James Corden is known for two things: making shit jokes about sexual predators and kissing straight men. Recently, he set his sights on everyone’s favorite heartthrob Harry Styles (again), locking lips with the former One Direction star on a special Christmas episode of Carpool Karaoke, the world’s longest-running talk show segment. Twitter was obviously flooded with legions of fans and publications praising them for their apparent cuteness and joking they were both kinda into it, but why is a kiss between two straight dudes still treated as headline news?
Contextually, we live in an age that is queerer than ever. More and more of us are starting to think differently about sex and sexuality, including Styles, who earlier this year responded to questions about his own love life by saying he had “never felt the need to label himself.” This kind of forward-thinking statement is exactly what fans have come to expect of Styles, a notable queer ally whose LGBTQ fanbase is well-documented. He’s got the look to match, too; his post-One Direction wardrobe is filled with pastel florals lifted from Alessandro Michele’s bohemian vision for Gucci, as well as color-blocked power suits by queer trailblazer Charles Jeffrey. Styles has nailed an elusive formula: he’s queer enough to be progressive, but not queer enough to be pigeonholed.
James Corden, on the other hand, has experienced a meteoric rise to global fame which is, well, perplexing. Noisey wrote about this success in a piece entitled "That’s Quite Enough, James Corden," which summed things up nicely; his career has literally been built on getting naked, kissing guys and singing over talented musicians, yet he’s generally adored by the public and even lands coveted gigs like the Grammy Awards. Why? Because he’s lovable, cheeky and “comfortable with his sexuality.”
The fact remains that straight men get praised for being open to kissing other dudes, whereas gay men just open themselves up to homophobia. When someone like Corden locks lips with another guy, it’s deemed acceptable because he isn’t a "threat," whereas gay men are still treated as sexual predators. There’s an obvious double standard at play. It’s easy to write this off as just another shit joke, or as another example of James Corden being praised for doing the absolute bare minimum, but there’s a wider context which needs to be examined. The last few years have been stellar for queer cinema; Moonlight took awards season by storm in 2016, whereas recent releases like Beach Rats and God’s Own Country have been met with critical acclaim.
Arguably the year’s most celebrated movie is Call Me By Your Name, a same-sex love story built around sun-drenched landscapes, forbidden desire and, of course, the famous "wanking into a peach" scene. The movie has been breathlessly praised by critics describing it as a "masterpiece" but, as usual, it’s a cinematic depiction of queer intimacy played out by straight actors. Buzzfeed ran a lengthy, in-depth essay on the career trajectory of breakout star Armie Hammer, raising the extremely valid point that he was in desperate need of critical acclaim after a series of mainstream flops. Predictably, Call Me By Your Name was his meal ticket. Why? Because straight men are still deemed "brave" for undertaking roles that are, well, pretty ordinary to LGBTQ people.
It’s not just depictions of gay men, either. Trans protagonists are still overwhelmingly played by cisgender actors, whereas the year’s most popular lesbian love story was acted out by two straight women. Our stories are generating profit, but little of it is actually coming back into our hands. We seem to have reached a tipping point – when the stories of marginalized people are humanized, imbued with emotion and sold to a mainstream audience, the results are overwhelmingly positive. When it comes to actually supporting queer talent, directors seem to draw the line.
It’s also impossible to divorce the concept of "modern masculinity" from the recent influx of revelations sparked by #MeToo. It was always assumed that Hollywood relied on a "casting couch" mentality, but it wasn’t until news of Harvey Weinstein’s sickening actions broke that women—and men—felt able to share their stories. In horrific detail, we saw that powerful men abuse their positions to take advantage of vulnerable women. We began to understand the toxic connotations linked to "masculinity."
A man like James Corden exists in stark opposition to the stereotypical, aggressive alpha male. He’s cuddly, lovable but cheeky. Above all, he is non-threatening. In many ways, he’s exactly the kind of man society needs to latch on to now more than ever – a straight man unashamed to act effeminate and toy with notions of his sexuality.
Still, it’s hard to be impressed or charmed by this when he only does so for laughs; and, for some bizarre reason, the praise keeps coming. It’s not that queer people can’t take a joke, it’s just that he’s really, really not funny. Styles, on the other hand, offers a genuine blueprint of what a queer ally should be. Sure, the reluctance to clarify details of his love life fuel his already-rabid fanbase and allow them all to project their desires onto him, but his willingness to show solidarity is impressive and much-needed.
Still, in times of political difficulty, it’s easy to award stars maximum credit for doing, well, not very much whatsoever. The fact that two straight dudes are still praised excessively for being "brave," or "cute," or "comfortable with their sexuality" is pretty patronizing, as it implies homosexuality is still something to shy away from. Meanwhile, straight actors are being cast in award-winning gay roles while actual LGBTQ actors are often left struggling to find work or being placed in clunky, stereotypical characters only found in the "Gay & Lesbian" division of Netflix — which, to be honest, even most queer people don’t bother with. This paradox is emblematic of a new age; one willing to praise straight men for venturing into same-sex desire but still likely to wrinkle its brow in disgust at intimacy between an actual queer couple.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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