OPINION: When It Comes To Actors And ‘Gayface’, We Need To Pick Our Battles Better

Jack Whitehall

Earlier this year, British comic actor Jack Whitehall was cast as Disney’s first openly gay character for upcoming 2019 movie Jungle Cruise, in a role described by insiders as “hugely effete”, “very camp and very funny”.

In a film chronicling a group of travellers’ adventures through a jungle of dangerous reptiles (also starring Emily Blunt as Whitehall’s sister and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as the lead), one can imagine the type of character that Whitehall is likely to play.

Like John Hannah in The Mummy 20 years ago, Whitehall will be the squealing British brother-in-law counterpoint to romantic lead The Rock and his sexual tension with Rachel Weisz (I mean, Emily Blunt). Except this time, his comic cowardice will be an overtly same-sex attracted character.

The casting has caused a storm of online controversy, with Disney being accused by many keyboard warriors on social media of the unacceptable crime of ‘gayface’ (the casting of a straight character in a gay-identifying role).

The momentum of backlash has been widely reported on; varying from sympathetic to accusations of intolerance and militancy among the LGBTIQ community depending on the agenda of the news outlet.

Personally, I find the controversy troubling. Firstly, ‘gayface’ carries obvious connotations with the term ‘blackface’, a reference to the appalling minstrel shows of North America across the late 19th and early 20th century.

The appeal to a caricatured racial stereotype, exclusively rooted in subjugating and mocking others based on skin-colour cannot conscionably be compared with Whitehall’s casting. ‘Gayface’ is performance, with no physical parody ‘required’ (whether employed is a separate issue). The term is completely inappropriate.

Secondly, the current black-and-white approach (so to speak), encourages a “stay-in-your-lane” attitude to the Arts. I am not anticipating Whitehall’s performance, but if an outcry occurs when straight-identifying actors land ‘gay’ roles, the argument that requiring lived experience to play a role (for example, gay actors aren’t “qualified” to play straight roles), will naturally follow.

Complexity denies this base comparison – straight roles are the mainstream “norm” and not historically marginalised – but as a mainstream response, this would surely limit roles for our gay actors even further.

Further, outlets report the “censure” of the LGBTIQ community as if objection to Whitehall’s casting is collective, agreed opinion. Retweeting some angry vitriol is now defining all LGBTIQ voices, and this age of polarisation is causing social division.

Most importantly of all, the real issue is representation, both of gay characters and for our gay actors. In limited roles, the burden of representation reduces the individual to the symbolic. We need more types of role, more complex, nuanced reality of lived gay experience in our characters – not the tired, mincing sidekick clown.

But is a film of standard corporate-product fare the place to argue for or expect that? Like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Jungle Cruise is based on a ride at DisneyWorld – there is a wider, systemic problem in the film industry, but pick your battles.

As for actors, granted being out can block one’s career progression, especially in blockbusters. But reserving gay character roles for gay actors isn’t the way to resolve that. In fact, it’s limiting and reductive for our community.

It legitimises an ‘us-and-them’ narrative, not accepting our commonality as human beings or willingness to empathise with one another. It certainly doesn’t reflect the egalitarian equality we’re apparently fighting for. I won’t see Jungle Cruise because it’s childish, studio-product popcorn, and I don’t especially care for Whitehall or Blunt.

But I still urge dissenters of his casting to pick their battles better.

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