On ABC’s critically-acclaimed “American Crime,” the show’s main character has a girlfriend but is prone to late-night sexual encounters with other teenage boys. In the superhero film “Deadpool,” Ryan Reynolds’ relationship with Morena Baccarin is garnering far less excitement than the actor’s comments that he might have a boyfriend in the sequel. Syfy’s recently-renewed hit “The Magicians,” meanwhile, features a breakout male character who cuddles on the couch with a woman one moment, then propositions the male lead the next.
Now that Hollywood has declared words like “gay” and “transsexual” the next big thing — then exploited them accordingly and moved on, it seems as though pop culture is embracing a different term in regards to sexual identity and gender identification: Pansexual.
For older generations, it might be enough to raise an eyebrow. For younger people, however, it is enough to elicit a two-word response.
“Who cares?” asks Connor Jessup, the 21-year-old “American Crime” actor who plays the sexually-conflicted Taylor Blaine. “It might be a new trend, in terms of how labels are handed out. But it’s a human thing.”
What’s most interesting about the trend, perhaps, is how it is being used not for exploitation, but to give viewers deeper insight into the characters. On “Crime,” Jessup’s character is a confused teen attracted to rough sex with boys, but with love for high school sweetheart Evy (Angelique Rivera); as rape allegations cause his world to come crashing down around him, he simply wants someone — anyone — to love.
On “Magicians,” Hale Appleman’s Eliot is the flamboyant life of the never-ending party, the type of character who nonchalantly declares that a fellow magician performed a sex act on him — but doesn’t bother to mention whether it was a boy or a girl.
“Deadpool,” meanwhile, was conceived as the antithesis of any Superman stereotype. He is a foul-mouthed, morally-ambiguous hero who couldn’t be bothered with any sort of labels — and has been known to tell Thor that he’s kinda hot.
“I love that about Deadpool,” Reynolds recently told Variety when asked about the character who is seen in the movie threatening to kill a man, then planting a kiss on his cheek. “I love that he can break any boundary. In the future, I hope we get to do that more.”
“Eliot is an incredibly complex person … he is a mass of contradictions,” Appleman says of how his character’s sexuality plays into a larger picture. “What I love is, he certainly is attracted to men, which isn’t to say that he’s not attracted to women. Eliot is insatiable; he is starving for attention and vices to fill the black hole in his heart and his past. Sex is an outlet for him; sex is a way of detaching on some level.”
Three very different characters, and three very different ways their sexual openness takes the portrayal deeper. Going beyond the screen, it’s no surprise that such characters are connecting with a generation whose heroes include Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus and Rowan Blanchard — who have defiantly swatted away any attempt to hang labels on them.
“I live in the f***ing ambiguity of this life,” Stewart has said. “And I love it.”
“Being queer to me just means not putting a label on sexuality,” tweeted the 14-year-old Blanchard. “[It means] just existing,”
“When you’re a person, sexuality is a surprisingly fluid thing. I don’t think it’s something people talk about very much, but it’s especially true when you’re a teenager,” explains Jessup. “One of the most interesting elements about the way [‘Crime’] creator John [Ridley] and his team wrote Taylor was that his sexuality was fluid. His relationship with Evy, for example, was not a sham or a facade to hide his orientation. It was genuine. He was attracted to her, he did have deep feelings for her. And I think that’s much more interesting than this binary way people tend to think about things.”
Appleman was attracted to his character for the same reason. “What I love about the [‘Magicians’] books is that [author] Lev [Grossman] never uses the word “gay” — I don’t think it’s ever actually said,” the 30-year-old actor insists. “At the end of the day, that’s progressive, to not stereotype Eliot as this or that. Yeah, he’s attracted to men; yeah, he’ll have lots of sexual adventures with men — and perhaps with some women too.”
In a recent “Magicians” episode, Eliot cuddled on a couch with his sexy female friend Margo (Summer Bishil), watching the new student at their university. “You and your first-year boys,” she cooed. “What’s your obsession with the flavor of the month?”
“He’s a high-strung super-nerd,” Hale replied, looking Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) up and down. “We love those.”
“Eliot couldn’t exist on TV in America ten years ago,” insists Appleman. “He is constantly evolving his sense of identity, and what he wants to project out into the world. That is an ever-changing thing, just as it is for everyone in their lives, all the time.”
Deadpool comic co-creator Fabian Nicieza may have been ahead of the curve years ago, when he said on Twitter: “Deadpool is whatever sexual inclination his brain tells him he is in that moment. And then the moment passes.” A later writer on the comic series, Gerry Duggan, followed up in 2013 by calling him “ominsexual” and explaining: “I consider DP ready and willing to do anything with a pulse.”
“I didn’t feel any urge to label Taylor,” Jessup says of his “Crime” character. “There’s a scale — the seven point scale — very few people are all straight or all gay,” he says with a laugh.
It’s interesting that a show like “American Crime” depicts parents (Lili Taylor plays the mother of Jessup’s character) as clueless and antiquated, unable to keep up with the lives of the younger characters because they keep trying to reconcile things with terms like “gay” or “straight.” Interview a young actor like Jessup, meanwhile, and you can sense the generation gap.
“People move back and forth; people will feel one way one day, and another the next,” he says. “Look at teenagers, you feel one way one morning, a different the next. But that isn’t reflected in what you’ve seen in the media, and how the world seems to think about it. That’s confusing.”
Interviewed separately, Appleman’s comments are remarkably similar. “We all are incredibly complex beings,” he insists. “We all exist on some spectrum that is neither one nor another thing.”
“I think it’s good that in some small way, in those shows you mentioned, hopefully increasingly people acknowledge the reality,” sums up Jessup. “It’s not a new reality — it’s just an acknowledgement of a very, very old one.”
“I’m excited that Eliot gets to exist,” Appleman adds. “For whoever out there needs him.”