Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Tuesday, July 5, 2022
Hanks is not motivated by a fear that gay actors are not getting roles in Hollywood movies. He is motivated by the desire to avoid, in his words, “inauthenticity”—presumably a critical comment on the dramatic representation of the suffering of gay men by a straight actor.
Tom Hanks recently declared that if Philadelphia, the movie that earned him one of his Oscars, were made today, it would no longer be acceptable for him, as a straight man, to play the gay lead. This comment has provided low-hanging fruit for conservative critics. It is, after all, ridiculous that a profession predicated on its members earning their livings while pretending to be people they are not should become prissy about certain types of role-playing.
Hanks has likely not reflected at any great depth on the significance of his statement. He is simply engaging in some well-intentioned pandering to current political tastes, doing little more than reciting the liturgy of the powers, a public performance that reflects and reinforces the cultural and political priorities of the day. Hanks is not motivated by a fear that gay actors are not getting roles in Hollywood movies. He is motivated by the desire to avoid, in his words, “inauthenticity”—presumably a critical comment on the dramatic representation of the suffering of gay men by a straight actor.
To respond to Hanks simply by pointing to the absurdity of requiring actors to have personally experienced what they represent on the screen is legitimate, but it also misses the broader significance of his assertion. His comment is not simply absurd; it is also very revealing about our current cultural politics.
Hanks’s comment is a function of the fact that perceived victims of the old norms for sex and sexual behavior now enjoy a privileged status in our culture. As a result, even a straight man playing a gay man in a piece of fictional drama risks being seen as indulging in an act of imperialist aggression, an appropriation and subversion of another’s victimhood. And Hanks is far from innovative in his liturgical response. Eddie Redmayne has offered similar repentance for playing the lead role in The Danish Girl. And other storms—for example, Laurence Olivier’s portrayal of Othello—indicate a similar squeamishness with actors and roles that touch on the current nature of racial politics. So far, so predictable. But Hanks’s comment reveals not simply the priorities but also the contradictions of our culture’s politics.