When Disney announced straight male actor Jack Whitehall was to play a camp, gay character in Jungle Cruise, Twitter went into meltdown, questioning why the role wasn’t given to a gay actor. People were angry.
Compare and contrast the meek acceptance when Emma Stone, a heterosexual woman, was given the part of one of the most iconic lesbian role-models of our age, Billie Jean King, whom she portrayed in last year’s Battle of the Sexes.
This demonstrates a serious problem with lesbian visibility. With gay male actors often overlooked for “straight” parts, it seems fair enough that – when a decent gay role comes up – casting directors could, at least, give it to a gay man.
So, why not the same furore over Stone’s casting as Billie-Jean? It’s a difficult question to answer, but the only conclusion I can draw is that people are far more concerned about gay male erasure than they are about the lack of lesbian representation.
Wouldn’t it have been great if a lesbian actor had been given a chance to play the role but, for that to happen, we must encourage all those lesbian actors who remain in the closet to bite the bullet and come out. Sadly, until they can be sure that declaring their sexuality will not impact their careers adversely, they will remain in the closet and the scandal of lesbian visibility – or the lack thereof – will continue to blight Hollywood.
More recently, the internet hit peak outrage when Australian actor Ruby Rose, alumna of Orange is the New Black (where she played a lesbian), was pilloried for accepting the role of Batwoman.
DC Comics “outed” Kate Kane, Batwoman’s alter ego, way back in 2006, and while Rose has put on record that she came out at the age of 12, she chooses to describe herself as gender fluid. However, we’re dancing on a semantic pin head here; Rose has used the label lesbian in the past, and the words she uses to describe her gender identity take nothing away from this.
It is these words that have riled so many keyboard warriors and, after days of abusive trolling, Rose has taken a step back from social media and I don’t blame her; her treatment has been cruel and unnecessary and I stand with her.
For goodness sake: if we keep on turning on women in our own community because we disapprove of their choice of words when describing themselves, we’re discouraging lesbian actors from coming out and, in so doing, ensuring that the woeful lack of lesbian visibility in the media will only get worse. If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it is to stand by our sisters in Hollywood, rather than pillorying them for, basically, being true to themselves.
It seems that it’s OK to complain when a woman who has been out since the age of 12 is given the opportunity to play a lesbian comic book character, but when the role of one of the greatest sportspeople of all time, who also campaigned successfully against sexism and misogyny in sport and elsewhere, is given to a straight woman, nothing is said.
Similarly, when Eddie Redmayne was given the lead in The Danish Girl, playing a trans character, there was some outcry. Redmayne did a good job, but there are some pretty good trans actors out there who almost never get invited to audition, so I have to ask why, on the rare occasion when a trans character is also the lead character, can we not give trans actors the role.
These examples demonstrate a worrying hierarchy. Straight man plays gay character: outrage. Self-defined gender fluid actor plays fictitious comic book lesbian character: outrage. Straight man plays trans woman: outrage. Straight woman plays iconic, real life lesbian: nothing.
In an ideal world, any actor should be able to play any part, and both Stone and Redmayne demonstrate that this is more than possible: both were excellent.
But we do not live in an ideal world, and continuing to cast straight actors in LGBT roles – especially lesbian roles, which are scarce to say the least – contributes to the sort of erasure we should not be seeing in the 21st century.
This post originally appeared in DIVA Magazine and has been republished with consent