Though LGBTQ people have existed since time immemorial, they’ve only recently begun to receive a fair amount of representation on film and TV. Still, Hollywood has a knack for straightwashing LGBTQ characters and historical figures, reinforcing heteronormativity when it can.
Below, we highlight some recent examples of straightwashing in film and TV.
What Is Straightwashing?
Straightwashing is when LGBTQ people are portrayed as or made to appear straight (and/or cisgender). Essentially, straightwashing involves erasing someone’s LGBTQ identity to make them fit into heterosexual expectations and norms.
Hollywood isn’t the only one guilty of straightwashing – history also has a long, well, history of straightwashing important figures and icons who have experienced same-sex relationships or love in their lifetimes.
Here are some examples of how straightwashing happens:
- Portraying canonically LGBTQ characters in books or graphic novels as straight or ambiguously queer in TV or film adaptations
- Making LGBTQ characters “more palatable” to straight audiences by refusing to acknowledge their gender identity and “toning down” their gender expression to assimilate with heteronormative culture
- Removing depictions of same-sex kisses and relationships in an attempt to make media more “child-friendly” and acceptable to a wider audience
- Altering promotional materials to hide LGBTQ characters or storylines to make LGBTQ relationships appear straight, such as in the case of Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name
- Casting straight actors in LGBTQ roles
- Omitting stories of same-sex relations experienced by historical figures in books, media, and learning materials
The Problem With Straightwashing
The LGBTQ community has had (and continues to have) a long history of marginalization and underrepresentation. Straightwashing further marginalizes the community and relegates LGBTQ people to the sidelines – stripping them of narratives that could help them better understand and connect with the parts of their identities that are deemed “wrong” or “abnormal”.
Straightwashing reinforces the idea that LGBTQ stories are not relatable, important, profitable, or necessary enough to depict in the media. It also perpetuates the notion that depicting LGBTQ stories, characters, and relationships is somehow controversial and inappropriate, especially for younger audiences.
By depicting queer experiences on film and TV or by sharing historical accounts of LGBTQ people, artists and writers challenge the notion that being LGBTQ is not “normal”.
3 Examples Of Straightwashing In Film And Television
If you’re still not sure what straightwashing looks like, here are some noteworthy examples in recent years:
Albus Dumbledore In The Harry Potter And Fantastic Beasts Franchises
Before JK Rowling became a prominent voice for TERFs everywhere – upsetting millions of fans of her beloved Harry Potter series – she made an unprecedented move announcing that she “always thought of Dumbledore as gay”.
The Harry Potter series is notably devoid of any LGBTQ representation and lacking in diversity overall. So, unsurprisingly, fans were divided on the merits of this announcement. For some, making an off-hand comment about Dumbledore being gay after the series ended was too little too late. For others, it was a promising step towards better representation in her next works.
However, the Fantastic Beasts film franchise, which, in part, tells the story of a young Albus Dumbledore and his relationship with the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, turned out to be a major disappointment in terms of fleshing out the latter’s queerness. It wasn’t until the third installment, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, that Dumbledore’s sexuality was finally addressed – and it was a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment.
In the film, Dumbledore and Grindelwald butt heads over politics, with the latter wizard wanting to rid the world of Muggles and the former opposing his plan. When asked why Dumbledore had gone along with Grindelwald’s plans years ago, he responds, “I went along because I was in love with you”.
Later in the film, Dumbledore makes a few more “we were in love” comments to other characters, but that’s as far as it goes for the much-hyped and long-awaited gay storyline. In fact, these sparse mentions of the characters’ relationship were completely edited out of the Chinese release without affecting the narrative.
Jughead Jones In The TV Adaptation Of Riverdale
When The CW announced that it would be doing a live-action reimagining of the beloved Archie comics, Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead Jones, told Teen Vogue that he “did a lot of research on” and was “fighting for Jughead’s sexual identity to become highlighted in future episodes”.
The sexual identity in question was asexuality – Jughead canonically identified as asexual in Jughead No. 4, the fourth installment in the new Jughead comics series created by Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson.
“I hope that huge corporations like The CW recognize that this kind of representation is rare and severely important to people who resonate with it. That demands representation. It would be a wonderful thing if that were the case,” Sprouse told Teen Vogue.
However, as many fans of Riverdale now know, Jughead’s asexuality was never addressed in the series. Despite the clamor for an asexual Jughead and Sprouse’s alleged attempts to point The CW in the right direction, Jughead was eventually depicted as allosexual (i.e., feeling sexual attraction toward others).
Valkyrie In Thor: Ragnarok
Valkyrie, the canonically bisexual warrior maiden of Asgard, became a permanent character in the Thor film series – much to the excitement of fans. However, even though Valkyrie has had a same-sex relationship in the comics, the film version hasn’t had much time to explore her romantic relationships or even discuss her sexuality.
According to Rolling Stone, the actress who portrays Valkyrie, Tessa Thompson, convinced director Taika Waititi to shoot a scene that alluded to Valkyrie’s sexuality. But Waititi said the scene had to be cut because “it distracted from the scene’s vital exposition”.
Appearing in a Marvel Studios panel at San Diego Comic-Con, Thompson spoke up again about Valkyrie’s character, saying, “First of all, as king, as new king [of Asgard], she needs to find her queen. So, that will be the first order of business.”
However, disappointed fans have noted that Valkyrie’s search for a queen gets sidelined in the new film Thor: Love and Thunder. Though star Natalie Portman had called the film “so gay” on the press tour, it turns out that she might have been referring to the unremarkably tame hand-holding scene between two same-sex sentient rock creatures.
The Bottom Line
LGBTQ stories and experiences should not be hidden away because there is nothing shameful, scary, or controversial about them. It’s important to learn how to spot straightwashing and challenge the erasure of LGBTQ people in the media and history.