Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand how representation works
The fast-talking filmmaker believes “you can’t act gay or straight” — missing the nuance queer actors bring to queer roles.
Aaron Sorkin’s fast-paced, acerbic dialogue is so uniquely recognizable, it’s often used as the punchline of high brow pop culture jokes. His style made shows like The West Wing and The Newsroom cult hits, and the screenwriter himself a bit of a legend. Sorkin often uses his characters to dig into the fallibility of societal institutions and the follies of morality — but he also has been criticized for sexist portrayals of women who are rarely seen as as smart and capable as their male counterparts. He had the opportunity for a rebuttal though, in one of this winter’s flashy releases, Being The Ricardos. The film stars Nicole Kidman as iconic 1950s comedic darling Lucille Ball. And while the film has plenty to dig into with the unparalleled success of the I Love Lucy show and the relationship between Ball and her husband and creative partner Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), Being The Ricardos gets at broader issues in a way that feels coincidental. In a new interview with The Times, Sorkin spoke about his gripes with modern day political correctness, how it’s affecting the film industry and how that theme played out in Lucille Ball’s life. Most controversially, he added that he doesn’t think that queer characters need to be played by queer actors.
Sorkin stepped into his socially sticky line of thinking when addressing the wide criticisms of Bardem, a Spaniard, playing Arnez, a Cuban. He asserted, “It’s heartbreaking, and a little chilling to see members of the artistic community resegregating ourselves. This should be the last place there are walls. Spanish and Cuban are not actable. If I was directing you in a scene and said: ‘It’s cold, you can’t feel your face.’ That’s actable. But if I said: ‘Be Cuban.’ That is not actable.” While his frustration with wanting to be able to cast a great actor for a role simply for his talent and not the identity boxes he checks off is understandable, the idea that ethnicities aren’t actable seems like one only a man born into white American culture could make. It’s easy to think the culture of someone’s ethnic background doesn’t impact expression of self when the culture you come from is mayonnaise on white bread.
Proving art imitates life, like a fast-talking scene from one of his own shows, Sorkin continued with comments that are sure to anger the very people he’s angry about getting angry. In a fit of ignorance he added, “Nouns aren’t actable. Gay and straight aren’t actable. You can act being attracted to someone, but can’t act gay or straight. So this notion that only gay actors should play gay characters? That only a Cuban actor should play Desi? Honestly, I think it’s the mother of all empty gestures and a bad idea.” Sorkin’s argument misses one huge point, which is the reason that queer people want to see their experiences acted out by queer thespians is because there is an extreme lack of queer representation in the film industry. For people who have been systemically oppressed and experienced lifetimes of hate-based violence, it stings to see a straight, cisgendered person who has benefitted from the massive privilege of that identity, exploit queer pain for an Oscar — when a queer person could have been celebrated for the role.
Sorkin’s frustrations seem to stem from what he sees as a cultural prudishness that he thinks Lucille Ball experienced as well. Ball infamously was labeled a communist during the intense reign of McCarthyism. Sorkin related the hysteria of that time to modern day cancel culture: “In the movie, Lucille checked a box [backing communism] at a time when it wasn’t a big deal. Sixteen years later, the world changed and she’s hung for it. That reminds you of Twitter.” His tone is indicative of an exhaustion that many in Hollywood convey right now with the controversial idea of cancel culture. What began as liberal-minded highlighting of problematic behavior, like rape, from prominent people, was quickly weaponized into a conservative talking point. While some feel cancel culture isn’t even real, since many who get cancelled seem to be able to eventually come back from it, others want to make it a boogeyman — evidence that social justice warriors are the snowflakes that will undo the world with their righteous crusades.
Sorkin thinks we all need to relax. He uses the way Ball was policed and silenced for her ideas as a comparison to how celebrities today feel muzzled by our divisive political climate. Speaking on Gina Carano’s firing from The Mandalorian over her comments on Covid, as well as anti-Semitic and transphobic social media posts, he said, “I could rebut some things she said, but I don’t think she should lose her job because of it.” He added, “On the other hand, if they’re losing advertisers because she’s on the show, that’s different. That’s life in a democracy. Also, it’s different if you spread misinformation about vaccines, for instance. Or incite violence. But we’re going to have to start to be OK with having our feelings hurt once in a while.” For context, Carano had joked about her pronouns being “Beep/Boop/Bop” and accused the people who took offense as being “abusive representation” of the trans community — among other problematic stances on Nazism and mask wearing. Many would find it fair that she not be the star of a show on Disney+ aimed at a younger audience.
Making the leap from everybody should be okay with getting offended to representation doesn’t matter is harmful. While of course queer people have played straight characters before, it is a far less common occurrence — and it can also be argued that this happens because cinema tells queer stories far less often, and there simply are more straight roles to be filled by the queer actors who do beat the odds and become successful. Also to deny the nuance and deep understanding that queer actors bring to queer roles is to be wholly dismissive of queer artistry. Performances like Billy Porter in Pose, Laverne Cox in Orange Is The New Black, Trace Lysette and Alexandra Billings in Transparent, Hunter Schafer in Euphoria and Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and so many more, were transformative for how society sees queer people. But when a straight actor plays a queer person, the focus is typically on the depth of their transformation, rather than how authentically queer life was portrayed, like with Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl.
Acting is supposed to be just that: acting. I’d wager thinking people at large understand the concept of imagination, and that there is an art to actors becoming someone they are not in real life. And in an equitable world, it could be left at that, and people of all races, genders and sexualities could have a free for all on acting opportunities. But the reality remains that Hollywood, while slowly improving, is still a very straight, white, cisgendered place — and that is why when there are roles to be filled playing people of color and queer people, it’d be nice to see your own community represented to tell its stories. What Aaron Sorkin seems to miss is that the point is not that straight actors can’t play queer — it’s that queer people get so fewer opportunities to play anything at all. But overlooking the plight of marginalized communities in favor of defending cisgender, straight, white people not losing the opportunities of privilege is a typical knee-jerk from successful, straight, white men.