Do openly gay actors make TV viewers switch off? Are they less believable in straight roles? According to a new study, the answer is no.
Led by Paul Merrit, researchers from Clemson University try to answer the idea raised by several commentators in the past few years that out gay actors cannot play heterosexuals convincingly.
To test this, the researchers came up with an ingenious Facebook “three-condition” experiment. The researchers created a fictional Facebook page for a male actor that included a photograph and what they describe as basic demographic information that included, at turns, whether the actor identified as gay, straight or did not say.
They then asked 400 college students to watch a video audition where the actor gave a monologue. Participants, who were primed to believe the actor was gay, straight, or had chosen not to disclose the information, were then asked to rate the actor’s performance, their opinions of his personal characteristics, and whether or not they would cast the actor in their own productions.
What researchers found was that knowledge of an actor being gay did not cause the audience to necessarily perceive the actor’s performance as unconvincing — in effect, that there is no overriding perception bias that says a gay actor cannot be convincing in a heterosexual role.
While the researchers note that knowing an actor is gay did impact perceptions of his masculinity, there was no significant impact on rating the quality of the actor’s overall performance.
“Early research showed that people tend to perceive a direct connection between sexual orientation and established gender roles, especially in the entertainment industry,” Merritt is quoted as saying. “However, these new findings indicate that knowledge of an actor’s sexual orientation doesn’t necessarily cause their performance to be perceived in light of stereotypes about gays and lesbians.”
The research is published this week in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
Newsweek famously found itself the subject of ire in 2010 after one of its writers, himself gay, wrote a piece suggesting that knowledge of an actor’s being gay automatically made the actor less convincing in a heterosexual role.
More recently, the writer and professional agitator Bret Easton Ellis, most famous for American Psycho, decried rumors that tipped out actor Matthew Bomer, who has starred in Tru Calling, Chuck, The New Normal, Glee, White Collar, and stripper film Magic Mike, couldn’t play Christian Grey in the upcoming film version of the 2012 breakout erotica novel Fifty Shades of Grey because, he said, it wouldn’t be believable.
Okay I’ll say it. Matt Bomer isn’t right for Christian Grey because he is openly gay. He’s great for other roles but this is too big a game.
Ellis went on to clarify that he doesn’t know what acting is:
I am NOT discriminating Matt Bomer because of his sexuality. Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women. Get it?!?
And that it’s Matt Bomer’s fault because, though a good actor, he’s totally gay:
I think Matt Bomer is incredibly handsome and a good actor but I think he comes off totally gay in white Collar. And that is why no to CG… .
Bomer, 35, publicly acknowledged his sexuality last year during an awards speech in which he thanked his partner and their children.
Bomer may still be in the running for a part in the adaptation of the E. L. James bestseller among others, including The Vampire Diaries star Ian Somerhalder and Man of Steel actor Henry Cavill.
Ellis, meanwhile, has been ruled out as a scriptwriter for the film which is due out in 2014, with Terra Nova writer Kelly Marcel landing the job instead.
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