In a recent interview with The Guardian, British-born Looking star Russell Tovey spoke about his father’s decision not to allow him to attend the performing arts high school he had his sights on. Instead, he went to a more diverse school that he feels toughened him up.
He told The Guardian:
“I was so envious of everyone who went to Sylvia Young Theatre School. I wanted to go but my dad flat-out refused. He thought I’d become some tapdancing freak without qualifications. And he was right in a way. I’m glad I didn’t go.
I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path.”
The context, it should be noted, is that Russell feels his high school experience made him a more versatile actor, meaning better at playing straight/gay characters.
But the sentiment comes uncomfortably close to echoing a pervasive attitude in the gay community — that femme is bad and masculine is good. You need look no further than Grindr profiles to see one negative expression of this idea: “Masc4Masc,” “No Femmes,” etc.
Then there’s the generalization of a performing arts school as a place where all people do is “prance around, sing in the street.” And given his tone, his father’s “tapdancing freak” evokes code for “tapdancing fag.”
All in all, it doesn’t sound good no matter what he meant.
It’s fine for Russell (and everyone else) to be whoever it is they want to be, but when we start assigning values to identities it will always spell trouble.
He goes on to say:
“I get told, a lot, that I’m kind of carving my own path. That there are not many actors who are out and are able to play straight, and gay, and everyone’s OK with it.”
There aren’t, but perhaps it’s a sign more of the times and less of his father having instilled some external “tough guy” front in his younger self that allows Russell to navigate the entertainment industry as a versatile and talented performer.
But regardless, it’s the wrong message for LGBT youth, many of whom make up the audience of Looking and in turn look up to its stars as role models. And it’s certainly the wrong message for parents of said youth, many of whom may not know what to make of their sons’ desire to “prance around.”
We don’t mean to say Tovey has committed any mortal sins here. He’s an active and outspoken member of the gay community, and part of a show we think does a great job at trying to “get it right” when it comes to representing gay people.
But there is a conversation to be had among us about how we qualify identity. Because “that path,” as Russell put it, leads to no better or worse a destination than any he wound up on.