Even If Straights Do A Great Job Playing Gay, Is It Time For The Backlash To Begin?

Powered by article was written by Vanessa Thorpe, for The Observer on Saturday 19th February 2011 22.30 UTC

The two favourites for the 83rd Oscar for best actress are Natalie Portman and Annette Bening and, if either of them wins, the ceremony will also mark a momentous night for many more women: it will be the night when lesbian sex scenes became part of the cultural mainstream.

Bening’s role as the strong matriarchal figure in a gay family in The Kids Are All Right naturally involves showing the daily intimacies of life with her on-screen partner, played by Julianne Moore. In contrast, Portman’s brittle portrayal of the prima ballerina at the centre of Black Swan, a part that has already earned her both a Golden Globe and a Bafta, draws her into a lesbian encounter with a rival ballet dancer that is far from domestic. In both these very different films the gay content is presented as merely incidental to the plot. In fact, of course, it is key to what makes both screenplays feel like fresh, modern stories.

In director Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the sexualised rivalry between female leading characters is no longer used as a background note, as it has been in popular thrillers since the heyday of film noir, right up to Nicolas Roeg’s Black Widow in 1987 or Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female in 1992. Instead, it takes centre stage. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right can claim to be groundbreaking, too. It is the first mainstream hit to herald an age when legalised marriage between women might be accepted across the US.

As Colin Firth demonstrated last year with his Oscar nomination for A Single Man, playing a gay character can be a rewarding challenge for a straight leading actor – and one that often brings critical plaudits.

But this year the lesbian sex scenes on screen have become more explicit and more frequent, particularly when compared to the scarcity of Hollywood sex scenes between gay men.

At the Sundance film festival in Utah this year, several new films also put lesbianism in the spotlight. Industry excitement concentrated especially on Pariah, a coming-of-age film from director Dee Rees that told the story of Alike, a gay African-American teenager in New York. The premiere met with a standing ovation and Focus Features has snapped up the worldwide rights to distribute the film ahead of interest from the Weinstein Company and Sony Pictures Classics. Another hit at the festival was a camp, comic treatment of lesbian love. Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same tells the story of a reticent, greetings card shop worker whounwittingly falls in love with a lesbian alien called Zoinx.

Before the mid-1930s the restraints of the Hays Production Code in Hollywood meant that depictions of homosexuality were specifically forbidden. Even in the more liberated decades that followed, the physical passion of one woman for another was only ever hinted at on screen, as in the 1961 film version of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, or else confined within the walls of arthouse cinemas, as with modern gay classics such as 1985’s Desert Hearts.

Axel Madsen’s 231-page study of Hollywood’s secret lesbian group, The Sewing Circle, caused uproar when it was published in 1996. It focused on close friendships between Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford, and claimed that Myrna Loy, Tallulah Bankhead, Elsa Lanchester, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred Astaire’s sister Adele were all involved in a thriving lesbian scene. Madsen’s clear implication was that a network of covert homosexual activity still dominated Hollywood. Now many actresses, such as Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, are openly gay.

The casting of Portman, Moore and Bening, all straight actresses, in the roles of women who are bisexual or lesbian has provoked acrimony in Hollywood’s gay community. Some argued that only well-known heterosexual stars were happy to take gay parts because they could be confident their career would not suffer. This view was drily echoed by gay British novelist Stella Duffy this weekend. “It seems it is always fine for straight women to play lesbians – in fact, they quite often get Oscars for it,” she said.

Casting gay women in straight female roles is more of a problem. Several well-known Hollywood leading ladies are thought to be lesbian, but have decided to keep it quiet. Just as gay actor Rupert Everett recently admitted to the Observer that he “would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out”, so female starlets who want a shot at the A-list must still lead a double life.

Last month lesbian actress Jane Lynch, who plays bitchy cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester in Glee, showed some sympathy for the problems facing casting directors. “This is a business of projection and desiring people from afar,” she said. “And watching people go through trials and tribulations, so there has got to be some truth to it, in terms of, ‘I could see myself with that person’. Because the leading man and lady are the people we want them to fall in love with, and most of the audience is straight. So, for right now, we can only use straight actors.”

While the era in which Rock Hudson was forced to marry his agent’s secretary to keep up appearances is behind us, Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad), points out that it is still legal to be fired from a job in 30 of the American states for being gay and there is no federal hate-crime legislation. Coming out can still be dangerous for anyone, let alone a public figure. Duffy recalls talking to a rising British stage star who told her she had been advised to stay “in the closet”.

“I was shocked to speak to a young actress who had been told by an older gay actress that she should definitely not come out if she wanted to get a range of roles. And this was an actress who had just done a film and a three-month stint in a regional theatre!” said Duffy. “I was really surprised because I knew she was gay and she was successful and she did not know whether to be out or not.”

Duffy suspects the difficulty lies in the fact that there are still few high-profile lesbians in the entertainment industry. “It has been easier for women to stay invisible; not right, but easier. We didn’t ever have the law against us. Men have had to come out and fight.”

Several leading Hollywood actresses have come out in recent years, from Amber Heard, star of Pineapple Express, to Lindsay Lohan and Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon, but their decision still often coincides with a tacit acceptance they may no longer be leading-lady material. Meredith Baxter, the star of the sitcom Family Ties, announced she was gay live on television, while Kelly McGillis, the leading lady in Witness and Top Gun, came out on, one of the largest lesbian-oriented websites in America. “I am done with the man thing,” McGillis said. “I did that and need to move on in life.”

The actress, who had married twice, said that coming out was a hard process that had started when she was a girl. “It was a long, arduous journey for me,” McGillis said. “I had a lot of things happen that convinced me that God was punishing me because I was gay, so that was a hard process for me.”

Historically, lesbian characters in film are often portrayed as threatening. Just as homosexual or effeminate men are viewed with suspicion in many screenplays, so gay women are associated with predatory obsession.

From the Beryl Reid character in The Killing of Sister George, to the malevolent and deluded teacher who is played by Judi Dench in Richard Eyre’s film of Notes on a Scandal, cinema’s crop-haired lesbians are clearly to be avoided. Beautiful young ballet dancers, however, can at least expect to be granted a sex scene.

This sort of unbalanced representation of gay women in mainstream show business is inevitable, Stella Duffy is convinced, as long as Hollywood is controlled by male bosses.

“The reason we see a lot of gay female sex on screen now is because straight men tend to get off on seeing gay women on screen and they don’t get off on seeing gay men. And men are in charge. It is as simple as that,” she said. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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  • SouthSideShorty

    Backlash? Seriously? Not unless you plan on protesting Neil Patrick Harris, Rupert Everett, and every other gay actor who has played a straight character. This is as idiotic as those who are whining about the current rash of non-Americans playing Americans in comic-book movies. Balderdash, I say!

  • Aaron

    Yes, there should be a backlash. A big one. The fact Hollywood constantly insists on casting straight actors in gay roles is bullshit, and shows they aren’t really about equality. And most of the time when gay actors are cast in straight roles, ITS PLAYED FOR LAUGHS. Many people just go “Oh hahaha! He’s actually gay! But he’s playing a straight role! It’s so funny, because he’s flamboyant!” contrast with “Oh my gosh, he’s playing a gay role! He’s so brave!”. And don’t even get me started on Bisexuality in films. Just look at Brokeback Mountain and the Kids Are Alright: two movies that obviously have a bisexual character in them, but have the character constantly called gay or lesbian. Though of course, people are much more willing to call the character in The Kids Are Alright Bi since Bi women are hawt, remember? It’s as this article pointed out, why we see many more graphic sex scenes between two women than we do two men. Female Bisexuality and Lesbianism is much more accepted than Male Bisexuality and Gay men are. Just look at the numerous countries that outlaw male homosexual activity, but have female homosexual activity legal. Why is this so? Because the world is pretty much controlled by Straight Men.

    Jane Lynch made a great point as well. Having a straight actor playing a gay character is reassuring and helps the mostly straight audience identify with the character better; “Well, the character is gay, but I know the actor is straight…. therefore he doesn’t actually want to suck cock, he’s just pretending! So this person really isn’t different, they’re like me!”. It’s disgusting world we live in, I think. And sorry, that was really rambling.

    Oh, but in the case of Black Swan, that’s kind of a different situation. In my own personal view, that sex scene was actually more about loving yourself than somebody else, and being ok with sex in general. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen the movie.

  • justiceontherocks

    @Aaron: Why would you think Hollywood is “about equality”? It’s about making money.

  • Harbo

    This is a totally rediculous idiotic idea.

  • Aaron

    @justiceontherocks: I should’ve worded that better. I don’t think Hollywood is about equality; what I meant was that they seem to think they’re about equality, but this time of thing shows that they really aren’t.

  • Daine

    I wouldn’t have an issue with straight actors playing gay, if not for the constant need of some actors to announce how “difficult” it is to kiss a man. This is the difference between a straight actor playing gay and a gay actor playing straight. I never saw Neil Patrick Harris whine about kissing his female-co-stars.

  • Jack

    So I don’t get the opening line of this article. If they DON’T win does that mean it won’t be a night when lesbian sex scenes became part of the cultural mainstream.

    If she’s talking just Oscar calibre performances, there’s also Charlize Theron in MONSTER and Chloe Svigney in BOYS DON’T CRY (with Swank playing the trans role of Teena).

  • Shannon1981

    I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the gay actors could come out and still get straight roles and have a shot at the A list. Double standards piss me off. Closets are poison to a person who is really ready to be out but can’t.

    And also, I, like Aaron, am sick of straight people thinking its ok to equate bisexuality with homosexuality. Two different orientations. Furthermore, when Hollywood perpetuates that idea, you get straight people thinking like the dude I talked to on FB the other night. Its all in my profile that I am gay, and he still talked about having a gf who would bring another woman in. When I told him, firmly, that gay and bi are two different things, he changed his tactics to trying to ask about what it was like between two women and if he could watch. Sickening. Of course I kindly told him to fuck off at that point.

    Hollywood and the media and educated people should NOT be perpetuating that bisexuality and homosexuality are interchangeable and bi women are hot and oh so outrageous. It is offensive and ridiculous. And I will not be ok with straight actors plays gay roles until two things happen: 1 gay actors can do it and come out and keep their careers and 2)Hollywood makes a real effort to educate the straight community on what its really like instead of portraying gay men as effeminate, stereotypical flamers all the time and gay women as predatory and/or a great way for straight men to score a threesome.

  • Paul

    “The reason we see a lot of gay female sex on screen now is because straight men tend to get off on seeing gay women on screen and they don’t get off on seeing gay men. And men are in charge. It is as simple as that,” Yes. This is precisely the explanation and it really is as simple as that.

  • afrolito

    Straight men get off on seeing two hot women have sex. They aren’t remotely interested in real lesbians, because real lesbians aren’t interested in their cocks.

    Brokeback Mountain would have never been made if it had to star two openly gay men. The reason that film was such a huge success is because, the straight audience never viewed Heath and Jake as real gay men. They saw two brave straight actors pretending to be in a tragic love affair. It’s as simple as that.

    Gay men fooled themselves into thinking that film was some kind of watershed moment in Hollywood. When the hoopla subsided, it was business as usual in Hollywood.

    I also agree that it’s fucking annoying how they always treat bisexuality and homosexuality as interchangeable. They aren’t. Some gay people need to grasp that as well.

  • jason

    One of the things that struck me about Variety’s review of Black Swan, which includes a lesbian scene, is that it used the word “erotic”. Can you imagine Variety using the word “erotic” to describe a sex scene between two men? I can’t.

    Variety magazine, like many entertainment publications, has a double standard when it comes to its description of same-sex sexuality. If it’s two women, its called “erotic” as if to suggest it’s mainstream. If it’s two men, it’s either controversial or “homoerotic”. Note the prefix “homo” in front of the word “erotic”. It’s designed to marginalize male-male sexuality.

    Therefore, you have a situation where a liberal rag is being discriminatory in its treatment of homosexuality depending on the gender of those involved in the homosexual act.

  • jason

    It’s time for a massive backlash against Hollywood. We need to go after the sleazy straight guys and their bisexual female enablers.

    Don’t underestimate the role of females in all this. I would say that females are primarily responsible for the double standard in Hollywood’s differing treatment of male-to-male versus female-to-female sexuality. While it’s fair to say that men control Hollywood, the women go along with it.

  • alan brickman

    Name three out lead actors that have box office clout to get films made….it’s all about box office clout…not gayness…

  • kayla

    @jason: You are one woman-hating, delusional, sexist hack! Woman run Hollywood….? Then why was Catherine Bigolow’s (sp) win last year for best director, such a big deal…? Why is it that once an actress hit’s puberty she’s basically put out to pasture…?

  • kayla

    –edit– Women*

  • kayla

    –edit– Women* run Hollywood….

  • Jeffree

    @jason: When you suggest “massive backlash” against Hollywood what do you suggest?

    Why do you routinely refer to “females”? I’m assuming you mean “women” because we’re talking about people. The hatered you have toward women is getting more and more hystrionic. You need to get yourself some help before we end up reading about you doing something full-bore craaaazy dangerous trying to act out your rage in the real world.

  • Cam


    Everybody just “Accepts” the fact that Hollywood is homophobic, yet they wouldn’t if this was Xerox, Coke, Target, etc…

    Time to bring in OSha to the studios and “Investigate” their policies, I have a feeling that there are penty of older agents and actors who would be willing to testify annonomously about the studios homophobic practices.

  • jason


    Gays won’t criticize Hollywood to any great length. That’s because gays are too busy criticizing the religious right. That or partying.

  • Jeffree

    @Jason: please answer the questions so that we can follow your line of thinking. Thanks!

Comments are closed.