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Review and Analysis: Kristin Chenoweth vs. Newsweek

If you aren’t familiar with the latest uproar, that which involves Kristin Chenoweth and Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh, I’d like you to take a moment to catch yourself up. Setoodeh wrote an article titled “Straight Jacket” which you can read here. The subtitle of the article is “Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn’t it ever work in reverse?” The article kicks off by discussing the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises which stars Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth.

Chenoweth responded, calling the article “Horrendously homophobic,” and you can read her entire comment here.

A viral firestorm ensued, and Setoodeh has now responded here.

I encourage you again to read through the evidence yourself before going forward with my own comments on the debacle, and largely because I know a fair number of those responding didn’t actually read what they’re responding to. When I quote, I want to be comfortable that you know the entirety of that which I’m quoting from.

While this is not exactly a debate in any case, and certainly not one that really needs another voice, the logic of the situation irks me, as does the (frankly amazing) reaction in that the whole thing has gotten more attention than either Setoodeh or Chenoweth have managed in quite a while.

Ultimately (as the exchange speaks for itself I think), the thing to take away from this blip on the viral radar is the ease with which misinterpretation breeds contempt, and the fact that in our current culture language is censored, whether it’s censored or not.

As a matter of course, it should be noted that (as you know because you read the articles) Setoodeh is openly gay, and there is at least some sense in which it is not among the realistic possibilities for him to be homophobic.

Also, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the original article by Setoodeh is asking a question, not making a statement.

Nietzsche may have been rather a loon generally speaking, but a lot of what he said is unquestionably true. Nothing perhaps more true than the idea that if you aren’t allowed to ask the hard, ugly questions, then you’re only playing at rationality, and everything else you ask or say is built on nonsensical foundations. I’m paraphrasing.

Setoodeh asks, “Why can’t gays play straight roles?” Knowing there’s a lot of work in the question, he examines it. Is it because they simply can’t pull it off? Is it only that they don’t? Is it because audiences wouldn’t accept them? Are we still in a place where it would be damaging to a career to come out of the closet? If George Clooney had suddenly come out a year ago, would he still get the role in Up in the Air, would audiences have reacted the same way, and would it have actually changed the performance to some degree?

The acceptable reactions to all of that are infinite, but one of them is not that you are homophobic and/or it is unacceptable just in the fact that the question was posed.

Apart from the misinterpretation of the general form, Chenoweth’s reaction has a lot of specific problems as well.

Pretty early in her response, she says that Setoodeh’s article, “argues that gay actors are simply unfit to play straight,” and while that is itself an interpretation, it is, I think, pretty clearly misguided. He doesn’t argue anything of the sort, or in fact, anything at all. Chenowith immediately follows this with a rebuttal of Setoodah’s comments on Hayes’ performance specifically, saying, “I’ve observed nothing “wooden” or “weird” in his performance, nor have I noticed the seemingly unwieldy presence of a “pink elephant” in the Broadway Theater.” But, Setoodah, if he is arguing anything here, is arguing not that Hayes (or anyone else) can’t act straight, but that he failed at it.

Setoodah’s response begins with this -

When Sean Hayes, from Will & Grace, made his Broadway debut in Promises, Promises playing a heterosexual man, the New York Times theater review included these lines: “his emotions often seem pale to the point of colorlessness … his relationship with [his costar Kristin] Chenoweth feels more like that of a younger brother than a would-be lover and protector.” This, to me, is code: it’s a way to say that Hayes’s sexual orientation is getting in the way of his acting without saying the word “gay”.

Chenoweth goes on with,

“Setoodeh even goes so far as to justify his knee-jerk homophobic reaction to gay actors by accepting and endorsing that ‘as viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker room torture in junior high school.’ Really? We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives?”

And, if anything in the exchange is offensive, it is this.

He doesn’t actually justify anything with the statement, he simply points it out as a fact about the world. Accept it? As opposed to denying it? Can it be denied, especially in the case of going on to suggest it has caused something? But, to say he endorses it is just ludicrous. What can it even mean? Oh, wait.

“We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives?” Yes. That’s what he’s saying. Come on.

As I said, the ins and outs of the conversation aren’t that interesting really, but the firestorm that so easily ensues gets on my nerves. We have taken many a step back somewhere along the line, and it needs to be more frequently pointed out that stoning someone for their (real or imagined) lack of tolerance is not a form of tolerance.


Photo Credit: Tammie Arroyo

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