The New ‘Face’ of Contemporary Television

A couple of years ago (December 2003), Vanity Fair featured a cover spread and story entitled “TV’s Gay Heat Wave”. To illustrate its point, the magazine put the cast of Will & Grace, Queer Eye‘s Carson Kressley, and Queer as Folk‘s Gale Harold on the front. Written by Ned Zeman, the accompanying article celebrated the growing amount of so-called “Gay TV” in the current season while simultaneously expressing feelings of being a “bit overwhelm(ed)”.

Surely, television over the past couple of years has become more “gay friendly”, so to speak, with shows such as The L Word, Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Queer as Folk to name a few. There have also been a number of recent HBO and Showtime made for cable movies — Angels in America, Normal, and A Soldier’s Play — that feature gay themes and characters. While this new shift in prime time/premium television towards becoming more inclusive is laudatory, a new trend has developed along with it, something I like to call “queerface”.

In 16th and 17th century Elizabethan theatre, women were prohibited from acting. Roles designed for them were, thus, given to men or small boys who donned makeup, wigs, and the appropriate dress to “become female” for the stage. In late 18th to mid-20th century America, ‘blackface’ was an extremely popular performance tradition. White actors would use makeup and other unflattering accoutrements (accents, ragged clothes) to grossly exaggerate the features and behavior of black people — usually in theatre or on film (e.g., Birth of a Nation, Amos & Andy, etc.).

‘Yellowface’, ‘brownface’, and ‘redface’ are all similar performance traditions appropriated by actors — almost exclusively white — whereby they mask their Caucasian features to play Asian, Hispanic or Native American people, respectively. These various forms of minstrelsy really existed at some point amidst the cultural performance/entertainment tradition, almost all with great popularity. These performance techniques were able to flourish to such a degree because they were created in a time when marginalized members of society were not allowed to fully participate in the various forms of entertainment media, which brings me back around to ‘queerface’.

Why is it that in an era where “Gay TV” has become more and more prominent, gay actors are not being hired to play gay people on TV? For example, Showtime’s groundbreaking series The L Word is a drama that follows the relationships, careers, and lives of a group of lesbians in Los Angeles. Only one of the actresses in the series, Leisha Hailey who plays Alice, has stated openly that she is gay. The rest of the cast all either claim/maintain their heterosexuality (i.e., Jennifer Beals, Sarah Shahi) or refuse to publicly assert it (i.e., Katherine Moennig). On Will & Grace, Eric McCormack, who plays Will Truman, has stated he is heterosexual, while Sean Hayes who plays Jack McFarland, refuses to publicly state his sexual orientation. Even on ER, Laura Innis, who plays lesbian Dr. Kerry Weaver, is straight; she is currently married with two children.

‘Queerface’, the performance practice of heterosexual actors playing lesbian, gay transgender/transsexual or bi-sexual persons, seems to currently be all the rage. With homosexuality a hot button issue in the current social dialogue, it’s no wonder. Yet it’s sad to note that, whatever minor strides have been made in this arena today are milestones compared to the way the portrayal of alternative lifestyles was handled in decades past. In our modern climate, a few LGTB actors may be hired for roles, yet the preponderance of these characters will be given to straight performers.

Which brings me to the question; how does one “play gay”? Is there a trick to it, something more than affecting a vocal quality or skirting a stereotype? The film industry has indeed been encouraging straight actors to play gay for quite some time, and they are often rewarded for it. This Oscar season, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Felicity Huffman are all heterosexual actors who have been nominated for Academy Awards for playing members of the LGBT community. Actors such as Charlize Theron, Cillian Murphy, Peter Saarsgard, Hilary Swank, Tom Hanks, and Ralph Fiennes have also played members of the LGBT population in film roles, many receiving prominent accolades for their efforts.

Yet the issue still remains, is Eric McCormack’s Will Truman an adequate representation of a gay man? Is Will & Grace a modern-day minstrel of gay malehood? How about Bruno Campos’s Dr. Quentin Costa of nip/tuck? Is he an authentic illustration of a bisexual man? Maybe a better question to ask would be; is America in general (or the TV networks, specifically) ready for an LGBT A-List star? Would a Mel Gibson or a Brad Pitt have the same sort of box office power and clout if either one were openly gay or bi? How about Matthew Fox or Keifer Sutherland on the small screen. Would Lost and 24 still be major hits?

By consistently hiring straight actors (by straight actors I mean people who claim to be heterosexual — you never know), roles that LGBT actors may want just aren’t going to be available. Also, gayness has become open to interpretation by heterosexual actors. Would a transgender actor do an equally accurate — or even good — job in comparison to a heterosexual’s “interpretation” of what it means to be transgender? Indeed, it seems the issue of how homosexuality is portrayed, and by whom, gets trickier as the idea is explored. Television has surely come a long way in giving alternative lifestyles a voice. Judging from the casting process of many of these shows, however, it has a much longer way to go.

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