British actor and comedian Jack Whitehall has been caught up in a firestorm after it was revealed that he is playing the first major openly gay character in a live action Disney film.
The 30-year-old, who is – as far as we know – straight, recently announced that he had been cast in the movie Jungle Cruise, alongside Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. The Sun then sparked a backlash when it reported that he is playing a “hugely effete, very camp and very funny” gay man.
A row over the casting quickly emerged on social media, focused on two issues. Firstly, some were angry at the seemingly stereotypical nature of the role – yet another camp gay character for audiences to laugh at. Then, perhaps more significantly, many were upset that once again a straight man is set to play a gay character in a Hollywood movie.
The issue of people who are not from minority or marginalised communities playing these kinds of roles has become a subject of growing controversy. Most recently, The Avengers star Scarlett Johansson pulled out of the film Rub & Tug over a furore about her, as a cisgender woman, taking on the role of a transgender man.
Commenting on Twitter about Whitehall’s part, openly gay actor and activist Omar Sharif Jr shared the opinion of many others: “Really @Disney #JungleCruise ? Your first significant gay role will be played by a straight white man perpetuating stereotypes? Fail! This ship should sink.”
No everyone agrees, of course. Some people, LGBTQ and otherwise, feel that acting is about playing characters that may not relate to an actor’s real life and that the best person for the job should get the role, regardless of their personal identity.
“I am a gay man and I am so excited to see you portray a gay character,” commented one person on Whitehall’s Instagram post. “Please don’t listen to any naysayers. I just love your work. It is called acting for a reason and I wish people today would get that and stop this politically correct B.S.”
Writing for GQ, Justin Myers argued, however, that Whitehall’s new role is not just any LGBTQ character but, as a Disney first, is also a major moment for popular culture and diverse representation.
“It’s a sad truth there are fewer gay roles, especially in family movies like this, and having gay actors play them can help normalise the gay experience to a guaranteed global audience,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge the impact gay characters, and the people who play them, can have. They’re not like other roles; there is more hope and responsibility attached to them, and this one in particular is a landmark.”
Myers added: “This role, this chance, this potential for glory, all should have been offered to a gay actor. The character and the audience deserve it.”