The Gay Best Friend (GBF) is a trope that’s been hanging around with a cocktail in hand and witty quip at the ready in romantic comedies, teen dramas and sitcoms for years. His (usually ‘his’) apparent sole purpose to exist being to perk up his leading lady. Usually, relegated to the role of sassy sidekick, the GBF has been prancing about for years from My Best Friend’s Wedding, to Sex and the City, and even more recent fare such as Girls and Crazy Rich Asians. Without taking away from the sacred relationship between a woman and a gay man the GBF is problematic, to say the least. He’s harmless, sexless and always there to help you through your man troubles. He has little purpose but to entertain and enlighten. And he’s tired.
The GBF has followed Carrie Bradshaw around without a storyline of his own until season five, he popped up in the recent To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before as a plot diversion and he’s come back from the brink of cancellation to live with Grace Adler once again. Sometimes he’s given a little more room to breathe. In Difficult People, the GBF was a great example of a fleshed out character, with plotlines and troubles of his own, whose life did not revolve around the sassy red head in his life. Yes, Will of ‘& Grace’ was in the name of the show but those two were so codependent and their friendship was mostly based on her being in love with him which insulting to her more than anything.
It’s such a common trope after all, that an entire movie skewering the convention was made. The aptly titled, G.B.F, saw rival popular girls competing for the friendship of an inadvertently outed kid at the high school, each desiring to have the accessory of the season. The GBF is seduced into a land of popularity not realising that his own character and scruples have been compromised. It’s really fun. More recently, the very meta Isn’t This Romantic, Rebel Wilson vehicle included a GBF who actually described his own role as a perfunctory, character without a sex life or existence of his own. This one felt like it was kind of getting away with exploiting the trope and skewering it, so it only gets half points, but it goes to prove a point. The GBF is no longer an acceptable convention, at least, not if the gay character in question doesn’t have a life or a complicated inner monologue all of his own.
We’re no longer content to be portrayed as a two dimensional sounding boards for the harangued heroine, reticent to perpetuate stereotypes and unwilling to allow ourselves to be co-opted as an accessory or a personal shopper anymore. Because of this gay characters are being fleshed out, continually centred as representation in film and TV increases. The GBF trope is, thankfully, on the way out. However, a new trend seems to be emerging, a rather more progressive one, not without its problem areas but it’s a trend with potentially helpful and positive outcomes. The gay/straight bromance.
Not too long ago it would have been unthinkable that a straight protagonist could be best friends with a gay man, or that the straight cishet character could even be the sidekick to the gay or queer (the spectrum is also opening up with increased rep) character. More and more now these pairings are popping up and, honestly, why wouldn’t you be here for it?
Sure, I wouldn’t go so far to say it was a trend flooding the market. There’s only a few examples I can think of. But it’s happening and I think we’ll see it happen more and more into the future.
The first examples of this emerging trend usually see the gay character still in his sidekick role although this time in the services of a male lead. While, not the reason for celebration that a gay lead would be, it’s nice to see these straight ‘hero’ archetypal characters finally interacting, being friends and comrades with the gays. From an archetypal standpoint, we’re kind of fulfilling a more traditional sidekick role here. Think Sam from Lord of the Rings or Chewie. The sidekick is not usually as handsome or heroic as the main hero but usually his strength lies in his loyalty and wits. It makes sense then that a gay or queer character could easily step into these boots. Gays are generally seen or portrayed as more sensitive and actually, as quite smart so it’s an easy swap. These two characters were never going to be the romantic interests anyway so we don’t run into any trouble like you would subbing out the damsel. (Yes, these archetypes are all crazy heteronormative because the patriarchy.) The trouble we run into here is that more often than not this version of the gay sidekick is often in love with his friend.
In times past, when deploying the GBF convention the woman would often have romantic feelings for their queer bestie. This is a trope that’s more or less died out and was actually beautifully explored in The Object of My Affection with Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd and pretty offensive to the woman involved. Straight girls aren’t lusting after their gay besties because, well, it’s just sensible. Which is why it’s so problematic that the gay sidekicks who follow straight bros are so often portrayed as being infatuated with their roadmate. We’ve seen it in Smash, when Andy Mientus’ doomed Kyle is infatuated with hunky Jeremy Jordan. I saw it in just about every Australian soap the first time they tried to include a gay character. (They’d inevitably fall for one of the straight hotties who would very, very graciously sit down the poor scamp and tell them that being gay was ok, they just weren't it. So gracious. The problem here is that we’ve taken a small step forward, we’ve broken with convention. But if the woman isn’t tragically in love with the gay, then someone has to be tragically in love, and it isn’t going to be straight-y strong man hetero lead and it’s just not realistic. No self respecting gay has actually had a crush on a straight man since their adolescence, right? RIGHT!?
Next up is the gay bestie who is in fact not in love with their straight counterpart but is still relegated to the role of side kick. This was demonstrated by MTV’s very enjoyable teen comedy Faking It, which also explored the dynamics of a lesbian/straight girl friendship although in that scenario they were kind of equals to begin with. Here Michael J. Willet (who also played the titular G.B.F in the film of the same name) plays Shane, he’s one step away from stereotype, but the show is all about diversity and self-discovery and he just looks like he’s having a nice time that it’s ok. His straight bestie is romantic interest to the leading lady, Liam, played by Gregg Sulkin. They’re best friends, they both have lives, no one is in love with the other, in fact their romantic interests lay in very different places. Yet, Sulkin is still the main focus here. This show was delightful for at least two seasons and the boys weren’t the main attraction here anyway, being supporting cast to the two female leads, so it gets a pass. The whole thing was progressive in a bubblegum sort of way and overall will have done more good than harm.
Things get a bit blurry now as we start to get into the more fluid offerings. The Magicians has been lauded for its portrayal of friendship and love between its mostly straight lead male Quinten and it’s foppish, gay bestie Eliot. I’ll break it down quickly. Quinten is still for all intents and purposes the straight male lead. Although, he's shown on a couple of occasions that he is not all the way straight and in fact has slept with and magically raised a family and grown old with Eliot. Eliot is pretty much entirely gay, except that he had to marry a woman in order to get a demon killing knife and they ended up having a baby. It’s all a bit messy. Still, it’s a tremendous step forward. For one, Magicians is breaking down the archetypal cishet hero, for two when the prospect of him and his gay bestie being in a relationship came up, it was Eliot, the gay, who turned Quinten down. It’s a show whose intent is to play with convention and it’s doing a neat job. It’s giving all its characters fleshed out inner lives and adventures of their own and exploring sexuality in a completely new way for genre television.
Finally, we are in extremely new territory. Gregg Araki is a director and writer who has always played around with sexuality and whose leads have often been queer men. Although his work has always teetered on the fringe, his new offering, Now Apocalypse, explores many of his recurring themes and characters only this time with an eye towards the mainstream. We’re presented with bi-sexual hero, Ulysses Zane, a self proclaimed Kinsey 4 and his straight best friend, Kinsey 0, Ford Halstead. We’re told that apart from messing around once in the early stages of their friendship there’s nothing between them. A scene in the pilot in which Ulysses fantasies that Ford is kissing him and then suggests they go ‘fuck in the bushes,’ does mean that we’re dealing with the queer character having a latent crush on their straight friend. However, for the first time in this dynamic the straight friend is in fact the sidekick and that’s why I’m mentioning it last. The GBF is no longer a depthless side character whose presence is only required to further the story, to help his straight leads, and be sassy doing it. He has transcended the trope and is now in the spotlight. Yes, there have been queer characters with straight friends but I’d argue these have all been in queer shows and not in an ensemble cast, which mixes straight and queer characters, or better yet erases all labels entirely. It’s the gay/straight bromance convention played out to its fullest.
The possibilities for queer centred stories, for more diverse storytelling and for the deconstruction of tropes and archetypes is all possible with the rise of the gay/straight bromance. There is something extremely heartwarming about the relationship between two guys with different sexualities, something representative about it, as if in these relationships one can see a world without these divisions, intolerances or prejudices. In fact, and in time, we may see the extinction of content separated into queer and straight categories altogether. When sexuality is fluid and tropes such as the GBF are put to bed the possibilities are endless. The gay/straight bromance is just the first step away from cliches and stereotypes, it’s a new trope, on the way to a new world and new way of telling stories. Hopefully, we can all say goodbye to the GBF as he swishes off into his empty penthouse, for a cocktail and a long rest.