NBC’s new show Rise tells the story of how high school drama teacher Lou Mazzuchelli transforms the theater department. The plot is based on the real life story of Lou Volpe, but many in the LGBTQ community have criticized the show’s creators for changing a pivotal part of Volpe’s character. In the show, Lou Mazzuchelli is straight—while the real Lou Volpe is gay.
Members of the LGBTQ community accused the show of straight-washing. Straight-washing and cis-washing are when creators portray a queer person as straight or cisgender. Executive producer Jason Katims justified his decision of characterizing Mazzuchelli as a straight family man by saying he wanted to make the story more relatable for himself.
“I felt like I needed to make it my own story,” Katims said.
There’s no shortage of stories in the media from the perspective of straight men. However, only about five percent of TV characters identify as queer, according to GLAAD. The queer community lacks adequate representation in media, and the limited representation we receive is often grounded in stereotypes rather than realistic portrayals of the LGBTQ community.
Rise is not the only recent case of straight-washing in media. Sony recently came under fire after tweeting a promotion for Call Me By Your Name, a romance film about gay men. The tweet portrayed a photo of a straight couple with the caption, “It’s a romance overwhelming in its intensity, a heart that swells until it has to burst.” Some Twitter users accused Sony of posting the image to widen the film’s audience appeal.
The idea that straight people cannot relate to queer characters is rooted in homophobia and implies that queer characters are nothing more than their sexual orientation. Queer people have connected to straight characters since the beginning of media, so straight, cisgender people can relate to queer characters.
The 2015 film Stonewall, based on the famous riots where LGBTQ people protested a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, had a similar issue. Director Roland Emmerich faced heavy criticism for cis-washing and white-washing the Stonewall riots, which were led by transgender women of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. His response to the criticism is similar to that of Katims.
“As a director, you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay,” Emmerich said.
All three of these cases share a common thread—they change a narrative to make it more relatable. Whether this is done to accommodate the director or to attract a wider audience, nothing excuses straight-washing, cis-washing, and white-washing.
This line of reasoning has limited media diversity for decades. The film and television industries are overwhelmingly run by white men, so they portray that perspective, according to a University of Southern California study.
Creators shouldn’t only tell the stories that mirror their exact experiences. When they seek to tell the story of a queer person, they cannot change their identity.
Rise and Stonewall both diminish the accomplishments of queer people by rewriting history. Emmerich failed to give the transgender community the credit they deserve for their bravery during the Stonewall riots. Katims’s decision to make Mazzuchelli straight rewrites Volpe’s story.
Positive examples of the LGBTQ community in media normalizes queerness. This exposure can change minds and allow the LGBTQ rights movement to make progress. By hiding the stories of the LGBTQ community, producers and directors inhibit this advancement.
Thankfully, a new generation of media makers are entering the workforce, and we are more conscious of these issues than our predecessors.
We understand why any type of erasure, whether it’s white-washing, cis-washing, or straight-washing, is insensitive to different communities. We need to move away from the idea that straight people cannot relate to members of the LGBTQ community. As future media makers, Emerson students need to lead the charge against erasure. This requires us to leave our comfort zones and work hard to look beyond the perspectives we know. Yet this will result in a more diverse media driven by incredible storytelling.