Sophia Davidson Gluyas, Independent Scholar |
… I can dance!
I thought Jack might like this dance.
I’m sure he would Rose,
I’m absolutely certain,
but who with?[i] (Doctor Who, 2005)
Captain Jack Harkness danced onto our screens in 2005 and was the gale of fresh bisexual air we so desperately needed. Jack’s first lines were ‘excellent bottom’ as he admired Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) through binoculars, (who, of course, was hanging onto a rope from a barrage floating about in a war-torn sky in the middle of the London Blitz). His male companion, embarrassed, suggested to Jack that perhaps there was a time and a place ‘sorry old man’, Jack responded… ‘I’ve got to go meet a girl’. Before quickly adding: ‘but you’ve got an excellent bottom too’.[ii] (Doctor Who, 2005)This moment is so refreshingly wonderful. Usually, this sort of mistakenly-accepted-compliment would result in a casually homophobic joke, with the humour derived from how terribly hilarious and inconceivable it would be to inadvertently hit on a man, but instead Jack announces his bisexuality and opportunistically uses the misunderstanding to grope his friend.
I think that Jack is the most important character in the ‘who-niverse’. Why? As John Barrowman explains:
…because Jack is omnisexual. In fact, Russell [T Davies] says he’s bisexual. He’s a bisexual hero. And he said it’s wonderful to have that kind of character played by an openly gay man on television.[iii] (Blastr.com, 2011)
Both these things are significant, and the combination of them tremendously so. Visibility is extremely important to LGBTQI people. Having characters to relate to provides strength, recognition, and understanding. Barrowman explains his own relationship to representation: ‘I’ve kind of made Jack a hero that I would like to have looked up to as a little boy… because as a little boy, I knew I was gay but I didn’t know what it was. Didn’t know who to talk to about it.’[iv] (Seattlepi.com, 2007) Bisexuality is so often rendered invisible by omission, and Jack is hyper visible, even if the ship he rode in on isn’t, (which, symbolically, explodes at the end of The Empty Child,[v] (Doctor Who, 2005) the episode we meet him in).
Jack is a hero, Jack is a flirt, Jack is sexy as hell and Jack is played by an openly gay man. This is astounding because it (out gay actors playing characters that enjoy sex with women) almost never happens. Sure, there’s Neil Patrick Harris in How I Met Your Mother, but, I feel like there is something curious going on in that example. The show seems to riff off Patrick Harris’s ‘real life’ sexuality and its anachronistic intersection with his character’s. He’s the camp-cad, and there is humour derived from that impossibility/juxtaposition. In any case, it’s an anomaly. Generally speaking, gay men don’t get lead (especially heterosexual lead) roles. It goes like this:
A heterosexual man can play a gay man.[vi]
An out gay man can (sometimes) play a gay man.[vii]
But an out gay man can’t play a heterosexual man.
Because the industry doesn’t think they’ll be believed, but it’s not the actor’s ability to play the part that is in question. It’s their off screen persona that has producers and directors and casting directors worried. The actor becomes a sort of extra text. Actors are asked not to come out, to have beards; ‘girlfriends’ are auditioned and cast. Casting directors mark gay actor’s files with a C (for camp) and those actors aren’t considered for leads.
There’s a whole play about it called The Little Dog Laughed.[viii] (Douglas Carter Beane, 2006) In the play, Mitchell, an emerging actor, is advised by his lesbian agent Diane to play straight. When Mitchell becomes involved with a man, Diane is concerned that Mitchell’s ‘slight recurring case of homosexuality’ will kill his career before it starts. Sadly, the play is funny because it’s true. If an actor does decide to come out it limits what roles are available to them ask Rupert Everett who has said: ‘I would not advise any actor… if he was really thinking of his career, to come out’,[ix] (Daily Mail, 2009) hell, ask John Barrowman:
I can’t walk into a network and go, ‘I want you to put me in a show where I’m a leading man,’ you know, as a gay man… One of the things I remember they said to me when I did ‘Central Park West’ for CBS; they told me not to talk about my personal life.[x] (Seattlepi.com, 2007)
It’s a really particular sort of homophobia that says: It’s impossible to (hetero)sexually fantasise about a gay actor. Actors have to play a role even when not in a role. They have a beyond-the-screen desirability (and availability) responsibility. They must maintain their heterosexual brand to be in the running for lead roles. Celebrity is a job and normativity is part of that job. It’s a performance of unperformative normativity.
The closeting pressure seems to be heavier on men, though women certainly suffer too. Ellen DeGeneres took years to get her career back in shape after coming out, and Ellen Page recently expressed how hard she found it in the Hollywood closet: ‘You have ideas planted in your head, thoughts you never had before, that tell you how you have to act, how you have to dress and who you have to be. I have been trying to push back, to be authentic, to follow my heart, but it can be hard.’[xi] (Time to Thrive Conference, 2014) It’s ever so slightly less of a career-suicide for a woman to come out and that in itself is another hue of lesbians-are-invisible homophobia. Queer men are believed in a way queer women aren’t. Women are also less dangerous out of the closet because their sexuality is considered a) eroticisable and b) negotiable (they just haven’t met the right man/it’s a phase/etc). If a man eroticises a lesbian it is considered a heterosexual practice and encouraged. However if a woman eroticises gay man it’s considered a queer act and therefore discouraged. Lesbians (as consumable by men) are part of heteronormativity and that’s why lesbian actresses can be out (and still get the odd lead role) in a way men can’t. The gay man is the more impossible object than the lesbian.
Apparently heterosexuals can’t fantasise about homosexuals. Except they can. And do. Captain Jack Harkness is proof of that. Barrowman has said: ‘I wanted kids to like him, and I wanted women, men, I wanted everyone to like him,’[xii] (Seattlepi.com, 2007) and like him we did. That, to me, is the really interesting part. Audiences didn’t seem to have any trouble lusting after him. At the moment coming out is still a brave and ultimately un-strategic thing for an actor to do. It shouldn’t be. That’s why Jack’s my hero, he’s bucking the system, but Jack is just the first step. We have to, as Barrowman implores:
…get across to the public that it’s no big deal. That it’s not an issue. Let them know that it’s OK to like characters like that… Or when someone, if they are openly gay and people know they’re up for a role and someone says, “Well they can’t play it, they’re gay.” We need the help from the media to help open those doors with the audience. Because the audience is ready for it. Come on.[xiii] (Seattlepi.com, 2007)
Hurry up future, I want to dance.
[i] The Doctor Dances, 2005, TV, BBC, UK.
[ii] The Empty Child, 2005, TV, BBC, UK.
[iii]John Barrowman, quoted by: Kathie Huddleston, John Barrowman on Torchwood nudity: ‘I’m proud of my bits and bobs’, Friday, July 8, 2011, https://www.blastr.com/2011/07/john_barrowman_on_getting.php (Accessed 5th May 2014)
[iv] John Barrowman in: Melanie McFarland, July 15, 2007, A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America’s “Torchwood.”, retrieved 7 May 2014, <http://blog.seattlepi.com/tv/2007/07/15/a-high-flying-conversation-with-john-barrowman-star-of-bbc-americas-torchwood/ >
[v] The Empty Child, 2005, TV, BBC, UK.
[vi] Melanie McFarland writes: ‘Barrowman came close to being Will to Debra Messing’s Grace, but lost the role because producers said he acted too straight. They then gave the role to Eric McCormack — a straight man.’ Melanie McFarland, July 15, 2007, A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America’s “Torchwood.”, retrieved 7 May 2014, <http://blog.seattlepi.com/tv/2007/07/15/a-high-flying-conversation-with-john-barrowman-star-of-bbc-americas-torchwood/ >
[vii] John Barrowman explains: ‘It’s OK to be a secondary character in a show and be openly gay and play a character, but most gay, flouncy characters are played by gay men.’ In: Melanie McFarland, July 15, 2007, A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America’s “Torchwood.”, retrieved 7 May 2014, <http://blog.seattlepi.com/tv/2007/07/15/a-high-flying-conversation-with-john-barrowman-star-of-bbc-americas-torchwood/ >
[viii] Douglas Carter Beane, The Little Dog Laughed, 2006.
[ix] Rupert Everett, quoted by: No author listed, 2 December 2009, ‘Coming out as a gay actor ruined my career in Hollywood,’ says actor Rupert Everet, Daily Mail Reporter, 21 January 2014, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1232588/Rupert-Everett-Coming-gay-actor-ruined-career-Hollywood.html >
[x] John Barrowman in interview with: Melanie McFarland, A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America’s “Torchwood.”, July 15, 2007: http://blog.seattlepi.com/tv/2007/07/15/a-high-flying-conversation-with-john-barrowman-star-of-bbc-americas-torchwood/ (Accessed 7 May 2014)
[xii] John Barrowman in: Melanie McFarland, July 15, 2007, A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America’s “Torchwood.”, retrieved 7 May 2014, <http://blog.seattlepi.com/tv/2007/07/15/a-high-flying-conversation-with-john-barrowman-star-of-bbc-americas-torchwood/ >
[xiii] John Barrowman in: Melanie McFarland, July 15, 2007, A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America’s “Torchwood.”, retrieved 7 May 2014, <http://blog.seattlepi.com/tv/2007/07/15/a-high-flying-conversation-with-john-barrowman-star-of-bbc-americas-torchwood/ >
Sophia Davidson Gluyas is an independent scholar and filmmaker who runs the monthly open-mic film night; Filmonik Melbourne. Her current research is on lesbian visibility in 1990s Australian cinema. Her recent publications include: ‘Dancing Federation Steps: A (queer) lesbian reading of Strictly Ballroom’, Assuming Gender, 4:1 (2014), 24-40, and ‘Missing the Lesbian and the Missing Lesbian: A Study of the Forgotten Lesbian in 1970s Australian Cinema’, Intimacy, Violence and Activism: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives on Australian History and Society, Edited by Graham Willett and Yorick Smaal, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, 2013. This is Sophia’s second contribution to Deletion, her thoughts on fandom’s resistance to a female Doctor are part of Episode 2.