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March 31, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Who Wants to Be a Celebrity Queer?

While coming out was once a career-ending move, celebrity queers today seem to be everywhere – much to our delight. As subjects of public adoration, do celebrity queers have an obligation to act as role models?

Coming out: career-killer?

Good luck to all the Ellens out there trying to convince their friends they’re straight. On Valentine’s Day, Juno star Ellen Page announced she is gay, doubling the number of out-and-proud Ellens swanning around Hollywood (alongside Ellen DeGeneres, for those who’ve been living under a rock since 1998).

In her speech, Page reflected that the post-Juno fame had made it difficult for her to be herself, blaming the “crushing standards” that the film industry imposed, and the “ideas planted in your head, thoughts you never had before, that tell you … who you have to be.” The difficulty of overcoming Hollywood’s heteronormativity is evident in all the talk surrounding Page’s actions – heralded as courageous and inspiring.

It took Page nearly seven years to come out to the world. Understandably. Aside from the naturally terrifying thought of standing on a stage, facing the world and saying “Hello, I’m gay”, there’s a chance that Page’s career is now in jeopardy. However, it seems that modern Hollywood is more accepting than the prudish oppression faced by Ellen DeGeneres in the late ‘90s.

From 1994 to 1998, DeGeneres starred in the sitcom Ellen – not unproblematically described as a “female Seinfeld.” 17 years before Page’s announcement, DeGeneres made her homosexuality public on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), Ellen’s show was cancelled soon after. A few years later, however, DeGeneres was back – her sexuality suddenly marketable as demonstrating America’s progressive, unified identity following the disaster of 9/11. While hosting the Emmy Awards, she asked: “what would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?”

Queer queer everywhere

Despite evidence that coming out can be a career-killer, mainstream media demands fodder for the general public’s hunger for queers. Sexuality has become a covetable commodity – as long as you can “make it work”, like Project Runway host, Tim Gunn. In a recent interview with Lorde about her upcoming Australian tour, radio DJ Kyle Sandilands questioned the nature of Lorde’s relationship with Taylor Swift – “I’m not talking about ‘Ellen together’; I’m talking about, like you guys are friendly right?” In response to Lorde’s accusation that Sandilands was implying that there was “something wrong with lesbians” by “not talking about ‘Ellen together’”, the shock jock gushed, “Oh my God no, I would love that!” The world would probably implode if Lorde and Tay Tay were together.

Neil Patrick Harris is the stereotypical ‘family values’ Hollywood gay. While he’s been applauded for coming out, arguably it’s a less onerous decision for him than it is for others, as he still embodies a heteronormative lifestyle. Married with kids, Harris paints the perfect picture of the nuclear family with a twist i.e. Hollywood gold.

For Megan Fox, bisexuality has become part of her personal brand. In a 2011 Esquire magazine interview, Fox famously stated she was “also a hypocrite: I would never date a girl who was bisexual, because that means they also sleep with men, and men are so dirty that I’d never want to sleep with a girl who had slept with a man.” Talk about having your cake and eating it too. Fox’s comments play into popular discourses surrounding bisexuality, which were articulated by Romi Klinger. Klinger was concerned about coming out as bi due to public “confusion with bisexuality, where I’m just crazy, or I’m insane, or I’m confused.”

What’s interesting is that the number of openly bisexual celebrities doesn’t seem to correlate to the number of openly bisexual commoners, in my social circles at least. Anna Paquin, Azealia Banks, David Bowie, Snooki, Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Billie Joe Armstrong and Clive Davis (to name a few) have all come out as bisexual. Bisexual actress Megan Mullally (of Parks and Recreation and Will & Grace fame) suggests “it’s not something that … people are ready for yet. I think if you ask the average guy on the street if he was innately bisexual, he’d be like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ and then he’d punch you in the face.” Perhaps we’re more accepting of bisexuality among the rich and famous because we already consider them different. The way celebrities come out often reinforces the idea of bisexuality as abnormal or confused – take Megan Fox as a prime example – which can be oppressive for those outside the limelight.

Queeros as heroes

Celebrities are useful as role models in at least a shallow respect. While frequently, role models are people closer to home, celebrities may set a general example for those who don’t personally know anyone queer. The jury’s still out (pun intended) on whether celebrities have (or should have) obligations as role models. We all saw how well it worked out for Miley. Ellen Page felt that she had “a personal obligation and a social responsibility” to disclose her sexuality. Page hoped that by being open about her sexuality, she might “help others have an easier and more hopeful time.” It’s likely that her actions will now be closely followed by tabloids looking for any excuse to cast her as a ‘bad’ role model.

Sure, celebrities are in a prime position to cast light on potentially controversial issues such as sexuality and broaden the scope of what is considered ‘normal’. But, especially with actors, it can be hard to tell how genuine they really are. Maybe it’s all a publicity stunt. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Any publicity is good publicity, right?

It seems as though celebrities are coming out all the time; however, representations of queerness in children’s entertainment is still apparently lacking. Where is queer Shrek? Especially for young children in the early stages of identity formulation, the ability to identify with others is important. If we’re all as liberal as it’s popular to claim (Westboro Baptist Church aside), then a full spectrum of gender should be presented to children.

As founder, lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the punk-rock band Against Me! Laura Jane Grace shows, specifically queer role models are not strictly necessary. Reading about Renée Richards, a transgender tennis pro, a 13-year-old Tom Gabel was inspired to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and at the age of 31, transitioned to Laura Jane Grace. While Richards’ story provided the spark, heterosexual women were the true embodiment of Gabel’s aspirations. At the age of five, Tom Gabel thought, “That’s me! That’s who I’ll be when I grow up,” while watching Madonna performing on TV. But just because specifically queer role models might not be strictly ‘necessary’, doesn’t mean it’s not about time Disney recognised and normalised queer. It’s not strictly ‘necessary’ to brush your teeth twice-daily. If non-heterosexual sexuality and gender identities were more prolific, Grace probably wouldn’t have had such a hard time at high school.

The contradiction between oppression and celebration of queer celebrities is most evident in the casting of trans* character, Rayon, in Dallas Buyers Club. Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a trans* woman. If Hollywood is really pro-queer, why not have a trans* actor as a trans* character? The same can be said of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. This, alongside the adoration of Neil Patrick Harris, seems to suggest that while being queer is increasingly ‘acceptable’, it’s only to the extent that individuals fit within restrictive stereotypes of queer or comply with capitalist heteronormative values – money and matrimony.


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