Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Ugly Betty" Is Beginning To Annoy Me

Not the show itself, which is quite charming when it ignores the more ludicrous plotlines that the show has introduced. What's annoying me is the show's depiction of Betty's 12 year old nephew Justin (played by Mark Indelicato). Justin is flamboyantly gay, but the producers keep insisting that we shouldn't read any sexual orientation into the character just because he's different. They've also suggested -- and others have agreed -- that we're being prejudiced and embracing stereotypes if we assume that every little boy that doesn't fit into a particular mold must be gay. Well, okay, I thought, maybe the kid is just different. There are straight kids who love theater and don't love sports. Maybe I am being stupidly narrow-minded. The only problem? Justin is CLEARLY and FLAMBOYANTLY and SUPREMELY GAY. No, gay people do not all fit into stereotypes, but people who do fit every darn stereotype under the sun are in fact almost invariably gay. Justin puts on "Thanksgiving: The Musical" for his family, he loves fashion and wants to sit next to Betty to discuss Stella McCartney's new fall line, when his mom says someone special is coming for Thanksgiving he thinks it's Martha Stewart because he entered a contest to win dinner with her, he prances about the apartment and when his dad gives him a jock strap he of course has no clue what it is but holds it up to his face like a mask and squeals with delight, "Look ma, I'm the Phantom of the Opera," while he floats about the room.

Hey, I really like Justin and the fact that even his estranged dad kind of, sort of accepts that he's "different." But I'm sorry, the kid is CLEARLY intended to be gay. He could be different or like fashion or be an odd duck in a million different ways but every single line this kid utters is coded behavior that inescapably indicates the boy is gay. So why have they created this adorable, positive gay role model of a kid (Justin is comfortable with himself, clearly) and then waste time denying what they've done?

One possibility is the young actor himself. He's only 12 and in the article linked to above he explicitly says we aren't supposed to assume his character is gay just because he acts super-gay every single moment he's onscreen. Now, when casting a gay kid, movie and TV people have a delicate tightrope to walk, even today. By and large, you cast kids who fit the roles they're going to play. So how do you tell parents their kid seems flamboyantly gay and that's perfect for a role, when the parents themselves may not have faced or dealt with this issue yet, even though their little child wants to be an actor? How do you tell a 10 or 11 or 12 year old kid they're playing a queer? What will their friends say? Apparently, casting agents use coded language to indicate what they want (they might say, "we're looking for 'artistic' preteens") without of course expecting they're gonna find some out 11 year old (not many of those, even among kids who want to act). So part of the Faustian deal becomes the fact that they've hired a kid to play gay but don't really say so. Or they don't admit it just to protect the kid and let them feel comfortable with what they're doing.

But at some point, the producers of Ugly Betty should have admitted that they were putting a gay character on screen and made sure they found a 12 year old boy who could handle that. Do they think the actor won't be teased by friends for playing a gay kid just because the network pretends that's not what is going on? This sense of protectiveness for the young actor is the only decent reason I can think of for their farce in insisting the boy in the show isn't gay. But it's getting offensive. If they wanted to leave it vague or just paint a kid who was different, they shouldn't have made Justin Super Gay in EVERY SINGLE MOMENT HE'S ONSCREEN.

It's a very difficult casting challenge: finding a Latino 12 year old kid who can act who is either gay or very comfortable playing a gay kid and has parents who are comfortable with this as well. Is the actor playing him just a brilliant actor? No, typically when casting kids you cast them close to their real-life behavior. In other words, the producers of the show think the actor playing this kid is in fact effeminate and probably gay. And that's something they can't say out loud because they didn't deal with it properly in the first place.

On "Roseanne," Roseanne Barr decided she wanted to want make her son on the show, DJ, gay. She had all sorts of gay characters on the show and the fact that DJ was probably gay had been hinted at for years. But the actor was six years old when hired and Barr had not planned from the get-go to make the kid gay -- how could she have known the show would last nine years? So when the actor begged her not to make his character gay (or rather, not have the character come out), she relented because he wasn't comfortable. On "I'll Fly Away," the very young son of our lawyer hero was quite "sensitive." I thought the kid might grow up to be gay and indeed in a two hour finale that jumped forward many years, they referenced the fact that the character had died of a disease, the implication being AIDS. On "My So-Called Life," of course, Wilson Cruz was gay in real life and more than ready to play a gay character from the get-go. And what we have on "Ugly Betty" is a young character who is gay from the get-go. The producers knew this but failed to do what needed to be done to protect the actor and the role.

"Ugly Betty" is about acceptance and tolerance of people who look and act and behave differently. When the producers try to pretend that WE'RE being narrowminded by insisting a character who behaves like this must be gay, they are being hypocrites. Lying to themselves and to him and to us turns what should be a positive character into one that is pretty disturbing in a way. If even the network and the producers and the actor playing Justin can't accept him for who he is, why should anyone else? And that's exactly the opposite of the message that "Ugly Betty" wants to promote.

13 comments:

I am not Star Jones said...

Hopefully, exec producer Ms. Salma will read this post.

Excellent.

I haven't watched Ugly Betty (I'm always out and I don't have TIVO) but I may have to check it out to see just how different this character is supposed to be.

Michael in New York said...

No Tivo? No DVR? How do you survive? And you're always out? At concerts? At bars? At poetry readings? At protests? If you do watch the show, which is not great but is pretty fun, you'll see Justin and realize how absurd it is of them to pretend they don't intend this kid to be seen as gay.

Anonymous said...

Why is it bothering you so much? Straight guys don't watch Ugly Betty anyway.

Michael in New York said...

True that :) But it's disingenuous and annoying, of course.

Daniel said...

I have to agree. I have seen the character on Ugly Betty - and he is clearly the gay stereotype. Now, as a gay person, when I was younger I always found it annoying how all the younger actors were always strait and only had to deal with strait issues. Why couldn't there have been a gay youth on the shows that I watched when I was younger? Of course there are a few, but these raraties are usually confined to late adolescents, when by then most gay youth could care less and are no longer looking for a gay tv character to identify with or emulate. Of course the network would want to deny it for it would be a large can of worms to open, I mean a 12 year-old gay kid is kinda a new thing. But I think they should move forward and open the closet door (lol) to more young gay characters on tv shows, as it was what I wanted when I was that age, and I assume that is what the gay youth of today want.

casperwitch said...

I watch Ugly Betty every time it's on. But people it's called ACTING and Mark is a very good actor.
And anyway, my Uncle was gay (yes he has passed R.I.P. JJ, from Cancer) and I grew up around the gay community,but there are some boys/men who are very feminine and are NOT gay. And people it's no body's business in the first place. If your so annoyed, get over it. No one is lying to themselves. Have you ever thought that maybe they are just portraying a character for effect and that you have taken it the wrong way. let the writer/producers and Show people be. They are not harming anyone,just adding to the differential cultural mix that we have in the World. And if people can't handle it too damn bad, if children and adults are making fun of this character and people who are like Justin's in th World, maybe you are not a tolerant as you think you are. So take a a HARD look at yourself and see why it really annoys you. I'm raising my son to accept everyone. He justed turned 4 and his dad is not as tolerant, but to be apart of my family growing up with my Uncle and his friends I am teaching my son this: "You Love Who You Love! Don't let anyone stop you. Only 2 things are not a good choice: being with little children and animals." Tolerance is a given when born, it's how children watch the older people that they learn to tease and be judgmental. I only hope what I can teach my children will be something that can be shared with the World too.

Andrew said...

dead on. i totally agree

jerryellis said...

In response to the original post: I think its strange that you are obviously obsessed with this topic and that in itself is a little disturbing. Almost like you WANT him to be gay, the actor and character. But its a cultural thing, they're treading water just to see were it will take them, an experiment if you will. Do you think that perhaps they're weren't problems with Heather O'Rourke's character when she was cast for poltergeist?

Anonymous said...

you are being ridiculous! he is acting and if he was gay it wouldnt make him different. he may have different hobbies but himself as a whole isnt different. he may have a feminine side, but thats about it. he is exploring just like any child. why are getting so worked up about a t.v. show? like someone else said straight guys dont watch ugly b!

fizzy beautiful hair said...

i think the writer brings with him a baggage - an understanding that gay people are supposed and were meant to hide in the closet and that he is uncomfortable with gender ambiguities. why in the first place should he be bothered to read so deeply into the intentions of the producers if he is tolerant and accepting? it makes me mad that some people try to deconstruct the homosexual agenda on tv and in politics because of their lack of understanding and acceptance of those who are different. why must all different behaviors be clearly placed in a category of gay or heterosexual? it will be the very same person who will bitch and moan that we have too many characters characters who are gay if the writers of ugly betty decide to out those sexually ambiguous characters. grow up...sexual orientation is not as easily discernable as one might think it is.

helvetico said...

Actually, being gay doesn´t have to be a sexual option. The kid is flamboyantly gay, that´s for sure - but there´s no reason to state that he´s also an homosexual. He´s only twelve, for god sake! Stop thinking about the kid sexuality - or you won´t be michael in new york anymore: you will be michael in neverland.

Anonymous said...

I agreed of what you said. From the first time I saw Justin I thought he is a GAY . There was no DOUBT about it.
The producers are trying hardly to convince us with the opposite . They let Justin say it " am not GAY " in one of the episode.

yes we do have kids with different interest but they don't walk, dress or act like girls.

Am afraid they failed to draw the border of the character.Its a bit Gray now and we will wait till the color become clear.

thanks

The Ranter said...

I don't think you're getting it.