The Actress’ Survival Guide to Playing Gay

Here at AfterEllen, I believe we have a multi-fold mandate, the most original of which has been to educate both our lay readers and Hollywood about lesbian and bisexual representation. As a specialized repository of minority-specific information, we can answer questions for actresses, writers, and producers such as: what would the life experiences of a lesbian character have been?

Has a certain type of character previously existed in the genre or is this an entirely new aspect and area of representation? What pitfalls and positive experiences have actresses had playing gay roles and what are the lessons learned from that? Because the answers to these types of questions span a dozen years and hundreds of articles, I’ve compiled the answers to some of the most important questions using AfterEllen’s own articles, providing a crash course for any actress taking on a lesbian or bisexual role.

What should I know about the experiences of lesbian and bisexual women?

Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t show up on the first day of filming the movie “Lincoln” and say, “People are people. I’m sure my experience as an Englishman born in 1957 has suitably prepared me to play US President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 as he grapples with the politicking necessary to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. No further research necessary!” Instead, Day-Lewis probably read extensively about Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, examined pictures,  looked into previous on-screen portrayals of Lincoln (FYI, I’m a fan of the movie from the same year “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Really.).

Presumably, Emma Stone researched Billie Jean King and the homophobic tennis environment in 1973 before filming “Battle of the Sexes.” It’s no secret that to understand a character, it’s important to understand the context in which that character lived or lives. Gay characters are not straight characters, and it’s the argument of this piece that any actress taking on a gay role should approach it with a mind to understanding those differences.

Every lesbian and bisexual woman goes through her own unique experiences in life, but there tends to be a number of collective experiences that many if not most lesbian and bisexual women have experienced that create a shared, common foundation that shapes how they perceive themselves, their place in society and even their relationship with film/TV. More particularly, these experiences tend not to have been shared by their heterosexual peers, which is why it’s important for any actress taking on a role touching these experiences to understand them. The most famous of these experiences is the experience of struggling to come to terms with one’s identity as a non-heterosexual, and the “coming out” process that by necessity follows.

TV in particular loves using the coming out storyline for its characters (movies slightly less so). Because it’s a common Hollywood theme, AfterEllen has written extensively on the subject. The following selection of articles give a good flavor of what coming out means to women and how “coming out” has been treated in Hollywood:

To truly understand the gay experience in the United States, however, requires more than just familiarity with the idea of “coming out.” It’s important to also understand the almost universal feeling of social isolation that gay people feel, particularly during their formative years. Most lesbians weren’t out in high school, but figured out they were lesbian sometime between puberty and their early twenties. Many pretended to be straight and even dated boys because they feared being kicked out by their families or ostracized by their friends. They knew these were very real possible consequences of coming out or being outed because they heard these horror stories all the time, either secondhand, firsthand, or because they saw it on screen.

At the same time, although they had to put up a facade of heterosexuality as a protective mechanism, most nevertheless sought out exposure to the community: they rented gay-themed movies in secret and searched for anything gay they could find on the internet or in print. Their crushes were necessarily secret and almost always unrequited. Even if they somehow overcame and odds and got a girlfriend, they then faced systemic discrimination: they couldn’t go to high school dances because most schools would have refused to sell them tickets or would have physically barred them from walking through the door with a same-sex date.

Since gay marriage wasn’t legalized until 2015, “the dream” as a teenage lesbian was graduating, finding other lesbians and hopefully finding someone to eventually date. Depending on the year and how progressive the area where they lived, it was highly likely that there wasn’t another openly gay person anywhere in their life.

As adults, women in lesbian relationships continue to face challenges generally not faced by heterosexual couples, to include the constant risk of being assaulted on the street, fired at will, kicked out of housing, or being denied the ability to adopt on the basis of sexual orientation. Ostracism by friends, family, and coworkers remains a concern for those who are still closeted, and those who are out must constantly consider the threat of discrimination in many areas. Although most adult lesbians have been able to find their community and feel less alone, the sense of being “other” in a heteronormative society never can be fully overcome.

What is the history of lesbian and bisexual representation on screen?

The representation of lesbians and bisexual women on TV and in movies has changed significantly in the last two decades, and for the better. Understanding the historical context and evolution of representation equips actresses to help combat negative tropes and speak intelligently about Lesbian representation, as well as understand their own role in this tapestry of characters and storylines. The evolution of representation can very roughly be described as:

Everything pre-2000: There are a handful of lesbians and bisexuals in movies (and eventually TV) each decade and they are by and large killed in horrible ways or die alone, a more or less subconscious reminder to viewers that anything but heterosexuality is a perversion of nature that merits terrible consequences. Notably, until the 80s, many lesbians are predators intent on seducing housewives and present easily defeated “threats” to male masculinity. After 1980, some indie films offer a glimmer of hope to non-heterosexual viewers, but these films come years apart. The best word to describe pre-2000s representation is hopeless, because Hollywood offers little hope of a happy ending for lesbians and bisexual women.

This is a book, but seriously, what is that one on the left even doing?

Early 2000s: On TV, a few lesbians start to appear as recurring characters, but in an inexplicably common trope, most bisexual female characters are all crazy or evil killers or both. In movies, lesbians remain mostly non-existent or used for the male gaze…unless the movie is Oscar bait like “The Hours” or “Monster.” The best word to describe early 2000s representation is WTF, because an entire minority population should not be categorized in a dichotomy of either “crazy” or “invisible.”

Mid-2000s: The mid-2000s mark the turning point for lesbian and bisexual representation. On TV, “The L Word” offers for the first time an entire niche show just for lesbians and bisexuals, while lesbian and bisexual characters suddenly start appearing more commonly across all genres and networks, particularly as teenage characters…although all the bisexuals seem to end up with men. Lesbian and bisexual characters all but disappear off the big screen for a while in mainstream films but become more common in indies. The best word to describe mid-2000s representation is change, because this was the first time that visibility started to really make progress.

Early 2010s: There is a relative explosion of lesbian and bisexual characters both on TV and in movies, although the movies remain mostly indies. Lesbian and bisexual characters are now a regular part of TV shows. The best word to describe early 2010s representation is choices, because suddenly lesbians and bisexual women could choose from multiple characters to watch rather than being forced to watch the handful of characters on each season.

After the mid-2010s: All the while the community was successfully battling tropes like “But not Too Bi” and “All Bisexuals are Crazy Killers,” it turns out that TV had been quietly massacring its lesbian and bisexual characters in a massive genocidal orgy. Approximately 25-30% of all lesbian and bisexual female characters who have ever been on US TV have been killed off, a rate 5x higher than would be proportional compared to straight characters.

In 2016, the gay community raises hell to bring attention to this “Bury Your Gays” trope, which is then immediately ameliorated in 2017. 2017 becomes a banner year for representation on TV, with the most LGBT characters ever. However, while the number of lesbian and bisexual characters on TV overall is growing, there’s no significant growth in the amount or quality of screen time in movies.

The magnitude of the problem can be summarized as follows: in 2016, just one “horny lesbian” animated taco accounted for 11% of lesbian representation in the top 100 highest-grossing films. Although today lesbian and bisexual representation is the best it’s ever been, Hollywood still sees lesbians as box office poison for its most hotly anticipated movie releases. As a result, these characters are still mostly relegated to very secondary characters, or else indie movies. Thus the best word to describe early representation today is change, because more change is still necessary.

How do I engage with the lesbian community?

Social media has vastly changed how fans interact with their favorite shows and actresses (although generally less so with movies) in the last several years. For actresses who want a social media presence, this can be a double-edged sword: 95% of social media users are warm, supportive, and fun…but the other 5% can be rude, stalkerish, or trolls, and often their voices seem to be louder than the other 95%. It’s up to each actress to decide how much she wants to interact with fandoms, but this article makes the case that an actress who wants to maximize her role and the impact of that role should “captain her ship” actively on social media and offers suggestions for how to do that.


What other resources should I look at?

A while ago, AfterEllen published “9 Tips for Straight Actresses Who Want to Play Gay,” which offers a few suggestions of some movies and characters to watch for inspiration.

AfterEllen supports all actresses who contribute to our community by taking on lesbian and bisexual roles and we thank you for it!