Rise, a new drama from NBC, could face an early downfall for “straight-washing” its lead character. The show is based on the real life of Lou Volpe, a teacher who resurrects the theatre department at his school and bravely stages subversive plays like Spring Awakening. Lou Volpe is gay, but the character in Rise is straight. Showrunner and executive producer Jason Katims explained his decision at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour.
“I hope and believe that we carry a lot of [Lou’s] spirit into the show. We took that as inspiration. I felt like I needed to make it my own story,” Katims said, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
He added that the change doesn’t mean that he wanted to “shy away” from sexual orientation and gender, revealing that the show will feature transgender and gay characters. But he stressed that he really wanted to put forward his own interpretation of the main character.
“It was important to honor the source material, but to also make it my own so we’d be able to lean into it,” Katims.
The statements have triggered a backlash online from LGBT news outlets and social media users.
An article in LGBTQ Nation claims that Katims made Rise’s lead character straight because he wasn’t comfortable producing a show with a gay lead character. They criticized the decision as a missed opportunity for more LGBT representation on television that emphasized the need for members of the gay community to tell these stories.
“So Katims erased that part of the character in order to get straight, white, cis male representation on America’s TV screens. Because we can’t have enough of that, right?” the article says.
Opinions on social media were just as damning.
If you’re a straight writer who can’t write a gay character, maybe the character isn’t the one who needs to change. Gay writers have written straight characters since they were doing it in pictographs. pic.twitter.com/R81Ok1ssyy
— Jeremy C. F????x (@JeremyCFox) January 10, 2018
— LGBT Fans Deserve Better (@LGBTFansDB) January 10, 2018
Rise isn’t the first adaptation of Lou Volpe’s life and work. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, his life was used as the inspiration for the book, Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, by Michael Sokolove. In the book, the lead character, Lou Mazzuchelli, comes out as gay. Rise, the TV series is supposed to be “loosely” based on this book.
The show’s Lou will not only be straight, but he’ll be a family man too. His son’s alcoholism will reportedly be a central plot line. But his heterosexuality may not gel well with some of the decisions that the character makes. As Vulture reports, it seems hard to imagine that a straight, cisgender man would resonate so much with Spring Awakening that he’s compelled to bring it to the stage with his students. The play is about the sexual awakening of a group of high-school students, most notable two boys who discover their feelings for each other.