Friendship Trouble: An Examination of the Gay Best Friend Identity in American Consumer Culture

Abstract

Contemporary culture has become saturated with the gay best friend. In July, 2010, Teen Vogue published an article calling the gay best friend a “must have item”. The ubiquity of the gay best friend identity and the potential effects it may have on gay men make this identity a crucial site for academic inquiry, yet it remains largely unexplored. This study seeks to address this void by offering an analysis of the gay best friend through an examination of the qualities that constitute the gay best friend identity as it is presented in American consumer culture. These qualities are ascertained through an analysis of popular American television shows and movies featuring gay best friend characters—Will & Grace, Ugly Betty, Glee, Sex and the City, Burlesque, The Devil Wears Prada, and Sex and the City 2. This essay proposes five categories through which one can understand the qualities of the gay best friend identity: socioeconomic status, the body, personal relationships, behavior, and lack of agency. These categories construct the gay best friend identity as one that is completely commodified and essentialized and that, although touted as an indication of increasing acceptance of gay people, constitutes little more than a new form of oppression.


Introduction

Contemporary culture has become saturated with the gay best friend; the July, 2010 issue of Teen Vogue points out “the must-have items [for a fashionable teenage girl] included a Proenza Schouler tie-dyed top, a shrunken military jack, neon bright chunky bracelets, and … a gay best friend” (Talbot, 2010, page number). The gay best friend is also featured in popular TV shows such as Ugly Betty, Glee, Kendra, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, The Real Housewives of D.C., Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, Will and Grace, and Sundance Channel’s new series, Girls who Like Boys who Like Boys as well as in hit movies such as Burlesque, Mean Girls, Sex and the City, and The Devil Wears Prada. The gay best friend can also be found on the Internet at shitmygaybestfriendsays.tumblr.com and in the popular “Sassy Gay Friend” YouTube videos. Indeed, the gay best friend can even be found on the shelves of booksellers nationwide in Terrance Dean’s (2010) book, Straight from Your Gay Best Friend: The Straight-Up Truth About Relationships, Work, and Having a Fabulous Life.

Though these representations of the gay best friend are fictional, the pervasiveness of the identity posits it as one with the potential to affect the lived experience of real people in a myriad of ways. One potential effect of this identity is the perpetuation of the oppressive cultural understanding of gay men as useful for style advice, interior design, sassy comments, their ability to cut hair, and little else. In addition to contributing to the marginalization of gay men as a whole, this could further marginalize gay men who do not fill the role of the gay best friend if the identity becomes significantly more accepted than other gay identities.

As the Teen Vogue article makes clear, the gay best friend is a possessable, commodified identity. This should not come as a surprise, though, as gay culture has been heavily commodified in consumer culture, the system wherein linkages between resources, material and symbolic, and meanings, lived experience, and identity are created, maintained, and negotiated by markets (Arnould, 2010). For example, gay street culture inspired much of The Gap’s style (Berlant & Freeman, 1993), and Lady Gaga draws heavily on the gay cultural tradition of drag. Gay culture, however, has not simply been commodified. It has been commodified as highly desirable. Alexandra Chasin (2000) writes, “coming-out stories now appear as plots, [gay] styles as the styles, [gay] stuff as the stuff to buy” (p. 245). This is exemplified in Bravo’s hit series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which promotes gayness as a commodity that can improve one’s life and shows viewers where gayness can be bought (Kooijman, 2005). Additionally, the targeting of the gay community by “cool hunters,” agents who would document aspects of gay culture and pitch these aspects to companies looking to make their products and advertising “cooler” (Klein, 1999), illustrates the high commodity value of gayness.

The ubiquity of the gay best friend identity and the potential effects it may have on gay men make this identity a crucial site for academic inquiry. Previous research has focused on heterosexual women who befriend gay men (Buckley, 2008; Maitland, 1991; Moon, 1995; Thompson, 2004), the relationships between gay best friends and heterosexual women (Comer & Lindsey, 2007; Shepperd, Coyle, & Hegarty, 2010), and whether media representations of gay men are positive or negative (Hart, 2004; Kooijman, 2005). However, the gay best friend as an identity is largely unexplored. This study seeks to address this void by offering an analysis of the gay best friend through an examination of the qualities that constitute the gay best friend identity as it is constructed in American consumer culture. To ascertain these qualities, I analyze popular American television shows and movies featuring gay best friend characters. ((The study also included a survey of the advertisements in young women’s magazines. However, the survey was very limited, and its results were inconclusive; thus, it is not discussed in this essay.))

Generic Constructs of the Gay Best Friend

The gay best friend identity is constructed by a variety of television shows and movies spanning multiple genres, including: situation comedy, drama, and satire. The genre in which each character appears influences the way he is depicted and the purpose he serves.

Situation comedies are primarily concerned with the creation of comedy and must be immediately comical (Mills, 2005). Critics suggests that “to find a character immediately funny that character must be a recognizable type, a representative embodiment of a set of ideas or a manifestation of a cliché” (Medhurts and Tuck, 1982, p.45 cited in Mills, 2005, p. 7). As an identity composed of various gay stereotypes, the gay best friend is ideally suited for situation comedy. Therefore, while many of the gay best friend characters come from situation comedies,, the gay best friend character is not exclusively limited to these types of programs.

Traditionally, gay male characters in drama are tragic or villainous (Russo, 1987). Often filling the role of villain, they function as a foil for another male character whose heteronormativity is secured through juxtaposition with the homosexual character. The gay best friend character marks a departure from this meme. When he appears in drama, he is typically not presented as a villain or as a wholly tragic figure. However, the gay best friend characters in more serious genres, such as drama and satire, retain some tragic elements, which are not shared by their situation comedy counterparts.

The genre in which the character appears also shapes his function. As his female friend’s sidekick, the situational comedy’s gay best friend’s behavior elicits laughter from the audience, obscuring the social structures supporting homophobia by diverting the audience’s attention from these structures to his comical behavior (Gray, Jones, & Thompson, 2009). This is the opposite function of satire, which is concerned with making visible and strongly criticizing social follies (Connery & Combe, 1995).

While gay best friend characters of different media genres vary somewhat in their form and function, many of their qualities transgress genre boundaries. Additionally, many shows containing gay best friend characters transgress genre boundaries; Glee, for example, is a musical, dramatic comedy. Because the gay best friend character is not confined to one genre, and gay best friend characters from different genres share many attributes—it is both possible and necessary for an analysis of the gay best friend to include characters from multiple genres. Accordingly, this study analyzes Will & Grace, a situational comedy; Sex and the City, a romantic situational comedy; Ugly Betty, a satiric, dramatic comedy; Glee, a musical, dramatic comedy; The Devil Wears Prada, a satire; Burlesque, a drama; and the movie Sex and the City 2, a romantic comedy. In addition to boasting high viewership, these television shows and movies span the time period over which the gay best friend rose to prominence, which allows the investigator to observe the changes in the construction of the gay best friend identity over time. ((Though there are certainly other television shows and movies containing gay best friend characters, these shows and movies feature their gay best friend characters more prominently than many other shows. Furthermore, there are other television shows and movies featuring gay characters that are not gay best friend characters—characters whose friendships with heterosexual women are not emphasized, e.g. Cameron and Mitchell from Modern Family—, but these characters are beyond the scope of my study.))

My examination of these texts is informed by Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, which states that one’s identity is performatively constituted through one’s actions, but the presupposition that one has this identity informs one’s actions. One internalizes the norms of an identity, and in habitually reiterating these norms, makes the identity seem to be a natural part of the self. This is not to say one consciously chooses to perform one’s identity. Instead, one performatively enacts an identity under social pressure (Chambers and Carver, 2008). This pressure is often in the form of ridiculing or marginalizing those who are unable to enact the norms of their identity.

Categories of the Gay Best Friend Identity

As Butler’s theory of performativity makes clear, identity cannot be conceived of as a single, cohesive essential entity, but as an aggregate of qualities that are performatively enacted. Therefore, to examine the construction of the gay best friend identity, I identify and analyze the qualities the characters performatively enact to gain this identity to become gay best friends. These qualities belong to categories pertaining to larger aspects of the gay best friend identity: socioeconomic status, the body, personal relationships, behavior, and lack of agency. Many of the qualities of the gay best friend identity, however, cannot be classified as belonging to only one category; consequently, there is considerable overlap between the categories.

Category 1: Socioeconomic Status

The gay best friend characters in American consumer culture share a number of qualities pertaining to their socioeconomic status. The gay best friend character is always affluent, though the source of his wealth is often unclear or illogical. Jack McFarland, a gay best friend character from Will & Grace, appears to be fairly wealthy, yet his unsuccessful career as an actor leaves him virtually unemployed for much of the series. While Jack is not as blatantly affluent as other gay best friend characters, he is certainly not poor. Jack lives essentially the same lifestyle as Will and Grace—who have successful, and presumably well paying, careers as a lawyer and interior designer, respectively. Additionally, Jack’s apartment is in Manhattan, an area notorious for its high cost of living. Although Jack is employed in retail sporadically, these jobs would not provide the income his lifestyle requires. However, Jack is able to maintain his lifestyle through financial support from his family and friends—namely, his millionaire friend, Karen Walker.

Toward the end of the series, Jack secures a series of high-paying jobs—as a television producer, then as a talk show host, and finally as the lead in a television series. Additionally, in the final episode, Jack begins a relationship with millionaire Beverly Leslie, who names Jack the sole heir to his estate (Kohan, Mutchnick, & Burrows, 2006). Beverly dies, and Jack receives all of his money, securing (and explaining) his ability to fund an expensive lifestyle.

Stanford Blatch, the principal gay best friend character in Sex and the City, also has a lifestyle requiring substantial wealth. However, Stanford’s career is not very successful—he owns a talent agency but only has one client, a male model—so it is unlikely that it generates enough money to support his lifestyle. Stanford comes from a wealthy family (Bushnell, Star, Avril, Kolinsky, & Fields, 1998). Whether or not his family supports him is unclear.

In other cases, the gay best friend character’s affluent living is completely illogical. For example, Kurt Hummel, the gay best friend character in Glee, wears in-season, designer clothing; has a large and lavishly decorated bedroom; attends an expensive private school for part of season two; and drives an expensive car, a Lincoln Navigator, (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Scott, 2009) early in the series. Kurt does not have a job and is financially dependent on his father—Burt Hummel, a mechanic. Kurt’s mother died at some point before the beginning of the series, so Burt is the Hummel family’s sole provider. As a mechanic, it is highly unlikely Burt earns enough money to support Kurt’s lifestyle. Furthermore, the Hummel family’s lack of wealth is confirmed when Burt says he is spending money he does not have to send Kurt to private school (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Gomez-Rejon, 2011). Clearly, Burt could not realistically finance Kurt’s lifestyle, yet Kurt’s source of funding goes unexplained.

Likewise, Sean, the gay best friend character in Burlesque, lives alone in a fairly large and well-kept house in Los Angeles (Antin, 2010). He works at a failing burlesque lounge as a stage-manager/costume-designer. Over the course of the movie, it is revealed the lounge is bankrupt and Tess, the lounge’s owner, will lose the lounge if she cannot quickly repay her loans. Sean and Tess are close friends, so it is doubtful he would accept or demand a large salary during a time of financial crisis. However, Sean’s house was probably quite expensive, and without a significant source of income, it is unlikely he could afford it. Like Kurt, Sean is presented as living an affluent lifestyle he could not realistically maintain.

All the gay best friend characters appear to have a high level of affluence, but many of the texts do not disclose the source of the character’s wealth. The absence of an explicit source of wealth, particularly in texts containing material that contradicts the apparent affluence of the gay best friend, offers insight into the importance of this quality. The texts create incongruities by presenting a character as having wealth and then situate him in a context that makes his affluence completely illogical. Thus, the need for the gay best friend character to be affluent supersedes the need to create a cohesive story. It becomes clear: his status as object, as sign, is more important than his subjectivity.

Another quality pertaining to the socioeconomic status of the gay best friend identity is race. Every principal gay best friend character was Caucasian. By solely featuring white gay best friend characters, the texts establish whiteness as a quality of the gay best friend identity.

Beyond affluence and race, the gay best friend characters share other qualities that, although slightly less relevant, provide some information about their socioeconomic status. First, many of the gay best friend characters have an affinity for fashion, and many of them work in the fashion industry or a related field. For example, Nigel, the gay best friend character in The Devil Wears Prada, and Marc St. James, from Ugly Betty, are employed at fashion magazines. Additionally, Kurt is a fashion aficionado. In “Prom Queen,” one of the characters notes that “getting a look past [Kurt] is like getting a thumbs up from Joan and Melissa Rivers” (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Stoltz, 2011b, page number). An interest in fashion, particularly high-fashion, is associated with the upper class (Barber and Lobel, 1952), so the gay best friend’s interest in fashion suggests an upper class standing. Furthermore, many of the gay best friend characters demonstrate their interest in fashion by wearing very expensive designer clothing, signifying their membership in the upper class.

Additionally, the gay best friend character’s physical appearance emphasizes his high socioeconomic position. All of the gay best friend characters have slender bodies. ((It is important that one does not confuse the gay best friend’s slenderness with skinniness. While slenderness signifies high socioeconomic status and health, skinniness—for males—signifies poor health and—particularly for gay males—HIV/AIDS.)) In 21st century American culture, slimness signifies upper class standing, while heavyset bodies signify membership in the lower classes (Bordo, 1993). Similarly, the gay best friend characters share a preoccupation with “healthy” dietary habits, often in the form of heavily restricting caloric intake and avoiding foods that contain fat. For example, after taking a sip of coffee he accidentally poured whole milk into, Will, from Will & Grace, becomes very upset, saying, “This is whole milk. Great. I just drank whole milk. Now I’m fat and I’ll never find love” (Kohan, Mutchnick, Lerner, & Burrows, 2006, page number). Frequent dieting is associated with high socioeconomic status (Story, French, Resnick, & Blum, 1995), and health foods are typically more expensive than their regular counterparts, so an obsession with “healthy” eating and health food signifies the gay best friend character’s high socioeconomic status. By featuring gay best friend characters who share this combination of qualities—affluent life styles, whiteness, an interest in fashion, a slender body, and a preoccupation with “healthy” eating habits—the texts make high socioeconomic status a major quality of the gay best friend character; thereby, constructing the gay best friend identity as one only available to individuals with high socioeconomic status.

Category 2: The Body

The gay best friend characters’ bodies also play a large role in the construction of the gay best friend identity. As I previously discussed, all of the gay best friend characters are white and have slim bodies. The significance of the body’s slenderness is highlighted by the gay best friend characters emphasis on avoiding foods deemed unhealthy. Like Will’s panic over drinking a miniscule amount of whole milk, Nigel, from The Devil Wears Prada, criticizes Andy’s—the movie’s female protagonist and the newest employee at the fictional fashion magazine, Runway—choice of lunch, “Corn chowder. That’s an interesting choice. You do know that cellulite is the main ingredient in corn chowder” (Frankel, 2006).

Additionally, Marc’s boss, Wilhelmina Slater, trades him to one of her rivals, Fabia, in order to secure the date she had selected for her upcoming wedding (Horta, Pennette, & Hayman, 2007). After sending Marc to work for Fabia, Wilhelmina encounters Marc when he accompanies Fabia to a meeting at Mode magazine, Marc’s previous workplace. ((This scene is available on YouTube, and a link to the video is provided in the appendix.)) After the meeting, Wilhelmina and Marc discuss his new working conditions, and over the course of the conversation, Marc reveals that Fabia makes him smoke cigarettes, eat pasta, and tests new cosmetic products on him. Marc appears to be equally distressed about each of the abuses he suffers as Fabia’s assistant. It seems that, for Marc, being forced to eat carbohydrates, and gaining weight as a result, is as abusive as being forced to smoke cigarettes, which will eventually kill him, and to serve as a product tester for cosmetics that contain dangerous chemicals, which cause visible skin irritation and could have other potentially harmful side effects. Apparently, becoming fat is literally as awful as death. Clearly, maintaining a slender figure is of the upmost importance to the gay best friend.

The gay best friend characters must also maintain a specific balance of masculinity and femininity in their bodies. The gay best friend has a male body, which is imbued with masculinity. Masculinity and femininity are defined binarily; that which is not masculine is feminine and vice versa. Large, muscular bodies signify masculinity (Bordo, 1993). A slight body, therefore, is a feminine body. The slenderness of the gay best friend’s body mitigates some, but not all, of the masculinity attributed to his male body.

The gay best friend’s body is further rendered feminine by his lack of athleticism. Athleticism is associated with masculinity (Lantz & Schroeder, 1999). Masculine bodies, therefore, are athletic bodies; they are coordinated, powerful, agile. Bodies that cannot or do not demonstrate athletic prowess are read as weak, uncoordinated, slow—feminine. The vast majority of the gay best friend characters do not demonstrate any significant athletic ability. Many of the characters are never depicted working out or playing a sport, and the few that are do so in a manner that contributes to the overall feminization of their body.

The only character that plays a sport is Kurt—who, in an attempt to impress his father, joins the football team for a brief period of time (Murphy, Falchuk, & Brennan, 2009) Kurt turns out to be a very talented kicker but only when he leads up to the kick with a section of the dance from Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” music video. His athletic ability stems from dance, a traditionally feminine activity. So, while athletic ability normally renders bodies more masculine, Kurt’s athleticism, because it is derived from dance, feminizes his body. Kurt also participates in athletics via the Cheerios, his high school’s cheerleading squad. However, cheerleading is a traditionally feminine sport, so Kurt’s participation in cheerleading further feminizes his body.

The feminization of the gay best friend’s body tempers the masculinity typically associated with male bodies and constructs the gay best friend identity as one whose body must signify prescribed levels of masculinity and femininity. Through the presentation of gay best friend characters that share this body type—slender, white, feminized—the texts construct the specific look of the gay best friend identity.

Category 3: Personal Relationships

Although the exact details of each gay best friend character’s relationships differ, there are overarching qualities that define their relationships. The gay best friend characters have similar patterns in their romantic relationships, which are mostly fleeting and meaningless. Jack frequently changes boyfriends and often refers to men as his boyfriend within minutes of meeting them (Kohan, Mutchnick, Bradford, & Burrows, 2005; Kohan, Mutchnick, Lerner, & Burrows, 2006). Similarly, Marc admits most of his relationships have been very short lived (Kinally, Poust, & Holahan, 2010). Stanford marries his rival-turned-lover at the beginning of Sex and the City 2 (King, 2010) and has one long-term boyfriend for part of the television series; however, Stanford has relationships that begin and end over the course of a single episode, and when Carrie asks if he would commit to a nice guy, he replies that “[he] can’t even commit to a long distance carrier” (Bushnell & Star, 1998). By presenting gay best friend characters that are, for the most part, incapable of sustained, romantic relationships, the texts alienate the gay best friend from other gay men.

The gay best friend characters also do not have any close friendships with, and are depicted as distinctly other than, heterosexual males. In an episode entitled “Splat,” Carrie hosts a dinner party for her friends (Bushnell, Star, Bicks, Chupack, & Farino, 2004). After dinner, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte chat in another room. A few minutes later, Stanford shows up and says, “Ladies, times up. I can’t pretend to be one of the boys any longer.” In saying this, Stanford highlights his lack of friendships with heterosexual men and his belief that he belongs to a distinctly different social group than the other men at the party. The texts construct the gay best friend characters as other, and in doing so, alienate the gay best friend from heterosexual men.

Additionally, the gay best friends have difficult relationships with their families. Other than Sean, the gay best friend characters in each of these texts seemed to experience difficulties in their relationship with their family specifically because they are gay. Stanford’s grandmother, for example, withholds his inheritance because he is not married, but when he introduces her to Carrie, she tells Carrie that Stanford is “a fruit” (Bushnell, Star, Avril, Kolinsky, & Fields, 1998). Kurt (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Stoltz, 2011a) and Marc (Horta, Becker, Kucserka, Pennette, & Brock, 2007) also have strained relationships with their families because they are gay. By presenting the gay best friend characters’ relationships with their families as plagued with difficulties, the texts further augment the gay best friend’s alienation.

By presenting the gay best friend identity as one that is alienated from his family, heterosexual men, and other gay men, the texts construct the gay best friend as completely dependent on his female friends for companionship. These friendships, however, are problematic. In most cases, the gay best friend characters have considerably less power than their friends. This is exemplified in Jack and Karen’s relationship. Throughout much of Will & Grace, Karen provides Jack with considerable financial support, which grants her a large degree of power over him. This power differential is particularly evident when Karen uses her power to get Jack to climb 65 flights of stairs with her (Kohan, Mutchnick, Herschlag, & Burrows, 2002). When Jack and Karen arrive at a building where they are meeting Will, Grace, and Will’s parents for dinner, Jack heads for the elevator. Karen stops him, saying they cannot take the elevator because she once had a traumatic experience in it, so they need to take the stairs. Jack responds, “It’s like 65 floors up! Tsk! I ain’t walkin’ that!” When Karen ignores him and begins walking toward the stairwell, Jack says, “Damn you! Why don’t I have my own money?” and reluctantly follows her. Jack’s final comment in this scene renders Karen’s power over him visible: Jack needs Karen’s financial support, so he climbs the stairs with her to ensure he continues receiving it.

What remains unsaid in this scene illustrates the magnitude of Karen’s power. Karen does not remind Jack that he is dependent on her nor does she threaten to take away her support. Karen does not need to police Jack’s behavior by actively leveraging her power against him because, like the prisoners in a panopticon, ((In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975/1977), Michel Foucault discusses Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The panopticon is a prison in which the prison cells form a circle around a central tower. The prison cells open inward, toward the central tower, which is where the prison guards are located. The guards can see out of the tower, but the prisoners cannot see in. Because they have no way of knowing whether they are being watched at any given moment, the prisoners must constantly behave as if they are being observed. In other words, the prisoners monitor themselves (Foucault, 1975/1977).)) Jack polices himself. Jack does what Karen asks of him without being threatened by her, which illustrates her immense power over him and raises the question: how often does Jack simply do things because he knows Karen wants him to?

Many of the other gay best friend characters’ friendships are characterized by a similar power differential arising from their employment situation. Nigel, Marc, and Sean all serve as the gay best friend to their boss, so their relationships are uneven in power. Even if the bosses do not overtly assert their power in the relationship, it is likely that, like Jack, these gay best friend characters police their own behavior.

Despite the inequality in their relationships with their female friends, the gay best friend characters are very protective of these friendships, exhibiting a degree of possessiveness or territoriality when they believe another gay man is encroaching on one of their friendships. For example, Carrie Bradshaw and Stanford Blatch are very good friends, and in “All That Glitters,” Carrie begins a friendship with another gay man, Oliver Spencer, who just moved to Manhattan from Australia (Bushnell, Star, Chupack, & McDougall, 2002). Stanford runs into Carrie and Spencer while they are having brunch. Carrie introduces Stanford to Oliver, who then excuses himself from the table. Once Oliver is gone, Stanford accuses Carrie of cheating on her boyfriend. After Carrie tells Stanford that Oliver is gay, Stanford seems to be a little jealous and says, only semi-jokingly, “I was prepared to lose you to Aidan… but, but this—”
Carrie cuts him off and attempts to assuage his fear of being replaced by assuring him they are only having brunch. The joking manner in which the conversation continues suggests that Stanford’s jealousy has been neutralized, but it does not remain so for long.

A few days later, Stanford runs into Carrie and Oliver at a club and confronts them, saying, “. . . Carrie, don’t fall for him. He’s just another pretty face. He doesn’t love you like I love you. I knew this woman when she took the subway and wore Candies.” In this statement, Stanford implies he and Oliver cannot both be Carrie’s friend, but he does not offer an explanation as to why this is the case. Though Carrie admits in a voice-over she had been neglecting her friendship with Stanford while developing one with Oliver, she could plausibly spend more time with Stanford without terminating her friendship with Oliver. The conversation continues, and Stanford directs his attention to Oliver, “. . . how dare you try to steal her away with your dreamy eyes and your probably fake accent. . .” Oliver responds, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the lady was spoken for.” To which Stanford replies, “Well she is.” Here, what was previously only implied is made explicit: a woman cannot have two gay best friends. Oliver’s comment confirms the territorial nature of the gay best friend’s friendships. He does not ask Stanford why Carrie cannot be friends with both of them; instead, he apologizes for not realizing Stanford had already claimed Carrie as his own. By accepting it without question, Oliver validates the notion that a woman can have only one gay best friend. Stanford’s final comment further illustrates the possessive nature of his friendship with Carrie. Stanford has claimed Carrie as his friend, and he will fight for her friendship, but he will not share it. ((This scene and the scene in which Stanford first encounters Oliver are available on YouTube, and a link to the video is provided in the appendix.))

The texts construct the gay best friend identity as being capable of having meaningful relationships solely with his female friends. Within these relationships, the gay best friend occupies a position of powerlessness, yet he actively works to ensure these friendships last. It would seem these texts have constructed the perfect hegemonic device: the gay best friend not only participates in his oppression but does so with enthusiasm.

Category 4: Behavior

The gay best friend characters also share many behavioral qualities. First, as I have already discussed, the texts present the gay best friend characters as requiring a specific balance of femininity and masculinity, which is evident in the gay best friend’s behavior. If they are perceived as being too masculine or too feminine, they are punished, often in the form of ridicule. Wilhelmina tells Marc that he is “too gay” when he responds to a piece of gossip she shared with him by saying, “Yummmmyyyy” (Horta, Rodriguez, & Melman, 2007). Similarly, when Marc begins to tear up at a wedding, Amanda tells him not to cry because it makes him seem like a girl (Kinally, Poust, & Holahan, 2010).

In Western society, men who are perceived as too feminine are commonly ridiculed (Kantrowitz & Kalb, 1998). However, men are rarely punished for being too masculine. The gay best friend, however, has been constructed as a male identity that can be too masculine. In “Laryngitis,” Kurt attempts to be more masculine in the hopes of strengthening his relationship with his father (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Gomez-Rejon, 2011). He adopts a working-class, traditionally masculine style of dress and selects “Pink Houses,” which is significantly more masculine than the show tunes he usually selects, to sing for the week’s glee club assignment. After he performs the song in front of the glee club, the other members look very confused, and he receives minimal applause. The glee club clearly does not approve of Kurt’s newfound masculinity. In addition to his song’s poor reception among the other glee club members, Kurt’s assertion of masculinity is rejected by the glee club leader, Mr. Schuester, who says Kurt did not understand the assignment, which was to find a song that “expresses who you are.” In saying this, Mr. Schuester denies the legitimacy of Kurt’s masculinity and shames him in front of his peers. Kurt’s punishment demonstrates that to be appropriately gendered, the gay best friend must not be perceived as being too masculine.

The gay best friend’s behavior is also very sassy. The characters make cheeky comments at wildly inappropriate times and unashamedly offer their brutally honest opinions whether or not others want to hear them. For example, after Grace’s boyfriend turned down her marriage proposal, Grace spends her days moping in bed. When Jack attempts to cheer her up, she makes a rude comment, to which Jack replies, “You’re funny when you’re devastated” (Kohan, Mutchnick, Marchinko, & Burrows, 2001). Kurt demonstrates his sassiness by prefacing his audition for a solo, saying “We all know I’m more popular than Rachel, and I dress better, but I want you all to vote for whoever sings the song the best” (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Barclay, 2009).

Additionally, the gay best friend characters frequently announce their gayness—both to strangers, for whom this information is completely irrelevant, and to their friends, who already know. Jack, for example, outs himself to a prison guard while visiting Karen’s husband in prison (Kohan, Mutchnick, Herschlag, & Burrows, 2001) and frequently uses phrases such as “homo don’t do that” (Kohan, Mutchnick, Greenstein, & Burrows, 2001) and “let me get this gay” (Kohan, Mutchnick, Kightlinger, & Burrows, 2002). Similarly, Stanford introduces himself to one of Carrie’s boyfriends, who is a politician, by saying, “Hello, I represent the queer vote” (Bushnell, Star, & King, 2000). By constantly (re)asserting the gay best friend character’s gayness, the texts ensure the character’s gayness remains in the forefront of the audience’s mind, which is particularly important because the texts are constructing an identity that appears to be completely predicated on gayness.

Finally, the texts construct the gay best friend’s behavior by imbuing him with transformative powers. These powers often take the form of an affinity for giving makeovers. In “Hairography,” Quinn, one of Kurt’s fellow glee club members and cheerleaders, asks Kurt to make over one of the other glee clubbers, Rachel. Kurt agrees, stating that “makeovers are like crack to [him]” (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & D’Elia, 2009). Kurt also offers to perform a makeover on Sue Sylvester, the nefarious Cheerios coach (Murphy, Falchuk, & Brennan, 2010). Additionally, Nigel performs a makeover on Andy when she asks for help fitting in, and succeeding in her job, at Runway (Frankel, 2006).

Through their presentation of these qualities—the balance of masculinity and femininity, the sassy demeanor, the constant proclamation of his gayness, and his transformative powers—the texts prescribe the appropriate behaviors for the gay best friend identity.

Category 5: Lack of Agency

The gay best friend characters are heavily shaped by their lack of agency, which is constructed through a combination of qualities—many of which have already been discussed. Agency takes many forms and has been defined in a variety of ways (Campbell, 2005). However, for the purpose of this essay, I use agency to mean the capacity to act on one’s own will. Thus, one lacks agency when one loses control over one’s actions. The gay best friend’s lack of agency can be seen in Jack’s relationship with Karen. Jack is stripped of his agency through his financial dependence on Karen. However, he gains some autonomy by the end of the series when he is able to make his own money. Also, Karen loses all of her money at the end of the series, but she is still able to force Jack to date Beverly Leslie, and support her with Beverly’s money, by telling him he owes her for all the years she helped him (Kohan, Mutchnick, & Burrows, 2006). However, at this point, Karen has to actively leverage her power over him (instead of him policing himself), which is a sign Jack has gained some agency, and Karen’s power over him is diminishing.

Marc also has very little control over his actions. As Wilhelmina’s personal assistant, Marc is required to do what she asks of him. Moreover, Marc’s lack of agency is demonstrated when Wilhelmina trades him to Fabia without consulting him first. A similar situation arises when Daniel and Wilhelmina argue about who should have Marc as their personal assistant (Higginbotham & Heus, 2010). When Daniel asks Marc how he feels, Marc says it is funny they are pretending he has any say in the matter whatsoever. This episode explicitly states what other episodes only demonstrate: Marc is not in charge of his life; he has no agency.

Of all the gay best friend characters, Kurt displays the most agency. However, he loses some control over his actions when he is forced to temporarily transfer to a private school after a bully threatens his life (Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, & Banker, 2010).

Furthermore, the gay best friend is stripped of his agency through the policing of his physical appearance and his gender expression. By requiring the gay best friend’s body look a certain way, the texts force the gay best friend to eat and be active in a specific way, or he will not have the body type required of him. Similarly, the strict policing of the gay best friend’s gender expression severely limits his actions. By restricting the amount of masculinity and femininity the gay best friend can demonstrate, the texts circumscribe the gay best friend’s actions, prohibiting him from participation in activities with particularly strong gender connotations. By presenting gay best friend characters without autonomy, these texts construct the gay best friend identity as one completely devoid of agency.

Because he is constructed without agency, the gay best friend is the ideal commodity, the perfect accessory for his female friends. The gay best friend can help them gain agency through his transformative powers, as is the case in The Devil Wears Prada (Frankel, 2006). Nigel transforms Andy into a fashionista, and after her transformation, she is successful at work; however, he does not use his transformative powers to help himself. Filling the role of the “fairy godmother,” the gay best friend transforms his female friends but cannot, and should not expect to, transform himself. He is completely alienated from the products of his labor.

The gay best friend identity’s lack of agency is perhaps its most disempowering attribute. To fill the role of the gay best friend, gay men must surrender their agency. Without control over their actions, the gay men filling the role of the gay best friend must submit to their heterosexual female friends’ will. In filling the role of the gay best friend, gay men are dehumanized; they lose their subjectivity—becoming commodities, objects to be consumed and controlled by others. They are oppressed.

In addition to being a commodified identity, the gay best friend is also an essentialized identity. The gay best friend is gay. The identity is completely predicated on the gayness of the gay best friend. Given the desirability of products imbued with gayness and the commodified nature of the gay best friend, it is not surprising Teen Vogue named the gay best friend as a “must have item” in July, 2010 (page number)

The problem of the essentialized nature of the gay best friend identity may be solvable through an application of queer theory. The texts’ construction of the gay best friend identity assumes the existence of a true, natural, essential identity, which is shaped by sexual orientation. Although this assumption may find support in the more traditional field of gay and lesbian studies, queer studies resists the idea of sexual orientation as a component of the essential self and highlights the socially constructed nature of sexual identity. By turning queer theory into praxis, television shows and movies with gay best friend characters could present their characters as multifaceted individuals with identities that are not completely determined by their sexual orientation.

At the time of this writing, Glee’s third season has just begun airing on Fox. In the first episode, Blaine—Kurt’s boyfriend who he met at private school—transfers to Kurt’s public school, which seems to indicate he will be a major character this season. Blaine first appeared in season two and has thus far been a relatively minor and undeveloped character. Because he will, presumably, be a major character this season, I anticipate significant character development in the forthcoming episodes. Thus, it would seem Glee has the perfect opportunity to queer the gay best friend and disrupt the essentialized identity it has heretofore been constructing. The shape of the gay best friend identity may also be altered by a new development in Modern Family. While Cameron and Mitchell, the show’s gay characters, do not exhibit many qualities of the gay best friend (they are in a committed relationship, have gay male friends, and are not slender), their lack of a significant female friend precludes them from being gay best friend characters. However, a female friend may be on the horizon. In season three, Cameron befriends a new character to the show, Katie (Lloyd, Levitan, & Winer, 2011). Though the future of Cameron and Katie’s friendship is unknown at the time of this writing, it seems Cameron is poised to become a gay best friend character. If Cameron does become a gay best friend character, his incongruence with the current construction of the gay best friend identity may destabilize the identity by diversifying the qualities that constitute it.

In her essay, “Eating the Other,” bell hooks (1999) writes, “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (p. 179). The essay is specifically about the sexualization of ethnic minorities (hooks, 1999), but the idea rings true for gay men filling the role of the gay best friend. Through his friendships created under the guise of acceptance, the gay best friend can add the occasional dash of fabulous to a heterosexual female’s otherwise hackneyed life, but he remains a second-class citizen deprived of the power, privilege, and agency afforded to his heterosexual friends. Moreover, the gay best friend must remain disempowered. To play the sidekick role mandated by the identity, the gay best friend cannot be his friend’s equal, for a sidekick must always be subordinate to the hero(ine).

In considering the implications of this study, it is important to note that television shows are not merely descriptive; they are prescriptive. The texts construct an oppressive identity, and real gay men are expected to enact the norms of the identity. Additionally, because many of the gay best friend characters appear in situation comedies and exist to be laughed at, the problematic nature of the gay best friend is likely to go unnoticed. As long as women watching these shows are laughing at the gay best friend characters’ silly antics, they will fail to notice his disempowered subject position and the social systems that keep him oppressed. They will fail to notice that—even if they do not intend to, even if they intend the opposite—by “having a gay best friend” they are participating in his oppression. Thus, it would seem the rise of the gay best friend is not a sign of increasing acceptance but a particularly insidious new form of oppression.

Appendix

While working for Fabia, Marc attends a meeting at Mode and encounters Wilhelmina
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8btNM_E1tA

Stanford runs into Carrie and Oliver at brunch and confronts them at a club
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFf9q6IBcGc

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  • http://twitter.com/pendinginsanity Ryan Hsia

    Very well put, Russell. You eloquently lay out the players that influence the cultural commodification of identities and govern the dynamics of social capital–i.e. straight people recognizing the social gains from association with a gay friend who employs the commodified persona, pleasing to the viewer’s internalized schema of gay people. This can be applied to many other phenomena such as ‘hipsters’ wearing thick-rimmed glasses or making explicit self-narratives of participating in ‘nerdy’ hobbies to attain ‘nerd’ status and all its associations.