Polyamory, Constructionism, and the Queerness of Hollywood

Two thoughts have been stirring around my brain lately, and they require a bit of creative thinking, potentially: 1) Actors and actresses are, effectively, in on-going polyamorous relationships, 2) performers embody the rejection of (dangerous) ideologies of essentialism. 

Polyamory and Queer Hollywood 

The philosophy of polyamory says that it’s possible, even natural, for a person to be in love (or to be in some kind of sexual/family-like relationships) with more than one person at a time. In contemporary Western societies, such a notion is deemed immoral and unnatural by most people, even though it’s likely the historical norm. Present-day social constructions define the moral and natural, as well as the scope of possibilities. 

Of course, actors and actresses are not the characters they play, and when discussing fictional characters we focus on the fictional character in most cases, but for purposes here, we’re going to place a brief pause on that practice because I want to explore the notion that movie stars (and theatre stars) participate in very unique relationships, very “liberal” or “weird” relationships and these stem from an otherwise very conservative Hollywood institution.

Take the case of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Gosling and Stone have co-stared in several movies where they fall in love (falling in love is a very modern idea in itself – two hundred years ago people who were afflicted with such an “illness” where deemed dangerous to society and deemed weak). In these movies, Gosling and Stone–rather their bodies–share numerous passionate kisses and much more. Throughout these films, Gosling has been married to a woman, and Stone has dated various men. In addition, throughout these on-screen relationships between Gosling and Stone and their own real-life relationships with other people, they have each been in other on-screen relationships with various people.

So, effectively, Gosling, Stone, and the other people they have been in relationships with both on- and off-screen are participating in a very queer, polyamorous relationship–at the very least something very different than the idealized monogamous, patriarchal relationship.  

In another example, think of a long-running television show such as Walker: Texas Ranger or Full House. These shows have people who are in long-term romantic, sexual relationships with their real-life spouses and on-screen spouses. 

Or, think of Meryl Streep. She has been married to Don Gummer since 1978 and in that time span has been in a (fictional) relationship with many, many different men and women through the various roles she has played.

Of course such on-screen relationships are not “real” in the typical sense, especially as they are on a stage of some kind and have dozens and dozens of lights and cameras all around them, but the biological, physical, psychological bond cannot be fully deleted. And, as I have learned in my studies of film and culture, many a real-life relationship between Hollywood stars started when they were brought together in an on-screen relationship.

The real and reel cannot be fully separated. 

Constructionism and Queer Hollywood 

While there are–absolutely–many important conversations about the importance of a gay actor playing a gay character, a Asian actor playing an Asia character, a crip actor playing a crip character and many concerns when Hollywood uses normative White people to play such roles, Hollywood’s approach is somewhat queer from the perspective that it rejects essentialism and embraces constructionism.

Essentialism says who we are is essential to our being and that we are born certain ways. Queer Theory embraces constructionism and how our identities emerge from society and constantly change. 

Hollywood performers can and do identify in any number of ways–as related to ableism, class, gender, sexuality, race–and play characters that identify in any number of ways–as related to ableism, class, gender, sexuality, race. These don’t have to align. A person doesn’t have to identify in real life as a trans man to play such a role and playing such a role does not make the person in real life a trans man. Acting can be, simply, acting. Although, for sure, an actual trans man could bring more legitimacy to the role and help others trans people because representation and visibility matter. 

Attraction, behavior, and identity are all separate, whether we are talking about a person’s real life, fictional life, or the middle grounds where these morph and overlap. That these can be changed and manipulated in fiction is indeed very queer. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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27 replies

  1. This post was really interesting to me. It does illustrate how PhD thinking and M.S. or M.A. or A.M. thinking is different. PhDs are supposed to be steeped in the philosophy of their specialty, while Master’s degrees have learned the techniques of experimentation (even if it is “only” thought experiment), analysis and interpretation. It also points out how interdisciplinary a humanities degree is that allows the brain to see analogy and association in many different ways.

    It also is very relevant to the topic of polyamory, discussed on the radio show, ‘Philosophy Talks’ last week (live-streamed on KALW and broadcast after each Sunday on many other NPR stations on other days of the week). It is also streamed on demand for 2 weeks at WREK and would be listed there under “this week” starting on the Sunday after its original broadcast.

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  2. Why would you say that polyamory is “likely the historical norm?” Polygamy has, of course, been known in several cultures, chiefly meaning wealthy men could have more than one wife, but that is far from being polyamory. And of course people have always to some extent carried on extra-marital relationships, but with some stigma attached to the point that they were and are mostly carried out in secret.

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    • Thanks for your comment and for reading. Basically, when looking at world history and when looking at early, early humans (and proto-humans and their ancestors and the long process of evolution), we see very different types of relationships and sexual behavior that look much more like polyamory than polygamy and monogamy or marriage, etc. Also, there are even cultures today where women will seek to have sex with numerous men when getting pregnant because they believe each man will leave a certain trait or feature – thus the men are picked according to what kind of child the mother wants.

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    • “Also, there are even cultures today where women will seek to have sex with numerous men when getting pregnant because they believe each man will leave a certain trait or feature – thus the men are picked according to what kind of child the mother wants.” — what cultures would those be? and, how can we know what the mating habits of early humans were? I’m sincerely interested. In many pre-human animals, there is “polyamory” in the sense of multiple mating partners over time, but in these instances there are no permanent family groups either (other than mother/child family groups).

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    • Polyamory and polygamy can coexist in the same couple(s) however I do believe it is rare. Though in the case that Dr. Pegoda is expressing I do not believe that an onscreen relationship contributes to a polyamorous relationship because all people involved in the relationship should have consent, including the significant other that is not on camera. It is possible to feel different types of love for different people; such as a platonic love or family love. Though some on camera relationships might lead to tangible relationships off-camera, it is more likely that these stemmed from how these people interact when they are not acting how they are written to in script.

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  3. Interesting! Both the post and the comments.

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  4. I had never really thought about actors and their relationships within the industry and outside. This was very interesting to think about. As I was reading it I thought about how all these actors do tend to have relationships with others who are not their spouses or significant others. Although they are just acting it still doesn’t take away the physical portion of such acting. It makes me wonder if we as a species were only meant to be with one person then such scenes wouldn’t be possible from the physical perspective.

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  5. I think this is definitely an interesting thought on polyamory and Hollywood. However, I do Believe that all the magic that comes with making a movie seem realistic has more to do with this than anything. I think the lack of emotional ties is what makes it fictional and not an ongoing polyamourous relationship. I’m sure sex scenes are more awkward than intimate for them. I’m sure friendships are formed and occasionally the fruitation of a relationship. But I think That mostly stems from the many many hours spent together off screen, being themselves. I think there is a difference between make believe and real life emotions. And although they may vibe together very well on screen, off screen could be a completely different story. Sometimes actors hate each other but they work really well together.

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    • I agree with Stephanie. Having done some work in television, one can not help but be themselves and keep everything separate. I feel that is necessary for sanity (hahaha.) Vise versa if one does not agree with the other on a personal level but can co-exist on another relationship then it just like that. – Phoebe Caudill

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    • I agree with what Stephanie is saying because as someone who is in the theater all the time, I have seen many actors play love interests wth each other day in and day out. When I see them doing that, I often think that they may be in a relationship or have feelings for each other. Then I see that these actors have significant others outside of the theater and understand that they do not necessarily have any relationship outside of a strong friendship with the actors they play love interests with.

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    • Something important to think is that yes, in many of those situations it may seem awkward, however engaging in sexual activity with someone under any circumstance can physiologically cause someone to develop an emotional connection with the other party. Even something as simple as a hug is capable of creating an emotional attachment for some people. This leads to the next point that perhaps the sexual activity seen in movies may be too awkward to feel any emotion, but that may not apply to the kisses, the flirting, the cuddling, etc. Perhaps the feeling an actor gets in these fictional instances may be genuinely enticing to where that is something they seek to experience in the real world.

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    • I agree with Stephanie. There have been instances in which two actors have performed roles in which they are romantically involved but don’t care much for each other off-screen. As mentioned below by Ana, I’ve also worked in theatre and have seen actors play intimate characters and carry on relationships with other people as well as actually not liking each other off-screen. I think that the relationships that take place in real life stem from a connection that happens from the amount of time these people spend together behind the scenes. Granted it is not a guarantee that all that time will blossom into romance because it can also just blossom into a great friendship or nothing at all. I think that as humans we have a bit of control over who we choose to form connections with in life and while it is always great to see your favorite on-screen couple be an actual couple in real life, sometime on-screen intimacy is just on-screen

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  6. This brings up a good point and I’ve also read some articles on a topic like this, but it discussed cheating in situations like this or even more radical situations like porn stars.The biggest counterargument people have for something like this is that there seems to be a difference between a physical connection and an emotional one. However, I would argue both of these would still apply to the point your making.

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    • The cheating aspect is definitely interesting. I remember hearing rumors that Chris Pratt and Ana Faris were experiencing some marital troubles around the shooting of “Passengers” with Jennifer Lawrence. The accusations stemmed from Pratt and Lawrence’s on-set relationship leading to an alleged off-set affair that ultimately ended Pratt’s marriage.

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    • The cheating aspect is definitely interesting. I remember hearing rumors that Chris Pratt and Ana Faris were experiencing some marital troubles around the shooting of “Passengers” with Jennifer Lawrence. The accusations stemmed from Pratt and Lawrence’s on-set relationship leading to an alleged off-set affair that ultimately ended Pratt’s marriage.

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  7. I have often times thought about these relationships that develop on and off cameras and indeed they can be thought of as polyamorous. Like off camera do they sit back and just laugh about making out and going to award shows together and still think that it is just a friend ship when the actors go season after season doing romantic things and not call it a real relationship. It’s also like when coworkers form relationships and call each other “work husbands” or “work wife”. That too can be seen as polyamorous. Especially since that’s how homosexual relationships developed iin the 60s and 70s. Men and women formed those bonds at work and acted on them and came home to their wives. I guess they can be called actors as well.

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  8. Reading this gave me a different perspective of actors and actressess. Yes some may have relationships off screen and if they have more than I don’t think it matters because people are involved in different relationships everyday. Actors/actresses may have to be more discrete because they wouldn’t want their business out there.

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  9. I have never really thought about actors and actresses “real life” relationships intersect with their characters relationships. They are playing these roles for long periods of time so its hard not to be emotionally invested in someone. I don’t think that they act on it outside of the set but on set I wonder if they take it a bit more serious. Also the point you made regarding how someone can get a trans role for example and not actually be trans. I don’t think that they could play the role accurately. They have not lived the life so they don’t know what its like.

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    • Actors play teachers all the time without any experience teaching. Gay people play straight people all the time. People today play people who died hundreds of years ago…..

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    • This was something that I encountered in my youth as I was very much invested in the queer lives of a few characters in daytime soap operas as explorations of my own possible future, to think that these actors and actresses had to manifest feelings true to the notions of a polyamorous relationship meant that this intersection was something I was very much exposed to but never really recognized because I was very much familiar with the early manifestation of “ship” culture on the internet about a decade ago.

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  10. Tariq I have wondered about this too. Especially when the reel romance or a relationship turns into real life affair. The top example which always come to my mind is Jennifer Aniston , Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Brad was still married to Jennifer when he acted in a movie ” Mr. And Mrs Smith with Angelina and they ended up falling in Love ,as such that Brad had to end his marriage with Jennifer. How awkwardly painful it would have been for Jennifer to see them together at award functions. At least in many a culture if there is an occurrence of polyomorous relationship ,one doesn’t have to face the other. While in Movie world everything seems so weirdly accepted that even personal love relationships become a big part or their professional careers.
    Shazia F.

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  11. It was interesting to analyze polyamory through fictional or “on-screen” perspectives. There were many cases of real relationships are created between actors or actresses after they got off the screens. It is also true that, once bonds are made, it’s definitely not easy to break. Furthermore, how could others know exactly the relationships on-screen are purely fake and they are just “acting”? those might be “real”, and they may have partners in the real life also. Therefore, polyamory has actually existed around us. At some points, people simply do not realize the existence of it, therefore they do not consider those relationships between actors and actresses are immoral or impossible as same as the notion that they have made for polyamory.

    P/S: Before the 19th century, polyamory is considered as normal among the royal class of monarchy era in China and Viet Nam particularly (based on my knowledge). More than that, it still exists among the recent society in Southeast Asia (as far as I have known) but those relationships are not officially published since the majority think that it’s unacceptable.

    The fact that not only Hollywood but most of the cases where the identity of an actor or actress is used to display the characters on-screen. I actually haven’t think about it until I read this blog! It makes me think about all of the movies that I have watched and known the identities of the actors and actresses of those movies. Indeed, most of times I have barely seen an actor or actress plays the character that is totally different than their identities.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts which helped me have new perspectives about different notions of polyamory, constructionism and the queerness of Hollywood.

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  12. To finally have some light shed on the million dollar question I ask myself every time I see a married actor engaging in romantic/sexual activity with someone who isn’t their spouse on screen is quite refreshing. I do not believe I am the only one that shares this curiosity. To call it polyamory really allows someone to have a very different view of what is thought to be just another. But this also leads to the question that because what these actors do may be considered polyamory, could that be a significant reason as to why so many Hollywood couples end up in divorce? As you mentioned in the article, polyamory in Western culture is deemed immoral and unnatural. Perhaps if society had a different view of polyamory, could it be that these Hollywood couples might not have ended up in divorce?

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  13. I imagine the depth of true emotion felt varies wildly from one actor to the next. On screen, the edited and soundtracked relationships feel very real to us as an audience, but on set, with myriad cast and crew surrounding them, the moments probably feel far less intimate to the actors. I read an interview years ago with Jenna Fischer (Pam in The Office) and she said something to the effect of there existing a small part of her that is her character and that part of her truly loving her on-screen spouse. Regarding straight actors playing gay parts, I do wonder occasionally if some actors take the roles as a means of experiencing a homosexual relationship (to a degree) without giving up their heterosexual privilege. -Jake Hayes

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