May 14, 2010

Can a Gay Actor Play Straight? Newsweek Writer Says NO!

Ramin Setoodeh wrote an article for Newsweek at the end of April that argued gay men (and gay actors/actresses in general) cannot and should not try to play straight characters. He points to Sean Hayes performance opposite Kristin Chenoweth in Broadway’s Promises, Promises as an example of why gay men cannot play straight men convincingly.

Needless to say, this article has raised a lot of issues and a lot of controversy. This post is likely to be long because I want to offer up all of the various views, including the original article.

I generally don’t care too much about what people think about actors and the whole entertainment industry. But I think this issue raises some problems with gender identity and sexuality that need to be addressed.

I’ve seen a woman play a man becoming a woman, and do it convincingly; and I have seen a man play a women who is really a man, and do it very well. So why can’t a gay man play a straight man? Is it really about the actor’s sexual identity, or is it about our inability to watch a gay man play a straight character? We have no issued with a straight actor playing gay, so I think there is a certain degree of ignorance involved, despite the fact that the writer of the original article is openly gay.

In the end, this comes down to our definitions of masculinity (or femininity, although this is much less an issue for lesbian women playing straight characters). We use two bludgeons to keep men in traditional “manliness” roles – naming them gay or naming them feminine, and the first often implies the second.

As a culture, we find it impossible to believe that a gay man is actually masculine – the two ideas cannot exist side by side in the minds of most Americans. They are wrong, too – gay men can be and are masculine, but their masculinity is flavored different than your masculinity. There are many flavors of masculinity (postmodern multiplicity in action) and we need to adjust our definitions to accommodate the various ways men – gay or straight – express their unique masculinity.

This is what we are really dealing with here, beneath all the anger and defensiveness.

What follows is a collection of excerpts from the various articles that have been posted on this topic. We’ll start with the original inflammatory article by Setoodeh in Newsweek.

Straight Jacket

Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn’t it ever work in reverse?

By Ramin Setoodeh | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Apr 26, 2010

Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. (The fact that he only came out of the closet just before Promises was another one of those Ricky Martin-duh moments.) But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.

For decades, Hollywood has kept gay actors—Tab Hunter, Van Johnson, Anthony Perkins, Rock Hudson, etc.—in the closet, to their own personal detriment. The fear was, if people knew your sexual orientation, you could never work again. Thankfully, this seems ridiculous in the era of Portia de Rossi and Neil Patrick Harris. But the truth is, openly gay actors still have reason to be scared. While it’s OK for straight actors to play gay (as Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger did in Brokeback Mountain), it’s rare for someone to pull off the trick in reverse. De Rossi and Harris do that on TV, but they also inhabit broad caricatures, not realistic characters likes the ones in Up in the Air or even The Proposal.

* * * *

Kristen Chenoweth, who co-stars with Hayes in the play, was deeply offended by the article. She wrote a long comment at the Newsweek site, which was reposted by Broadway.com.

Promises Star Kristin Chenoweth Speaks Out on ‘Horrendously Homophobic’ Newsweek Article, Defends Sean Hayes


This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian. For example, there was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile. Setoodeh even goes so far as to justify his knee-jerk homophobic reaction to gay actors by accepting and endorsing that “as viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker room torture in junior high school.” Really? We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives? That’s so sad, Newsweek! The examples he provides (what scientists call “selection bias”) to prove his “gays can’t play straight” hypothesis are sloppy in my opinion. Come on now!

* * * *

The author of the original article felt unfairly attacked by this article and other commentaries around the web. Many GLBT sites took serious issue with his stance and have been very critical. So he responded to this comment from Chenoweth.

Out Of Focus

The Internet is attacking me for my essay on ‘Promises, Promises.’ But can we steer the debate back to where it belongs?

By Ramin Setoodeh | Newsweek Web Exclusive

My article became a straw man for homophobia and hurt in the world. If you were pro-gay, you were anti-NEWSWEEK. Chenoweth’s argument that gay youth need gay role models is true, but that’s not what I was talking about. I was sharing my honest impression about a play that I saw. If you don’t agree with me, I’m more than happy to hear opposing viewpoints. But I was hoping to start a dialogue that would be thoughtful—not to become a target for people who twisted my words. I’m not a conservative writer with an antigay agenda. I don’t hate gay people or myself. As for my haircut, I don’t know what to say. Should I change it?
His argument that he was simply responding to a play he saw – and did not like – is disingenuous. He makes the argument in the original article that gay men – in general, not just Hayes in Promises, Promises – should not and cannot play straight and do it convincingly.

Yesterday, Newsweek posted another article on this topic, seemingly wanting to keep the story alive. I guess any attention is good attention, especially when you are looking for a buyer to keep you afloat.

In this piece, they ask two gay activists to discuss the controversy.

Straight Talk, Continued

As people in the blogosphere and beyond hotly debate a NEWSWEEK story on gay actors, two gay activists try to separate fact from friction.

I have no desire to post any of this, although it is interesting – you can go read it for yourself if interested.

I’m going to give the final word here to Aaron Sorkin – one of my favorite writers and directors – because he makes more sense in his commentary than anyone else so far. There are many comments around the web, and to their credit, Newsweek has been posting links to the better ones. This one comes from Huffington Post.

Aaron Sorkin, Playwright, screenwriter and television writer

Posted: May 12, 2010 06:19 PM

Ramin Setoodeh, unlike the overwhelming majority of the people in the audience at the two preview performances I attended, was unhappy with Sean Hayes’ performance. This reaction was not due to Mr. Hayes’ acting, singing, dancing, comedy, unique charm and exceptional rapport with the audience. Mr. Setoodeh’s problem with the star’s performance was that in real life, Mr. Hayes is gay. And as if the studio had given the screenwriter a note that the story had to be spicier, Mr. Setoodeh is gay as well.

Much is being made of the Newsweek piece. Much should be. I’m proud to say that my friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who stars opposite Mr. Hayes in the show (and about whose performance I can’t possibly be objective — she’s sensational and we’ll leave it at that) led the charge — posting an online rebuttal to Mr. Setoodeh in which she called him homophobic.

For an actress who makes her living and her reputation on Broadway, throwing down with a prominent theatre critic isn’t something you do as a career move. In her response to Setoodeh, Ms. Chenoweth made good point after good point after good point…

…and missed the point.

So did Setoodeh.


The problem doesn’t have anything to do with sexual preference. The problem has everything to do with the fact that we know too much about each other and we care too much about what we know. In one short decade we have been reconditioned to be entertained by the most private areas of other people’s lives. We’ve become the family dog who’s allowed to eat anything that falls on the floor, and the press is the little kid in the family who keeps dropping food. Sandy Bullock’s life falls apart? That’s for us. A golfer gets caught with strippers? We’ll take that, thank you. Lindsay Lohan’s an alcoholic? Mmm, mmm good! When Jennifer Aniston plays a movie character who’s looking for love, her performance — always sublime — doesn’t stand a chance against the real story we’ve been told it’s okay to pay attention to, which is that Jennifer Aniston is looking for love. I can’t hum a single John Mayer song but I can name five women he’s slept with. Sean, for Setoodeh, the show began before you even showed up to the theater that night.

The volcanic eruption of tabloids, Internet insanity and — you better believe it — reality TV, has de-creepyized voyeurism. More than that, it’s made the private lives of public people — in the vocabulary of television writers — the “A” story. And in a not-so-convoluted way, the “A” story has an author — thousands of authors in an extraordinary collaboration. When I need the audience to know that a piece of information they’re about to hear is important, I can use words, a close-up, a push-in, music… when the authors of the no-longer-private-lives “A” story want the audience to know that something’s important, it shows up on our Yahoo homepage. (The third story on my homepage yesterday was that Britain, our closest ally, has a new Prime Minister. The first story was about Justin Bieber. Unless the new Prime Minister is Justin Bieber, something’s obviously gone wrong.) Is Sean Hayes’ sexuality relevant to his performance? It has to be — the “authors” told us it was important. (Though Setoodeh would have done well to have asked himself if Mr. Hayes’ performance would have been any different if C.C. Baxter was in love with a man instead of Ms. Chenoweth’s Fran Kubelik. It wouldn’t have been.)


The honest-to-God, no kidding around, small-minded, mean-spirited, hysterically frightened, pig-ignorant bigots who don’t think homosexuals are fit to get married, adopt children or fight and die for their country. The ones who hold signs saying “God Hates Fags.” Those people aren’t in the backwoods of Idaho, they’re in Congress. Fight THEM. I’ll help. And you know who else will help? Ramin Setoodeh. I promise you he’s on the side of the good guys.

So what is your opinion on all of this? Can gay actors play straight and do it convincingly? I have to admit it, I sometimes watch “How I Met Your Mother” and while I know that Neil Patrick Harris is gay in real life, it has no impact on my seeing Barney as a womanizing prick of a human being.

As I mentioned above, I’ve seen a woman play a man becoming a woman, and do it convincingly; and I have seen a man play a women who is really a man, and do it very well. So why can’t a gay man play a straight man?

[A longer version of this article – with longer quotes from the articles – recently appeared at The Masculine Heart.]

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