Arts Editor, Mikhail Hanafi, explores the politics of LGBT+ representation in film.
Which films are going to be cemented in LGBT+ film canon? If you ask the general public, you’d likely get answers like Brokeback Mountain, Carol, The Danish Girl or even Blue is the Warmest Colour. The more movie-inclined might even mention Milk, the biopic based on the life of prolific gay activist Harvey Milk, or Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which featured Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in leading roles. These are (mostly) very good films—many of them enjoyed immense critical praise when they were released. Yet, something doesn’t quite feel right about them being remembered as cornerstones of LGBT+ film.
That’s because the majority of the LGBT characters in these films, especially those in leading roles, are played by straight actors/actresses. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal? Straight, playing gay cowboys. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara? Straight, playing two lesbians. Eddie Redmayne? Cisgender man playing Lili Elbe, a trans woman who was one of the earliest documented people to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
The recently-released Call Me By Your Name, starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, also two straight men, was received with critical acclaim. Telling the story of a 17 year-old Italian boy who grapples with his sexuality as he falls for an American exchange student, it currently boasts an impressive 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s something that has been happening for a long time in the film industry; straight actors are regularly (and much more often) cast in LGBT+ roles, because they tend to be the safer, more popular choice. Films like Andrew Haigh’s excellent Weekend and Sean Baker’s micro-budget Tangerine cast actual LGBT+ actors, but their indie budgets mean that films like these rarely manage to break into the mainstream.
With trans representation, the issue becomes even trickier. Though public opinion of the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities have improved significantly over the past few decades, trans people still have a ways to go
This problem—what Slate.com called ‘gayface’ back in 2013—is a controversial one, and here are solid arguments for why the sexuality of an actor shouldn’t matter. After all, isn’t the whole point of acting to be able to portray someone other than yourself? A good actor can, through preparation and research, be able to put themselves in the shoes of another, regardless of how different their lived experiences are. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be an issue; straight actors could play LGBT+ characters, LGBT+ actors could play straight characters and none of this would be controversial.
Unfortunately, as LGBT+ people know, we do not live in an ideal world. In 2010, actor Richard Chamberlain, star of the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, advised ‘young, leading man-type’ actors not to come out due to the possibility of them losing roles they may have been offered otherwise. Though he made the statement in 2010, it seems as though the industry still has issues with casting gay actors in straight roles; in 2016, Ellen Page lamented after she had come out two years earlier ‘Now I’m gay, I can’t play a straight person?’ Chamberlain and Page are both pointing out a structural issue in Hollywood; sure, straight actors may be more well known and may bring in more money, but how are LGBT+ actors supposed to climb their way to the top if they’re typecast solely into LGBT+ roles?
Seeing a cisgender male actor playing a trans woman on screen reinforces the woefully ignorant idea that trans women are simply men wearing dresses.
With trans representation, the issue becomes even trickier. Though public opinion of the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities have improved significantly over the past few decades, trans people still have a ways to go. According to a 2017 study by UK charity Stonewall, nearly half of all trans pupils in the UK have attempted suicide, and UK police recorded a tripling of the rates of transphobic hate crime between 2011 and 2016. The unfortunate truth is that a large portion of society is still ignorant, wilfully or not, about what being trans means. Seeing a cisgender male actor playing a trans woman on screen reinforces the woefully ignorant idea that trans women are simply men wearing dresses. When trans stories are separated from real trans people, trans visibility becomes non-existent.
Despite what some people might say, films are never ‘just films’. They’re part of the larger tapestry of society because they’re a massive part of modern culture; they’re products of the society they’re made in and carry our stories, norms and values. I suppose that’s why the straight faces of LGBT+ cinema don’t feel quite right—these films tell the story of what it’s like to be LGBT+ in the 20th and 21st centuries. Maybe one day we’ll get to the point where it won’t matter what an actor’s sexuality is, but when we look back at these films in the future as representations of the LGBT+ experience, how will we feel when we see that most of these stories weren’t told by those to whom they belong to?
(Image courtesy of Transmission Films Youtube)