A recent Guardian article on LGBTQ+ representation came out asking whether LGBTQ+ roles being played by non-queer performers is the queer equivalent of blackface – pinkface, if you will. The article examined the fact that during this awards season, a plethora of LGBTQ+ roles were dominated by non-queer actors (and I use the gender-neutral definition of actors throughout this piece). It is an interesting article, which stipulates that reserving queer roles for queer actors means that it is ‘outing’ them by default and restricts their job opportunities to such roles – what is called type-casting.
So in this blog post, I want to look at queer representation in Hollywood and how it works or should work.
To get this out of the way and move on to the ‘how’ of the issue, we need to look at why representation matters. Marie-Diane Grouchka, who has an MA in Psychology from Webster University Leiden and is a queer therapist in The Hague, wrote her final thesis on media representations of queer women and the effect on their mental health. She linked positive media representations to overall better mental health, but particularly in the areas identity and a sense of self.
This suggests that representation of queer people can lead to more acceptance – both from themselves and from the non-queer section of society – and overall improved mental health.
‘’But it is not just representation in and of itself’’ Grouchka admitted during a telephone interview. ‘’It is the quality of the representation.’’ This is to say, that the fictional story itself needs to be relatable and to ensure this, simply putting a queer actor in a queer role would not be enough.
She pointed out that often queer women turn to youtubers rather than Hollywood for this representation. ‘’Hollywood produces coming-out stories’’, she insists, ‘’which are perfectly valid stories. But queer women and female-aligned people [and by extension queer people] need and want to see beyond that. They don’t just want a ‘happy ever after’, they want to see it. To know that there is life and happiness.’’ Furthermore, Hollywood actors are often far removed from the daily lives and struggles of regular viewers and some find it easier to relate to youtubers who could be someone they could theoretically, meet on the street.
With this in mind, after my conversation with Grouchka, I thought long and hard about representation and how we view it and consume it.
To stay in line with that the experts say, I decided to divide representation in two categories. The first, performative, deals with characters and story lines. To a certain extent, anytime we pick up a book, watch a movie or binge-watch a Netflix show, we are suspending our disbelief and entering the reality of the medium and the story. To do this, the actors need to convince us of the realness. And I am of the opinion that for actors to do this, they do not need to be queer.
Afterall, the very definition of an actor’s job is to pretend to feel something that they don’t really feel. How is a non-queer actor pretending to be queer different from a childless actor pretending to be a parent? This is of course not to say that they ‘should just wing it’. In 2012, Sandra Bullock famously solo-ed in Gravity. Needless to say, she has herself never been in outer space – but she did directly communicate with someone who had. She did this in order to understand the reality of it and the emotions involved. This must translate to playing LGBTQ+ roles.
‘’Non-queer actors playing a queer role need to be respectful of how and what they portray’’ Grouchka maintains. So talk to us, ask us questions, get our input in order to make sure that the queer role is as real and relatable as can be. This can be through hiring queer writers, queer consultants or queer producers ; anything really which gets queer eyes to constructively improve queer representation.
The Stories You Tell
Secondly, within this category, representation also matters in terms of the stories which are created. Netflix’s Girl recently drew the ire of the trans community for being, what has been called ‘’trans trauma porn’’. This is not a critique levelled lightly. As a cisgender male, my opinion on the matter is aligned with those of my trans siblings in the community (for they know best what represents them and what doesn’t) and their critique makes sense.
From Boys Don’t Cry to The Danish Girl, Hollywood has consistently focused on trans characters’ pain and on stories which usually end in (spoiler alert), the death of the trans individual. How is that for representation? While it can be argued that these stories need to be told, it cannot be said that these are the ONLY stories that need to be told. Give us trans characters that live, give us lesbian characters that do not need to go through trauma to discover their sexuality, give us gay characters who aren’t beaten at every opportunity. Give us hope.
To round of this category, it should also be noted that queer stories, whether in books, or movies or tv shows, do not need to be romantic. Give us queer characters (main preferably, but secondary as well) who are police officers, mayors, doctors and more, whose primary role is not to be either comic relief or romantic interests. Characters for whom being queer is just a part of their identity, not the whole sum of it.
Role Model Representation
The second category of representation that I found was role model representation. This refers to queer actors themselves and the roles that they get to play. I mentioned before about type-casting, and it bears repeating that queer actors can often find themselves having to turn down queer roles for fear of becoming type-cast in those roles, or even worse, being outed and seeing their marketability plummet.
Hollywood is recently embracing the fact that non-queer actors are no longer afraid to play queer roles, but this is not always translated back. I mean, it stands to reason that if non-queer actors can play queer roles, then queer actors can play non-queer roles, right? And this is something which Hollywood needs to understand and we need to see. That gay actor you like? They are staring in a blockbuster action movie. That lesbian actor you admire? They are in a starring role in a horror movie. And, perhaps the most impactful of all, that trans actor that’s up-and-coming? They are playing the lead in a romantic comedy where their gender is never in doubt.
Concluding, in order for representation to matter, it needs to be effective. It can do so by opening the scope of roles that queer actors can play to include non-queer roles. It can do so by listening to queer voices when they constructively critique non-queer actors in queer roles. And it can do so by bringing to life queer characters in non-queer story lines. It’s really not so hard.
In the end of the day, returning to why representation matters if its effective; it matters because of the queer people who will see it and be able to relate, to know that there is nothing wrong with them, to understand that they aren’t alone. This is priceless. And secondly, because seeing more queer stories, queer characters and queer successes, it sinks into our collective normality and what was once heteronormativity just becomes normativity. And that is our aspiration.
If you agree, disagree or have examples of positive representations, feel free to leave them below in the comments – we are always looking for representations to review and recommend!