“This is usually the part where I tell people to turn off their phones,” the theater attendant announced to my 7:30 p.m. screening of Disobedience. “But since you’re the only one here…um. Go nuts, I guess.” Apparently, I was the only lesbian in Chicago going through a breakup.
I’d been single for about a week and, in an intentional effort to leave my apartment, I took myself to a movie. Disobedience, Sebastián Lelio’s 2018 account of a lesbian affair in an Orthodox Jewish community, was the obvious choice because, c’mon, it was Rachel Weisz–on–Rachel McAdams on the big screen. I didn’t end up using my solo attendee freedom to text through the screening, but I did cry. Not because Disobedience is a particularly good movie, or even because I was feeling lonely. More so I was just extremely all up in my gay feelings.
Six months later, at another theater across the country, I audibly gasped upon seeing Weisz as Lady Sarah in her pigeon-shooting outfit for the first time. I knew going into The Favourite that it was kind of gay, but did not expect to be immersed in a kaleidoscope of toppy dyke lust. Weisz, Olivia Colman, and Emma Stone were all praised for their portrayals of complex queer women in 18th-century England, but Weisz emerged as the clear, uh, favorite in the LGBTQ community. Throughout the 2019 awards season, Twitter demanded, relentlessly, that Rachel Weisz top them. Not just top — but fully dominate them with hyperbolic levels of violence: Twitter users demanded Weisz do everything from slap them to run them over with a truck to shoot them in the face. (It was like a horny, competitive creative writing exercise.) Thirsty odes were penned. Her red latex Givenchy gown at the Academy Awards became queer canon. Weisz (and Colman) went viral simply (and adorably) for saying “gay rights.” Back in 2009, Weisz had told Vanity Fair Español, “I want to be a lesbian icon.” She apparently got her hands on a copy of The Secret, because a decade later, it was so.
Rachel Weisz (left) and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience.
But there’s one thing about Weisz we don’t like to talk about: As far as we know, she’s straight. Not just straight, but married-to-James-Bond-level straight. I don’t mention this to detract from her portrayal of queer characters, nor to argue straight people shouldn’t play gay characters, nor to discount the possibility of her coming out later in life. Rather, I mention it as a reminder to myself, and to you, of an unfortunate yet undeniable fact: Heterosexuality is an overwhelmingly common trait for our so-called gay icons.
Celebrity fandom is really just a bizarro reflection of ourselves: who we are, what we value, who we want to be, and, sometimes, who we want to fuck. Our faves are us, basically, just in that creepy sexy lady Snapchat filter. And as fans, we invest in the celebrities we love. We help their interview clips go viral; we see their movies in theaters then stream them at home; we loudly cheer their awards season campaigns on social media. The celebrities we choose to uplift reap our time and our attention and our clicks and our money. They accumulate both our cultural and literal capital; they gain buzz and caché and glossy magazine profiles; they get bigger roles and bigger paychecks.
Weisz is far from the first straight actor who’s captured the love of queer fandoms. Since playing queer onscreen, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Chloë Sevigny, and more have also nabbed the elusive title of “honorary gay.” And, sure, I want Weisz to step on my windpipe as much as the next human with a pulse does. But given the wealth of openly queer celebrities we have in 2019 — pop stars, action heroes, champion athletes — why do we keep hoisting so many straight people up as gay icons?
Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne in The Intervention, 2016.
Confession: It was only this year that I realized the gay euphemism “friend of Dorothy” was a Judy Garland reference. The Wizard of Oz star is regarded as the first gay icon of the modern era. Her daughter, Liza Minnelli, earned that same title, as have Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Lady Gaga, to name a few. Gay icons, for men, are typically talented and funny women, with outrageous, campy sensibilities whose beauty side-steps conventionality. They’re often loud, a bit messy, and brash. (Would Britney Spears be a gay icon today had her 2007 gone more smoothly? I doubt it.) They’re usually outspoken LGBTQ allies, or at least openly appreciative of their gay fanbase.
The lesbian version of this phenomenon is less established but still a thing. James Dean and Marlon Brando, in tight white T-shirts and stiff denim, have long inspired butch aesthetics. I’ve wondered whether Harry Styles has become a lesbian icon (A dykon? Hm.) of that ilk for the 21st century. However, there’s a different kind of lesbian icon that’s become well-established in the 21st century: straight women who play queer characters onscreen. It’s a trend that’s coincided with the rise of queer narratives being told in movies and on TV. (In 2018, GLAAD reported a record-breaking number of LGBTQ characters on scripted broadcast and streaming shows.) Which is to say, in the 21st century, Weisz’s trajectory to lesbian idolatry is far from unique.
In the three days it took me to binge Netflix’s Russian Doll in February, I had the same thought upwards of four dozen times: God, I can’t believe Natasha Lyonne is straight. (The actor says she’s slept with women — “I’m not a dumb-dumb” — but she identifies as straight. She also unfortunately identifies as dating Fred Armisen.) Still, she’s a well-established lesbian icon. Her starring role in the 1999 cult-favorite But I’m a Cheerleader launched her status as such; she sealed the deal 15 years later when she landed in the mainstream millennial consciousness as Nicky Nichols, a swaggery, charming junkie dyke, in Orange Is the New Black. But beyond her performances, Lyonne also possesses an apparent ease in queer spaces. She was on one of the gayest shows of the 2010s, after all. She’s maintained a friendship with openly lesbian Clea DuVall since the Cheerleader days and socializes in queer-heavy circles. One could argue Lyonne presents as somewhat queer, too: Her alluring bluster, not to mention her trademark husky voice, give her a masculine-presenting edge. With her on- and off-screen queer associations, Lyonne’s locked down her spot as a lesbian icon.
Then, of course, there’s Cate. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Carol Aird in 2015 topped every viewer, inspiring a generation’s arousal at the words “creamed spinach.” Carol was an unabashedly gay-as-hell movie with powerhouse performances and Oscar nods. Cate thirst swept queer Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram; Blanchett had ascended to lesbian icon status.
Cate Blanchett in Carol, 2015.
After Carol, everything Blanchett did just seemed, well, gay. Her portrayal of Hela in Thor: Ragnarok was folded neatly into Carol Tumblr. Then we lost our goddamn minds at the adoring glances shared between Kristen Stewart and Blanchett in Cannes in 2018. A month later, Ocean’s 8, a movie with no openly gay characters but lots of woman-to-woman eye contact, was declared lesbian canon. Apparently, five brightly colored, exquisitely tailored suits are about equal to one multifaceted lesbian character. But who, exactly, have we been worshipping? Do we worship Carol Aird, or do we worship Blanchett, or do we worship the internet version of Blanchett as documented in horny gay memes? I don’t even know anymore.
By the time Weisz had her big year in 2018, she fit neatly into an already well-established pattern: 1) seemingly straight actor plays queer character, 2) queer community thirsts over that queer character, 3) queer community transitions thirst for queer character to thirst for straight actor, 4) straight actor is deemed queer icon. Sometimes there’s a 3(b) phase, where a woman actor wears a suit on a red carpet. Jodie Comer, hot off her Emmy win for playing a bisexual assassin on Killing Eve, is currently somewhere between stages three and four. Since Euphoria aired this summer, Zendaya has pulled quite a few 3(b)s.
Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with thirst content on its face. But what does it mean when so much of queer thirst content involves straight people?
One of my favorite 30 Rock plotlines is the making of Jenna’s Janis Joplin biopic, Jackie Jormp-Jomp. In one episode, Jenna is stretched too thin between the movie and TGS, so Jack, ever the fixer, brainstorms ways to make it all work. “We could cut the lesbian scene,” he suggests. But Jenna resists: “But the Oscars love that kind of scene!” Liz scowls at her, so Jenna explains, “There’s two guys at my gym named Oscar.”
In the past 25 years, we’ve been lucky to see more and more LGBTQ stories being told on the big screen, but most of those characters are played by straight actors. Last year, the Advocate compiled a list of 52 seemingly straight actors who’ve been nominated for Oscars for playing gay roles. Rami Malek, Sean Penn, Olivia Colman, Charlize Theron, and Darren Criss, just to name a few, have all won awards for the portrayal of real-life queer people. Some have been better than others. But lots of straight creators — including Lyonne, Weisz, and Blanchett, as well as men like Barry Jenkins, Armie Hammer, and Timothée Chalamet — have crafted queer characters with grace and empathy and conviction. They’ve done their damn research. They’ve told stories that need to be told, championing narratives that have historically been excluded from Hollywood.
It’s thrilling to see stories that reflect our own experiences on the big screen — especially those told by visionary directors with massive budgets. And it’s particularly exciting to see über-famous actors we’ve known and adored for a long time in those roles. For millennials, watching the Galadriel of our middle school hearts unrelentingly pursue Rooney Mara felt like Blanchett, just like so many of us, had evolved from Lord of the Rings nerd to unabashed lesbian. When famous stars play gay characters with such compassion, it can feel like they’re peering into our little queer souls, like they get us in some way. Like if we were to gush to them about our girlfriend troubles, they’d listen, and maybe even kiss us.
To me, the problem is not straight actors playing gay roles in itself. Rather, it’s the lack of gay actors in those prestigious gay roles. It’s a problem of scale. One straight actor playing a gay character isn’t so much of a big deal; they’re actors, trained to channel people who are different from them. But the more straight actors who take those roles, the fewer queer parts available for up-and-coming queer actors.
In an overview of queer Hollywood this year, Variety found that while it’s better than ever to be openly gay in entertainment, there’s still much work to be done. Specifically, LGBTQ actors have yet to really permeate the A-list: Despite the critical success of queer stories like The Favourite and Call Me By Your Name, the last openly gay male actor to be nominated for an Oscar was Ian McKellen in 2002. Kristen Stewart and Ellen Page are both A-list queer women, but none of their queer roles have landed them major award noms.
It’s not a coincidence that most of these women are femmes, considering the queer roles available. More often than not, those prestigious lesbian characters are femme-presenting, which largely excludes real-life butch/andro/masculine actors from those roles. (One recent exception is masc-leaning icon Anne Lister in HBO’s Gentleman Jack; she was played by a straight femme, though.) At a Hollywood Reporter roundtable in June, Billy Porter popped off about what he identified as a double standard when it comes to casting for gay roles. “If ‘flamboyant’ wasn’t in the description of the character, no one would see me ever, for anything,” said Porter. “Which wouldn’t be so enraging if it went in the other direction, but it doesn’t.” Porter was talking about his experience as a gay man, but given the kinds of lesbian roles most available, it’s easy to imagine masculine women actors feeling the same way.
Optimists believe gay superstardom is only a matter of time, given the growing demand for not only queer actors but queer writers and directors to be able to tell their own stories. And with a large number of openly LGBTQ folks on every level in Hollywood — not to mention an American public that is increasingly comfortable watching gays on screen — there’s cautious confidence that coming out won’t ruin your career as it might have a decade ago.
And yet, I worry it’s a two-way street. When straight actors do nail those iconic gay roles, the queer community goes absolutely bonkers for them. What if the studios interpret our fervent standom to mean gay people want to see straight actors in gay roles? Or even, that we’d prefer to see femme, straight women play gay over openly queer women?
I think that’s an unpleasant question we need to ask ourselves: Would we?
This question is a half-step away from one I’ve asked myself a million times: Do I want to be this person, or do I want to bang this person? It’s a time-honored queer inquiry, and its answer is often muddled and fluid. I found myself wondering about this a lot in college when I was figuring out not only my sexuality but my style, my sensibilities, my taste in art and friends. But the question persists in my adult life, too, and I’ve learned that it’s not always an either/or, but sometimes a both/and. For queer folks, the line between friend and sexual interest can be a bit blurry. Perhaps, then, the line between icon and sexual interest is a bit blurry, too.
Thirst is the defining element of the play-gay icons. Queer Twitter loves to shriek about wanting to get banged by the Timmys and Cates of the world. And I’m not immune — when the “Rachel Weisz, top me!” meme dominated (uh-huh) awards season Twitter, I certainly partook. It was fun! She’s so hot! And there was something freeing and joyous about being part of an army of queer women with a common goal: for Rachel Weisz to top every last one of us. It was like participating in the meme was a way of saying, “Yes, I’m queer! And yes, I love sex!” in a public rebuke of lesbian bed death. It was fun teaching the world that queer girls use top/bottom language, too, and that some of us like rough sex, and that women can be dominant (and that we want other women to dominate us). When we post thirst tweets, we’re performing queerness in the public space for our queer followers, but also for straight people to see.
It’s true that there’s an element of queer liberation in the ability to publicly thirst over whoever we so choose, gay or otherwise, with relatively little repercussion. Writer Jill Gutowitz, an active participant in the RWTM meme, thinks so. “If I had been tweeting about how hot Miley Cyrus was in 2009, my friends would’ve been like, ‘Ew, you fucking dyke!’ and I would’ve deleted it and cried,” she told me. “Now that we’re allowed to talk about it publicly and have thousands of other people on Twitter agree with us, the thirst is pouring out of us in these violent outbursts.” In other words, sure, we might be horny idiots. But goddamnit, we’re horny idiots who have earned the right to pine over whoever we want!
“But there probably is some deep-seated internalized homophobia” involved in lionizing straight actors who play gay, Gutowitz conceded: “where we want you to be gay, but we don’t want you to be too gay.”
Despite how relatively gay-friendly our culture is today, internalized homophobia persists. Heteronormativity has beaten a little self-loathing into all of us. It’s proven to elevate our levels of anxiety and depression, to lower our self-esteem, to make us feel inadequate. Even when we’re proudly posting on social media about who we’d like to have gay sex with, internalized homophobia might linger in ways much subtler than self-imposed conversion therapy. I see it in myself when I purposefully cross my legs knee-on-knee (straight) rather than ankle-on-knee (gay), or when I wonder if an outfit is too dykey then frantically change shirts, or when I feel even now, 10 years out of the closet, a pang of anxiety while holding a woman’s hand in public. I’m working on it; we all are.
Given the trend of begging middle-aged actresses to absolutely rail us, I recently joked to my friend Erin that every queer on Twitter is a bottom. Or, at least, that it’s trendy to perform bottomhood on Twitter. “True,” she said, “But can you imagine if it were the other way around?” She had a point. Masses of thirsty queers tweeting, “I want to run Rachel Weisz over with a truck!” — even in an, uh, consensual, sexy way — probably wouldn’t fly.
Maybe Twitter really does skew bottomward (or my feed does, anyway). But what if there’s another reason we don’t see queer people joking online about topping as often as they do about bottoming? Perhaps it’s tough to imagine queer women tweeting about wanting to dominate straight celebrities because it would resemble the “lecherous lesbian” stereotype. You know, that gross cliché that lesbians lust after straight women, that our M.O. is to seduce and therefore “turn” them. Making Weisz, Blanchett, and Comer the dommes of our fantasies lets us skirt that stereotype by making IRL queer women appear less threatening to straight people. And yes, it’s fun to loudly, publicly warp archetypical perceptions of femininity and sexual dynamics — to insist dominance can be integral to a very femme woman’s sex appeal. Which, of course, is totally true! But I do wonder if “Rachel Weisz, top me!” is, at least in part, a performance of a more palatable kind of queerness for the sake of straight people’s comfort.
Maybe, on some level, we think thirsting over archetypically hot femme women is more digestible to straight people than thirsting over andro/masc women is. Or maybe we’re comforted by the layer of plausible deniability that comes with thirsting for straight women — it’s never actually going to happen between any of us and Weisz, even hypothetically, so our sexual desires aren’t fully exposed. Perhaps it’s scarier to tweet our lust for openly gay women because doing so would ground our desires closer to reality.
If celebrity fandom is a reflection of ourselves, perhaps our tendency to publicly lust for straight women is a reflection of our own feelings of inadequacy. We want our queer heroes to be gay, but god forbid they be gay like us. At least, not in real life.
As our lives have become intertwined with the internet, so have our personal relationships with celebrities. And considering the internet’s ability to blur fiction and reality, our understanding of our icons exists somewhere in between the real and the imagined.
Among many popular sapphic Instagram accounts is @everylesbianandtheirfashion, which post photos of just that: lesbians wearing great outfits. But not all the subjects are queer women. Photos of Natasha Lyonne sneak in there frequently, as do shots of Julianne Moore, Chloë Sevigny, Zoë Kravitz, Gillian Anderson, and, of course, Blanchett and Weisz. I asked the account’s creator, Marloes Leeuw, about this. “Cate and Natasha both have this queer energy going on, right?” she explained to me over email. “I think it’s a part because of the characters they play…and also because their presentations are so gender-fluid that they (almost) count as queer.” Leeuw said she’s not sure whether a “lesbian icon” needs to be queer or not, because “an icon can be and mean something different for everyone. That’s the beauty of it.”
Online, a celebrity can stand for something entirely different than even their characters do. Tumblr fandoms and fanfic catalogs and meme accounts are at our fingertips at all times, obscuring the lines between who that celebrity actually is and the internet persona we’ve given them. For instance, a Hollywood Reporter roundtable video circulated last spring wherein Kathryn Hahn stares lovingly at Rachel Weisz, apparently magnetized by the actor’s aura and sage wisdom. Hahn isn’t a lesbian icon per se but is certainly the recipient of many girls’ lust online. All Twitter user @tahani_aljamil had to do was set that supercut of Hahn’s loving gazes to the Carol soundtrack and boom: queer fanfic gone viral.
Another example: In early October, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson appeared on a panel at ACE Comic Con together. The Avengers: Endgame costars were asked what they’d like to see next in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when my id — I mean, a fan — shouted, “I just want to see lesbians!” The crowd cheered. Marvel fans have long been shipping a romance between Thompson’s and Larson’s characters, Valkyrie and Captain Marvel. But the real sound bite came next. When asked for closing remarks, Brie (who, as far as we know, is straight) asked, “How do I top lesbians?” Thompson went in for the slam dunk: “Uh, I’m sure the lesbians can show you right after this panel.” Laughs. Shrieks. Retweets. Calls for Brie to top us. The whole thing, again.
But there’s something a little different about the Valkyrie–Captain Marvel stanning: Thompson’s openly bi! Not only that, but she’s playing an openly queer freakin’ superhero to boot. In July, Marvel confirmed Valkyrie would be involved in an LGBTQ storyline, making her the first openly queer superhero in a big-budget production. (She’s bi in the comics, and Thompson said she played her as bi in Thor: Ragnarok. However, her sexuality was never explicitly confirmed in that film.) If Captain Marvel is queer as some fans have been suspecting/hoping, Brie will certainly ascend to play-gay iconography as Blanchett and Weisz have. Thompson, at least, is bucking that trend.
Then there’s the Charlie’s Angels reboot, which comes out in a few weeks. It appears Stewart’s character is going to be, um, a big dyke. See: her swagger, her bleached blonde short hair, her apparently playing the character as herself, a very gay person. Even if the franchise doesn’t give her a romantic plotline in this movie, or explicitly identify her as queer, it’s still exciting to see Stewart play her androgynous self, oozing a sex appeal that is by and large only for other queer women.
It’s obvious why gay icons were (publicly) straight in the Judy Garland and James Dean days: Famous people on the whole weren’t able to be openly gay. Obsessing over straight entertainers who were allies, or perhaps seemed kind of queer, or who were known to be “family” among certain other entertainers and fans but not by the mainstream, were pretty much the only options. But in 2019, we have more openly LGBTQ celebrities than ever. Thompson and Stewart aren’t alone. We have queer pop stars! Action franchise stars! World Cup champions! Emmy winners! It’s barely even news when celebrities come out anymore (well, except for that big one that wasn’t). Sure, there are still plenty of celebrities (many of them long-rumored) who have yet to come out for fear of reprisal. But considering how many publicly queer figures we do have, one can’t argue that we only love straight celebrities because we don’t have enough actually gay icons to choose from.
Queer TV and film fandom has always incorporated some degree of fantasy, a conversation between the creators and the fans. Whether it’s been semi-closeted actors adding a queer flair to their character, or a director adding queer subtext to a film, or the audience creating fanfic once the work is out in the wild. The line between fiction and real life — between creators and fans — is imprecise. Even if Valkyrie weren’t written as bisexual, having an openly bisexual actor play her would have queered the role, to a degree. As such, it’s possible that Thompson’s and Stewart’s real-life queerness could’ve helped mold these LGBTQ characters, pushed them into more contextual queerness. And it’s exciting to see queer actors play queer roles in these massive-budget movies because the more queer people involved in this fantasy-building — from every angle — the better. If the 2010s have been a decade of valorizing straight actors as gay icons, perhaps the next decade has something else in store. ●
Writer, Chicagoan, whale enthusiast
Contact Grace Perry at [email protected]
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