'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.

The day after Murphy's call to boycott, more than two weeks after the article actually ran, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation finally stepped in. They called for an apology from Newsweek and the GLAAD president himself harshly criticized Setoodeh. Addressing the controversy, Setoodeh appeared on evening news shows to defend himself and Newsweek released a brief statement, dismissing criticism. Neither Newsweek or Setoodeh have yet to issue any sort of apology.

Since then, nearly every major news outlet has picked up the story in some manner as the furor continues to grow. Even more public figures—like Dustin Lance Black, Oscar-winning screenwriter—have spoken out against Setoodeh in the harshest of terms. Just yesterday, the Screen Actors Guild released another statement, defending gay actors and, once again, criticizing Setoodeh.

In all of this, it seems that Chenoweth's voice was the most influential; if she—a straight actress held in high esteem—had not spoken out against the article, would the backlash have gained traction? We'll never know. What we do know, however, is that it took a number of famous actors and the creator of a hit TV show to criticize the article for GLAAD to say anything.

The mission of GLAAD is to find and bring attention to stories like these and push back, but GLAAD's placement in the backlash timeline is curious, because it seems a touch opportunistic. Chenoweth and Murphy did all the work in bringing attention to the problematic elements of the article, and it was not until major media began covering the story that GLAAD stepped in to restate what others had already said. Shouldn't it be the opposite? Shouldn't GLAAD drum up attention to offensive statements or homophobia so that the mainstream media notices? Where were they in the previous two weeks, when—if it were not for Chenoweth—they could have had an actual impact in drawing attention to article?

At this point, instead of—or in addition to—reiterating the problems and piling on an attack of Setoodeh, organizations like GLAAD could use their resources and influence to refocus the conversation and give criticisms a greater level of nuance and actual purpose. GLAAD could, for instance, take Newsweek more generally to task for its recent history of coverage of LGBT issues, not just this particular article, or examine larger trends of coverage of this particular topic in the media with regard to gays and lesbians in entertainment.

With news that Setoodeh has accepted an invitation by Murphy to visit the set of Glee (a show of which Setoodeh is a professed fan), I have an odd feeling that we're giving this writer exactly what he wants—more attention. So let's do the opposite, and continue the conversation while moving on from an article that, many can agree, was misguided and, frankly, just poorly written.

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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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