How James Franco Exploits Queerness to Cover His Tracks

James Franco in 2016. Image via Getty.

Over the summer—before his Oscar campaign, before the Harvey
Weinstein allegations, and before Franco’s Time’s Up pin
prompted women to come forward with their stories of Franco’s
sexual misconduct—James Franco did a
cover story
with Out Magazine. The tone between
Franco and the renowned queer writer Edmund White is one of
warm camaraderie as they discuss sex in the 1970s, porn, and
Franco’s new therapeutic approach to what was once a
work-obsessed life. Looking back at the article after the

allegations
against Franco have
gone public
, the exchange is weighted with hypocrisy. For
over a decade, while James Franco was indulging dubious sexual
impulses in his private and artistic lives, he was publicly
courting the gay press with teases about his queerness.

In a report with the
LA Times
, five women came forward to discuss James
Franco’s history of sexual harassment. One of the women is
Violet Paley, a former girlfriend of Franco’s whose tweets
about him went viral after the Golden Globes. She accused
Franco of coercing her to perform a blow job at the start of
what became a consensual relationship. In the Times
report, she elaborated that their relationship began after she
sought Franco’s advice on scriptwriting.

 Franco began a series of
public stunts that attempted to evolve his queer performances
into queer performance art.

The rest of the recent allegations come from women who worked
with Franco as students or as performers on his short films.
The Times piece exposes a pattern of behavior in which
Franco abuses his clout in the industry to allegedly coerce
younger, less powerful women to perform sexually explicit
material. The report recalls an off-the-rails and thoroughly
heterosexual version of Franco’s 2013 film Interior.
Leather Bar,
in which Franco enlisted queer filmmaker
Travis Mathews to help him shoot an unsimulated gay orgy. In
that movie, Mathews exemplifies the responsible approach to
filming sex, by communicating clearly and early to his
performers what the expectations will be on set.

By contrast, the report describing Franco’s unsupervised
conduct as a director includes an incident in which Franco came
to set with the expectation that the aspiring performers he
hired through his acting school will take their tops off
without advance warning, without legal reassurance, and without
additional payment.”His former student, Sarah Tither-Kaplan,
describes watching Franco remove the plastic lining protecting
women’s vaginas during a scene of simulated oral sex in an
upcoming project of his, The Long Home. Tither-Kaplan
also describes being told that the nude scenes she performed
for a Franco project would be uploaded onto Franco’s Studio 4
Vimeo page, eventually making their way to porn aggregation
sites—all without her consent.

Some of the details in the Times report are shockingly
simple for their blunt stupidity. James Franco taught a class
called “Sex Scene,” and the students who took the class were
called “Sex Sceners.” James Franco sent mass emails to former
students looking for women to play sex workers—roles he called
“hookers and prostitutes.”

By vocally trumpeting their
queerness, both Franco and Hopkins were able to divert attention
away from behavior behind closed doors that was anything but
enlightened. 

The portrait that comes together in the Times report
is of a man fascinated by sex who has been given the power to
creatively explore it, but who doesn’t possess enough insight
to wield that power responsibly. For queer readers, this image
might seem familiar, and not just because we actually saw
Interior. Leather Bar.

Franco has been performing in queer roles since his James Dean
TV-movie days, but shortly after appearing as Allen Ginsberg in
the movie Howl, Franco began a series of public stunts
that attempted to evolve his queer performances into queer
performance art.

He posed in drag on the cover of
Candy Magazine
in 2010. His Comedy Central
roast
in 2013 was a parade of jokes about sucking dick and
anal intercourse. In 2016, he published a book called
Straight James/Gay James
, which included musings about
identity and sexuality, including lines like, “Hello woman, I’d
like to be you./Not because I don’t enjoy my own man/ Body, my
man strength, my man looks, / My man mind, but because I love
yours/Even more.”

He produced and starred in a film called King Cobra
about a gay porn killer, and he
refashioned
the Tori Spelling Lifetime movie Mother,
May I Sleep With Danger?
as a teen lesbian vampire movie.
Maybe most notoriously, Franco published a
piece
in which his straight persona interviewed his gay
persona, coining the term, “gay in my art and straight in my
life.” As clarification for anyone confused by what in the hell
that means, Franco replied, “I guess it depends on how you
define gay. If it means whom you have sex with, I
guess I’m straight.”

James Franco’s persistent
entitlement to queer space should have served as a red
flag.

This list is not exhaustive, but as a queer person, it is
exhausting.

For the most part, the gay press indulged him. Besides OUT
Magazine
, he has also covered The Advocate. His
“straight in life” comments appeared in FourTwoNine,
in a bimonthly queer men’s magazine. In response to the
FourTwoNine piece, Lambda Literary published a

consideration
of “heterosexual queer” as an identity. But
if queer magazines spun revenue off of Franco’s provocations,
Franco’s relentless courtship of queer readers was met with
trepidation, frustration, and in some cases open disgust.

Why does James Franco’s queerbaiting matter, when the issue at
hand is his sexual exploitation of women?

In the months since the accusations against Harvey Weinstein
went public, we have seen a thorough audit of men’s sexual
practices, and not all of those men have been straight. Some,
like Kevin Spacey or Bryan Singer, have male victims. But some
queer men—and some “gay in their art, straight in their lives”
men—have female sexual partners. And though publicly trumpeting
your identification with queer identity and queer ideas is
usually described as “coming out,” in Franco’s case, claiming
some form of queerness proved a valuable tactic in defusing
alleged transgressions and abuse.

When James Franco was caught soliciting a 17-year-old girl he
met at the stage door of one of his performances in “Of Mice
And Men” in 2014, it was four years after CANDY
Magazine
. It was two years after he debunked rumors
(published
by Gawker) that he had raped a male lover with a project called
“GR”—an acronym for “Gay Rapist.” Franco issued an apology for
his teen solicitation on Live With Kelly and Michael
to little notoriety. In less than a year, he was making
headlines with FourTwoNine for calling himself “gay up
until the point of intercourse.”

In some respects, the accusations regarding James Franco call
to mind the
allegations
against PWR BTTM musician, Ben Hopkins. By
vocally trumpeting their queerness, both Franco and Hopkins
were able to divert attention away from behavior behind closed
doors that was anything but enlightened. In each case, the
abusive party retained their institutional power while
declaring themselves free from the confines of
heteronormativity. In each case, their transformative thinking
did not include the role that was meant to be played by their
female partners.

For the universities that employed him, for the organizations
that funded his art projects, for the industry that gave him an
award last Sunday, James Franco’s persistent entitlement to
queer space should have served as a red flag. Here is a man so
deep in a thought experiment, he doesn’t understand that how
you think doesn’t excuse how you live.

Teo Bugbee is a film and culture writer. Bylines
include
The New York Times and MTV News.

An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated James
Franco directed King Cobra; it has been changed to
reflect his role as star and producer.

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