Last week, ‘Martian’ star Matt Damon may have been wishing he was marooned on Mars, when his comments about gay actors sparked public outrage. Speaking in an interview to promote his new film, Damon suggested that actors should keep their sexuality a secret, “because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play”. Damon was quick to defend himself from accusations of homophobia, blaming the press for spinning his words, but his comments speak of a truth that exists within the Hollywood film industry, where being openly gay can be damaging to your career.
The industry favours heterosexual actors like Damon, who notably makes no attempt to hide his own sexuality – in the same interview he spoke freely of his wife and four children – while openly gay actors are often sidelined. Rupert Everett, for instance, who came out 20 years ago, has spoken of how his open sexuality has taken its toll on his career. He has only been offered supporting roles – unlike Damon who has the hugely successful Bourne franchise under his belt.
By suggesting that sexuality should be kept a secret, heterosexuality will continue to be the assumed norm, and non-binary identities will continue to be seen as transgressive. Last year, ‘Juno’ actress Ellen Page came out, saying she was tired of “lying by omission”. Instead, she wanted to become a role model, and show that homosexuality is a legitimate and acceptable identity. In a world where homophobia is often a violent reality, keeping sexuality a secret only compounds the idea that there is some shame in being different.
Ellen Page also spoke of the “crushing standards” that Hollywood places on celebrities, who are expected to fit a conventional narrative. When Jennifer Aniston recently got married at the age of 46, celebrity magazines everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. She had been saved from her life as a ‘sad spinster’, and now all that remains for her to complete her storyline is to have a baby. In such an environment, when any deviation from the ideal makes you a figure of ridicule or pity, the stakes are even higher for celebrities who transgress from the conventional sexuality.
This scandal comes just weeks after another case of foot-in-mouth for Damon, when on his HBO show ‘Project Greenlight’, he managed to offend another marginalised group, by trying to explain how black people should be represented in film, to black movie director Effie Brown. Interrupting Brown, Damon seems completely unaware of the irony in his explaining diversity to a
Black people, especially black women, are hugely under-represented in film, as Hollywood favours white actors, like Damon. In September, when Viola Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama, she spoke of this problem in her acceptance speech, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there”.
Damon’s transgressions have seen him acting out his privilege on the public stage. As a straight white man, he has never felt the pressures or public scrutiny that come with belonging to a minority. As such, his condemnation is correct, as it sheds light on the lack of diversity that exists in the film industry. We need to expose and overcome these structural oppressions, so that we can have a world in which your success as an actor is based on your talent, rather than on your identity, sexual or otherwise.
Image Credit: Siebbi