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14 August 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 2:33pm

The problem with Disney casting Jack Whitehall – a straight actor – to play its first gay character

Straight actors playing gay characters is fine – but there are still plenty of reasons for the LBGT+ community to be disappointed.

By Louis Staples

Reports that comedian Jack Whitehall will play the first openly gay character in a Disney film have generated controversy on social media. Whitehall announced on Instagram that he is currently working on Jungle Cruise, a film based on a Disney theme park ride, starring fellow British actor Emily Blunt and Dwayne “the rock” Johnson. According to a report in the Sun, which quickly went viral on Twitter, the gay male character is “hugely effete, very camp and very funny”.

The debate has so far centred on whether it is “OK” for straight actors to play gay characters. It follows a similar controversy that saw actress Scarlett Johansson withdraw from film Rub & Tug after the decision to cast her in a trans role attracted criticism. Gay Labour MP Wes Streeting tweeted in support of Whitehall, saying: “Shock as actor is asked to play someone different from themselves. Isn’t that kind of the point? Wouldn’t always casting gay actors in gay roles be condemned for typecasting?”

But the controversy surrounding Whitehall’s announcement is a lot more complex than whether it is “OK” for a straight actor to play a gay character, revealing a growing distrust and frustration from LGBT+ audiences towards the mainstream film industry.

Of course it is acceptable for a straight man to play a gay character – and vice versa. As Streeting and many others have suggested, playing someone different to you is what acting is all about. But the idea that gay people don’t know this already, or that this is what this controversy is solely based on, is a shallow and patronising reading of the situation.

From Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man to the more recent Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country and Love, Simon, films with central gay characters played by straight men are everywhere. Heterosexual actor Stanley Tucci has practically made a career out of playing gay men. 

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It is a sign of progress that straight actors no longer fear that playing a gay character will hurt their career. Leading roles in 2005’s Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain, a love story between two male cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, were reportedly turned down by a host of famous actors including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. With the press and public attitudes more hostile to LGBT+ people in 2005, Brokeback Mountain, which contained sex scenes, was obviously seen as a risk. Yet thirteen years later the opposite appears to be true. Straight actors are routinely lauded for playing gay men, such as Andrew Garfield’s Tony Award-winning performance in Angels in America or Hugh Grant’s portrayal of Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal.

The problem is that these freedoms have not been extended to gay actors. If gay actors were regularly winning awards for playing either gay or straight parts, it is doubtful that Whitehall’s casting would be making news. But the reality is that an openly gay actor has still never won the Best Actor Oscar for playing either a gay or straight character – and LGBT+ audiences are growing weary.

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The more pressing issue is that casting directors appear unable to imagine gay men in straight roles – not the other way around. Gay actors are rarely cast in leading heterosexual roles and straight actors, like Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, are landing the majority of “challenging” gay roles. With gay actors losing out, they are likely to feel cautious of being too public with their sexuality, particularly if they do not fit the acceptable “straight-passing” mould like Russell Tovey or Neil Patrick Harris.

Streeting may be right that always casting gay actors in gay roles would be “typecasting”, but the idea that there are nearly enough gay starring roles or famous gay actors for this to be the case is absurd. There is obviously a balance to be struck and LGBT+ audiences are expressing frustration that it isn’t being achieved.

Another issue is the portrayal of LGBT+ characters on screen. Too often LGBT+ characters are either portrayed as objects of suffering or, more traditionally, the punchline of the joke. This has caused queer audiences to become distrustful of mainstream films capturing the queer experience, particularly when few LGBT+ people are involved. For instance, Hammer and Chamalet reportedly had nudity clauses in their contracts for Call Me By Your Name, drawing complaints that the film was sanitised and devoid of gay sex.

The reports that Whitehall’s character is “hugely effete” and “very camp” have caused the most unease. Of course campness is not unique to gay men or a negative trait, and judging things before we’ve seen them is certainly becoming a frustrating trend. But after years of watching one-dimensional effeminate gay characters being mocked on-screen for cheap laughs, gay audiences are right to be cautious. As an effeminate gay man, there is certainly something jarring about a straight man like Whitehall receiving a pat on the back and a huge pay cheque for portraying traits that I was ridiculed for growing up, particularly when gay actors are not receiving the same opportunities.

Disney has significant influence over how young people form early ideas of gender stereotypes and romance. Up until now, LGBT+ people have grown up watching films that exclusively confirm the rightness and normality of heterosexuality, spending their former years searching for fragments of their experience in unlikely places.

For many gay men, our first kiss, sexual encounter or even feelings of love were kept secret or marred by shame and confusion. This might not be the case if we’d grown up seeing an abundance of LGBT+ actors, characters and experiences reflected on screen. But far from a Disney fairy tale, moments that should have been innocent and joyous were stolen. It is therefore unsurprising that some LGBT+ people feel that the first gay Disney character, such an important moment in an influential genre, has been taken from them too.

Hopefully Whitehall will give a fantastic performance and his character will have depth and humility alongside humour. But was casting a gay actor, just this once, really too much to ask?