Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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Should Lesbian Characters Only Be Played By Lesbian Actresses?

Cate Blanchett as Carol in Carol (2015). Netflix.

Should lesbian characters only be played by lesbian actresses? Do heterosexual people, who hold power within patriarchy, have enough insight into what it means to be homosexual to play the role? Or do they only have stereotypes to rely on? On the other hand, should quality, respectful heterosexual actors be turned away from playing lesbian or gay characters, especially if homosexual candidates don’t match the role as well? 

When news broke that lesbian Tig Notaro had landed a recurring role in Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, research led me to an interview with Julianna Margulies, who already plays a sapphic character on the show. In it, she advocated for non-lesbian women, like herself, “playing gay” on television.  

On the Just for Variety podcast, when Margulies was asked “if she had any reservations about playing gay on The Morning Show,” she said: “Who’s to say I haven’t had my own gay experiences? We’re making assumptions.” 

Margulies acknowledged that lesbian actresses want to play lesbian characters… but could not understand why. “I know there was some trepidation of, ‘Will lesbian actresses be angry?’ and I can tell you I would never, ever be angry if a lesbian played a straight woman,” Margulies said.

Sigh. The ‘lesbians are angry’ stereotype. The “I have had ‘gay experiences’, despite being married to a man and referring to myself as heterosexual, so I understand lesbianism.” The “me playing a lesbian is the same as a lesbian playing a heterosexual woman,” even though lesbians are marginalized for not being attracted to men.

Margulies’ insensitive comments irked me but they didn’t necessitate believing that all heterosexual women should be banned from playing lesbians. Instead of claiming that they deserve lesbian roles because they’ve had “gay experiences,” I’d prefer to see heterosexual actresses promise to research and respect lesbians and their history. I’d prefer them to stop claiming lesbian credentials and take the job of representing lesbians seriously.

If there is a quality lesbian actress available, then of course she should land the lesbian role. Especially if she matches what the filmmakers are looking for. But what about non-lesbian actresses who we love to see playing lesbians, like Cate Blanchett in Carol (2015) and TÁR (2022)?

I have some bad news. Margulies is not the only celebrity actress in a decades-long relationship with a man giving her “gay” credentials with comments like “I’ve slept with women before, so I get the lesbian experience.” Our beloved Cate Blanchett also alludes to “playing lesbian…many times,” in her personal life, despite being married to a man since 1997, in an interview with Variety.

When asked if playing Carol in the film of the same name was her first time as a lesbian, she smirks, “On film — or in real life?” Pressed for details, she responds: “Yes. Many times.”

Blanchett might categorize her implied same-sex experiences as “lesbian,” but she doesn’t think much about the sexual orientation of her lesbian characters. Despite playing the role of Carol, who is clearly a lesbian – she even risks losing her daughter because she can’t love men – Blanchett “never thought about it [Carol’s sexual orientation].” 

Blanchett also assumes Carol, whose life was rocked by homophobia consistently throughout the film, didn’t think about her sexual orientation much either: “I don’t think Carol thought about it.”

How could Carol not think about it?

Blanchett has only echoed these sentiments in 2022. She doesn’t always find it necessary to consider a character’s sex or sexual orientation; specifically when undertaking the role of a lesbian conductor in TÁR.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, she said: “I didn’t think about the character’s gender—or her sexuality—at all. And I think I love that about the film. It just is. It’s a very human portrait, and I think that we have perhaps matured enough as a species that we can watch a film like this and not make that the headline issue. It just is.”

At first, I thought: okay, she doesn’t see lesbians as different to other women, which is mostly true. But, after more research into her interviews, I found that Blanchett would rather keep her lesbian characters’ sexual orientations ambiguous. As if it doesn’t matter, even if it’s one that’s underrepresented. Pretending that female characters who only express interest in women wouldn’t have thought about their sexual orientation, or weren’t more than likely lesbians, is ignorant. 

While it might take being a homosexual to understand what it means to constantly think about your sexual orientation, being an ally means acknowledging why we have to. Pretending that there is no difference between the treatment of lesbians and the treatment of heterosexual women, on the basis of sexual orientation, suits nobody but heterosexual women.

It’s important to name fictional characters as lesbian when the shoe fits. We’ve been erased enough. Lesbians not being into men actually makes our experiences starkly different to women who are. But lesbianism is spoken about by male-attracted women as if it is a temporary experience and not a marginalized class of people. That’s a problem.

Women can also fetishize lesbians. This is especially true when the woman doing the fetishizing is heterosexual, or a bisexual woman who only or mostly dates men. In that case, any sexual interaction with women more than likely involves the male partner, who can watch, or, if he’s not there, is okay with it because it “doesn’t count as cheating.”

When Blanchett was asked how she researched for the role of Carol, she replied, “I read a lot of girl-on-girl books from the period.”

“Girl-on-girl”? Really? Isn’t that a porn term? 

Blanchett is great in lesbian roles. I am not taking that away from her. But she disappointingly reflects the same pattern Julia Margulies did: male-attracted women refusing to acknowledge or articulate the differences between them and lesbians because it doesn’t suit them or, in this case, their careers. Using “girl-on-girl” just cements the lack of sensitivity and research.

I still think it is okay for heterosexual women to play lesbian characters. But we need to address the way lesbianism is spoken about by the women who do. When you choose to take on roles that finally represent lesbians, there should be an expectation that you respect the task. Part of that task is considering how you speak about lesbians in interviews about the film. With empathy and tact is a great start.

Whether a heterosexual woman gets to play a lesbian character or not should depend on if the actress is willing to undertake the necessary research. It depends on her sensitivity to gay and lesbian politics. She needs to understand the important role she plays in lesbian representation. It comes with great power. Flippancy about it is not okay.

The difference between a lesbian playing a heterosexual character and a straight woman playing a lesbian is this: lesbians are disempowered and fetishized by men and women for being lesbians. Heteronormativity means lesbians grow up unable to look away from heterosexuality. Whereas lesbians aren’t represented enough. We aren’t known enough. So when you are given the chance to provide much-needed lesbian representation, have the respect not to refer to us as “girl-on-girl.”

Don’t play a lesbian if you can’t even say the word.

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