love, Victor creator Isaac Aptaker said, “Love, Victor considered looking for a gay lead during the casting process but ultimately settled on Michael Cimino. At the end of the day, it’s about who can tell this story in the most authentic and honest way.”
In an interview on GMA, Cimino said, “I was really drawn to the role because my cousin’s gay and I really wanted to kind of be that voice he didn’t have, and for the other kids who are or were in his position.”
There is nothing authentic about a non-queer person taking an opportunity away from an openly Queer actor, to be the voice Queer people don’t have.
The cultural climate towards Queer identity no longer forces us to rely on non-queer people to speak on our behalf. Queer people need the opportunities to speak for ourselves and represent ourselves, both on and off-screen.
Blindness to Queer Oppression
In an ideal world of equality, any actor should be able to portray any role, but today, Queer people still face oppression. The ignorance of anyone to insist there are no considerations aside from talent that should determine an actor’s opportunity to portray a Queer role is overt blindness to Queer oppression.
In 2016, Cate Blanchett, defending her Queer role in Carol, said, “I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience.” There is no question that Queer people can connect with the emotional talent and character development of cishet actors. The question is neither ability nor talent, but rather appropriateness in the circumstances.
There was a time when the world would not tolerate a Queer person on film, and cishet actors risked their careers to tell Queer stories. When the risk is gone, authenticity and intention come into question. Are you taking the role to advance Queer liberation, or because of its potential to garner accolades for you?
In a recent Instagram live interview, Halle Berry discussed her desire to portray a Trans role in a future project. She perpetuated her own harmful notions and misconceptions of Trans identity before the project even began. I respect her for apologizing and vacating the role immediately after listening to the community. I also applaud her desire to tell the stories of marginalized identities, however, this can be done by giving Queer people opportunities.
If you genuinely seek to help the Queer community, in our fight for equality and acceptance by telling Queer stories, you must examine and understand the oppression we continue to face today. For non-queer actors, you must acknowledge that you will never truly understand these stories from a first-hand perspective. A perspective that is necessary to tell these stories with authenticity.
The Double Standard Argument
The argument always surfaces that if cishet actors should not play Queer roles, then Queer actors should not play heteronormative roles. This double standard argument is only valid when both parties are in similar situations. Today, Queer people and non-queer people simply are not.
Still, to answer the question, it is because no one questions the authenticity of a heteronormative character. Heteronormativity is the presumed standard, in which everyone understands the difference between reality and dramatization. The world is filled with stories of the heteronormative experience, and we do not challenge its legitimacy when we see it in film.
No one questions if heteronormativity is a choice. Still, when non-queer actors, directors, or writers give direction on the perceived Queerness of a fictional character, the authenticity will be questioned. When is it authentic, and when is it hearkening back to the misrepresentation of the Hays Code era?
We Need to See Queer People in Queer Roles
When Hollywood tells Queer stories and places non-queer people at the center, it continues to paint a world where Queer people do not exist.
Film and television have been on a path of improving Queer visibility since the ‘70s. Throughout that time, societal attitudes towards Queer identity forced us to rely on cishet actors to tell Queer stories. This is no longer the case.
Today, we must empower and amplify Queer people in storytelling, to avoid perpetuating the harm of misrepresentation in film & television.
When cishet actors take Queer roles, they are aiding in the oppression of Queer identities by taking away an opportunity for positive visibility, not only in film and television but also in society. When cishet actors are seen and interviewed off-screen for Queer roles, it is a missed opportunity for the world to see the reality and authenticity of Queer people living today. It is a missed opportunity to correct the misunderstandings of Queer identity in the world.
Queer identification and activism are still punishable by death in 13 countries. With the reach of film and television globally, the world mimics how Queer people and stories are treated in media, and in the industry. Hollywood has the power to influence change in the world and aid Queer liberation and acceptance, but only if the Queer community has the opportunity to be front and center in our visibility and representation.
We must no longer support Queer stories that fail to actively address the needs of the Queer community. We must use our power as the audience to demand Queer stories are told by and with Queer people. We must boycott Queer stories that fail to represent our needs; we must boycott Queer stories centered around cishet actors.
We must strive for the world to see Queer people behind Queer characters in media (on-screen), and to continue to see Queer people even after our stories are told (off-screen). When we examine the history of Queer oppression and fully understand the circumstances we face today, we can finally answer this question critically.
Cishet actors should not play Queer roles today because the world needs to see real Queer people, to understand and fully accept Queer identity.
Note: I use the term Queer to encompass the full spectrum of identity outside cisgender heteronormativity. While this includes Transgender identity, it is important to understand that gender and sexuality are two different facets of identity. It is also important to note that not all people in the LGBTQIA+ community use the term Queer as an identity label.