Straightwashed characters: Still a thing in Hollywood?
Hollywood has a long history of serving the viewing public straightwashed characters on television and in mainstream movies.
Straightwashing is an act of omission: the sexuality of a known LGBT person or a queer character in a work of fiction is either downplayed or scrapped altogether when a story is adapted for film or television.
It’s an old practice, dating back to the Motion Picture Production Code- also known as the Hays Code- where depictions of out LGBT people were forbidden on the silver screen.
The tradition of straightwashing continues with movies and television shows today, even as the act garners strong criticism and negative press.
Straightwashed characters: Ayo
Comic book fans got excited when publicity photos for the upcoming Black Panther film seemed to show a flirtatious stare between Ayo (played by Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (portrayed by Danai Gurira).
In the comics, Ayo is in a lesbian relationship with the character Aneka- the publicity stills only fueled speculation that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have its first out LGBT characters at long last.
As soon as Marvel execs received reports of such speculation, however, they promptly quashed the notion these characters would be in a romantic relationship in the film.
The move spawned much outrage and the hashtag #LetAyoHaveAGirlfriend on social media.
The film won’t be in theaters until 2018, and fans are still holding out hope that Ayo will be onscreen in full lesbian glory.
Straightwashed characters: Motoko
Aside from being a box office flop, the recent Ghost in the Shell live action remake has also been criticized for straightwashing its main character Major Motoko Kusanagi.
In the source material, Motoko is shown to be bisexual through various plotlines.
An early trailer for the Hollywood adaptation gave some indication that her bisexuality will be explored, but the final cut only showed Motoko having a relatively chaste encounter with a woman.
The film was previously accused of whitewashing, when lily-white Scarlett Johansson was cast as the much-beloved Japanese character from the original manga and anime.
Straightwashed characters: Jughead
Riverdale’s Jughead Jones is another egregious example of a character whose orientation (other than straight) and identity failed to make the final cut.
A year after Archie Comics made clear that Jughead was asexual, the minds behind the CW show decided that the character probably wants to engage in some heteronormative relationships before coming to terms with his asexuality.
It seems even a character avoiding sex altogether is too controversial a subject for Hollywood. Jughead is all about the burgers, man.
Straightwashed characters: Film-makers’ dilemma
In an opinion piece for The Guardian in 2015, writer David Shariatmadari noted ”though audiences may be broadly OK with being gay, it’s as well not to shove it in people’s faces.”
Even as Shariatmadari pointed out the straightwashing of real life LGBT folk in their respective biopics (John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and Alan Turing in The Imitation Game), he also implied that film-makers working with gay storylines and characters are often faced with the dilemma of character/plot integrity versus getting a wide distribution.
Shariatmadari concedes that there is no easy answer to this conundrum. Until Hollywood takes a stand for LGBT characters and storylines and help change mainstream consciousness, we will get more straightwashed characters in the years to come.