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Newsweek Editorial Asserts Gay Actors Can't Play it Straight

In late April, Ramin Setoodeh

wrote a Newsweek Editorial "Straight Jacket," in which he poses the question "Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn't it ever work in reverse?" Setoodeh answers his own question, sort of, in a series of assertions. He opens by referring to the broadway play Promises, Promises starring Kristin Chenoweth and, as Setoodeh puts it "Sean Hayes, best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace. . . his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. . . . But frankly, it's weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is." I note that Setoodeh's opinion is clearly a minority one; Sean Hayes has been nominated for a Best Actor Tony award for his performance.

And it goes downhill from there. He earlier alludes to Ricky Martin, in a context that makes it clear that Setoodeh thinks Martin should have stayed in the closet, and asserts that while straight actors can successfully play queer parts, queers can't play straight—at this point he refers, disparagingly, to Portia De Rossi and Neil Patrick Harris. Next, he moves to Jonathan Groff "the openly gay Broadway star." According to Seetoodeh, Groff, in Glee "there's something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes, he scowls--is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen."

Sedooteh concludes somewhat plaintively by asking if an actor with the stature of George Clooney "came out of the closet tomorrow, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? . . . Doesn't it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?"

To answer his question, yes, they do exist; the fact that he may not know the actors are gay is neither here nor there—but I'm at a loss to explain Sedooteh's obliviousness to the fine work as a leading man Ian McKellan has done, both before publicly claiming his gayness, and after. I'm not in the minority in finding Sedooteh's piece to be dyslogistic, and, quite frankly, stupid. Michael Slezak wrote an op-ed rebuttal in Entertainment Weekly online "Newsweek travels back to 1952 to argue against gay actors in straight roles." The sub-title is a fair cop. Sedooteh has apparently reverted to an earlier homophobic, heteronormative era, where June and Ward Cleaver had a son nicknamed Beaver. Slezak rightly points out the underlying flaw in Sedooteh's argument; that there's a reason we call it acting, that we don't have to believe that Tom Hanks is mildly retarded, or that Ian McKellan is an immortal wizard.

if Newsweek's antiquated story was put into practice, we'd have to recast Anna Paquin (who recently revealed she's bisexual) in True Blood, reshoot Lilly Tomlin's scenes as a vindictive (and straight) family matriarch in Damages, and halt all future cable reruns of Rupert Everett daring to be a dashing hetero dude in An Ideal Husband and Meredith Baxter bringing to life classic sitcom mom Elyse Keaton on Family Ties.

Kristen Chenoweth came to her colleague Sean Haye's defense in a smart rebuttal. Chenoweth discusses the editorial in terms of its homophobia, a fair charge, and notes Setoodeh's choice of examples as supporting evidence is somewhat lacking:

The examples he provides (what scientists call "selection bias"') to prove his "gays can't play straight" hypothesis are sloppy in my opinion. Come on now! Openly gay Groff is too "queeny" to play Lea Michele's boyfriend in Glee, but is a "heartthrob" when he does it in Spring Awakening? Cynthia Nixon only "got away with it" cause she peaked before coming out? I don't know if you've missed the giant Sex and the City movie posters, but it seems most of America is "buying it."

As Chenoweth notes, and Sedooteh confirms, Sedooteh is, to use his own phrase "openly gay." Let's look at the phrase for a minute; it's used in an interesting way, and never as a positive. The most common pairing with "openly" is "admits," as in "he openly admits he's gay [or Flemish or Asmatic or whatever]. The connotation of "openly" is that the person is "openly" engaging in or acknowledging something negative. "Openly" gay is essentially pejorative; there's a reason we use the phrase "out and proud" instead as an antidote. Sedooteh uses some other telling language, as well. He refers to "queeny Jack," "unintentional camp," "your average theater queen." That's a clue to not only Sedooteh's own self-loathing, but to his attitudes about gender roles. It's the same sort of phenomenon that appears in gay personal ads: "Must be straight looking, straight acting." Sedooteh, in other words, is a self-loathing heteronormative ass hat.

But there's more than just self-loathing here. Sedooteh moves from casting aspersions on Rock Hudson's acting ability, but saves special venom for lesbian actresses:

Lesbian actresses might have it easier—since straight men think it's OK for them to kiss a girl and like it—but how many of them can you name? Cynthia Nixon was married to a man when she originated Miranda on Sex and the City. Kelly McGillis was straight when she steamed up Top Gun's sheets, and Anne Heche went back to dating men (including her Men in Trees costar).

Let's look closely at Sedooteh's language. He lists three actresses, Cynthia Nixon, Kelly McGillis, and Anne Heche as lesbian actresses, but then alludes to all of them having had sex with men. He is making a jibe at bisexual women by implying that they're not queer enough, like there's a hierarchy of queerness. He doesn't mention Jodie Foster, Queen Latifah, Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen Degeneres, or Lili Tomlin, for instance. That's pretty telling as well. Given his passing reference to the fascination some straight men have for two women in a sexual relationship, it's sort of telling that he doesn't seem interested in lesbian actresses who aren't somehow safely subordinated to a man.

Newsweek in "Newsweek Responds to Kristin Chenoweth" published a plaintive "rebuttal" by Sedooteh, in which Sedooteh asserts that teh Internets are being mean to me, and reiterates his putative question "if an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man?"

Yes, Mr. Sedooteh, we would, because not all of us evaluate every actor as a potential bed-partner.