To Play It Straight, Look to Biology


In this “Playing It Straight” series, I have explored the historical, societal and scientific aspects of performing straight characters on stage and screen.

Previously, for example, I explored the evidence that heterosexuality, and even contemporary conceptions of biological sex, rest on questionable cultural and scientific assumptions.

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In this column, I will explore the counter-argument: that sex, sexuality and even gender are biologically fixed features. This lends weight to arguments that characters should be played with rigid conceptions of sex, sexual identity and gender roles. If these attributes are not cultural constructions — that is, if sex, sexual identity and gender roles are truly innate and binary — then their performance is more reasonably open to scrutiny when such performances do not conform to expected societal norms.

Time Magazine and the Daily Mail have both reported on a study that establishes the bodily origin, fixed nature and interdependent quality of sex, sexual identity and gender. According to the Time story, called “You Can Smell Someone’s Gender”:

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Sniffing out gender is something that animals are built to do both with the appropriate scent-releasing structures to perfume the air with sex pheromones, and the most sensitive odor-detecting organs on the planet.

In the study, which involved researchers in China and at the University of Minnesotaparticipants were exposed to estratetraenol, which is produced in the body from the typically female-associated estrogen, and androstadienone, which is produced in the body from the typically male-associated testosterone. The Time article quotes the lead researcher, Wen Zhou:

The study shows that people subconsciously extract gender information from chemosensory cues [that depend] on their gender and sexual orientation.

The data further shows that sexual orientation and gender affected the participants’ response when exposed to the different smells. Heterosexual men ascribed feminine aspects to a virtual representation of a walking gait when exposed to estratetraenol; heterosexual women ascribed masculine aspects when exposed to androstadienone. Homosexual men showed a response mimicking the results of heterosexual women. Bisexual or homosexual women showed unique responses; bisexual men were not included in this study. Maybe the most interesting analysis is from Zhou, in the Daily Mail:

Moreover, [this study] demonstrates that human visual gender perception draws on subconscious chemosensory biological cues, an effect that has been hitherto unsuspected.

Essentially, Zhou believes this study confirms that gender is a physical attribute that interacts with sex and sexual identity primarily in a physiological, and not a cultural or sociological, way.

For us in the theatre, Zhou’s assertions take sex, sexual identity and gender from qualities that are primarily culturally ascribed, historically dependent and highly variable to constant biological traits. This would make their portrayal on stage less open to debate or nonconformity. It would parallel discussing an actor’s inability to correctly portray gravity. As a given circumstance that is for all practical purposes the same regardless of time period, cultural context or character it is not open for interpretation under normal circumstances in realistic theatre or film.

Pit and the pendulum: via

Other studies are more targeted in their research — for example, a BBC article exploring possible evolutionary advantages for “gay genes” remaining in the population. Still other studies attempt to establish that there are “gay bodies,” with physiological qualities associated with sexual identity. The direction of hair whorls and left-handedness are among the most significant physical traits correlated with sexual identity.

While acknowledging that the term and concept of “gay genes” or “straight genes” is problematic, these studies both establish a set of evidence favoring a more rigid concept of sexual identity and shows how such a viewpoint can be easily established without evidence. Searching for gay genes assumes — without first exploring the idea through experimentation — that there are straight genes, and also that gay genes, if they do exist, would negatively affect reproductive fitness. We know from current studies and personal experience that same-sex desire and even identity does not prevent individuals from reproducing either through surrogacy or, more often, by engaging in heterosexual relationships. Scientists often overlook the fact that while we have created sexual identities, and most people will place themselves firmly in one camp or the other, but human sexual behavior is far more bisexual in nature. Most men and women who identify as homosexual at some point engage in heterosexual behavior; most men and women who identify as heterosexual at some point engage in homosexual behavior.

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Where in the whorl: via

Despite mounting evidence that biological sex is not a fixed dichotomy, many scientists have presented evidence to the contrary. Biological determinists state that they are not attempting to ignore the import of cultural influences, but to remind society of the deep physiological differences between the sexes. Implicit in their argument is the view that biological sex, with relatively few exceptions, is limited to a male-female dichotomy. While many luminaries in science, medicine and academia have decried and often disproved the argument that gender is determined by biology, there are those who argue that gender is based in biology and not culture alone. Proponents of the Biological Theory of Gender claim that biological differences between the sexes, primarily the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, cause physiological changes in the brain that incline the sexes to separate into the gender dichotomy we know in the West. These arguments maintain a separation of sex and gender, pushing gender from cultural construct to mental predisposition. This lends weight to the often unspoken assumption that sex, gender and sexual identity are all connected and primarily based in the body as unchanging, definite physiological traits.

If sex, sexual identity and gender are physical, innate, fixed and dichotomous, then the expected societal norms attached to their performance do represent lived experiences. However, I would argue that the science cited above is finding evidence to fit theories and cultural narratives, not using evidence to form theories and views.

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Straight because he's straight?
Playing it straight…because he’s straight?

In realism. a standard style in Western theatre and film, one of the main goals is to portray a situation as it would be in real life — that is, as realistically as possible. This means lived human experience, not ideal cultural narratives, are portrayed. So if there is accepted scientific evidence that sexuality, gender and sexual identity are fixed and based in the body, we can reasonably ask actors to portray these qualities. Why, then, are we often confronted with actors unable to manifest straight characters in believable ways? What if audiences know an actor is posing the homosexual physical condition? When playing Richard III, an actor’s performance of scoliosis is not affected if the audience knows that the actor does not have scoliosis. So if sexual identity is a physical condition, its performance by an actor and its reception by an audience must parallel other physical conditions and qualities. But this is not the case. Sexual identity and, indeed, biological sex and gender are not physiological qualities in the way that we conceptualize them. When an actor is tasked with performing a straight character, they are being tasked with the almost impossible feat of embodying a cultural ideal: regardless of the actor’s personal sexual identity, there is no clearly defined benchmark standard or display for them to use. The effectiveness of portraying this character trait cannot in any way be objectively established; unlike the scoliosis of Richard III, no actor can establish in action, physical appearance or character affect the heterosexuality of Romeo. It is personally subjective — and entirely dependent on how that cultural ideal resonates with each audience member personally.

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My goal has never been to recuse those who play characters as straight or who ask others to play characters straight. Rather, I am attempting to uncover assumptions that are inherent in that task, and if attempting to portray straight characters on stage in fact serves theatre, culture at large or the audience. Whether these qualities are biological or cultural, their origin in the physical body or societal invention, we must base our theatrical choices in the text and the aesthetic choices of a production. That all characters are straight until proven otherwise, or easily defined as male or female until proven otherwise, or gender conforming, are all assumptions we can no longer align with artistic integrity. Tasking an actor with playing a sexual identity is a perfectly acceptable request. Yet we should not present it as though we are asking an actor to portray a character with a limp or nervous ticks or a dislike for dogs. We are tasking an actor with portraying a highly controversial, extremely contradictory, historically variable cultural ideal. Certainly sexual identity, sex and gender have a basis in biology. As physical beings, everything about us has a basis in biology. What we need to acknowledge is that we are not asking for a physical display of such qualities but a manifestation of concepts that do not have clear physiological definitions and do not accurately portray lived human experiences.

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