Critics Can Be Critical of Gays, Even Gay Ones

It’s hard to know what to make of the contretemps over Newsweek‘s diss of Sean Hayes’ Tony-nominated performance in Promises, Promises.  Ramin Setoodeh, whose controversial writing has drawn criticism in the past, set off fireworks when he suggested Hayes and Glee’s Jonathan Goff appear too gay to be convincing as straight love-interests.

Setoodeh, who is gay, has responded to the criticism, saying he’d been inundated with nasty, personal attacks including phone calls and letters to his home. He also said the criticism–set off by a pointed rebuttal by Hayes’ co-star Kristin Chenoweth–was unfair since they misunderstood his larger point about why it is hard to accept a gay actor in a heterosexual role.

I was sharing my honest impression about a play that I saw. If you don’t agree with me, I’m more than happy to hear opposing viewpoints. But I was hoping to start a dialogue that would be thoughtful—not to become a target for people who twisted my words. I’m not a conservative writer with an antigay agenda. I don’t hate gay people or myself.

Setoodeh has previously caused controversy at Newsweek when he asked whether “queeny” gay characters on television harmed gay tolerance and a piece a couple of years ago questioning whether junior highs were prepared to deal with openly gay students.

Journalists–especially arts critics–should ask these kinds of questions, even if they are uncomfortable for the LGBT community to hear.  Whether Sean Hayes or Jonathan Goff can be convincing as a straight character once people know they are gay is an interesting question that is not necessarily a reflection on their talents, which appears to be the point of the story.  Setoodeh isn’t the first gay man to ask whether effeminate gay television characters on television are “good for the gays.”

So why the reaction, including the apparently uncivil response directed at Setoodeh? Aren’t critics supposed to be, well, critical?  Why is it wrong for a critic–gay or straight–to question whether audiences are prepared to accept a gay actor in a straight role?  Why is it difficult for the LGBT community to listen to criticism and quickly rush to label it “anti-gay” or homophobic?

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3 Responses

  1. With respect, Michael, and due regard for Ramin Setoodeh’s explanation (“my honest impression about a play that I saw”), perhaps the reaction stems from the headline and the text of the review, both of which say that it “never works” for a gay actor to be cast as straight. If I were a gay actor — and I do have friends — I’d be tempted to be uncivil. Sean Hayes may or may not be right for the part, but the critic painted much more broadly with an intolerant brush that can only encourage intolerance in others.

  2. What Ken said. Setoodeh’s incautious, overgeneralized approach is what’s gotten him into this thicket.

    A few thoughts:

    — The idea that Hayes, Jonathan Groff and Rock Hudson are unconvincing now *because they’re out,* and the linked claim that the latter two were more convincing before we knew about their sexual orientation, are based on impressions that are necessarily subjective but not necessarily widely shared. (I’d certainly disagree about the latter two; I haven’t seen Hayes’ performance.)

    — The article fails to acknowledge that variables beyond an audience’s knowledge about an actor’s life can affect how a performance is received. Perhaps Groff was more convincing in “Spring Awakening” (assuming you agree that he was ) because the writing was better, or the directing was better, or the songs were better, than they have been so far on “Glee.” Or because the lighting design, for that matter, was better: That show was phenomenally designed.

    — His suggestion that straight celebs “guard their privacy” so you won’t think of their personal lives when you see them onscreen is just silly. The cult of celebrity could not be any more pervasive in this country, and yet we shrug off its effects instantly when the lights go down in the theater. To cite just one example: Angelina Jolie drew universal praise as Marianne Pearl, despite all we know about her own rococo personal life.

    — Out gay actors — including one he mentions in his article (Rupert Everett in An Ideal Husband) — have convincingly played straight in Hollywood.

    It’s true that that last remains a rare thing. Whether that’s because of outdated assumptions in Hollywood, or because the public at large shares Setoodeh’s apparent inability to separate an actor’s personality and performance history on this particular point from the role at hand, is the question that needs getting at.

    That question, which I actually do think is an interesting one, and perfectly fair territory for a critic, might not have gotten obscured if Setoodeh had been a bit more thoughtful and measured with his argument.

    –tg

    (Oh, and: I can’t be the only one who laughed out loud at the suggestion that the characters in The Proposal are meant to be realistic, can I?)

    • Excellent comments from both Trey and Ken. I agree that the column wasn’t all that successful in making the argument and I had to read it a couple of times to see if his thesis described in the rebuttal piece was actually in the original.

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