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The Gay Best Friend Trope: From Gay Caricatures to Sapphic Token Characters

Last night, in a moment of despair, I decided to watch Netflix’s Look Both Ways (2022) starring Lili Reinhart. (I know. Shame on me). While I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, it did include yet another example of a Black sapphic secondary character — something there has been no shortage of in recent years. It’s always refreshing to see more diversity in the romance genre, of course, but as a queer woman, the novelty has worn off quickly for me. Even now, our representation lives in the background of predominantly white cis het stories.


This fact had me thinking of the Gay Best Friend (GBF) trope and how it has developed over the years. My first experience of the GBF was probably Damian from Mean Girls (2004), played by Daniel Franzese. Damian is a flamboyant character who befriends Lindsay Lohan’s character, Cady, and plays into all of the outdated stereotypes that have been conflated with homosexual men: eccentric, loud, effeminate. He’s even described as “too gay to function”. He brings comedy to the plot — but in many ways, that comedy is solely based on his overexaggerated personality traits, all of which are based around his campness and queerness. In short, Damian becomes a caricature, his sexuality the comedic relief, and the Gay Best Friend becomes a hilarious, disingenuous cliche whose entire personality is made up of stereotypical traits. Of course, Damian isn’t the first reductive representation of queerness and he won’t be the last: I’m thinking Mark from Ugly Betty, Glee’s Kurt Hummel, Ryan from High School Musical, and so on. All of these characters’ humour relies on their campness. In short, they are funny because they are gay.


But what does this really mean? When we see queer women in media, they are rarely presented the same way. While still a secondary character, they bring more than just comedy to a plot. Even Janis of the same movie is queer-coded, yet does more than just fulfil a stereotype. She’s still a best friend, she’s probably gay, but these things come separately and don’t define her entire personality. No, the Gay Best Friend is reserved for the stereotypical homosexual man who exists to go shopping, give the female characters a makeover, and exaggerate their mannerisms because effeminacy is, apparently, funny. The Gay Best Friend is the person every straight white woman dreams of having closeby because they exist to be at her service; they are there to talk boys while never having their own love interest, to give makeovers while their own personalities and flamboyance overpower any chance to be deemed attractive themselves, to act like a woman while being denied the same development in the story.


So then we must wonder if, perhaps, the GBF is only funny because a man possessing feminine qualities is funny; if, perhaps, the GBF is demoted to the one-dimensional sidekick because gay men are not seen as anything other than gay. In short, are GBFs degraded because a man who acts like a woman is degrading?


Of course, TV and film representation has developed since these examples. More and more gay characters are given dimensions and personalities outside of their stereotypes. But what about queer women? As stated above, we haven’t been represented as caricatures.


Mostly because we haven’t been represented at all until recently.


Nowadays, if you pick out a newly-released movie on Netflix, you’re guaranteed to find a sapphic best friend who exists to cheer on the female protagonist and make casual references to an off-screen relationship with another woman, which is exciting and certainly a huge development when we look back on original GBFs… but they’re still not the main characters. I’m thinking of movies such as Purple Hearts (2022), Fresh (2022), After (2019), and the movie that inspired this article, Look Both Ways. Finally, we are seeing women love women onscreen, sometimes even kissing them, and more often than not they’re even given a fun, quirky, lovable personality wherein they’re completely comfortable with their sexuality, which begs the question: why are they not worthy of main character status? Not to mention that most of these women are BIPOC — and using them as a prop for the protagonist is still marginalisation.


Granted, most of the movies I’ve named are not particularly great, but it’s a trope I come across again and again, and it’s tiring. There are so many wonderful queer stories out there, waiting to be written, but it seems as though, in contemporary settings, creators only want to put us in the background so the cis het white characters can remain front and centre, just as they’ve always been. So, yes, while it’s great there are more diverse characters emerging in mass media, that doesn’t mean that the use of the Gay Best Friend trope isn’t still limiting our stories and allowing creators to keep us from the spotlight. If anything, creators have only swapped one lazy method of writing for another: from stereotyping by having the GBF adopt the same traits as his female counterparts to compiling diversity into one side character and hoping it’s enough to be considered “woke” or, in normal people terms, inclusive.


And in the end, what are we really saying by continuing this? Marginalised identities aren’t as important? Queer stories aren’t worthy of being centred unless their sexuality presents as a caricature or else an obstacle? Queer people of colour are only there to benefit the straight white protagonist?


Whether the GBF trope is used in an outdated, stereotypical way or has been adapted for a more modern, inclusive audience, it’s a lazy device that accomplishes little in the grand scheme of things, and it isn’t enough. Our stories are wide and varied and they deserve to be heard, too. Instead of forcing us to linger on the sidelines while white cis het people get their happy endings, why don’t creators play an active role in their attempt at diversity?


Because we are worthy, and we are deserving, and we see right through the half-hearted inclusivity. If the beloved Gay Best Friend has taught me anything, it’s that.


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