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Aaron Sorkin Needs to Apologize for Wasting Space

In a response to criticism about a Newsweek editorial that argues gay actors (especially men) can’t convincingly play straight, Aaron Sorkin sort of defends the writer, Ramin Setoodeh, mainly by urging Setoodeh’s critics to direct their energy toward the “pig-ignorant bigots” in Congress. Apparently, fighting ignorance and bigotry conveyed through mainstream media is not a good use of resources.

Sorkin says the editorial isn’t homophobic, just incorrect. However, one of Setoodeh’s main points is that once people find out an actor is gay, they don’t feel convinced when that actor plays characters who are straight, even if we found the performance convincing before we found out that the actor is gay. In my opinion, that’s the kind of irrational thinking that is part of homophobia, so it’s difficult for me not to see that editorial as homophobic.

If that term is inaccurate, fine, but to say Setoodeh’s editorial is merely wrong doesn’t get at the bigger issues. For one thing, such a reading of a gay actor’s performance says a lot more about viewers than it does about the actor. Why does it matter to audience members whether or not the actor playing the role has the same sexual orientation as the character he plays? Have they considered that some gay actors don’t play straight convincingly because, rather than lacking some inherent ability to perform heterosexuality they are simply bad actors?

Also, why is the topic being covered at all, and what is the occasion for covering it now? Will a piece on actors’ unwillingness to do their own stunts be next? Of course, gay bashing is provocative, getting the attention of those who agree and those who don’t. And Newsweek could use some attention.

Another point Sorkin gets wrong is that you can’t play gay or straight, just femme or butch. I sort of get what he means, but this comment is based on the assumption gender and sexual orientation have clear relationships, i.e., that gay men perform effeminate behavior and that lesbian women perform butch behavior. What about butch gay men who like to kiss other men? A straight actor playing a butch gay male character must perform the appropriate behavior convincingly, e.g., not appearing grossed out as he approaches the other male actor and and willingly opening his mouth at least a little bit when they kiss. Whether or not the actors actually touch tongues, they should make it look like it happens, but I realize I should leave this up to the director.

The actor playing the butch gay male character doesn’t need to look in his purse or swish his hips or whatever other “effeminate” behaviors Sorkin has in mind. Simply locking lips and appearing to enjoy it are all that need to happen, but that’s pretty gay. Of course, if one of the characters behaves effeminately, fine, that should be in the performance, too, but such behavior would be in addition to, not as a signifier of, gay sexual orientation. According to Sorkin’s thinking, gay men are basically straight men who act like women. There are many factors that make one kiss unlike others. I would expect a successful writer like Sorkin to understand that. However, what should I expect from someone who apparently doesn’t know that “sexual preference” is a dated, if not yet completely obsolete, term?

I would argue that there is such a thing as gay behavior. Although I most certainly have my effeminate moments, I also flame out, which has everything to do with being a gay guy. I am and perform many aspects of identity and, more to the point, am interpreted in various ways without friends, family, and coworkers failing to understanding that all of that variation comes from me. In the context of a two-hour theatrical production, there’s not time to develop a character, and it’s rare that characters are very realistic. But the problem is that most creators of arts and entertainment (and I’m including writers, directors, actors, and even photographers here) use a code of behaviors and appearance to indicate identity, even though most of the signifiers are simplistic at best and just plain wrong at worst.

The code is powerful because it’s ubiquitous, at least in popular entertainment (but even in self-proclaimed indie art, film, and writing). Although I doubt it was the intention, Setoodeh’s editorial reminds us that as consumers of art and entertainment, we’re complicit with this code. Sorkin claims we need to direct our frustration at “pig-ignorant bigots.” If he means mindless consumers, then I wholeheartedly agree.

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