More than ever, the makers of television and film attempt to portray women with the same depth and complexity as their male counterparts. Yet a subtle and unnoticed misogyny thrives. Caricatures of women persist in depictions of frivolous gay characters, especially in the sassy “gay best friend.” Gay men are presented as moody, irrational, attention-seeking, gossipy andnot incidentallyfeminine.
This form of mockery is nothing new. We’ve seen it before when white actors donned blackface, a form of theatrical makeup and acting that portrayed African Americans as dimwitted and uncultured. If white actors were to appear in blackface alongside actual black actors, they would diminish any progress black actors might make in representing their whole selves. The modern television and film industry is more subtle in its prejudice, but the model is the same: Provide women roles in which they represent themselves, but place them alongside characters whose identities are based on exploiting simplistic stereotypes.
As a black woman, I am glad that I am largely spared mockery on the basis of my race in television and film. But on even the most progressive shows, I encounter ugly misogynist stereotypes in the form of the sassy gay best friend. We are asked to applaud the appearance of gay characters on television shows and films. Often, though, their characters are little more than a collection of misogynistic laugh lines. What many hail as progress is just another kind of regress.
Jack from Will and Grace
Scholars such as Michael Rogin have argued that modern forms of blackface are not limited to racist portrayals of blacksthey include sexist and anti-Jewish portrayals as well. In Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, Rogin describes how blackface includes all forms of “dressing” in the garb of a race, gender or class that is in binary opposition to one’s own.
Rogin writes that, “an early feminist suspicion that cross-dressing gave men license to speak for women has been challenged by the more recent feminist, gay, and lesbian promotion of destabilized gender boundaries.” Today cross-dressing is often seen as a liberating act that “parodies and denaturalizes the binary opposition.”
But this second, more optimistic view of cross-dressing is as troubling as the first. Destabilization of gender identity takes away from a group the right to speak for themselves. “Cross-dressing” not only challenges womenthe parodied groupwith a changing criteria of what it means to be a woman, but women are also threatened by an encroachment of others into their group, thus putting into question their original right to membership.
Sassy Gay Best Friend
In television and film, gay men are very often annexed to the female sex, passed off as just “one of the girls.” Every girl, these shows and movies imply, should have a sassy gay best friend. These men are allowed into their female friends’ intimate spaces, groping at liberty with harmless extravagance as women exclaim: “It’s all righthe’s gay!” Gay characters are allowed to do and say things that their straight counterparts would never get away with.
Shane from Faking It
Viewers are asked to believe that gay men admire women and are even better companions than straight men. But to suggest that gay men understand women because they are “woman-ish” is to imply that other men are less capable of fostering truly intimate bonds with women. This is an insult to the countless men who make lifelong commitments to women in marriage.
There is something abusive in the way these “gay best friends” act: in their attempts to show they are privy to the inner workings of women, in their ungraceful possession of a feminine affect, and in their feigning to experience their own version of PMS and a monthly cycle. Imitation is the greatest form of flatteryexcept when it is actually a form of mockery.
Forgive us if we are not flattered. It seems to be expected that we women should say, Finally, a man who understands! If we do not, it is because the very things that make the gay character “relatable” to women distance him from a male identity. How can women think that they have made gains when their desired interlocutor has been so flagrantly replaced with someone easier to talk to, yet irrelevant to the conversation?
The way things are going, we are not so far from accepting the kind of superficiality brought to the fore in a George Bernard Shaw play. In fact, we have sunk lower. At least when Mr. Higgins and Eliza argued, they were the right interlocutors for the conversation. Imagine if Mr. Higgins put his maid in his position and told Eliza, “I am done talking with you; I will have the maid continue the conversation in my place.”
Imitation as Mockery
Underneath the image of the gay best friend, there is an apathy toward or even condemnation of women that runs deep. It is as though all it takes to be a woman is the possession of a gossipy, sassy, attention-starved personalityor rather, not so much a personality as an attitude. These caricatures, which smell of contempt and derision, are fair neither to women nor to gay men.
Damien from Mean Girls
In our age, nearly every vice related to sexual expression is regarded as above critique and certainly above shame. We try to avoid establishing clear sexual boundaries for fear of appearing judgmental. We run away from definitions out of some phobia of labeling, not realizing that the purpose of defining a term is to get at the essence of a thing so that our understanding becomes more profound, inclusive of nuance but not ruled by it.
Depictions of the “gay best friend” may be motivated by a desire for justice in the law and on the screen, but misplaced political correctness has opened women to an especially subtle misogyny. It’s time for women to demand that we be spared the assault of mockery, the insult that says it is guileless, and the message that our nature is capable of being stolen.
Faatimah Knight, a research intern at the Witherspoon Institute, is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College.