Emma Teitel: Bullying actors won't solve Hollywood's casting problem
Acting is by definition pretending to be someone else. The more elaborate your pretending, the more you hone your craft. This used to be an uncontroversial concept. Not anymore.
This summer we’ve seen an uptick in online outrage directed at actors who make the seemingly obvious choice to play characters whose personal identities don’t match their own.
Scarlett Johansson withdrew from the film Rub and Tug in July after transgender activists and actors vehemently objected to her being cast as Dante (Tex) Gill, a transgender man. This month, comedian Jack Whitehall is the target of similar social media indignation because he will play Disney’s first openly gay feature character in the forthcoming film Jungle Cruise even though he is — the horror — heterosexual.
And just this week, Ruby Rose officially quit Twitter and deactivated the public comments on her Instagram page as the result of intense online trolling. Rose was trolled because she was recently cast as Batwoman in the CW series of the same name, a character who is, in the most recent version of the comic book, a Jewish lesbian.
And though Rose is a lesbian, she is not, alas, Jewish, a fact that offended Batwoman fanatics so much they took to harassing the actress on social media. It wasn’t long before conspiracy theories emerged positing that Rose isn’t actually a lesbian at all because she identifies as gender fluid and is therefore not “gay enough” for the part.
By this twisted, fundamentalist logic Fran Lebowitz, a woman who hates to fly in airplanes (let alone perform her own stunts), is more suited to play Batwoman than Ruby Rose. In fact, I am more qualified to play Batwoman than Ruby Rose because though I have next to zero acting experience (unless you count singing chorus in a few camp plays), I am, it turns out, a real life Jewish lesbian.
But I don’t want to play Batwoman. I think Rose is suited just fine for the role because I have something the actor’s detractors don’t: an imagination. Honestly, how do these people suspend their disbelief ever? What will they do when they find out Ian McKellen isn’t actually a wizard?
And while we’re on the topic of nonkosher Jewish lesbians, Rachel McAdams, gentile movie star and walking definition of the term “Shiksappeal,” is excellent and remarkably convincing as “Esti,” a deeply closeted Orthodox Jewish woman in the 2017 film Disobedience. But why wouldn’t she be? She’s a great actor. That’s what great actors do.
I’m not unsympathetic to the outraged. I understand full well the arguments of LGBT fans and filmmakers who contend that gay and trans actors should play gay and trans characters. These arguments come from a place of legitimate frustration at a still persistent inequality in the entertainment industry. That inequality is this: it’s easy enough for non-LGBT actors to play gay and trans characters (and collect awards in the process), but it’s still extremely difficult for out LGBT actors to do the same in reverse.
Here’s writer Louis Staples in the New Statesman this week on exactly this topic:
“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.”
This injustice is felt just as deeply if not more so by trans people who have difficulty finding work in film and TV both behind and in front of the camera. To top it off, despite Hollywood’s self-righteous, self-congratulatory attitude, a recent GLAAD report indicates LGBTQ inclusion in film is actually trending downward.
But the solution to this problem is not for fans to bully actors off social media, nor shame non-LGBT actors who are cast in LGBT roles. The solution in my mind is for fans to pressure the entertainment industry to cast more LGBT people period — in any type of role. Big. Small. Queer. Straight.
Yes, gay and trans actors should be able to tell their own stories. But just like straight actors, they should be able to tell other people’s stories too. Shouldn’t we make the case that acting is acting is acting, and Laverne Cox is just as qualified to play a cisgender character as Scarlett Johansson is to play a transgender man?
If we continue to target actors for taking up the “wrong roles,” I fear we’re in for a future of ever more typecasting and worst of all: thoroughly unsurprising performances.
Emma Teitel is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @emmaroseteitel