'Glee' vs. 'Newsweek': What's Missing in the Controversy

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Late last month Newsweek published a now-notorious article about gay actors playing straight characters in theater, TV, and film. Author Ramin Setoodeh asserted, "While it's OK for straight actors to play gay (as Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger did in Brokeback Mountain), it's rare for someone to pull off the trick in reverse." Immediately, LGBT media—news sites like Queerty—and Internet commenters took the author to task for a line of argument they found offensive.

Your response to the story might depend on which of Setoodeh's opinions you choose to consider (there are several, and they don't always match up). The piece's overall thesis is that, for whatever reason, gay actors are not successful in straight roles—whether that's the audience's fault or the actors'. Setoodeh singles out and criticizes the performances of Jonathan Groff in Glee and Sean Hayes in the Broadway musical Promises, Promises!. After the piece ran, Setoodeh insisted that he wasn't saying gay actors were incapable of playing straight roles, but instead was raising the notion of audience expectation—if an actor of George Clooney's stature were to come out of the closet, would he continue to succeed in heartthrob roles?

If this were Setoodeh's only point, perhaps the story would not have been received so poorly. But it's not. For one thing, Setoodeh, who is openly gay, reveals a particular fixation on an actor's personal life with regard to his performance.

Consider this sentence from Setoodeh's article: "For all the beefy bravado that Rock Hudson projects on-screen, Pillow Talk dissolves into a farce when you know the likes of his true bedmates." Bingo. Setoodeh, apparently, can't seem to separate the "beefy bravado" on screen from Hudson's personal life, and in effect, he's answered his own George Clooney question about audience reaction. But just because Setoodeh has this personal problem with separating an actor's personal life from the roles he plays, of course, does not mean all of America does.

All this considered, the article drew relatively little attention when it was first published; the niche of LGBT media and online commentators criticized the piece, and the topic was dropped.

About ten days passed. And then, suddenly, people were talking again—this time, Kristin Chenoweth, beloved Tony- and Emmy-award winning actress, posted an extended response to the article on the website Autostraddle. Chenoweth wrote that she "was shocked on many levels to see Newsweek publishing Ramin Setoodeh's horrendously homophobic 'Straight Jacket,' which argues that gay actors are simply unfit to play straight." A few mainstream news blogs, like New York magazine, began picking up the story with the Chenoweth angle.

In a matter of days, the story exploded. Perez Hilton reprinted Chenoweth's response on his blog and threw in his own ire at Setoodeh. Other actors, including Cheyenne Jackson and Bryan Batt, began to dissect and refute Setoodeh's arguments, and on Tuesday, Ryan Murphy, co-creator of Glee, wrote his own statement that called for a boycott of Newsweek.

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Adam Eaglin is a New York-based writer and editor. He previously worked in The Atlantic's Boston office.

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