By Michael Waters, 18
Search the phrase “gay best friend,” and you’ll find a barrage of articles, videos and how-to guides urging girls to seek out their very own “GBF.” In these posts, gay boys are said to be “in demand,” “a trend” and “must-have accessories.”
The gay best friend has become ingrained in our pop culture as an overly idealized figure who picks out clothes and gives dating advice in the same breath, yet who rarely has any personality of his own.
It has reached the point where many girls see having a gay best friend as a must. Take, for instance, just a few headlines: “Top 10 Reasons Girls Need Gay Best Friends,” “Which Gay Best Friend Are You,” and “Does every woman need a gay best friend?” (The conclusion: Yes.)
What is so damaging here is the complete dehumanization of gay guys. When you say that you need a gay best friend, you aren’t saying “I met this gay boy who is really cool and I want to get to know him.” You’re saying, “I want someone who will do for me all of the stereotypical things I see on TV.” You’re seeking out a friend solely based off of his sexuality, and then you’re expecting him to conform to the caricature you want him to be. In other words, you’re looking for an accessory first and a person second.
Yet the gay best friend trope has stuck in our culture, and I think this is because the stereotypes associated with it aren’t negative. In fact, in pop culture, gay guys are seen to be almost saintly — these mythical helpers who come into your life and make you feel better about yourself.
Taken alone, this isn’t a bad thing. But when the same portrayal happens again and again, gay men become reduced to caricatures. In media, we are the characters who help you pick out nice clothes but don’t get to buy anything for ourselves, the characters who talk endlessly about your crushes but never speak about our own. We flirt and we watch soap operas and we say “fierce,” but we don’t get real personalities.
And that, I think, is the danger.
However unintentionally, it promotes the idea that gay boys are here to serve. They rarely have agency of their own on TV, and so people unconsciously assume that fact translates to real life. Gay guys become commodities, the subjects of hundreds of articles that pine not for them, but for the stereotypes they’re expected to embody.
That is dehumanizing. That is objectifying. And, as well intentioned as it may be, that hurts.
Ever since I was asked by girls I hardly know if I want to go shopping with them a week after I came out, I have been hyper-aware of how I act. When a friend’s dating life comes up, I work hard to be helpful but not overly passionate; when shopping is mentioned, I make sure to remind everyone that I have the fashion sense of a dying elephant (which is true). And when I’m called “sassy,” I cringe a little bit, because I’m immediately reminded of that caricature on TV.
I tell myself that I want to be different. I tell myself that I don’t want to be someone’s commodity. But then another part of me wonders: If I don’t fit any stereotypes, will people still like me? After all, the gay boys in the media who have lots of friends are the ones who embody the trope. And so there’s this weird balance — I don’t want to fit all of the stereotypes, but I worry that fitting none of them will somehow alienate me even more.
This isn’t uncommon of gay boys, either. In fact, for many people, the commodification is more intense and more damaging.
So clearly, something about the portrayal of gay guys is broken. But here’s the catch: I don’t want gay best friends in books and on TV to disappear. I don’t even want all of the traditional gay best friend stereotypes to go away, either, because many of us — myself included — fit some of them. What I’d like is gay best friend characters written with self-awareness. I want to see the feelings of the friend put center-stage. I want him to buy clothes for himself and talk about his crushes. I want him to be a real person with his own agency, his own problems, his own hopes and dreams. And I want to see him and the protagonist develop a mutually beneficial friendship, rather than one where the gay character takes on the role of a magical helper.
Stereotypes are damaging when they are used to turn people into props. But I have to believe that, if we take a hard look at those stereotypes — and at the humanity behind them — their power to hurt can be stripped away.
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