Last week on Buzzfeed, I came across the article “31 Actresses That Went Gay for Pay.” The sub-header of the article states “These (supposedly) straight actresses have switched teams for television and movie roles, sometimes more than once. And we love that about them.” My first reaction was, “awesome!” because I’m pretty much a sucker for anything with lesbian content. (I swear I will watch paint dry as long as the paint is lesbian.) As I read through the article, a feeling of frustration washed over me. The connotation of “gay for pay” turns those roles, roles we love, to something less than positive.
First of all, “gay for pay” has pornographic origins. It’s used to describe a heterosexual performer who engages in gay sex for compensation. To equate all gay roles played by straight actors as “gay for play” seems fundamentally unfair. All actors play parts for money. That’s why they are professional actors. To say that an actress is taking on a gay role for pay reduces them (and us) to a titillation factor. It also makes it seem that a character’s sexuality is the defining characteristic of who they are, rather than simply being fleshed out, complex and interesting characters. As viewers, we certainly love to see our lives played out in movies and television; that’s a given. It’s the characters, however, that make us fall in love with a story. The fact that Luce (played by Lena Headey) is a lesbian in Imagine Me and You is terrific, but the fact that she is kind and shy and believes in love at first sight is why we love her.
Luce (Lena Headey) and Rachel (Piper Perabo) in “Imagine Me and You”
Even now, in 2013, male actors are still applauded for their “bravery” in playing gay characters. It’s even been said that best way to score an Oscar nod is to play gay. Up until the last decade or so, it was still considered a huge career risk to play a gay character. When Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau took on the roles of Vivian and Cay in Desert Hearts in 1985, they did so against the advice of friends and colleagues. Shaver, however, had this to say about being a part of the project:
It was pointed out to me, pretty clearly by my representation, that it is one thing to do a “peeping tom” sexual object movie with two women together. But this was a love story about real people and that that would really upset a bunch of people. And that I would be typecast, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And I said, “You gotta be kidding me? That can’t be true! And if it is true, then why would I want to work with those people anyway? It’s a great script, and I want to tell this story.” People, afterward, said, “It’s so courageous of you!” And I would be embarrassed, because you have to be afraid to do something for it to be courageous.
Cay (Patricia Charbonneau) and Vivian (Helen Shaver) in “Desert Hearts.”
Luckily, we are living in a more open time and there are many wonderful actors and actresses embracing gay characters for the same reasons that we love them: They have important stories to tell. Unfortunately, the media often focuses more on gay love scenes than the heart of the stories being told. I swear if I hear one more time in an interview, “Is it weird to kiss another girl?” I’m going to go all angry lesbian blogger for real. Thankfully, cooler heads prevail. Dan Radcliffe, who recently played beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings — and yes, he was lauded as brave — seemed nonplussed about the focus on his sex scenes with another character. Radcliffe said in an interview with MTV:
But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that it’s deemed shocking? For me there is something very strange about that. Because we see straight sex scenes all the time, we’ve seen gay sex scenes before, and I don’t know why a gay sex scene should be anymore shocking that a straight sex scene.
Instead of seeing playing a gay character as a “challenge,” actresses like Lindsey Shaw (Paige) and Shay Mitchell (Emily) on Pretty Little Liars take great pride and responsibility in playing well-rounded characters, who happen to be gay.
Recently, Shay Mitchell spoke with Teen Vogue about the fact that some people assume she’s gay because she plays a lesbian character. For Mitchell, it’s a nonissue.
People always ask me, “Are you gay like your character?” But I don’t feel like I need to answer, because honestly, it doesn’t matter.
Shay Mitchell (Emily) from “Pretty Little Liars”
You are right, Shay: it doesn’t matter. This brings me to another part of the Buzzfeed article that stood out to me. The “supposedly” straight comment. “Supposedly” implies that perhaps some of these actresses may not be telling the truth. Like maybe they are actually so great at playing lesbians because they are lesbians in real life. You know what? That’s none of our damn business. Why is it important to ask if Jennifer Beals if she is gay or not to know that we loved her performance as Bette Porter in The L Word? Same goes for Naya Rivera, Jessica Capshaw, Lucy Lawless and all the other actresses that portray amazing characters that bring our experiences to life on the screen.
Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) from “The L Word”
Our human experience is the same. We are heroes and villains. We are mothers and lovers and friends. Our stories are rich and deserved to be told, and not trivialized. Maybe this comes off as-over sensitive or angry, but if you read any of my past articles, you will find I’m as affable as a basket of sleeping puppies. I know the author of this Buzzfeed piece meant no harm, but I feel that this view of actresses and lesbian roles comes across as myopic and easily misconstrued. (Don’t even get me started on the phrase “switching teams.”) I don’t want lesbian stories to be the butt of a joke, I want us to have a part in telling them. I want our stories to be told with integrity, and the actors who play those parts, gay or otherwise, to be treated with respect.