Krystal Hur: On selective outrage

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 3:02pm

“Brokeback Mountain” is probably my favorite movie. Not only are Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal phenomenal actors, but the film is also moving in a way that isn’t overly theatrical. The plot itself is quite simple, and there are no cliché scenes dramatized by overpowering music and overdone camerawork that are present in so many other films today.

Ledger and Gyllenhaal received accolades for their roles at the time of the film’s release, including Gyllenhaal’s British Academy Film and Television Arts award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Ledger’s New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actor. Both actors also received praise for their willingness to be a part of a movie that was controversial for depicting a love story between two men at a time when movies featuring heterosexual love stories such as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “A Cinderella Story” and “The Notebook” were popular.

At the time of the film’s release, no one seemed to question why two straight men were chosen to play the roles of two decidedly not straight men. This was most likely because there were few movies being produced at the time that did feature gay characters or love stories. Either no one thought to say anything — or they chose not to.

However, in 2019, celebrities are being held accountable for their past problematic productions and roles. In particular, white actors who played non-white roles and non-queer actors who played gender queer characters are being heavily criticized for choosing to play a role that was never theirs to take. Yet no straight actor who chose to play, or is currently playing, a non-straight character receives public backlash. In fact, many of these actors are loved by the LGBTQ+ community for their roles: Darren Criss’ Blaine in “Glee” and Shay Mitchell’s Emily in “Pretty Little Liars” are both well loved. Neither actor has received backlash for portraying gay characters. Neither have Ledger and Gyllenhaal for their portrayals of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, respectively, in “Brokeback Mountain.” Why is that?

Perhaps people have chosen to refrain from attacking Ledger’s portrayal of Del Mar out of respect for his death. Yet Gyllenhaal, Criss and Mitchell have all escaped criticism for their characters and performances while other actors who have played roles that don’t align with their identity, such as Emma Stone, who played an Asian-American character in “Aloha,” and Scarlett Johansson, who also played a traditionally Asian character in “Ghost in the Shell” – both who have been heavily rebuked for their roles. Eddie Redmayne has also been criticized by the transgender community for playing transgender woman Lili Elbe in “The Danish Girl” and Johansson recently dropped her role in the movie “Rub & Tug,” where she would have played a transgender man, after heavy backlash from the transgender community.

These actors have also been the butt of some jokes: Sandra Oh made a joke about Johansson and Stone’s roles as characters of Asian descent during her Emmys monologue, quipping, “(Crazy Rich Asians) is the first studio film with an Asian-American lead since ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Aloha.’” Stone could then be heard yelling, “I’m sorry!” over the sounds of the audience laughing.

While Redmayne has been mostly lauded by cis people for his role in “The Danish Girl,” even snagging an Academy Award nomination for his work, he has been put under scrutiny by members of the trans community. Carol Grant, a trans female writer, explained her ire with Redmayne’s role in the movie in an IndieWire article, commenting, “For a film that’s being touted as a progressive step up for ‘transgender visibility’, everything about its view of trans women and women in general is regressive, reductive, and contributes to harmful stereotypes: the cisnormative idea that a trans woman is simply a man performing faux-femininity, as Redmayne twirls and vogues his way into womanhood.” She also criticizes the way in which the movie portrays Elbe as being weak, condemning “the reductive portrait of a trans woman as a figure of pity whose tragedy stems from being a man unable to ‘practice womanhood’, rather than accepting her womanhood as natural fact; the arguments that TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) love to perpetuate that trans women only reinforce outdated gender stereotypes; the leering at a trans woman’s body as something unnatural and abnormal instead of inviting the audience to understand our dysphoria.”

Grant’s argument about the problematic nature of “The Danish Girl” suggests the reason that so many people have a problem with whitewashing and cisgender actors playing trans characters, while they don’t often have a problem with straight characters playing gay characters, is because of the stark difference between the accuracy in which the characters are portrayed. Grant does not approve of Redmayne’s casting and performance because he, as a cisgender man, cannot accurately portray a transgender woman. This is true not only because he is a man playing a woman but also because he perpetuates false cisnormative beliefs about trans-ness. People take umbrage with Johansson and Stone’s portrayals of Asian-American characters because white people cannot accurately portray characters of Asian descent. This is a visibility issue: Being white automatically disqualifies an actor for playing a character of Asian descent, since they don’t look Asian.

With gay characters, most performances have not been marred by stereotypes and instead have allowed members of the LGBTQ+ community to feel authentically represented in popular culture. Furthermore, there is no visibility issue. “Pretty Little Liars” Emily isn’t portrayed as a masculine character who chops her hair and makes unwanted passes on straight girls; Glee’s Blaine isn’t portrayed as an extremely effeminate character who loves shopping or tokenized as the “gay best friend.” Del Mar and Twist of “Brokeback Mountain,” similarly, aren’t portrayed as feminine, and are actually portrayed as being quite masculine, which combats stereotypes about gay men. Furthermore, people who are not straight don’t have an obvious “look” to them, as people of different races do.

I wonder, then, if this permission from the LGBTQ+ community for straight actors to play queer characters is at all contextual: If a movie centered around the life of a gay activist is released and the activist is played by a straight actor, is that still acceptable? Regardless, representation in media continues to be a multifaceted topic and the LGBTQ+ community’s willingness to allow non-straight actors to play gay characters shouldn’t be exploited to argue against problematic aspects of Hollywood, such as whitewashing. This selective outrage is not reflective of irrational anger or pettiness. Rather, it is because in an industry where representation is iffy at best, Hollywood may have gotten it right.

Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.