Deep Thoughts

Google Gaydar

September 26, 2012

Multiple Pages
Google Gaydar

Our era’s dominant narrative focuses lavishly on gays, who are portrayed as society’s powerless victims.

Yet gays themselves don’t find the party line very interesting. They like to picture themselves as culturally dominant. For instance, if you spend any time online researching the entertainment industry’s history, you’ll notice that a large fraction of writers on the topic are homosexuals who often emphasize that practically everybody of any importance was gay.

How can they tell? They pride themselves on their acute gaydar. Anybody who fits any gay stereotype is claimed for the clan.

(Ironically, we are told that society is becoming less “homophobic,” yet we still don’t see movie leading men coming out of the closet. Indeed, straight men dress these days like they’ve barely been in their own closets, putting on instead whatever they pick up off the floor. John Derbyshire calls this process of average guys shunning any kind of refinement in fear of seeming gay “straight flight,” and it appears to be accelerating.)

Checking out these claims and insinuations is highly time-consuming and uncertain, but there is now a way to at least rapidly measure public perceptions of celebrities using what I call Google Gaydar.

When you begin typing a search phrase, Google offers ten auto-completion prompts in order of popularity. (This convenience came into the news recently when the wife of a German politician sued Google for auto-finishing searches on her name with helpful suggestions such as “prostitute” and “escort.”)

We can use the rank order of Google’s prompts to quantify what Mickey Kaus called the “Undernews” back when only the National Enquirer dared report on presidential candidate John Edwards’s illegitimate baby.

The Undernews is that vast realm of gossip, speculation, slander, daydreams, misinformation, disinformation, intuition, and unwelcome fact too disreputable for the respectable press. Figuring out what is true and what is false in the Undernews is still labor-intensive, but we at least have a tool for quickly measuring it.

“I’ve noticed over the years that many people have extremely strong opinions on which actors are gay and which are straight.”

As a movie reviewer, I’ve noticed over the years that many people have extremely strong opinions on which actors are gay and which are straight. This makes up a noticeable fraction of the Undernews.

I realize the Undernews can be distasteful. For example, Sir John Gielgud died in 2000 at age 96 after a lifetime of acting triumphs, from playing Hamlet on the West End stage at age 26 to winning an Oscar as the definitive valet in Arthur 52 years later. Yet if you go to, type “John Gielgud,” and hit the space bar, the foremost prompt is “John Gielgud gay.” He spent three quarters of a century devoted to his craft (including perhaps the most astonishing short performance in television history in Brideshead Revisited), yet what the Googling world finds most intriguing is “John Gielgud gay.” What could be more interesting about Sir John than his 1953 arrest in a lavatory?

My general opinion is that most movie and TV stars are good at playing Let’s Pretend, so many guesses about their orientations are overconfident.

On the other hand, the art of casting consists in large measure of noticing those aspects of actors’ personalities most accessible to their art, which means that the underlying man matters. Thus Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple works with Walter Matthau (movie version) or Jack Klugman (sitcom) as slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison and with Jack Lemmon or Tony Randall as fussbudget Felix Unger. As skilled as these expert actors were, reversing the casting would only work as a stunt.

To illustrate how you can use Google auto-complete to measure which actors trigger the public’s gaydar, let’s use veteran comic actor Bill Murray. If you type in “Bill Murray” and hit the space bar, Google offers you the ten most popular ways to complete the search phrase (e.g., “Bill Murray movies” and “Bill Murray net worth”). Not surprisingly, none of the ten suggestions for Murray includes the word “gay.”

If you want to try even harder, type “Bill Murray g.” You’ll get ten g-word suggestions such as “Ghostbusters 3,” “Garfield,” and “golf,” but once again, not “gay.”

This is hardly astounding. Bill Murray rarely plays gay characters (except in the farcical Ed Wood). He’s too old and odd-looking to be the object of gay fantasies. Most of all, in all his decades of fame, he’s never seemed gay. Thus, on a 0 to 100 scale of Google Gaydar, Murray is a 0.

Other stars who score a 0 on Google Gaydar include Matthau, Jeff Bridges, W. C. Fields, Mel Gibson, Fred MacMurray, Robert Duvall, and Woody Allen. This doesn’t mean that they are all 100 percent straight, just that none of their ten most common search terms—or even the ten most popular beginning with the letter “g”—are the word “gay.”

In contrast, type in “Kevin Spacey,” and the word “gay” is immediately proposed as the single most efficient suggestion to finish your search. So Spacey gets a 100.

It could be that these public perceptions of Bill Murray and Kevin Spacey are completely backwards. It’s important to stress that this Google Gaydar scale doesn’t measure reality; it merely quantifies what people who care enough about an actor to search his name on Google are interested in finding. Guessing someone’s Google Gaydar score is rather like that TV game show Family Feud where the winners are those who think most like the consensus of the studio audience, no matter how vulgar or ill-informed the audience may be.

One difference from Family Feud is that Google prompts are self-selected. Only the interests of people who care enough about Kevin Spacey to type his name into Google get counted.

Other 100s besides Spacey include Gielgud, Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Ian McKellen, Charles Laughton, Rupert Everett, David Hyde Pierce, and Raymond Burr.

What about more questionable 100s such as Tony Randall and Peter O’Toole? Randall was quietly married from 1942 until his first wife’s death in 1992. At age 75, he married a 25-year-old blonde with whom he then had two children. So maybe he wasn’t as gay as his typecasting as a finicky fellow would suggest.

As far as I can tell, O’Toole doesn’t appear to be gay. But T. E. Lawrence, whom O’Toole famously played in Lawrence of Arabia, was. Moreover, O’Toole has idiosyncratic mannerisms that are unusual, if not particularly effeminate. But it’s hardly surprising that Google users wonder.

This doesn’t mean that all the 100s make sense. Some seem particularly lunkheaded. (And certain low scores seem unperceptive.)

Methodology alert: I’ve set the Google Gaydar scale so that if the first prompt offered is “gay,” the score is 100. If it’s the second prompt they score 90, the third 80, and so forth. If none of the ten auto-completions is “gay,” then add the letter “g” after the name, with one point for each ranking up from the bottom.

For example, “Danny DeVito” produces no “gay” prompts on the first pass and only the tenth prompt among words beginning with “g.” This gives him a Google Gaydar score of 1 out of 100. (By the way, Google varies the order of these prompts frequently, so if on the day you read this he’s a 0 or a 2, don’t get excited. He hasn’t changed.)

Keep in mind that single-digit scores frequently reflect random types of noise, not that there’s anything wrong with that. For example, Jerry Seinfeld scores a 4 and Larry David a 7, but some of that consists of users trying to look up that famous line from Seinfeld.

Let’s look through a few comparisons, starting with actors named Hugh.

Hugh Jackman scores a 100 due to various rumors and his Broadway roles, while Hugh Grant scores an 8. It has taken Grant decades of manly bad behavior to get over the initial impression made by his English toffishness and his early roles as a homosexual.

Speaking of stars who have been arrested with prostitutes in their cars, it helps if the hooker isn’t a man in a dress, as Grant’s 8 versus Eddie Murphy’s 73 suggest.

How about actors who play mobsters? Al Pacino is a 6, Robert De Niro 5, and Joe Pesci 0.

Famous Scientologists? John Travolta 100 and Tom Cruise 73.

Former teenybopper pretty boys turned superstars? Johnny Depp is at 8 and Leonardo DiCaprio at 0.

Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are both at 0.

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton both clock in at 5.

It’s become fairly common since 1969’s Midnight Cowboy for young male actors to play gay roles. This doesn’t necessarily have a permanent impact on their images. Dustin Hoffman today scores 18 and Jon Voight only 8. (It probably helps to have fathered a famous movie star like Angelina Jolie.) The late Heath Ledger starred in the homosexual romance Brokeback Mountain but only has a 9. On the other hand, Jake Gyllenhaal from the same movie still scores a 100.

What about the TV stars I would run into at Parents’ Night at school? Are they living complex secret lives, or are they really suburban dads just as they appeared? On Google Gaydar, both Gary Sinise and Mark Harmon score 0. (The first five g-word prompts for Harmon, who quarterbacked UCLA in 1972-73, are “gun control,” “genealogy,” “golf,” “girlfriends,” and “grandchildren.” Sounds straight to me!)

And actors I’ve run into at the golf course or driving range? (I have an elaborate theory that gay men seldom like golf.) Ernest Borgnine 7, Judd Hirsch 8, George Wendt 9, and Will Smith 100. (Hmmhhhmm. All I know is that he was hitting the ball plenty straight.)

Famous singers: Bing Crosby 0, Frank Sinatra 4, and Elvis Presley 6.

Famous dancers: James Cagney 4, Fred Astaire 7, and Gene Kelly 100. (This would drive Kelly crazy.)

Jewish comedians: Groucho Marx 5, George Burns 0, Jack Benny 8, Jerry Lewis 9, Mel Brooks 6, and Billy Crystal 4. Interestingly, the fey, mannered style of Benny’s 1950s TV character struck viewers in his own time as hilariously snobbish, but it tends to set off modern viewers’ gay alarms.

Excellent stage diction is considered suspicious these days, as indicated by Kevin Kline (82), Billy Crudup (64), Daniel Day-Lewis (91), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (55).

Conversely, what about mumbling method actors of the 1950s? Method acting was promoted after WWII as a liberation from the unmanly phoniness of traditional stage acting. And yet many of the method classics, such as On the Waterfront, can strike contemporary viewers as a little queer-looking, sending them to Google to see if anybody else has noticed. Thus, Marlon Brando scores 100, Montgomery Clift 100, James Dean 91, and Paul Newman 82.

I wouldn’t have taken Newman’s 82 seriously (after all, he had six children) until I finally got around to watching his most famous role, The Hustler. I can see why Newman’s performance as a pool shark drives movie encyclopedist David Thomson (author of the esteemed New Biographical Dictionary of Film and a rare straight Hollywood history maven) nuts, especially in comparison to the masculine dignity of George C. Scott (0) and Jackie Gleason (0). Yet that reveals more about the prestige acting style of his time than about Newman.

Last, what about John Wayne? Unfortunately, the methodology completely breaks down here because most of the prompts refer either to Orange County’s busy John Wayne Airport or to gay serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who raped and murdered 33 teenage boys.

Yet John Wayne Gacy only has a Google Gaydar score of 7. And that may tell us more about the modern mindset and the control of culture than any other number.


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