The Queer Business of Casting Gay Characters on U.S. Television

The Queer Business of Casting Gay Characters on U.S. Television Abstract Casting for gay roles in U.S. television occupies an important space within media production studies because it exposes the patterns involved with who is allowed to work within the culture industries. Drawing on literature on casting, queer labor and personal interviews with casting directors, this article explores the ways casting functions as a practice that doggedly works within “best actor” discourses that insulate the television industry from charges of deliberately failing to cast gay actors in projects. Ultimately, this article centers the import of queers’ ability to fashion their own self-images and re-asserts the specificity of gayness as an identity category. This article also exposes the three-tiered discursive spiral in which casting is bound: defensive truth, subterfuge and queer possibility. Introduction In 2016 and 2017, the television mini-series Urban Myths experienced backlash when Joseph Fiennes, a white actor, was cast as Michael Jackson, ultimately resulting in the SKY network deciding not to air the finished episode. When Jeffrey Tambor was cast as transwoman Maura on Transparent, many were unhappy with Tambor, a cisgender man, being cast, criticizing the production for failing to cast a trans* actor in the role. These cases gesture toward the verisimilitude expected for racially marked and trans* roles, but no such advocacy exists for casting gay roles. GLAAD’s (2017) “Where We Are On TV” report revealed that there were 175 gay male characters across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms during the 2017–18 television season, however the report does not focus on whether the actor embodying the role is gay. This article takes GLAAD’s report as its nexus by exploring the disjuncture between the number of gay roles on television and the sexuality of the actors chosen to embody such roles. Perhaps the ongoing campaign to “normalize” gayness has resulted in the industrial perception that playing a gay character only involves mediating “fair, accurate and inclusive representations… as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination” but not the politics of casting such roles (Khan, 2011, p. 237). However, although SAG-AFTRA formed an LGBT actor’s caucus in 2007, Badgett and Herman (2013) found that the majority of its 5,700 member respondents believe anti-LGB bias exists among casting directors, often exemplified in casting directors’ discriminatory comments about sexual orientation (p. 19). Badgett and Herman’s study illuminates the ways that even as LGB representation may have achieved a nominal sense of parity, LGB actors still work within environs that impede gainful employment. Wesling (2012) argues that “the production of sexual identity (…) is bound up in the way capital produces subjects accommodated to its own needs” (p. 1). The dogged suggestion that gay actors publicly come out as gay (couched discursively in liberation rhetoric) seems in sharp contrast to the ways being an openly gay actor can limit career opportunities. A gay Hollywood actor told me, “Right now, I’m doing my best to not make any public statements about my sexuality (…) at least until I can establish myself enough to where I don’t care about any adverse effects” (personal communication, January 10, 2016). His comments suggest the precarity of being gay in Hollywood whilst trying to maintain a viable career as an actor. It also suggests the central place of casting within LGBT representational and labor politics. Certainly, LGBT people often find work within the television industry as writers and showrunners, and LGBT images have mostly evacuated “negative” tropes, however, this article explores the ways hegemonic casting practices result in gay actors infrequently being cast in gay roles across media platforms. In addition, I illuminate the circumstances under which gay actors are deemed “best” for gay roles. The casting directors I interviewed for this article are ambivalent about whether the actor chosen to play a gay character identifies as such as long as they are the “best actor” for the part. As such, the principles that guide their casting decisions concomitantly employ a trifecta of interconnected discourses: defensive truth, subterfuge and queer possibility. Defensive truth provides a ready-made explanation for their decisions, even as they adhere to Turow’s (1978) theorization that television casting reinforces “the patterned, consistent manner in which certain groups are (…) portrayed” (p. 18). I am not suggesting that casting directors are “dupes,” but rather, that they, like gay actors, are caught within a discursive spiral in which their decisions need a readily defensible methodology to explain how they cast roles. In this way, the “best actor” discourse works to defend casting directors rather than necessarily explaining their casting decisions. Concurrently, “best actor” discourses employ subterfuge in their commercial ambivalences about the business of television. In denying that the innerworkings of the televisual marketplace come to bear on casting decisions, casting directors seek to maintain the “purity” of their casting process, when in fact, projects are often greenlit based on casting. Such decisions and evaluations of who is “best” for the role is ineffable and also elides that casting directors are freelance workers whose labor is unpaid unless/until they find the “best actor” as deemed so by the showrunner and sometimes studio executive(s). Lastly, the “best actor” discourse employs queer possibility in its promise that if gay actors are “good enough” to be understood as the “best actor,” then they, too, can be cast in both gay roles and non-gay roles. This article explores the ways this triumvirate works to uphold the hegemonic ways casting functions. Using personal interviews with casting directors from The New Normal (NBC, 2013–2014), The Real O’Neals (ABC, 2015–2017), Modern Family (ABC, 2010–), Grace & Frankie (Netflix, 2015–), and Will & Grace (NBC, 1998–2006; 2017–), as well as attendance at a panel on casting at the 2015 ATX TV Festival, I explore the ways casting functions within “best actor” discourses and insulates the television industry from charges of deliberately failing to cast gay actors in projects. The trouble with queer television activism In the wake of the Stonewall Riots, gay rights organizations began to protest the ways gay television images were fashioned. The Corner Bar (ABC, 1972–1973) was the first time television producers agreed to negotiate gay representations (Capsuto, 2000, p. 76). Additionally, in September 1977, the National Gay Task Force issued a call to have the Federal Communications Commission survey representations of gays on television, and the International Union of Gay Athletes demanded to meet with ABC to protest the ways gay men were represented on Soap (ABC, 1977–1981) (Brown, 1977). These early protests called for “correction” of the “negative” images, but not necessarily for gay people to be employed either as part of the writing/producing staff or as performers in these roles. Doyle (2016) describes the ways Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) began working with networks, showrunners and writers to police mediated images of homosexuality, ultimately leading to its “Where We Are On TV” reports (pp. 14–15). These reports counted the number of LGBT mediated images, but labor issues are/were not considered. Tongson (2017) highlights the problematics associated with quantitatively counting television’s gay representations, since such accounts “equate profit and advertiser approval with political progress” (p. 158). Thus, the shape of LGBT media activism differed sharply from the activisms of other identity groups like Chicanos, who were dually focused on image production and employment (Chon Noriega, 2000, p. 54). Instead, as Himberg (2018) observes, in LGBT media advocacy’s pursuit of diverse representations, activists paid scant attention to labor issues, believing that representation alone would lead to political change (p. 79). Certainly, research on parasocial relationships has gestured toward the ways queer televisibility can be politically beneficial with respect to attitudes about LGBT people, but labor issues retain their import alongside such a position (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, et al, 2006). Casting queerly Doty (1997) suggests one of the places queerness develops in media culture is among “influences during the production of texts” (p. xi). Doty’s theorization is useful in placing casting among the important nodes of production because it literally shapes the way queerness is represented and decoded by viewers. Mayer, Banks and Caldwell (2009) argue that casting directors are among the “cultural actors” whose practices should be considered within the political economy of Hollywood labor practices (p. 3). Warner (2015) adds that examining the machinations of casting practices helps demonstrate their integral position within studies of cultural production (p. 33). Herrera (2015) offers logistical and political frameworks for studying casting. Logistical analyses explore the fraught and irrational ways casting emphasizes “choice” while upholding particular hegemonic casting practices. Political analyses “advocate for specific interventions into such casting mechanisms as a means of achieving social, economic, or cultural goals beyond a particular production” (p. 58). Taken together, these scholars gesture toward the import of studying casting as a means to uncover an interrelated set of ideological and industrial factors that contribute to an understanding of televisual representation and its material effects on employment, activism and performance. While Schechner (2010) argues that aligning sexual orientation with casting decisions employs “a stupid realism,” his pluralistic approach to casting elides the problematics associated with the number of gay roles available and the infrequency with which gay actors are chosen to portray those characters and how employment, activism and performance are bound within casting (p. 29). Henderson (2013) articulates the ways a focus on queer images versus labor and performance exposes “the cultural costs of commercial representation [which] include (…) renewed accolades to nonqueer actors for brave gay performances (when queer actors can count on effacement (…) for playing straight characters)” (p. 120). Casting gay men in television begs the question, if gay men are not perceived as capable of playing heterosexual roles because they cannot believably “play it straight,” and they are often overlooked for gay roles (which typically go to “brave” heterosexual actors) where are gay actors’ employment options? Johnson (2001) asserts that gay people “have a need to exercise control over the production of their images so that they feel empowered” (p. 11). Johnson focuses on the specificity of LGBT people’s experiences and, by extension, the agency bestowed upon them to have access to and control of the ways their images are fashioned within media production. My argument here is not that gay people are necessarily underemployed within the culture industries writ large, or that only gay actors should be eligible to play gay roles. However, I am suggesting that gay actors are underemployed when considering the ratio of gay roles to casting openly gay actors to fill them. The double bind in which casting gay roles is caught concerns the concomitant de-valuation of queerness as a discrete and important identity category and a de-legitimation of gay actor’s abilities within the casting process. While Griffin (2017) suggests that gay identity is a political, consumerist and affective fiction, a position with which I agree, it is equally important to consider that gay identity development models advocate for the specificity of queerness as a discrete identity category (p. 1). Sedgwick (2008) gestures toward these tensions within her theorizations of a “minoritizing” and “universalizing” view of homosexuality. On one hand, the minoritizing view centers the importance of gayness as a discrete identity category experienced by a segment of the population which ultimately calls for a kind of separatism. On the other hand, a universalizing view suggests that notions of sexuality are important across a spectrum of sexualities (p. 1). Extending Sedgwick’s minoritizing view to casting practices would mean that only gay actors should be considered for gay roles. This logic suggests two positions. First, that gay identity cannot be effectively “put on” in order to perform a gay role. Second, such a view would suggest that if gay actors are infrequently construed as eligible for non-gay roles, then gay roles should be carved out as the terrain of gay actors. Sedgwick’s universalizing view would imply that talent and skill are most important within casting. The universalizing view is most closely associated with the discursive functions of “best actor.” This article argues that casting for gay roles should work toward a liminal space between these two poles. By employing Muñoz’s (1999) queer performance studies lens, this article emphasizes “the political force of performance (…) by queers,” stressing the import of gay actors playing gay roles (p. xiv). Shugart (2003) contends that male homosexuality in media is often “recoded and normalized as consistent with privileged male heterosexuality” (p. 68). Extending Shugart, I assert that in the service of normalizing mediated homosexuality, casting gay characters standardizes casting practices such that gayness is represented as conventionally masculine which then favors heterosexual male actors for those roles. Casting, thus, works to privilege heterosexual actors and the labor associated with convincingly playing gay characters. Simultaneously, casting directors’ double-speak exploits such inherent contradictions and insulates the industry from charges of not auditioning and casting gay actors. Conversely, gay actors can be removed from consideration within the discourse of looking for the “best actor”—who “just happens to be” heterosexual. The politics of “best actor” discourses and casting gay roles During the “Reflective Casting” panel at the 2015 ATX TV Festival, I asked about the ways casting functions vis-à-vis the politics of gay representation. Grace & Frankie casting director Tracy Lilienfield responded, “We never had one single conversation about whether anyone playing Robert or Saul [the series two gay characters] was actually gay. We just wanted the best actor.” Warner (2015) describes the best actor discourse as the fraught task of finding the best actor who can portray the best version of a fictional role. She argues, “assumptions and hiring decisions revolving around the best portrayal of (…) identities are tied up in cultural understandings of what the identities look like and, more important, how the identities can best be represented” (p. 4). However, Lilienfield continues “We needed someone who would ‘play’ on screen with Jane [Fonda] and Lilly [Tomlin].” Lilienfield reveals that it is not only the search for the “best actor” that guides her casting decisions—it is the best actor plus other intangibles, in this case, the desire to cast actors who were veterans in the field. In this way, “best actor” discourses are subterfuge. They work to ignore the commercial machinations of the televisual marketplace. Lilienfield could have cast veteran, out, gay actors like Richard Chamberlain or George Takei, but for whatever reasons, she did not. In looking for the best actor, and simultaneously subscribing to post-gay rhetoric, casting directors, like Lilienfield, are gatekeepers who can, and often do, prevent gay actors from getting work. When I asked the panelists about the ways a focus on gay roles rather than casting gay actors disenfranchises the labor of queers, Lilienfield suggested that if gay actors fail to find work within the culture industries, the problem lies with the actor, not the industry. She suggested “there are plenty of young gay actors who are not getting work for reasons other than them being gay”, a sentiment with which the other casting directors agreed (personal communication, June 5, 2015). For them, gay actors who fail to find work is an individual problem, not a systemic one. Lilienfield’s comments begin to expose the ways “best actor” discourses simultaneously employ defensive truths and queer possibilities with respect to casting: good actors get work regardless of their sexual orientation. Tinkcom (2002) argues that “we should keep in mind the forces of production under capital, particularly in terms of how capital seeks to treat all labor as undifferentiable” (p. 10). Within Lilienfield’s approach to casting and actors’ labor, the specificities of queerness are obfuscated by discursive contortions that locate gay male roles in an undifferentiated space whereby an actor’s known sexuality is inconsequential. In the process, when skill is centered, the “best actor” discourse often results in heterosexual actors playing gay roles. By making gay roles undifferentiated from non-gay roles, it precludes gay men from participating in the self-fashioning of their representation and removes “the opportunity for queers to use their labor to mark” television through acting and casting (Tinkcom, 2002, p. 10). Modern Family casting director Jeff Greenberg explained how casting adheres to best actor discourses, regardless of sexual orientation: It’s not our business to ask the actors what their sexual orientation is (…) Jesse was a very out actor but Eric, we didn’t know if he was gay or straight (…) You’re really not allowed to ask someone what their sexual orientation is in terms of employment. No one questioned it because it just seemed to work in terms of the acting and the relationship. (Personal communication, December 19, 2016) Greenberg illuminates his attempts to hew closely to the best actor discourse while simultaneously centering Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s gay star text and gesturing toward notions of industrial fairness in not asking actors whether they are gay. Casting directors, like Greenberg, revert to searching for the best actor without necessarily paying attention to an actor’s sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of the role they have been engaged to cast, because they suggest they cannot ask an actor’s sexual orientation (falsely hiding behind the prohibitions of Title IX, which do not currently protect LGBT people from employment discrimination). Thus, while casting directors suggest they cannot explicitly ask about actors’ sexual orientation, such a practice upholds implicit casting biases, often through “best actor” discourses. Casting the single gay man Two broad patterns emerge with respect to the ways single gay characters are cast within television. The first concerns the ways gay characters who can be reductively understood as “masculine” are cast. The second involves more flamboyant roles because of their close proximity to long-held historical gay stereotypes. This section explores casting approaches within these two broad types of single gay characters. An examination of the casting breakdown for Will Truman from Will & Grace is instructive vis-à-vis casting homonormative single gay characters and best actor discourses. In the casting breakdown Will is described as “an accessibly handsome, masculine (…) charming gay man” (Kendt, 2005, p. 36). Marrying the casting breakdown’s description of Will as “masculine” with Fiske’s (2006) assertion that casting is one of television’s representational codes that uses the ways everyday people are already encoded with a set of meanings that get consciously exploited by casting directors, the logic of casting Eric McCormack as Will becomes clearer (p. 4). Because television in the late 1990s attempted to decouple femininity and gayness, the encoding and centering of Will’s masculinity is significant. The politics of casting ultimately excludes gay actors from participating in the fashioning of self-images because of a pre-conceived notion of masculinity that is rooted in a desire to normalize mediated gayness. On one hand, such pre-conceptions would presumably only exclude gay actors who cannot convincingly convey “masculine.” On the other hand, the result is often that gay masculinity is construed as the terrain of heterosexual actors “playing gay.” During the “Reflective Casting” panel, the casting directors suggested that it is often difficult to find heterosexual actors willing to play gay roles. Will & Grace’s casting director Lilienfield inadvertently revealed the precariousness of playing gay in Hollywood. “We didn’t care that Eric [was gay] (…) Eric was plenty nervous and turned down the part (…) He said, ‘I know this is going to be a huge hit and I don’t know if I want this to be where I am perceived’” (personal communication, June 5, 2015). McCormack’s apprehension about being “perceived” as gay reveals the precariousness of playing gay on television. Casting director Jennifer Euston recounted, “I’m working on a show right now that has a gay part and a few straight actors turned it down because they don’t want to play gay” (personal communication, June 5, 2015). As White (1999) argues, casting is “already a reading of type; the audience performs a reading on another level, informed by cultural and subcultural codes, spectatorial experience of the star in other roles, and subsidiary discourses” (p. 149). In other words, part of the import of casting is that actors come to a text carrying the residues of roles they have previously played, as well as other paratexts (Fiske, 2006, pp. 8–9). These intertextual residues are particularly important when examining the material effects of casting gay roles. McCormack seemed keenly aware of the residues that would attach to his star text. His initial refusal to take the role was tethered to the view that it might limit the kinds of roles he would be offered after Will & Grace, not a concern that another gay actor might be able to perform the role better. In casting McCormack as Will, Lilienfield presumably cast the “best actor” for the role, which presumably found him “best” because of the ways he would have to labor to “honestly” embody the role, labor a gay actor in a gay role is not presumed to have to undertake. At the same time, in casting Will & Grace, Lilienfield revealed that “Jack was written much more stereotypically gay. I knew Sean [Hayes] (…) I knew I had to have him play [Jack]. I knew that was going to be more flamboyant and we were maybe going to take some flack for it. But actually, we took flack for none of it.” While Hayes was not publicly out, Lilienfield seems to rely on her knowledge of him (and perhaps his homosexuality) as a way to mitigate the “flack” that the production anticipated for trafficking in stereotypes of gayness. In this way, Hayes’ queer “use value” supports capitalism’s production of queer subjects as a mechanism to accommodate its own economic and cultural desires (Mullen, 2012, p. 125). Lilienfield’s comments demonstrate the ways queer actors are utilized to insulate the industry from charges of stereotypically representing gay characters because, presumably, the representation is unable to be considered “offensive” because a gay man is embodying the otherwise flamboyant role. In this way, the assumptive stance is that if a gay actor doesn’t mind playing a flamboyantly gay character, why should viewers mind? The casting breakdown for ABC’s The Real O’Neals is also instructive with respect to more flamboyant gay characters. In the breakdown, Kenny is described as: (…) a smart, funny, likeable kid who has always felt like a little bit of an outsider in what appears to be the perfect All-American family. He hasn’t mentioned to anyone in his family that he’s gay (…) However, when it is revealed that he’s not the only one in his family who’s keeping a secret, he decides to come out. (personal communication, January 19, 2017) In casting the role, co-casting directors Jill Anthony and Gillian O’Neill saw no differences in the ways they cast Kenny and the other roles on the show. Specifically, O’Neill suggested that “In terms of whether it be a gay or a straight role, I think it’s just whoever comes in and connects with the role, regardless of the orientation of it” (personal communication, January 19, 2017). O’Neill’s comments center not only a lack of gay specificity with respect to gay roles versus heterosexual ones, but also reify the best actor discourse, which is inherently nebulous, something casting directors “know when they see it.” O’Neill’s suggestion that a “connection” is key to a successful audition is unquantifiable. Casting logics, then, remain difficult, if not impossible to pin down, and casting for gay roles makes no space for the specificities of queer actors being allowed to act out queer stories. As Warner (2016) argues, casting “is a learned and socialized professional skill. Instead of knowing the right actor when you see her, casting directors understand that the ‘right’ person must adhere to the standardized codes, conventions, and expectations of the industry they service” (p. 178). “Best actor,” then, is subterfuge. Casting directors generally, and Anthony and O’Neill specifically, seem keenly aware of the ways they are casting for a televisual product that carries cultural meaning that viewers are constantly re-negotiating. Anthony suggests they and the series producers “really wanted to have a gay actor for the part” (personal communication, January 19, 2017). I argue that part of the reason they wanted a gay actor in the role is because the part, as written, could have hewed too closely to stereotypic imaginings of gayness with respect to Kenny’s general feyness. Noah Galvin, the actor ultimately cast as Kenny, worked to mitigate the possibility that the character’s feyness would be read as a “negative” representation because of his gayness. Anthony said, “Noah was very special (…) when you saw him on screen up against the other choices, it seemed very obvious who was the right person for the role” (personal communication, January 19, 2017). I suggest the casting directors understand the ineffableness of “specialness” as rooted in Galvin’s ability to know Kenny’s story as both a person and an actor. I contend that his ability to read as “special” to The Real O’Neals’ casting directors was his ability to draw on portions of his queer identity in order to create a representation of queerness that troubled queer respectability politics. At the same time, the utility of Galvin’s gayness for the role cannot be discounted. Any criticism of the role and its closeness to feyness could potentially become tethered to Galvin as a gay man playing a gay role. As Butler (2011) summarizes, “Without characters, there could be no television narrative and no television stars. Correspondingly, without actors there could be no characters” (p. 33). Butler sutures the ways actors, the characters they play and their celebrity status become inextricably linked within cultural production. In short, disapproval of Kenny could be construed as a critique of Galvin. The Real O’Neals producer Todd Holland told The Advocate(2016) that he felt strongly about the necessity for Kenny to be embodied by a gay actor. “As a gay man, this is a landmark role on network television. It should not be played by a straight man” (para. 2). For Holland, the import of televising a lead gay teenage character on network television is far too important to allow that responsibility to fall on a heterosexual actor. The cultural meaning of The Real O’Neals is not just about the image on the screen, but also about the actor embodying the role. Hunter (2016) argues that the creation of characters should be imagined as a symbiotic “dialogue between the writers and performer as coauthors” (p. 51). From this perspective, Galvin is as much a part of the authorship process as the series’ writers. In other words, the subjectivity and lived experiences of gay actors retain their import because gay actors can bring elements of their life to bear on the words on the page. Casting queer binary oppositions and erasing queer labor Gay men and lesbians are increasingly being depicted within television in romantic relationships. As such, examining the ways gay couples are cast within televisual discourse illuminates a fascinating tale of the ways casting the “best actor” collides with an industrial unwillingness to cast two gay actors as love interests. In a Huffington Post (Hughes, 2013) article, Modern Family casting director Greenberg suggests that ABC wanted openly gay “Jesse Tyler Ferguson to play the more flamboyant Cam, rather than buttoned-down Mitchell” (para. 3). While Ferguson was ultimately cast as Mitchell, the network’s desire to cast him as a more flamboyant gay character points to the existing ideological patterns that doggedly complicate the veneer of neutrality within best actor discourses. Typically, gay actors playing gay roles are cast in roles that feature stereotypically feminine behaviors, as I demonstrated with the gay characters Jack from Will & Grace and Kenny from The Real O'Neals. These actors, and the characters they portray thus labor to uphold existing tropes of “real world” gay men, while the more heteronormative gay characters are typically cast with heterosexual actors pretending to be gay. More importantly, these heterosexual actors are often industrially and critically applauded for the labor associated with convincingly embodying gay characters and upholding the fiction inherent in casting. In the case of Modern Family, Eric Stonestreet, an actor who has won two Primetime Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, centers the representational efficacy and labor associated with playing gay. Presumably, the work of being gay while playing gay is imagined as disconnected from notions of “talent.” In a July 17, 2012 appearance on Ellen, Stonestreet works to center the labor associated with playing Cameron: I say that the process [of becoming Cameron] begins with me every day going into my trailer and seeing what shirt the wardrobe department has laid out for me. I always examine the cuffs to see what the cuffs are. Then I put on my loafers and then I go get my hair done. This [pointing to his hair] took three minutes. Cameron’s hair takes 25 minutes. Here, Stonestreet centers his labor. Presumably, his co-star (and on-screen husband) Ferguson can play a gay character easily because he is gay in “real” life. For Stonestreet, there is labor involved in his playing a gay character as he meticulously details when describing his process for getting into character. The difference in the labor associated with playing gay is positioned as expressly different from the “real” Stonestreet. By foregrounding his labor, Stonestreet participates in the logics of “best actor” discourses which suggest that in order to approximate some semblance of verisimilitude, the best actor is required to labor more than if a gay actor was cast in the role, thus attempting to erase queer labor—the conscious, open work of queer actors in gay roles. Greenberg further suggests that part of casting Cameron and Mitchell was choosing actors who were not flamboyant in the roles. He recalls that in the breakdowns, Cameron and Mitchell were described as having a “relationship to the core family and we did very much signify that these characters were not flamboyant. We wanted them to be more grounded in reality” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Central to Greenburg’s assertions is that flamboyancy in gay men, in the purview of the series creators and by extension, his role as casting director, had become untethered from notions of “realness” and authenticity, despite the robust availability of the stereotype. However, a further examination of the casting breakdown, as posted on writer Falk’s (2011) blog, is instructive with respect to the ways casting functioned on Modern Family. While the breakdowns for Cameron and Mitchell both center their gayness, Mitchell is described as “emotionally-restrained” while Cameron is described as being “free with [his] emotions.” While, certainly such a set of descriptors for a couple within a series sets the sitcom stage through comedic binary oppositions, I argue that this opposition is also coded in the same way Will Truman was imagined as “masculine” in the casting breakdown for Will & Grace. In this instance, Cameron and Mitchell are not understood as “feminine” and “masculine” but instead the breakdown utilizes coded language that ultimately structures the ways each character is initially understood from a casting perspective. This semiotic understanding was clear to Ferguson, who producers initially wanted to cast as the “free with emotions” Cameron. In an interview with Out magazine (2011), Ferguson recalled that he “was immediately drawn to Mitchell, but [Modern Family producers] really only wanted to see [him] for Cameron” (para. 5). I suggest that the producers, at least initially, underestimated the way they could see a gay man performing a gay role. Rather than work within the “best actor” discourse that producers and casting directors doggedly assert, in this case, it suggests a set of ideological assumptions that pre-determine the kinds of actors who can be considered within the realm of the “best actor.” Ferguson was the first actor cast on Modern Family. Because Ferguson is openly gay, I suggest that his sexual orientation foreclosed on the possibility that another out, gay actor could be cast as his on-screen husband. Because acting is understood as fiction, I argue that casting two gay actors both forces “mainstream” viewers to wrestle with the fact of homosexuality and the notion that the two gay actors could really be romantically interested in one another when the camera stops rolling. In my interview with Greenberg he said, “I also brought in a multitude of diverse ethnic choices for the part because as the boyfriend he could have been that. In fact, one of the actors who tested for the part, Kevin Daniels [a black actor], went on to recur as Longinus, one of [Cameron and Mitchell’s] friends” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Importantly, in his discussion of the diversity of actors who auditioned for the role, the diversity is imagined as racial diversity, not diversity with respect to sexual orientation. The New Normal casting director Susie Farris suggested that in casting, she prioritizes finding “the best actor and the best fit. I don’t deviate from that. Sometimes, obviously, you don’t always end up casting the best actor in the part. I feel like that has less to do with my desire and more to do with (…) [the] politics involved in casting network shows” (personal communication, January 12, 2017). Farris inadvertently exposes the ways best actor discourses are problematically mired in a triple-embedded discursive spiral. In suggesting that she is first and foremost looking for the best fit, which is different than the best actor, Farris exposes the nebulous nature of casting practices. The notion of “fit” troubles the notion of “best actor” because “fit” often exists outside of notions of talent, which best actor discourses seek to foreground. As such, Farris implies that best actor discourses are really understood as the best actor who fits within the politics of the ways a given series wants to cast roles, particularly with respect to gay roles. Farris exposes the ways “best actor” discourses, like post-racial, post-gay and post-feminist discourses, pay lip service to equalizing the playing field in the culture industries for everyone, but ultimately reifies pre-existing notions of what the “best actor” resembles—often actors who are white and heterosexual. Thus, Farris reveals the ways defensive truth, subterfuge and queer possibility are interconnected within “best actor” discourse. Farris further suggests The New Normal’s showrunner Ryan Murphy only wanted to see gay actors for the parts of central couple David and Bryan. When the series was greenlit, out, gay actor Andrew Rannells was already attached to the project. Farris suggests that Murphy “had an idea of who he wanted for David. He only wanted gay actors (…) and he didn’t want me to work on it” (personal communication, January 12, 2017). At least according to Farris, Murphy seemingly understood the import of the first series to feature a gay couple as its lead characters, and wanted to ensure that such parts were embodied by gay actors, gesturing toward the agential stakes of queers being able to fashion and embody their mediated images. While it is difficult to discern whether or not Murphy was unable to find a gay actor who was “right” for the role or if the network balked at having two gay actors portray a gay couple on network television, Farris says “One day I got a call from Ryan that just said, ‘Your top five Davids, who are they? They don’t have to be gay’” (personal communication, January 12, 2017). The actor cast in the role was heterosexual actor Justin Bartha. At the time of this writing, while gay couples are increasingly being depicted on television, no gay couple in commercial television has been cast with two gay actors, which suggests an unwritten rule that precludes two gay men from being cast as part of a same-sex couple in television discourse. Greenburg suggests that in casting Cameron and Mitchell on Modern Family, “What is most important is that the actors can make viewers believe that Eric and Jesse were convincing as a gay couple” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). As Warner (2015) details, the notion that acting is first and foremost concerned with making viewers believe the fiction casting seeks to convey is important because “if an individual who is not necessarily a member of those (…) groups can perform or is imbued with their apparent essences, then that person is just as worthy of the part as the more ‘natural’ candidate” (p. 33). Greenberg’s assertions about the veracity of the fictive qualities of casting are undergirded by the “best actor” discourse. Greenberg claims “We’re not casting them because of their sexuality, we’re casting them because of their skills and talent as actors and how they read on camera” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Additionally, Greenberg forwards that the show’s producers “were looking for actors who could make the words on the page work (…) We had no set agenda (…) We just wanted to see who was funny and made it work” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Importantly, Greenberg’s criteria for casting actors is necessarily and deliberately intangible: skills, talent and making “the words on the page work.” That Modern Family ended up casting one gay actor and one heterosexual actor as Mitchell and Cameron is presumably not underscored by any disposition with respect to gayness in Hollywood, but is centered solely on talent and skill and the quest for the “best actor” for the role. Ultimately, the decision had nothing to do with race or sexuality, but the person deemed “best” for the role—that one actor was gay and one heterosexual on both Modern Family and The New Normal—was a coincidence that “just happened” to reinforce an existing set of patterns within television casting. Conclusion Examining casting for gay roles exposes the patterns involved with who is allowed to work within the culture industries and highlights the mechanisms, like the best actor discourse, that work in the service of maintaining the industry’s hegemony. This article exposed the inherent contradictions in the ways casting logics function to center “choice” while concomitantly ensuring those choices tend to uphold existing ideologies. Simultaneously, this article argued that casting should be infused with an acknowledgement of the specific cultural advantages of seeking out gay actors who can participate in the authorship of gay roles by drawing on their experiences and identities. The dangers inherent in post-gay ideologies that structure casting practices lie in the notion that gayness ceases to be understood as an identity category that has import to the politics of televisual representation. It is true that gayness cannot necessarily be read onto the body in the same ways that race and gender identity/expression can. However, gay identity should be considered alongside those identity categories in casting. In the same ways that backlash ensues when white actors are cast in black roles, or when trans characters are embodied by cisgender actors, I am calling for a similar kind of activism that works to center gay identity in casting. I am not suggesting that casting directors are dupes; rather, they are, like the actors they cast, caught within a discursive web that concomitantly deploys defensive truths, subterfuge and queer possibility. At the same time, as contract workers, casting directors are required to adjust “their process to fit different directors and producers” in order to be paid for their labor (Hill, 2014, p. 156). While this article focused on casting directors as cultural producers, their position as contract laborers means that in order to effect the industrial changes I am recommending requires a wholesale recalibration of the industry’s outlook on gay actors and gay roles from network executives and showrunners. It cannot be denied that some gay actors are working on television, however, gay roles are still overwhelmingly cast with heterosexual actors donning gayface. Certainly, openly gay actors including Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer have been cast as heterosexual characters, but the instances in which gay actors are cast in heterosexual roles are outpaced by the number of heterosexual actors cast in gay roles. This trend is troubling, particularly when put in conversation with Badgett and Herman’s (2013) study demonstrating that LGBT discrimination still exists within Hollywood. Queerness is an identity category that must be developed. It cannot “just” be put on by spending 25 minutes with a hairdresser before reporting to set. While heterosexual actors are often considered “brave” for taking on gay roles, this article calls for a different kind of bravery—the bravery to cast gay actors in gay roles on television. Acknowledgements The author thanks Lisa Henderson, Eleanor Patterson and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback. References Badgett , M. V. & Herman , J. L. ( 2013 ). Sexual orientation & gender identity diversity in entertainment: Experiences & perspectives of SAG-AFTRA members. Retrieved from https://www.sagaftra.org/files/sag/documents/sagaftra_williams_lgbtstudy.pdf Brown , L. ( 1977 , September 8). Natl gay task force asks FCC to require stations to survey interests of homosexual community: International union of gay athletes meet with ABC-TV execs to protest homosexual character in forthcoming series “Soap.” New York Times, B–7. Butler , J. G. ( 2011 ). Television: Critical methods and applications . New York : Routledge . Capsuto , S. ( 2000 ). Alternative channels: The uncensored story of gay and lesbian images on radio and television . New York : Ballantine Books . Doty , A. ( 1997 ). Making things perfectly queer: Interpreting mass culture . 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Sanson (Eds.), Precarious creativity: Global media, local labor (pp. 172 – 184 ). Oakland, CA : University of California Press . Warner , K. ( 2015 ). The cultural politics of colorblind TV casting . New York : Routledge . Wesling , M. ( 2012 ). Queer value . GLQ: A journal of lesbian and gay studies , 18 ( 1 ), 107 – 125 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS White , P. ( 1999 ). UnInvited: Classical Hollywood cinema and lesbian representability . Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of International Communication Association. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Communication, Culture & Critique Oxford University Press

The Queer Business of Casting Gay Characters on U.S. Television

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Abstract

Abstract Casting for gay roles in U.S. television occupies an important space within media production studies because it exposes the patterns involved with who is allowed to work within the culture industries. Drawing on literature on casting, queer labor and personal interviews with casting directors, this article explores the ways casting functions as a practice that doggedly works within “best actor” discourses that insulate the television industry from charges of deliberately failing to cast gay actors in projects. Ultimately, this article centers the import of queers’ ability to fashion their own self-images and re-asserts the specificity of gayness as an identity category. This article also exposes the three-tiered discursive spiral in which casting is bound: defensive truth, subterfuge and queer possibility. Introduction In 2016 and 2017, the television mini-series Urban Myths experienced backlash when Joseph Fiennes, a white actor, was cast as Michael Jackson, ultimately resulting in the SKY network deciding not to air the finished episode. When Jeffrey Tambor was cast as transwoman Maura on Transparent, many were unhappy with Tambor, a cisgender man, being cast, criticizing the production for failing to cast a trans* actor in the role. These cases gesture toward the verisimilitude expected for racially marked and trans* roles, but no such advocacy exists for casting gay roles. GLAAD’s (2017) “Where We Are On TV” report revealed that there were 175 gay male characters across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms during the 2017–18 television season, however the report does not focus on whether the actor embodying the role is gay. This article takes GLAAD’s report as its nexus by exploring the disjuncture between the number of gay roles on television and the sexuality of the actors chosen to embody such roles. Perhaps the ongoing campaign to “normalize” gayness has resulted in the industrial perception that playing a gay character only involves mediating “fair, accurate and inclusive representations… as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination” but not the politics of casting such roles (Khan, 2011, p. 237). However, although SAG-AFTRA formed an LGBT actor’s caucus in 2007, Badgett and Herman (2013) found that the majority of its 5,700 member respondents believe anti-LGB bias exists among casting directors, often exemplified in casting directors’ discriminatory comments about sexual orientation (p. 19). Badgett and Herman’s study illuminates the ways that even as LGB representation may have achieved a nominal sense of parity, LGB actors still work within environs that impede gainful employment. Wesling (2012) argues that “the production of sexual identity (…) is bound up in the way capital produces subjects accommodated to its own needs” (p. 1). The dogged suggestion that gay actors publicly come out as gay (couched discursively in liberation rhetoric) seems in sharp contrast to the ways being an openly gay actor can limit career opportunities. A gay Hollywood actor told me, “Right now, I’m doing my best to not make any public statements about my sexuality (…) at least until I can establish myself enough to where I don’t care about any adverse effects” (personal communication, January 10, 2016). His comments suggest the precarity of being gay in Hollywood whilst trying to maintain a viable career as an actor. It also suggests the central place of casting within LGBT representational and labor politics. Certainly, LGBT people often find work within the television industry as writers and showrunners, and LGBT images have mostly evacuated “negative” tropes, however, this article explores the ways hegemonic casting practices result in gay actors infrequently being cast in gay roles across media platforms. In addition, I illuminate the circumstances under which gay actors are deemed “best” for gay roles. The casting directors I interviewed for this article are ambivalent about whether the actor chosen to play a gay character identifies as such as long as they are the “best actor” for the part. As such, the principles that guide their casting decisions concomitantly employ a trifecta of interconnected discourses: defensive truth, subterfuge and queer possibility. Defensive truth provides a ready-made explanation for their decisions, even as they adhere to Turow’s (1978) theorization that television casting reinforces “the patterned, consistent manner in which certain groups are (…) portrayed” (p. 18). I am not suggesting that casting directors are “dupes,” but rather, that they, like gay actors, are caught within a discursive spiral in which their decisions need a readily defensible methodology to explain how they cast roles. In this way, the “best actor” discourse works to defend casting directors rather than necessarily explaining their casting decisions. Concurrently, “best actor” discourses employ subterfuge in their commercial ambivalences about the business of television. In denying that the innerworkings of the televisual marketplace come to bear on casting decisions, casting directors seek to maintain the “purity” of their casting process, when in fact, projects are often greenlit based on casting. Such decisions and evaluations of who is “best” for the role is ineffable and also elides that casting directors are freelance workers whose labor is unpaid unless/until they find the “best actor” as deemed so by the showrunner and sometimes studio executive(s). Lastly, the “best actor” discourse employs queer possibility in its promise that if gay actors are “good enough” to be understood as the “best actor,” then they, too, can be cast in both gay roles and non-gay roles. This article explores the ways this triumvirate works to uphold the hegemonic ways casting functions. Using personal interviews with casting directors from The New Normal (NBC, 2013–2014), The Real O’Neals (ABC, 2015–2017), Modern Family (ABC, 2010–), Grace & Frankie (Netflix, 2015–), and Will & Grace (NBC, 1998–2006; 2017–), as well as attendance at a panel on casting at the 2015 ATX TV Festival, I explore the ways casting functions within “best actor” discourses and insulates the television industry from charges of deliberately failing to cast gay actors in projects. The trouble with queer television activism In the wake of the Stonewall Riots, gay rights organizations began to protest the ways gay television images were fashioned. The Corner Bar (ABC, 1972–1973) was the first time television producers agreed to negotiate gay representations (Capsuto, 2000, p. 76). Additionally, in September 1977, the National Gay Task Force issued a call to have the Federal Communications Commission survey representations of gays on television, and the International Union of Gay Athletes demanded to meet with ABC to protest the ways gay men were represented on Soap (ABC, 1977–1981) (Brown, 1977). These early protests called for “correction” of the “negative” images, but not necessarily for gay people to be employed either as part of the writing/producing staff or as performers in these roles. Doyle (2016) describes the ways Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) began working with networks, showrunners and writers to police mediated images of homosexuality, ultimately leading to its “Where We Are On TV” reports (pp. 14–15). These reports counted the number of LGBT mediated images, but labor issues are/were not considered. Tongson (2017) highlights the problematics associated with quantitatively counting television’s gay representations, since such accounts “equate profit and advertiser approval with political progress” (p. 158). Thus, the shape of LGBT media activism differed sharply from the activisms of other identity groups like Chicanos, who were dually focused on image production and employment (Chon Noriega, 2000, p. 54). Instead, as Himberg (2018) observes, in LGBT media advocacy’s pursuit of diverse representations, activists paid scant attention to labor issues, believing that representation alone would lead to political change (p. 79). Certainly, research on parasocial relationships has gestured toward the ways queer televisibility can be politically beneficial with respect to attitudes about LGBT people, but labor issues retain their import alongside such a position (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, et al, 2006). Casting queerly Doty (1997) suggests one of the places queerness develops in media culture is among “influences during the production of texts” (p. xi). Doty’s theorization is useful in placing casting among the important nodes of production because it literally shapes the way queerness is represented and decoded by viewers. Mayer, Banks and Caldwell (2009) argue that casting directors are among the “cultural actors” whose practices should be considered within the political economy of Hollywood labor practices (p. 3). Warner (2015) adds that examining the machinations of casting practices helps demonstrate their integral position within studies of cultural production (p. 33). Herrera (2015) offers logistical and political frameworks for studying casting. Logistical analyses explore the fraught and irrational ways casting emphasizes “choice” while upholding particular hegemonic casting practices. Political analyses “advocate for specific interventions into such casting mechanisms as a means of achieving social, economic, or cultural goals beyond a particular production” (p. 58). Taken together, these scholars gesture toward the import of studying casting as a means to uncover an interrelated set of ideological and industrial factors that contribute to an understanding of televisual representation and its material effects on employment, activism and performance. While Schechner (2010) argues that aligning sexual orientation with casting decisions employs “a stupid realism,” his pluralistic approach to casting elides the problematics associated with the number of gay roles available and the infrequency with which gay actors are chosen to portray those characters and how employment, activism and performance are bound within casting (p. 29). Henderson (2013) articulates the ways a focus on queer images versus labor and performance exposes “the cultural costs of commercial representation [which] include (…) renewed accolades to nonqueer actors for brave gay performances (when queer actors can count on effacement (…) for playing straight characters)” (p. 120). Casting gay men in television begs the question, if gay men are not perceived as capable of playing heterosexual roles because they cannot believably “play it straight,” and they are often overlooked for gay roles (which typically go to “brave” heterosexual actors) where are gay actors’ employment options? Johnson (2001) asserts that gay people “have a need to exercise control over the production of their images so that they feel empowered” (p. 11). Johnson focuses on the specificity of LGBT people’s experiences and, by extension, the agency bestowed upon them to have access to and control of the ways their images are fashioned within media production. My argument here is not that gay people are necessarily underemployed within the culture industries writ large, or that only gay actors should be eligible to play gay roles. However, I am suggesting that gay actors are underemployed when considering the ratio of gay roles to casting openly gay actors to fill them. The double bind in which casting gay roles is caught concerns the concomitant de-valuation of queerness as a discrete and important identity category and a de-legitimation of gay actor’s abilities within the casting process. While Griffin (2017) suggests that gay identity is a political, consumerist and affective fiction, a position with which I agree, it is equally important to consider that gay identity development models advocate for the specificity of queerness as a discrete identity category (p. 1). Sedgwick (2008) gestures toward these tensions within her theorizations of a “minoritizing” and “universalizing” view of homosexuality. On one hand, the minoritizing view centers the importance of gayness as a discrete identity category experienced by a segment of the population which ultimately calls for a kind of separatism. On the other hand, a universalizing view suggests that notions of sexuality are important across a spectrum of sexualities (p. 1). Extending Sedgwick’s minoritizing view to casting practices would mean that only gay actors should be considered for gay roles. This logic suggests two positions. First, that gay identity cannot be effectively “put on” in order to perform a gay role. Second, such a view would suggest that if gay actors are infrequently construed as eligible for non-gay roles, then gay roles should be carved out as the terrain of gay actors. Sedgwick’s universalizing view would imply that talent and skill are most important within casting. The universalizing view is most closely associated with the discursive functions of “best actor.” This article argues that casting for gay roles should work toward a liminal space between these two poles. By employing Muñoz’s (1999) queer performance studies lens, this article emphasizes “the political force of performance (…) by queers,” stressing the import of gay actors playing gay roles (p. xiv). Shugart (2003) contends that male homosexuality in media is often “recoded and normalized as consistent with privileged male heterosexuality” (p. 68). Extending Shugart, I assert that in the service of normalizing mediated homosexuality, casting gay characters standardizes casting practices such that gayness is represented as conventionally masculine which then favors heterosexual male actors for those roles. Casting, thus, works to privilege heterosexual actors and the labor associated with convincingly playing gay characters. Simultaneously, casting directors’ double-speak exploits such inherent contradictions and insulates the industry from charges of not auditioning and casting gay actors. Conversely, gay actors can be removed from consideration within the discourse of looking for the “best actor”—who “just happens to be” heterosexual. The politics of “best actor” discourses and casting gay roles During the “Reflective Casting” panel at the 2015 ATX TV Festival, I asked about the ways casting functions vis-à-vis the politics of gay representation. Grace & Frankie casting director Tracy Lilienfield responded, “We never had one single conversation about whether anyone playing Robert or Saul [the series two gay characters] was actually gay. We just wanted the best actor.” Warner (2015) describes the best actor discourse as the fraught task of finding the best actor who can portray the best version of a fictional role. She argues, “assumptions and hiring decisions revolving around the best portrayal of (…) identities are tied up in cultural understandings of what the identities look like and, more important, how the identities can best be represented” (p. 4). However, Lilienfield continues “We needed someone who would ‘play’ on screen with Jane [Fonda] and Lilly [Tomlin].” Lilienfield reveals that it is not only the search for the “best actor” that guides her casting decisions—it is the best actor plus other intangibles, in this case, the desire to cast actors who were veterans in the field. In this way, “best actor” discourses are subterfuge. They work to ignore the commercial machinations of the televisual marketplace. Lilienfield could have cast veteran, out, gay actors like Richard Chamberlain or George Takei, but for whatever reasons, she did not. In looking for the best actor, and simultaneously subscribing to post-gay rhetoric, casting directors, like Lilienfield, are gatekeepers who can, and often do, prevent gay actors from getting work. When I asked the panelists about the ways a focus on gay roles rather than casting gay actors disenfranchises the labor of queers, Lilienfield suggested that if gay actors fail to find work within the culture industries, the problem lies with the actor, not the industry. She suggested “there are plenty of young gay actors who are not getting work for reasons other than them being gay”, a sentiment with which the other casting directors agreed (personal communication, June 5, 2015). For them, gay actors who fail to find work is an individual problem, not a systemic one. Lilienfield’s comments begin to expose the ways “best actor” discourses simultaneously employ defensive truths and queer possibilities with respect to casting: good actors get work regardless of their sexual orientation. Tinkcom (2002) argues that “we should keep in mind the forces of production under capital, particularly in terms of how capital seeks to treat all labor as undifferentiable” (p. 10). Within Lilienfield’s approach to casting and actors’ labor, the specificities of queerness are obfuscated by discursive contortions that locate gay male roles in an undifferentiated space whereby an actor’s known sexuality is inconsequential. In the process, when skill is centered, the “best actor” discourse often results in heterosexual actors playing gay roles. By making gay roles undifferentiated from non-gay roles, it precludes gay men from participating in the self-fashioning of their representation and removes “the opportunity for queers to use their labor to mark” television through acting and casting (Tinkcom, 2002, p. 10). Modern Family casting director Jeff Greenberg explained how casting adheres to best actor discourses, regardless of sexual orientation: It’s not our business to ask the actors what their sexual orientation is (…) Jesse was a very out actor but Eric, we didn’t know if he was gay or straight (…) You’re really not allowed to ask someone what their sexual orientation is in terms of employment. No one questioned it because it just seemed to work in terms of the acting and the relationship. (Personal communication, December 19, 2016) Greenberg illuminates his attempts to hew closely to the best actor discourse while simultaneously centering Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s gay star text and gesturing toward notions of industrial fairness in not asking actors whether they are gay. Casting directors, like Greenberg, revert to searching for the best actor without necessarily paying attention to an actor’s sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of the role they have been engaged to cast, because they suggest they cannot ask an actor’s sexual orientation (falsely hiding behind the prohibitions of Title IX, which do not currently protect LGBT people from employment discrimination). Thus, while casting directors suggest they cannot explicitly ask about actors’ sexual orientation, such a practice upholds implicit casting biases, often through “best actor” discourses. Casting the single gay man Two broad patterns emerge with respect to the ways single gay characters are cast within television. The first concerns the ways gay characters who can be reductively understood as “masculine” are cast. The second involves more flamboyant roles because of their close proximity to long-held historical gay stereotypes. This section explores casting approaches within these two broad types of single gay characters. An examination of the casting breakdown for Will Truman from Will & Grace is instructive vis-à-vis casting homonormative single gay characters and best actor discourses. In the casting breakdown Will is described as “an accessibly handsome, masculine (…) charming gay man” (Kendt, 2005, p. 36). Marrying the casting breakdown’s description of Will as “masculine” with Fiske’s (2006) assertion that casting is one of television’s representational codes that uses the ways everyday people are already encoded with a set of meanings that get consciously exploited by casting directors, the logic of casting Eric McCormack as Will becomes clearer (p. 4). Because television in the late 1990s attempted to decouple femininity and gayness, the encoding and centering of Will’s masculinity is significant. The politics of casting ultimately excludes gay actors from participating in the fashioning of self-images because of a pre-conceived notion of masculinity that is rooted in a desire to normalize mediated gayness. On one hand, such pre-conceptions would presumably only exclude gay actors who cannot convincingly convey “masculine.” On the other hand, the result is often that gay masculinity is construed as the terrain of heterosexual actors “playing gay.” During the “Reflective Casting” panel, the casting directors suggested that it is often difficult to find heterosexual actors willing to play gay roles. Will & Grace’s casting director Lilienfield inadvertently revealed the precariousness of playing gay in Hollywood. “We didn’t care that Eric [was gay] (…) Eric was plenty nervous and turned down the part (…) He said, ‘I know this is going to be a huge hit and I don’t know if I want this to be where I am perceived’” (personal communication, June 5, 2015). McCormack’s apprehension about being “perceived” as gay reveals the precariousness of playing gay on television. Casting director Jennifer Euston recounted, “I’m working on a show right now that has a gay part and a few straight actors turned it down because they don’t want to play gay” (personal communication, June 5, 2015). As White (1999) argues, casting is “already a reading of type; the audience performs a reading on another level, informed by cultural and subcultural codes, spectatorial experience of the star in other roles, and subsidiary discourses” (p. 149). In other words, part of the import of casting is that actors come to a text carrying the residues of roles they have previously played, as well as other paratexts (Fiske, 2006, pp. 8–9). These intertextual residues are particularly important when examining the material effects of casting gay roles. McCormack seemed keenly aware of the residues that would attach to his star text. His initial refusal to take the role was tethered to the view that it might limit the kinds of roles he would be offered after Will & Grace, not a concern that another gay actor might be able to perform the role better. In casting McCormack as Will, Lilienfield presumably cast the “best actor” for the role, which presumably found him “best” because of the ways he would have to labor to “honestly” embody the role, labor a gay actor in a gay role is not presumed to have to undertake. At the same time, in casting Will & Grace, Lilienfield revealed that “Jack was written much more stereotypically gay. I knew Sean [Hayes] (…) I knew I had to have him play [Jack]. I knew that was going to be more flamboyant and we were maybe going to take some flack for it. But actually, we took flack for none of it.” While Hayes was not publicly out, Lilienfield seems to rely on her knowledge of him (and perhaps his homosexuality) as a way to mitigate the “flack” that the production anticipated for trafficking in stereotypes of gayness. In this way, Hayes’ queer “use value” supports capitalism’s production of queer subjects as a mechanism to accommodate its own economic and cultural desires (Mullen, 2012, p. 125). Lilienfield’s comments demonstrate the ways queer actors are utilized to insulate the industry from charges of stereotypically representing gay characters because, presumably, the representation is unable to be considered “offensive” because a gay man is embodying the otherwise flamboyant role. In this way, the assumptive stance is that if a gay actor doesn’t mind playing a flamboyantly gay character, why should viewers mind? The casting breakdown for ABC’s The Real O’Neals is also instructive with respect to more flamboyant gay characters. In the breakdown, Kenny is described as: (…) a smart, funny, likeable kid who has always felt like a little bit of an outsider in what appears to be the perfect All-American family. He hasn’t mentioned to anyone in his family that he’s gay (…) However, when it is revealed that he’s not the only one in his family who’s keeping a secret, he decides to come out. (personal communication, January 19, 2017) In casting the role, co-casting directors Jill Anthony and Gillian O’Neill saw no differences in the ways they cast Kenny and the other roles on the show. Specifically, O’Neill suggested that “In terms of whether it be a gay or a straight role, I think it’s just whoever comes in and connects with the role, regardless of the orientation of it” (personal communication, January 19, 2017). O’Neill’s comments center not only a lack of gay specificity with respect to gay roles versus heterosexual ones, but also reify the best actor discourse, which is inherently nebulous, something casting directors “know when they see it.” O’Neill’s suggestion that a “connection” is key to a successful audition is unquantifiable. Casting logics, then, remain difficult, if not impossible to pin down, and casting for gay roles makes no space for the specificities of queer actors being allowed to act out queer stories. As Warner (2016) argues, casting “is a learned and socialized professional skill. Instead of knowing the right actor when you see her, casting directors understand that the ‘right’ person must adhere to the standardized codes, conventions, and expectations of the industry they service” (p. 178). “Best actor,” then, is subterfuge. Casting directors generally, and Anthony and O’Neill specifically, seem keenly aware of the ways they are casting for a televisual product that carries cultural meaning that viewers are constantly re-negotiating. Anthony suggests they and the series producers “really wanted to have a gay actor for the part” (personal communication, January 19, 2017). I argue that part of the reason they wanted a gay actor in the role is because the part, as written, could have hewed too closely to stereotypic imaginings of gayness with respect to Kenny’s general feyness. Noah Galvin, the actor ultimately cast as Kenny, worked to mitigate the possibility that the character’s feyness would be read as a “negative” representation because of his gayness. Anthony said, “Noah was very special (…) when you saw him on screen up against the other choices, it seemed very obvious who was the right person for the role” (personal communication, January 19, 2017). I suggest the casting directors understand the ineffableness of “specialness” as rooted in Galvin’s ability to know Kenny’s story as both a person and an actor. I contend that his ability to read as “special” to The Real O’Neals’ casting directors was his ability to draw on portions of his queer identity in order to create a representation of queerness that troubled queer respectability politics. At the same time, the utility of Galvin’s gayness for the role cannot be discounted. Any criticism of the role and its closeness to feyness could potentially become tethered to Galvin as a gay man playing a gay role. As Butler (2011) summarizes, “Without characters, there could be no television narrative and no television stars. Correspondingly, without actors there could be no characters” (p. 33). Butler sutures the ways actors, the characters they play and their celebrity status become inextricably linked within cultural production. In short, disapproval of Kenny could be construed as a critique of Galvin. The Real O’Neals producer Todd Holland told The Advocate(2016) that he felt strongly about the necessity for Kenny to be embodied by a gay actor. “As a gay man, this is a landmark role on network television. It should not be played by a straight man” (para. 2). For Holland, the import of televising a lead gay teenage character on network television is far too important to allow that responsibility to fall on a heterosexual actor. The cultural meaning of The Real O’Neals is not just about the image on the screen, but also about the actor embodying the role. Hunter (2016) argues that the creation of characters should be imagined as a symbiotic “dialogue between the writers and performer as coauthors” (p. 51). From this perspective, Galvin is as much a part of the authorship process as the series’ writers. In other words, the subjectivity and lived experiences of gay actors retain their import because gay actors can bring elements of their life to bear on the words on the page. Casting queer binary oppositions and erasing queer labor Gay men and lesbians are increasingly being depicted within television in romantic relationships. As such, examining the ways gay couples are cast within televisual discourse illuminates a fascinating tale of the ways casting the “best actor” collides with an industrial unwillingness to cast two gay actors as love interests. In a Huffington Post (Hughes, 2013) article, Modern Family casting director Greenberg suggests that ABC wanted openly gay “Jesse Tyler Ferguson to play the more flamboyant Cam, rather than buttoned-down Mitchell” (para. 3). While Ferguson was ultimately cast as Mitchell, the network’s desire to cast him as a more flamboyant gay character points to the existing ideological patterns that doggedly complicate the veneer of neutrality within best actor discourses. Typically, gay actors playing gay roles are cast in roles that feature stereotypically feminine behaviors, as I demonstrated with the gay characters Jack from Will & Grace and Kenny from The Real O'Neals. These actors, and the characters they portray thus labor to uphold existing tropes of “real world” gay men, while the more heteronormative gay characters are typically cast with heterosexual actors pretending to be gay. More importantly, these heterosexual actors are often industrially and critically applauded for the labor associated with convincingly embodying gay characters and upholding the fiction inherent in casting. In the case of Modern Family, Eric Stonestreet, an actor who has won two Primetime Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, centers the representational efficacy and labor associated with playing gay. Presumably, the work of being gay while playing gay is imagined as disconnected from notions of “talent.” In a July 17, 2012 appearance on Ellen, Stonestreet works to center the labor associated with playing Cameron: I say that the process [of becoming Cameron] begins with me every day going into my trailer and seeing what shirt the wardrobe department has laid out for me. I always examine the cuffs to see what the cuffs are. Then I put on my loafers and then I go get my hair done. This [pointing to his hair] took three minutes. Cameron’s hair takes 25 minutes. Here, Stonestreet centers his labor. Presumably, his co-star (and on-screen husband) Ferguson can play a gay character easily because he is gay in “real” life. For Stonestreet, there is labor involved in his playing a gay character as he meticulously details when describing his process for getting into character. The difference in the labor associated with playing gay is positioned as expressly different from the “real” Stonestreet. By foregrounding his labor, Stonestreet participates in the logics of “best actor” discourses which suggest that in order to approximate some semblance of verisimilitude, the best actor is required to labor more than if a gay actor was cast in the role, thus attempting to erase queer labor—the conscious, open work of queer actors in gay roles. Greenberg further suggests that part of casting Cameron and Mitchell was choosing actors who were not flamboyant in the roles. He recalls that in the breakdowns, Cameron and Mitchell were described as having a “relationship to the core family and we did very much signify that these characters were not flamboyant. We wanted them to be more grounded in reality” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Central to Greenburg’s assertions is that flamboyancy in gay men, in the purview of the series creators and by extension, his role as casting director, had become untethered from notions of “realness” and authenticity, despite the robust availability of the stereotype. However, a further examination of the casting breakdown, as posted on writer Falk’s (2011) blog, is instructive with respect to the ways casting functioned on Modern Family. While the breakdowns for Cameron and Mitchell both center their gayness, Mitchell is described as “emotionally-restrained” while Cameron is described as being “free with [his] emotions.” While, certainly such a set of descriptors for a couple within a series sets the sitcom stage through comedic binary oppositions, I argue that this opposition is also coded in the same way Will Truman was imagined as “masculine” in the casting breakdown for Will & Grace. In this instance, Cameron and Mitchell are not understood as “feminine” and “masculine” but instead the breakdown utilizes coded language that ultimately structures the ways each character is initially understood from a casting perspective. This semiotic understanding was clear to Ferguson, who producers initially wanted to cast as the “free with emotions” Cameron. In an interview with Out magazine (2011), Ferguson recalled that he “was immediately drawn to Mitchell, but [Modern Family producers] really only wanted to see [him] for Cameron” (para. 5). I suggest that the producers, at least initially, underestimated the way they could see a gay man performing a gay role. Rather than work within the “best actor” discourse that producers and casting directors doggedly assert, in this case, it suggests a set of ideological assumptions that pre-determine the kinds of actors who can be considered within the realm of the “best actor.” Ferguson was the first actor cast on Modern Family. Because Ferguson is openly gay, I suggest that his sexual orientation foreclosed on the possibility that another out, gay actor could be cast as his on-screen husband. Because acting is understood as fiction, I argue that casting two gay actors both forces “mainstream” viewers to wrestle with the fact of homosexuality and the notion that the two gay actors could really be romantically interested in one another when the camera stops rolling. In my interview with Greenberg he said, “I also brought in a multitude of diverse ethnic choices for the part because as the boyfriend he could have been that. In fact, one of the actors who tested for the part, Kevin Daniels [a black actor], went on to recur as Longinus, one of [Cameron and Mitchell’s] friends” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Importantly, in his discussion of the diversity of actors who auditioned for the role, the diversity is imagined as racial diversity, not diversity with respect to sexual orientation. The New Normal casting director Susie Farris suggested that in casting, she prioritizes finding “the best actor and the best fit. I don’t deviate from that. Sometimes, obviously, you don’t always end up casting the best actor in the part. I feel like that has less to do with my desire and more to do with (…) [the] politics involved in casting network shows” (personal communication, January 12, 2017). Farris inadvertently exposes the ways best actor discourses are problematically mired in a triple-embedded discursive spiral. In suggesting that she is first and foremost looking for the best fit, which is different than the best actor, Farris exposes the nebulous nature of casting practices. The notion of “fit” troubles the notion of “best actor” because “fit” often exists outside of notions of talent, which best actor discourses seek to foreground. As such, Farris implies that best actor discourses are really understood as the best actor who fits within the politics of the ways a given series wants to cast roles, particularly with respect to gay roles. Farris exposes the ways “best actor” discourses, like post-racial, post-gay and post-feminist discourses, pay lip service to equalizing the playing field in the culture industries for everyone, but ultimately reifies pre-existing notions of what the “best actor” resembles—often actors who are white and heterosexual. Thus, Farris reveals the ways defensive truth, subterfuge and queer possibility are interconnected within “best actor” discourse. Farris further suggests The New Normal’s showrunner Ryan Murphy only wanted to see gay actors for the parts of central couple David and Bryan. When the series was greenlit, out, gay actor Andrew Rannells was already attached to the project. Farris suggests that Murphy “had an idea of who he wanted for David. He only wanted gay actors (…) and he didn’t want me to work on it” (personal communication, January 12, 2017). At least according to Farris, Murphy seemingly understood the import of the first series to feature a gay couple as its lead characters, and wanted to ensure that such parts were embodied by gay actors, gesturing toward the agential stakes of queers being able to fashion and embody their mediated images. While it is difficult to discern whether or not Murphy was unable to find a gay actor who was “right” for the role or if the network balked at having two gay actors portray a gay couple on network television, Farris says “One day I got a call from Ryan that just said, ‘Your top five Davids, who are they? They don’t have to be gay’” (personal communication, January 12, 2017). The actor cast in the role was heterosexual actor Justin Bartha. At the time of this writing, while gay couples are increasingly being depicted on television, no gay couple in commercial television has been cast with two gay actors, which suggests an unwritten rule that precludes two gay men from being cast as part of a same-sex couple in television discourse. Greenburg suggests that in casting Cameron and Mitchell on Modern Family, “What is most important is that the actors can make viewers believe that Eric and Jesse were convincing as a gay couple” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). As Warner (2015) details, the notion that acting is first and foremost concerned with making viewers believe the fiction casting seeks to convey is important because “if an individual who is not necessarily a member of those (…) groups can perform or is imbued with their apparent essences, then that person is just as worthy of the part as the more ‘natural’ candidate” (p. 33). Greenberg’s assertions about the veracity of the fictive qualities of casting are undergirded by the “best actor” discourse. Greenberg claims “We’re not casting them because of their sexuality, we’re casting them because of their skills and talent as actors and how they read on camera” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Additionally, Greenberg forwards that the show’s producers “were looking for actors who could make the words on the page work (…) We had no set agenda (…) We just wanted to see who was funny and made it work” (personal communication, December 19, 2016). Importantly, Greenberg’s criteria for casting actors is necessarily and deliberately intangible: skills, talent and making “the words on the page work.” That Modern Family ended up casting one gay actor and one heterosexual actor as Mitchell and Cameron is presumably not underscored by any disposition with respect to gayness in Hollywood, but is centered solely on talent and skill and the quest for the “best actor” for the role. Ultimately, the decision had nothing to do with race or sexuality, but the person deemed “best” for the role—that one actor was gay and one heterosexual on both Modern Family and The New Normal—was a coincidence that “just happened” to reinforce an existing set of patterns within television casting. Conclusion Examining casting for gay roles exposes the patterns involved with who is allowed to work within the culture industries and highlights the mechanisms, like the best actor discourse, that work in the service of maintaining the industry’s hegemony. This article exposed the inherent contradictions in the ways casting logics function to center “choice” while concomitantly ensuring those choices tend to uphold existing ideologies. Simultaneously, this article argued that casting should be infused with an acknowledgement of the specific cultural advantages of seeking out gay actors who can participate in the authorship of gay roles by drawing on their experiences and identities. The dangers inherent in post-gay ideologies that structure casting practices lie in the notion that gayness ceases to be understood as an identity category that has import to the politics of televisual representation. It is true that gayness cannot necessarily be read onto the body in the same ways that race and gender identity/expression can. However, gay identity should be considered alongside those identity categories in casting. In the same ways that backlash ensues when white actors are cast in black roles, or when trans characters are embodied by cisgender actors, I am calling for a similar kind of activism that works to center gay identity in casting. I am not suggesting that casting directors are dupes; rather, they are, like the actors they cast, caught within a discursive web that concomitantly deploys defensive truths, subterfuge and queer possibility. At the same time, as contract workers, casting directors are required to adjust “their process to fit different directors and producers” in order to be paid for their labor (Hill, 2014, p. 156). While this article focused on casting directors as cultural producers, their position as contract laborers means that in order to effect the industrial changes I am recommending requires a wholesale recalibration of the industry’s outlook on gay actors and gay roles from network executives and showrunners. It cannot be denied that some gay actors are working on television, however, gay roles are still overwhelmingly cast with heterosexual actors donning gayface. Certainly, openly gay actors including Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer have been cast as heterosexual characters, but the instances in which gay actors are cast in heterosexual roles are outpaced by the number of heterosexual actors cast in gay roles. This trend is troubling, particularly when put in conversation with Badgett and Herman’s (2013) study demonstrating that LGBT discrimination still exists within Hollywood. Queerness is an identity category that must be developed. It cannot “just” be put on by spending 25 minutes with a hairdresser before reporting to set. While heterosexual actors are often considered “brave” for taking on gay roles, this article calls for a different kind of bravery—the bravery to cast gay actors in gay roles on television. 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Communication, Culture & CritiqueOxford University Press

Published: Mar 30, 2018

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