Controversy Over Disney Casting Jack Whitehall in Historic Gay Role

August 19, 2018

The casting of English actor and comedian Jack Whitehall as Disney’s first major gay character in the upcoming adventure film Jungle Cruise has been stirring up controversy on social media. While the role is being praised as a “turning point” in film history, many people have expressed frustration upon hearing that a straight actor has been cast as a gay man in the role–a character who’s been described as “hugely effete, very camp and very funny” and who “makes clear he has no interest in women.”

Just as the Disney theme park attraction “The Pirates of the Caribbean” translated into a hugely successful film franchise, Jungle Cruise has the potential to take a retro riverboat amusement park ride and likewise become a Hollywood bonanza. Clearly, the studio is going all out, touting an “awe-inspiring and massive” set, and Whitehall is cast alongside one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as well as English actress Emily Blunt.

Shooting in Kauai, Whitehall posted on Instagram, “I’m so honoured to be part of this epic adventure … Filming is underway and I am having the time of my life with my amazing co stars. It’s so cool to be part of something of this scale and also as possibly one of the biggest Disney nerds on the planet so exciting to be working on a project with this much history.”

An Internet backlash against Disney erupted as many people viewed Whitehall’s casting as a lost opportunity to have an actor from the LGBT+ community portray the historic role.

Egyptian-Canadian actor and model Omar Sharif Jr. tweeted, “Really @Dinsney #JungleCruise? Your first significant gay role will be played by a straight white man perpetuating stereotypes? Fail! This ship should sink. For the record, I think Jack Whitehall will do a terrific job … MY POINT: For a global company that speaks primarily to youth, Disney had an opportunity to give queer kids an authentic reflection of themselves to see on TV and role model to look up to in real life.”

Similarly, gay TV presenter James Barr tweeted, “Super excited about this huge moment for the LGBTQ+ family, and @jackwhitehall is amazing … BUT when so many gay actor friends of mine are turned down for straight roles because there’s a ‘whiff of gay,’ it’s frustrating to cast NonGay people in gay roles.”

And British model Munroe Bergdorf wrote, “Do the right thing @jackwhitehall. Resign–then ask that a gay man have the chance to play the role. Be an ally, not an impersonator.”

On the other hand, some individuals were supportive of the casting choice. For instance, Lucien O’Corvi tweeted, “As a gay man, I love the fact that Jack Whitehall will play Disney’s first openly gay character! I love it, I love it!” And Telka wrote, “I don’t understand the outrage with Jack Whitehall being cast as a gay character. Since when are roles cast based on someone’s sexuality? Obviously never, it’s based on someone’s acting.”

According to a recent survey, the British public seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of the idea of a straight actor being cast in a significant gay role. A YouGov poll in the United Kingdom asked people, “A heterosexual actor has been cast as the first major gay character in a Disney film. Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?”

Seventy percent of respondents answered, “It is acceptable for a heterosexual actor to be cast in this part;” 12 percent replied, “A gay actor should have been cast in this part;” and 18 percent of pollsters answered, “Don’t Know.” It should be noted, the question didn’t address pollsters’ opinions about if they found the part to be acceptable in and of itself. Also, YouGov does not break down respondents based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, so there’s no information to determine any differences among these demographics.

Disney has not yet responded to the controversy. But what do you think? Do you believe that casting a straight actor to play this historic gay role was acceptable or unacceptable?