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Should straight actors stick to playing it straight?

Does it matter what sexuality an actor is when picking them for a part? Source: UnSplash

By Rhiannon Humphreys

Recently, actress Cate Blanchett came out in defence of straight actors who choose to portray LGBTQ+ characters, stating she will “fight to the death” for the right to suspend disbelief in the roles she plays. Blanchett notably played a lesbian character in the 2015 film Carol, to wide critical acclaim. Fundamentally, she isn’t wrong.

The role of the actor is to a certain extent, as she notes, to “play roles beyond [their] experience” while convincing the viewer of utter authenticity. However, the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in television and film is a more complex issue than her statement gives credit.

Only in more recent years have we started to see more fair and honest portrayals of queer characters on screen, although proportionally they are still relatively few and far between. And when these characters do appear, they are predominantly portrayed by straight actors. Not only that, but heterosexual actors are the only ones rewarded for playing these roles. Fifty-two straight actors have been nominated for Oscars for playing gay roles, while contrastingly, no openly gay man has ever won the prize for best actor Oscar – and that’s not how it should be.

One of the key factors in this discussion is the importance of representation. While strong queer narratives are still relatively rare on our screens, the power that seeing these roles portrayed by queer actors has is immeasurable, especially for young people within the community. I speak from experience. As a teenager realising my sexuality for the first time, seeing actresses such as Ellen Page and Jodie Foster portraying feelings that I felt and understood was an immense comfort to me. In casting LGBTQ+ actors in LGBTQ+ roles, we elevate their voices and let them be heard.

The TV show Orange is the New Black is a pioneering example of LGBT representation and demonstrates the cultural impact made by having authentic LGBT voices on screen. The show portrayed the transition of a transgender character and cast a transgender actress, Laverne Cox, in the role. In doing this, the show brought the issue of transgender rights to the forefront of mainstream media and sparked a worldwide discourse on the issue. I cannot help but feel the result wouldn’t have been as positive if the role had been played by a cisgender actor.

I can understand why famous straight actors are often cast over, perhaps lesser known, gay actors in LGBT roles – film executives want a big name to pull in a big audience. This can be seen in the recent controversy about Scarlett Johansson being cast as a transgender character in the film Rub & Tug, which she has since withdrawn from after facing backlash. Trans actress Trace Lysette made an important point at the time, stating that if she was “getting in the same rooms as Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett for cis roles”, she would not be as upset.

The bottom line is this: fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with actors playing roles that are beyond their experience. However, while the LGBT community is still vastly under-represented, seeing queer actors in queer roles is important, especially to young people like me. If there was more of a balance in the representation of straight and queer characters on screen, maybe I wouldn’t mind as much – but we’re far from close yet.

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