Somewhere between Airplane!! and Carrie Bradshaw, having a gay best boyfriend became the height of sophistication for a socially savvy hetero lady or group of breeding girls – both on the big and small screens and IRL – because sometimes there aren’t enough short-haired homos to go around. The manfriend provides no threat of sexual tension and more excuses to talk about men and product placement for fashion labels. Often these gay charicatures, usually suffering from an excess of campiness complete with lisps, aren’t blessed with that elusive third dimension. These are the pet homosexuals.
Never a stand-alone character, the pet homosexual is written in to reflect character traits of a female protagonist’s character. Having a pet homosexual tells us a lot about a hetero woman symbolically; we can assume that she’s liberal, trendy, has a unique and forward fashion sense and that she’s probably single (at least when first introduced). These are even more likely to be true if the pet is particularly attractive. The character himself is less a character than a mirror reflecting traits of the female character without having to reveal them individually through exposition. Not a particularly sensitive or desirable portrayal of gay men. Rather than just poor writing, it’s my understanding – and it might be comforting or perhaps discomforting to know – that fab gay friends are made less complex by censorship and processes of de-sexualizing.
My favourite example of a pet homosexual is Damien from Mean Girls. Damien is really gay. How gay is he? Damien, as described by his ‘owner’ Janis, is too gay to function. But that would mean that, according to Tina Fey and her cadre of writers, Gay is defined by love of pink, identifying closer socially with the girls than the boys, a love of event planning, and definitely not someone you want to put your junk on. At no point in the movie, which I admittedly love, does too-gay-to-function Damien seem to have a romantic life or inclination to speak of – excluding his dressing up like Santa and sending roses to other characters’ love interests (Four for you Glen Coco!).
For the majority of the 80’s and 90’s, presenting a stereotypical gay friend (or gay caterer, gay florist, gay decorator, whatever) as an asexual was the only way for writers to get gay people on TV. The world was warming up to gay, but gay sex was too hot for the networks to handle. And even with more networks allowing for their gays to have sex and same-sex relationships, a lot of this is safely nestled in some non-explicit subtext and not explicitly shown to terrified mid-western audiences.
Currently, the two-dimensional gay friends defined exclusively by their flamboyance and love of the arts are falling out of favour in film and tv geared towards adults, thanks in part to less restrictive censorship practices around homosexual content in general. When it became more acceptable for gay characters to be portrayed interacting romantically with the same sex, there were just more gays who could exist as stand-alone characters – sans hetero female counterpart.
Then again, there’s still a long way to go; for example on the widely – and wildly – popular (strangely enough, even among conservative demographics) Modern Family, gay couple Cameron and Mitchell are living in a committed, long-term relationship and have adopted a child together, but they were never shown doing anything as intimate as kissing until the second season aired (an event that was apparently the subject of internet contention). But as censors and media busy-bodies start slowly pulling those rods out of their a$$es (or pushing them deeper, who are we to judge?) we can hopefully look forward to more roles written for gay men to stretch their acting talents rather than perfecting their bitchy snarl face and girlish shrieking.
This article is part of a series on media portrayal of same-sexuality. Read part 1, Gay for Sweeps: The Lesbian Kiss episode here. To learn more about tropes, check out wickedly underrated stereotype site TV tropes.