In the history of mainstream cinema, LGBT characters have mostly existed in the margins. They’ve been the supporting characters, rarely the lead, and for a long time they weren’t even allowed to exist openly. Nothing exemplifies this marginalization better than the trope of the Gay Best Friend. As increasingly nuanced queer characters have emerged, the Gay Best Friend looks more and more like the product of a different era. Here’s our Take on the history of the Gay Best Friend, and why we need to expect more for this character in the 21st century.
In the history of mainstream cinema, LGBT characters have mostly existed in the margins. They’ve been the supporting characters, rarely the lead, and for a long time, they weren’t even allowed to exist openly. Nothing exemplifies this marginalization better than the trope of the Gay Best Friend.
Ms. Hoegel: “One day, you will meet The Gay of your dreams, and it will be the happiest, most fulfilling day of your life.” – G.B.F. (2013)
Here’s what we expect when we think of the stereotypical Gay Best Friend. They’re an accessory for the straight, white, usually female protagonist. They rarely have much character development, and instead are there to help the protagonist learn something about themselves. They conform to gay stereotypes, like being into “girl talk,” cocktails, and fashion. And they’re mean! The GBF tends to be very funny, often in a cutting way. They’re also non-threatening: the GBF’s sex life is usually invisible, and they’re viewed as essentially sexless.
Charlotte: “You don’t understand what this feels like. You’ve never…”
Anthony: “Lost the love of my life? Wrong. Paolo. Brazilian. Broke my heart.” – Sex and the City, 6x05
Today the GBF feels like an outdated stereotype, but it’s important to remember that cinema’s first-ever Gay Best Friends were positive developments in LGBT representation. Bernstein in Next Stop, Greenwich Village was significant for being a queer character whose queerness was explicit, not coded — and who wasn’t villainous because of this, but someone to empathize or identify with. Brian in Cabaret was introduced as a woman’s queer best friend but was even more revolutionary in being the male lead and explicitly bisexual. Charles Grodin’s Buddy in the Gene Wilder comedy The Woman In Red is a valuable early example of the Gay Best Friend character who’s happily accepted in a friendship group of otherwise straight men. Still, these characters were often secondary and sidelined in the story. And as increasingly nuanced queer characters have emerged, the Gay Best Friend looks more and more like the product of a different era. Here’s our Take on the history of the Gay Best Friend, and why we need to expect more for this character in the 21st century.
Natalie: “Oh, and don’t even get me started about the cliché Gay Best Friend, whose sole purpose in the story is just to help the main hot chick.” - Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
The Gay Fashion Accessory
The stereotypical Gay Best Friend character did not emerge out of thin air. The characterization of the GBF as a more effeminate kind of man can be seen as a descendant of one of Hollywood’s oldest LGBT tropes: the sissy. Sissies were a way for filmmakers to hint at queer characters without being explicit and came to prominence during the Great Depression when traditional notions of men being breadwinners were in crisis. As Vito Russo writes in The Celluloid Closet, sissies “made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between.” While there’s widespread criticism of the sissy stereotype, some have also pointed out the positive aspect of offering at least some representation or inclusion.
Harvey Fierstein: “I liked the sissy… My view has always been ‘visibility at any cost.’” – The Celluloid Closet (1995)
But things got worse as a result of the Hays Code, a list of moralizing rules beginning in the ‘30s about what cinema could and couldn’t show, which equated homosexuality to sexual deviancy. Sissies went from being the comic relief to the villains.
In a sense, the Gay Best Friend represents a reversion to type for the non-villainous original sissy. The GBF and sissy share the same signifiers: being flamboyant, effeminate, well-groomed and well-dressed, prone to gesticulating and positioned in opposition to traditional notions of masculinity. But there are some key differences. The Gay Best Friend is no longer kept in the closet and we do get to see something of their interior lives. In The Devil Wears Prada, Stanley Tucci’s Nigel may exist primarily to help Anne Hathaway’s Andy navigate the treacherous nature of working for Miranda Priestly, but he still has character outside of that relationship.
Nigel: “This is a shining beacon of hope for, oh, I don’t know, let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class.” – The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
On the other hand, even over a half-century later, these characters continue to occupy that space in between. In Sex and the City, both the show’s Gay Best Friends — Carrie’s Stanford Blatch and Charlotte’s Anthony Marentino — exist to bounce off their respective gal-pal’s personalities. Stanford works in the fashion industry and is similarly single-and-looking, so he becomes a sounding board for those sides of Carrie’s personality. Meanwhile, Anthony is a hyper-organized event planner whose bluntness cuts through Charlotte’s own neuroses. Worse, in the second movie, the two GBFs marry each other, reinforcing what Salon’s Thomas Rogers calls “the clichéd, condescending hetero fantasy, the one in which you introduce the only two gay men you know, and magically, the sparks fly.” Still, while these relationships may seem one-dimensional, on the positive side there appears to be truth in the show’s portrayal of straight women and gay men trusting each other for advice about their love lives.
Anthony: “You loved Harry, I loved Harry, we all loved Harry, but it’s been two weeks — next!” – Sex and the City, 6x05
Overall, the treatment of queer characters as little more than fashion accessories for straight women likens them to status symbols, or as Chris Riotta writes: “It’s come to my attention some of you think having a gay friend is like owning a piece of jewelry.” G.B.F. satirizes this through a plot about rival cliques led by teen girls who believe having a Gay Best Friend will secure them the title of Prom Queen. But rather than being a film about the girls who seek out these GBFs, the story uses this trope to criticize the assumption that all gay men must subscribe to a contemporary version of the sissy archetype. Its final message is that the GBF symbol is dehumanizing and that it pressures queer people to perform a persona in order to be accepted by straight people, instead of freely expressing their true selves.
Tanner: “I don’t wanna be king of the Gay Prom. Or be a Gay Best Friend. I just wanna go to Prom, be a friend…” – G.B.F. (2013)
The Gay Ideal Man
If the Gay Best Friend trope purports to celebrate gay people as the ideal platonic companion, then the gay love interest for a straight woman takes this one step further. Stories about a woman wishing her gay friend were straight (or mistaking him for straight) elevate the gay character into a paragon of masculinity, an idea of what straight women wish straight men would be: refined, sensitive, and emotionally vulnerable. But is this the compliment it thinks it is? Arguably, this kind of portrait is reductive to both gay and straight men (who, it implies, can’t be sensitive), and doesn’t show much interest in the gay experience. In The Object Of My Affection, Paul Rudd’s George is portrayed as the perfect guy for Jennifer Aniston’s Nina. He’s a good listener, he’s great with kids, and is emotionally intuitive. And the blossoming of her relationship with George coincides with Nina having cold feet about taking the next step with her actual boyfriend, Vince. So, despite George being gay, the audience is instructed to root for him to get together with Nina. His homosexuality is seen as an obstacle to their natural chemistry, while Nina uses the fact that he once had a girlfriend to keep the possibility alive — both for her and for us.
Constance: “George is G-A-Y, gay! That means he never sleeps with women!”
Nina: “He has slept with a woman!” – The Object Of My Affection (1998)
In Clueless, after Cher makes her speech about the lack of quality men in her school, Christian enters, in slow motion. He perfectly fits her male ideal, down to his style from a past era, which noticeably contrasts with the ‘90s slacker aesthetic she finds so offensive. But the movie is making the point that Cher’s interest in this archetype of the perfect man is shallow and she doesn’t realize that she actually loves someone else. Meanwhile, Cher doesn’t even really appreciate all the richer parts of Christian’s personality, and his numerous references to his sophisticated cultural tastes are treated as merely joking clues about his sexuality that Cher doesn’t pick up on. When she does eventually realize he’s gay, he quickly shifts into the fashion accessory GBF-category, his value still only seen in terms of what he can do for her.
Cher: “Not that Christian wasn’t a blast to hang out with. He was becoming one of my favorite shopping partners.” – Clueless (1995)
The women in The Object of My Affection and Clueless may learn a lesson about why they fixated on an unattainable guy, but the first reaction we’re encouraged to have about these gay love interests is disappointment. These men are wonderful, so it feels like an unfortunate missed opportunity that the protagonist can’t be with them.
Gay characters’ sexuality is erased even further in variations on this story set-up where straight men pretend to be gay or take advantage of being mistaken for gay to get closer to the girl they want. This leads to a portrayal of the Gay Best Friend that doesn’t even include a gay character, reducing gayness to a plot device to tell a story about straight people. A rare exception to these pitfalls occurs in My Best Friend’s Wedding. While Rupert Everett’s George play-acts the role of the straight boyfriend to perfection to help Julia Roberts’ Jules make her old flame Michael jealous, we always know that these two platonic pals are not getting together. After Jules doesn’t get her man, the film concludes with her and George having fun together, thus elevating their friendship to the same level of importance as a romantic relationship.
George: “Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But by God, there’ll be dancing.” – My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Queer Characters, Queer Stories
In many of the romantic stories we’ve been discussing, the gay characters become sidelined because they aren’t the solution to the female protagonist’s quest for a partner. And this reveals a central problem: the Gay Best Friend tends to exist in straight narratives, supporting straight characters, and is rarely, if ever, seen in queer spaces. A mainstream exception would be Will and Grace, which from 1998-on was unusual in its time for balancing its story between the gay male and straight female best friend leads (who were also supported by another more flamboyant version of the gay male, straight female best friend pair). More recently, we see a great example of a straight best friend character existing in a primarily queer space in It’s A Sin’s Jill, who supports and loves her gay male friends. She fights for their rights and cares for them when some get diagnosed with HIV in the ‘80s before many treatment options are available. When her best friend Ritchie’s mom doesn’t believe he’s gay, Jill monologues about her appreciation specifically for this aspect of Ritchie. Her total acceptance and understanding of her friends is a rare, important thing. Jill, as the straight best friend, is an inversion of the GBF trope that shows how valuable the straight woman-gay male relationship can be when there isn’t a hierarchy of power that always centers the straight space or narrative.
Ritchie: “That’s what people will forget, that it was so much fun… Do you understand what I mean?”
Ritchie: “That’s why I need to see Jill.” – It’s A Sin, 1x05
In today’s stories, the Gay Best Friend trope isn’t necessarily being abandoned, but it’s evolving into something more complex and self-aware. It might be used knowingly, like with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon and Big Mouth’s Matthew. Or it might be a road into telling more well-rounded queer stories, like with Happiest Season’s John. On the surface, John plays into the traditional GBF trope. He’s the comic relief, he’s cutting, he pretends to be straight at one point, and he’s there to help Abby learn a lesson. But the film exists in a queer space, and that lesson is that every queer story is different.
John: “Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version, and my version, and everything in between.” – Happiest Season (2020)
At first, it feels like Eric in Sex Education is falling squarely into the Gay Best Friend (and Black Best Friend) traps. But we start to become aware that the show’s initial setup, with “nice guy” Otis as the focus, and “best friend” Eric there purely to support him, is a clichéd high-school story template that the writing is about to critique and break out of. When Otis treats Eric poorly (as so many GBF’s have been treated before), Eric is afforded the space and dignity to recognize this and assert himself by calling Otis out. After that, the narrative begins to flip. Otis becomes more supportive, and Eric’s journey, love life, and inner conflicts are given as much primacy as Otis’s story.
Otis: “I think you are the coolest, bravest and kindest person I know.” – Sex Education, 1x07
Another self-aware series, I May Destroy You, gives us a balanced, realistic look at all the complexities that can arise in the straight woman-gay man relationship. Writing in Dazed, Jason Okundaye argues that Kwame is “failed” by his female friend Arabella — when she locks him in a room with someone she’s trying to set him up with — quote: “the women in our lives can, though well-intentioned, often lack sensitivity to our autonomy or ventriloquise our desires by projecting fantasies and romances into our lives and engagements with men.”
Compared to all these nuanced stories in today’s landscape, the classic, uncomplicated Gay Best Friend trope is limiting. It reduces the gay experience down to one specific thing. The GBF can still be funny, supportive, even into fashion — those things were never the issue. But the important thing is that we move away from the token queer character in a straight narrative, whose value is determined by how useful they are to the straight protagonists. As one of multiple queer characters, existing in queer spaces, and within storylines centered around queer people, the GBF can finally thrive.
Eric: “I’ve had to work really hard to love myself, and I won’t go back.” – Sex Education, 2x06