Russell Tovey Flexes His Way Into Femmephobia

Russell Tovey, being butch.

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

It’s generally a good idea to refrain from making diagnoses without personally examining the patient, but in Russell Tovey’s case, I think we can safely say it: The guy is suffering from a particularly tragic case of femmephobia. For the unfamiliar, Tovey is a British actor most famous on this side of the Atlantic for his work in Looking, HBO’s controversial “gay show,” in which he plays the tech boss and illicit lover (Tovey’s character, Kevin, is in a not-open relationship) of Jonathan Groff’s Patrick. His extensive work in British projects means he’s a bigger deal in his homeland, a fact that earned him a feature interview in the Observer on Sunday—an interview in which he readily revealed the symptoms of his affliction.

After a stimulating meditation on the actor’s newly fleshed-out physique, reporter Tom Lamont gets Tovey talking about his journey as a gay man, especially as it developed after a homophobic attack (triggered, Tovey reasons, by his wearing a cardigan) 10 years ago, which left him with a scar. Tovey’s story is harrowing, and the trauma he experienced must be taken seriously. That said, his processing of that trauma through damaging femmephobic rhetoric—the kind that values traditionally masculine-performing gay men above their more effeminate brothers—is a problem.

The trouble starts when Tovey reflects on how the bashing launched his quest to bulk up:

I’d see groups of lads, even in a pub, and I’d feel intimidated. It’s a weird thing but if you talk to other people who’ve been through it, you give off a vibe. The pack can sense you’re weak. It made me so frustrated. And going down the gym, discovering the gym three years ago, and really going for it—I feel a lot more in charge. I needed to exorcise that feeling of being a little scared, skinny rat.

I’d wager that most gay men have at one point or another felt the fear of groups of straight men that Tovey describes—I get him there. But the healthy response to that anxiety is not to obsessively build muscle to such an extent that you feel you could beat “the pack” in a fight. Indeed, if your goal is to live in a less homophobic world, this is probably the worst reaction, playing as it does into the disturbing notion that muscle-bound masculine power is inherently worthy of more respect (or safety) than other qualities. To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that working out is itself femmephobic; it’s Tovey’s deployment of it here that’s troubling.

If that were the end of the comments, I don’t think we’d be seeing so much outrage from gay writers and fans online. It’s this next bit, focused on Tovey’s early career and schooling, that is really drawing ire:

I was so envious of everyone who went to Sylvia Young Theatre School. I wanted to go but my dad flat-out refused. He thought I’d become some tapdancing freak without qualifications. And he was right in a way. I’m glad I didn’t go. That might have changed … I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to. Where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now. I thank my dad for that, for not allowing me to go down that path. Because it’s probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.

That quality is his ability to pass for straight in roles like his current stint in Banished, a series about Britain’s penal colonies in Australia. So, to recap, Tovey is glad his father, who he later hints cannot get through Looking because of the gay sex, kept him out of a faggoty art school in order to keep him from becoming too much of a faggot. That’s a harsh way of putting it, and I suspect Tovey will qualify his aversion to those who prance and sing in the street at some point—but for now, what we’ve got here is one of the most articulate expressions of femmephobia that I’ve ever seen. It is good for Tovey that his apparently stifling (how depressing is that “relax” line?) educational experience enables him to butch it up enough to get straight boy roles. But for those of us who would rather tune in to find that kind of misogynistic logic being challenged than to see his generic “masc” ass pumping away on HBO, Tovey’s success is less than thrilling.

To be sure, part of me is irritated, even angered, by Tovey’s comments. But a larger part is sad—sad that he’s clearly fallen prey to the femmephobic ideology that continues to plague gay men, and by extension, to the misogyny that drenches our society in general. Tovey is hardly the first butch queen to think that his biceps and swagger are objectively preferable to a femme queen’s snap and swish; it’s just that his enhanced upper-body strength has hoisted him to a higher platform than most enjoy. In a certain sense, his words are pitiable—he may have worked out his body in the gym, but thanks to Lamont, he is having the unenviable experience of working out his feelings about sexuality and gender expression in public. And worse, his participation in Looking—a show that many, including myself, have criticized for its investment in masc blandness over other modes of being gay—makes his statements all the more powerful. As it turns out, the show’s problem in that regard may be as much on the talent as the writer’s room.

As I say, I imagine Tovey will backtrack soon; and who knows, maybe Lamont didn’t provide all the relevant context. But for the time being, Tovey’s in trouble. He says at the end of the interview that, post-protein blitz, he can now “objectively watch [himself] and go: ‘Yeah, he’s hot.’ ” If gay viewers were with him in that assessment before, far fewer are likely to agree now.

Disclosure: Slate editor Julia Turner’s husband works on Looking.