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Yes, actors can play roles regardless of their sexuality, but casting Jack Whitehall as the first openly gay Disney character is Not Cool

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Disney drawn a fair bit of criticism with their recent decision to cast Jack Whitehall as a “fun effete” young gay man in their upcoming blockbuster The Jungle Cruise, co-starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Emily Blunt.

But also, over the last couple of days a lot of people have gone on Twitter (or whatever your social media drug of choice is) to present their wit to the world about how only carpenters should be allowed to play carpenters or what have you. So let’s get these hot takes out of the way.

STEVE SCHOFIELD/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES

Image Credit: STEVE SCHOFIELD/CONTOUR BY GETTY IMAGES

Straight guy playing a gay guy isn’t the problem – we should all agree that typecasting is bad and gay actors don’t have to be shoehorned into playing the “sassy gay best friend”, for example. The same way you don’t have to be Russian to play the evil Russian character. But let’s also agree that this goes deeper than superficial, but hilariously persistent presentation of stereotypically Russian villains.  

A big point that everyone latches on is pointing out gay characters who have played straight actors, and vice versa – Neil Patrick Harris with his famous womaniser Barney, Jim Parsons with Sheldon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, to name a few.

Comparing those two occurrences, however, doesn’t work as it creates a false sense of equivalence between the two. This is not an even playing field, both in terms of gay and straight roles available, and opportunities offered to gay and straight actors.

There will never be more gay roles or even as many as there are straight ones. And what’s more, only one of these two types of roles has suffered from historic marginalisation and misrepresentation. That brings me to the next point.

Once you look into what the role will be about, things to get even dodgier.

After the announcement, a source told The Sun that though Whitehall has landed his biggest ever pay cheque, more excitingly “he is playing a gay man - one who is hugely effete, very camp and very funny.

"It’s a dream role. Disney’s always been incredibly supportive of the LGBTQ community. This latest script, set at a time when it wasn’t socially acceptable to be gay, is another significant turning point.”

Even aside from the weird part about the big fat cheque, the comment seems to miss the mark completely. While yes, effeminate gay men exist, of course, but the phrasing just sounds like the same old tired stereotype. Paired with the fact that a straight man would be playing him, that just makes it seem like the character would be used for a punchline – again.

We haven’t learnt much about the film yet, so fair enough, we should always see it before we judge (and Jack Whitehall has a proven record of being a good ally, so the blame shouldn’t necessarily be on him).

But years and years of previous representation, formulated in a similar way and played off as a joke, shines an uncomfortable light on the decision – rightly so.

And honestly, at the end of the day, it is just a bad PR move (and yes, I do know all publicity is good publicity).

Creative media with the tagline “Disney’s first openly gay character” would have never needed a big name to back it up – it was going to be hated by the people you’d expect to, and loved by the people you’d expect to.

LeFou, who was hyped to be the big gay representation before the live-action of Beauty and the Beast hit cinemas, ended up having a small scene dancing with another man, and that still enraged people. But the storyline also disappointed those who actually wanted to see genuine representation.  

Disney has been slow on the representation wave, but now that it has found that positive representation makes money now, the corporation has been taking certain steps towards that.

The creators of Moana, for example, went to great lengths to ensure they were representing the culture properly, going to Polynesian islands to do research and involving actors from that massive region. Despite the tattoo costume fiasco, the film itself was welcomed as positive representation.

And that’s not meant to conflate sexuality, culture, and race as the same thing – they can and do intersect – but the bottom line stands. Involving people you want to represent in the creative process naturally leads to a better, more genuine product.

Becky Albertalli, the author of Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the book that preceded the movie Love, Simon is also straight, (as are the main actors in the film other than Keiynan Lonsdale and Clark Moore, as many have pointed out too). However, the difference is the research and the care put into properly representing characters and stories, far away from the "fun, effete" stereotype. 

So with previous examples like that and in a time when positive representation is at an all-time high (not that it’s hard to compete with representation from previous eras), this decision comes across as a badly-researched, badly-thought out cop-out.

And how should one feel hopeful about “camp gay dude out and proud in a time when it wasn’t acceptable to be gay”, played by a straight man, whose only such experience would be from observation and preconceptions?

So I implore you, Disney, even if you decide to stick with this casting decision, involve more queer people and do your research.  

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