By Rena Bryson
For this month’s blog I wanted to explore how actors are portrayed in the media and explore what troupes consistently pop up. On Facebook and Instagram I asked for your help and I got lots of responses so thank you, it really helped. It also quickly became clear who is the first character that people think of when thinking of actors in the media – Joey Tribbiani.
Some honorable mentions were Withnail from Withnail & I and Nicole Barber from Marriage Story but it was a landslide for Joey from Friends. I also asked What tropes / story lines do you dislike about actors in the media? And I received so many different answers including “Starving actors still being able to live comfortably”, “They seem to paint actors (particularly in sitcoms) as dumb or ditzy” and “That they’re vain, shallow, narrow-minded and lazy, and get where they are through corrupt activities.”
I took the list of characters you guys sent me and the ones I’d compiled myself and tried to find connections between characters and there were quite a few. I noticed five different ways actors were repeatedly presented.
The Bad Boyfriend
Male actors were often seen as bad partners, usually the man the protagonist dates but doesn’t end up with as they can do better.
The main reason for this choice I imagine is to show the protagonist’s growth when they choose a more steady and practical lifestyle. Not just because the love interest is an actor, also these characters are usually awful awful people. Even if they’re not framed as awful people like Joey in Friends their actions are undisputedly shallow but can be framed in an endearing light. This is often because the characters are seen to be in this prolonged adolescence where they’re chasing one night stands and difficult dreams. This childlike quality whether it’s endearing like Joey or full on tantrums like Adam shows a need for these characters to grow up. A part of growing up is often “Getting a real job” and the choice to leave someone who doesn’t have adult aspirations is often a moment of character growth. So why is this so recurring? Does it stem from a fear of being brought down by your partner’s aspirations financially or emotionally? Is it a fable to warn potential dates away from shallow and self absorbed actors?
Or does it stem from some truth that actors make difficult partners? It is a very demanding career that many form their identity around. Although the same could be said for many careers, no one says they wouldn’t want to date a doctor because they’re focused on their career. Are creative people more prone to causing drama in a relationship? Or is there truth to some actors choosing their careers out of vanity rather than a passion for the craft? Or does the actor as a love interest represent a more frivolous time in peoples lives when they lived more creatively and freely, a time when they were young and it was okay to make mistakes, the more passionate and dramatic the mistake the better.
The Flambouent Gay Actor
The next pattern I noticed was again with male characters but this time not the wominsing kind. The stereotypical flambouent gay actor is still present on our screens but has developed from a joke to a celebrated role model.
This character is similar to our bad partner actors in their vanity and self absorption but in this case that vanity is usually framed as confidence. They are also similarly never a main character, usually a character within an ensemble or a comedic relief character.
An interest in the arts especially theatre is so associated with male gay characters that having a male character with these interests can lead to them being coded as LGBT+ even if this wasn’t the writers intention. This stems from an interest in creative practices being viewed traditionally as a feminine quality. As well as femininine characteristics in men being perceived as indicators of homosexuality. Although stating the obvious their are gay men who would not be persieved as feminine and lots of straight men who enjoy the theatre.
Although these characters can be empowering to those who relate with them the presence of mainly one type of male gay character can be damaging to those who don’t. Making young men question their attraction to men because they’d rather play sports than sing show tunes. The interest in acting is expressed as a genuine love for performing, even if for superficial reasons. This genuine joy for the craft is often lacking in the other character types. I’ve also observed that each of these characters is seen as weak and harmless erasing the view of homosexuals as something to be feared. Which poses the question are so many gay characters comic reliefs rather than protagoinists because they are still viewed by the media as entertaining but not aspirational.
Personally I welcome any kind of diversity on screen and am thrilled that gay characters are being celebrated but I feel we have a long way to go. It’s fantastic to show gay characters as warm and funny but I also want to see them as well developed protagoinists, In my own work I’ve strived to bring LGBT+ characters to the stage that face issues irrelevant to their sexuality and who both do and don’t fit into queer sterotypes. For example Michelle in Jungle Door being the girliest character I’ve ever written lead to some interesting discussions around her place in the LGBT+ community. But I really can not comment on the affect of sterotypically gay male actors in media on gay men for obvious reasons, so I’ve reached out to my friend and fellow actor Killian Glynn for his insight.
“I think that for me gay male permittivity hasn’t impacted my life on a daily basis, luckily. But I do think that it’s ingrained in the general populous a type of psyche that isn’t necessarily beneficial to the cause.”
The Young Ambitious Woman
The next recurring character type I noticed was female. It’s actually quite unusual that for a “feminine” interest the majority of characters sent to me or I found in my research were male. This is likely just a symptom of male characters being a default in much of our media, but that’s a topic for another day. I noticed several young conventionally attractive white aspiring actors that were resilient in their struggle. With each female character the struggle to become a successful actor is focused on and they often work a low paying side job to support themselves financially.
It’s also interesting to note that female actors are often love interests but are framed very differently to the male love interests we discussed. Male actors were framed as a bad choice of partner but female actors are framed as desirable. I believe this is for many reasons, a female actor is always conventionally attractive, not just because she is an actor but because most women in media are. In the male partner stability is desired as traditionally in hetrosexual relationships (these women are always straight) a woman depends on her husband financially. Making this an issue for a woman dating a male actor but not the other way around. Often these aspiring actresses have male love interests who help with their finances.
Their dreams can be framed through adolescent lenses but it is often more flattering than it is for male characters. The female actors’ dreams don’t seem dangerous; they’re aspirational and their desires although challenged are rarely mocked with the same force. However even though they are not strictly viewed as bad romantic partners does not mean that they are ideal. The theme of sacrifice and suffering for your art is present throughout most portrayals of actors in media and for female characters this usually means their love life. A troupe that is seen repeatedly with female characters is prominent for female actors, they must choose love or their career. This troupe is more connected with gender roles than actors in media but bears mentioning as due to the intensity of a career in the arts often female actors must be single to strive. Or perhaps they just have to sacrifice a particular relationship that stood in the way of their ambitions.
Overall it would seem that female actors with ambition are treated with more kindness by writers than their male counterparts. Although male actors on screen come in many shapes and sizes and are rarely objectified in the same way, but again this is an issue not strictly linked to the characters being actors but that they are female actors.
I’ve realized in writing this that there are so many patterns repeated with female characters that it’s difficult to determine similarities that are because they are actors rather than just because they are a woman. This isn’t to imply that they are badly written characters, rather it’s an observation that the character type could be represented with more diversity. Some of the best representations of actors on screen are female, a topic I’ll discuss at the end of this blog.
The Self absorbed intoxicated actor
The next character type I would like to discuss is the self absorbed intoxicated actor. This character can share a lot in common with the bad boyfriend character type but is far more developed.
Whether these characters are deep or pretentious is usually up for debate but they certainly are all introspective in one way or another. The characters’ suffering and self reflection is tied to their career or lack thereof. For these men their self esteem and self worth is binded with their success as actors. They don’t necessarily strive to become a great actor but rather they push themselves to be recognised as successful. For many of these characters they find joy in what could be regarded as ‘less serious’ acting but they push themselves towards projects which don’t bring them the same happiness in exchange for outside approval. Often they are trying to escape their fixation with the career they had in order to grow.
Although these characters are well written and often open up conversations about issues such as substance abuse and mental health they also walk a dangerous line while framing the issues. Having a character that suffers from addiction and mental health issues but is also a terrible person is trickly. As the audience views the world from the protagonist’s perspective they will sympathise with them and as they grow to like the character more and more they can begin to make excuses for their behaviour. Bo Jack Horseman addresses the glamorisation of these character types directly when he ends up playing a character similar to himself.
Although the career of these characters are a central part of their world the plot extends well beyond that in their effort to create a three dimensional character. Their work as actors is a vehicle to explore territory more relatable to a large demographic. Allowing the audience to both enjoy a world unknown to them while relating to the issues, humanising the actor.
The Villainous Actor
The last character type I discovered was actors as villains. This was mostly present in films and shows for younger audiences.
The vanity and selfish traits we’ve seen before are here but I also noticed something interesting. Characters that are both villains and actors to me seemed to express the most love of their craft. This could be due to the playful nature of the media, the young audience it’s directed at or because it’s not taking itself too seriously. They are motivated to commit crimes to fund their acting or to get ahead in their career, showing the sinister side to sacrifice for your art. They really genuinely love acting more than anything. Using their skill set and costumes frequently in their schemes.
Usually the characters are male and when they are they are often queer coded, meaning they have many traits that intricate they may be LGBT+ but this is never explicitly stated. Outside of characters that are actors there is A LOT of queer coding in childrens media and it’s usually the villain.
Once you see it you can’t really unsee it. Again a topic for another day but I felt it was relevant.
So we’ve identified the different character types used to portray actors in the media but are there any examples of good representation? I asked you guys and most responses were either Nicole Barber from Marriage Story or Mia Dolan from LA LA Land. I also received one response saying “Part of Whitnail and I lol knowing actors from that era” which was quite intriguing. For me Marriage Story was one of the few films I felt captured working in the theatre accurately. Nothing about their lifestyle felt extraordinary even though their jobs were in the arts. It also addressed the differences between the worlds of theatre and film and how it can divide artists. Although Nicole doesn’t look down on her film work she’s very aware that her husband the theatre director does.
Mia’s struggles attending audition after audition while working as a barista. I felt in this often stylistic film there were moments that felt very grounded and relatable. She puts everything she has emotionally and financially into producing her one woman show which she performs to an audience of one. Feeling crushed she returns home to reevaluate her life path. This moment of defeat felt very raw but was quickly flipped as the one audience member happened to be a producer that lands her an audition.
Other Types of Actors in Media
As this blog ended up being so long I stuck to characters on screen for this discussion but honorable mentions from animation and the page are Mary Jane Watson from Spiderman, Baby Doll and Clay face from Batman and Laura from Laura Cassisys walk of fame.
I also received some response that referenced real actors rather than characters, referencing how famous actors are presented on TV, online and in tabloids. Some responses to the tropes they are tired of included “Work they’ve had done”, “Some are expected to be outrageous while for others one bad moment ruins their reputation” and “People who shoot up the fame with hits.” I think it’s a really interesting if not very postmodern topic how the media creates storylines about actors when they are not being characters. Whether it’s to humanise or further other the actors they continue to dramatise their lives for our entertainment. This could be an interesting topic for further discussion but it is too complex to explore briefly at the end of another blog.
In conclusion it’s been interesting to discover the many different personas of actors in media even if they are often detached from reality. There have been connections and similarities between characters from Paddignton to Tarantino. I covered characters from popular media as I felt these would be the characters that have the most impact on how the media portrays the profession. Meaning there may be characters from lesser known media that I have not discussed. Let me know your thoughts on the topic and what character’s you feel best represent actors in media.