Mar 26 2013
The following is a guest post from Karina Cooper. Robin will be continuing her series next week. Karina Cooper recently released Wicked Lies an original e-novella published in Cooper’s Dark Mission world.
Wicked Lies is about Jonas Stone—the brilliant, wounded computer programmer who’s helped countless members of the rebellion break free from the clutches of the Church in New Seattle. It’s also about Danny Granger: a captive of the Church, who’s been beaten and bloodied, in the hopes of bringing down the rebellion. But mostly, as Karina says, it’s a story about humans, and the “wicked lies” they tell one another when they’re too scared to take a chance—and about the chances they take anyhow.
How many books have we read, how many chick flicks, romcoms, and bro-mantic comedies have we seen that feature the sassy gay friend? You know, the guy who miraculously went to the same School of Styling that every other gay man has been to, graduated with honors and bases his entire sense of self around giving our protagonist a make-over to help him or her find love?
Or let’s talk about the lesbian who is little more than a girl who wants to be a man, the villain whose entire shtick is to be the catty, flaming foil complete with perfect hair and expensive designer brands, the bi-sexual girl who’s a sorority sister.
In short, let’s talk LGBTQ stereotypes.
The Sassy Gay Friend
If there’s one stereotype we know and almost universally embrace in media, it’s the sassy gay friend. In the realm of fiction, our sassy gay friend lives for one thing and one thing only: to advise our protagonist—usually a woman—with extremely biting and extremely well-intentioned guidance.
You know him from movies like My Best Friend’s Wedding or Sweet Home Alabama, from Kurt’s extremely fabulous flair on Glee, the quintessentially queer Will and Grace, to the one-hit-wonder-maker in Bridget Jones’ Diary—although, in BJD’s defense, he operates within a tight niche of supporting characters that all take turns (or don’t bother taking turns) shouting out in-your-face advice regarding the heroine’s love life.
For the most part, the sassy gay friend is denied his own romances—or at least, denied romances that last. Sometimes, he is seen to hop from bed to bed like a troubadour of fashionable one-night-stands, while other times he is content to be sexless—usually meaning gay and uninterested in pursuing his own romances—and guide our heroine through her own hot mess of a love life. In the meantime, through the power of quantum physics and wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey continuum-bending truths, he has also managed to complete a PhD in the art of fashion, hair and make-up. He is always ready at the drop of a hat to completely make-over our protagonist—again, usually a woman, but not always—thereby proving that if you’re having trouble landing a man (or a woman), all you need is a sassy gay friend and some highlights.
My Experiences With the Sassy Gay Friend
I’ve known men like this, gay fellows who actually use the word “fabulous” and truly are some of the most fabulous people I’ve ever met. Some went drag on occasion and looked better than I could ever hope to be, and I’ve had more than my share of gay man crushes.
However, not one has ever suggested that I could “fix my life” by way of a make-over, and while I enjoyed shopping with the occasional sassy gay friend, it was usually me giving them much needed advice on rather rocky love lives.
Look, my experiences may differ from yours, but here’s the point: sassy gay men may be sassy, gay, and men, but they are so much more than your ambulatory stylists. They have hopes and dreams, fears and failures. They want things?some want love, some want careers, some want babies, just like us. Some actually want to be stylists. Don’t discredit them by forcing them into a niche just because you’re more comfortable treating a sassy gay man like a tool.
Suzanne Brockmann is an old-hat at this LGBTQ in fiction ring, and rightfully so. Jules from her Troubleshooters series is a man who is suave, elegant and seem to have it all together. He could have so easily been the sassy gay friend of the series, but delving into his psyche proves to be a welcome relief from the stereotype—Jules is full of surprises.
In the ensemble cast movie Valentines Day, Bradley Cooper (so much heart) plays a dapper businessman in an expensive suit, with adorably and perfectly coiffed curly hair and lots of advice for returning soldier Julia Roberts. In this case, his sexuality is relatively low-key, the kind of detail that clicks into place towards the end in what is probably the sweetest and most heartwarming reveal of the whole movie. It would have been easy to send him over the top, but Valentine’s Day dusted off the stereotype and gave him more depth than most movies would.
And we certainly can’t talk about the fabulous Lafayette in True Blood, who bucks stereotyping not with his keen fashion sense and over-the-top attitude, but because he can kick the ass of anyone who gives him crap for his sexuality. It’s nice to see a man comfortable enough with his sassy self who can still take care of himself, rather than relying on the big strong alpha male or the understanding sensitive girl to stick up for him.
The Butch Lesbian
This depiction of an aspect of the LGBTQ community tends to be both highly visible and almost completely invisible. On the one hand, the trope of the lesbian who wears men’s clothes, no make-up, and who looks and acts as masculine as possible is widely recognized—and derided—by the everyday audience. The butch lesbian is either exceptionally masculine, often going so far as to challenge the alpha male character for dominance, or extremely meek, with low self-esteem and an often unspoken desire to actually be a man. The latter is usually prime ground for “conversion”, often as a vehicle to showcase the protagonist’s—male or female—kindness and friendship (or, in the case of the male protagonist, how irresistible he is).
I ran into a snag, here. I know that there is a stereotypical depiction of the “butch” lesbian in films and books—I actually remember seeing them and making a mental comment. But I can not, no matter how hard I search, find examples. Even Twitter Fu has failed me, with a few suggestions showcasing masculine women who aren’t, actually, lesbians at all.
This is extremely indicative of the visible/invisible issue. Everyone knows the trope—no one remembers anything that exploited it.
My Experiences with the Butch Lesbian
This is a very real subset of the lesbian community and one that deserves more respect than it gets. I have known exactly one butch lesbian in my life (with enough confidence to say “know” and not “know of”)—self-described, but also easily fitting into the stereotype as I know it—and she was very much into comfortable clothing, no make-up, and short hair. She enjoyed playing up her masculinity, but she never once wanted to be a man.
Butch lesbians are often portrayed in popular media as a kind of “soft” butch—just enough femininity that she won’t threaten the dominant male characters in a story or a setting. They feminize her, soften her edges, make her “cuter”, but still usually cast as fumbling, awkward, aggressive or with low self-esteem. These things can certainly apply to any one person, straight or otherwise, but it does the entire group a disservice to continue to portray them this way.
The most popular lesbian trope seen on TV and in books is the “lipstick lesbian”, which is the reverse—pretty (often gorgeous and sexy altogether), into make-up and hair and fashion, and not at all threatening in any way to the concept of male dominance. Because, you know, they’re pretty. And feminine. And whee.
Christa Faust has a really amazing book out called Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick, featuring a hard-boiled lesbian private investigator and some hard-hitting crime noir. Butch is unapologetically, well, butch, but she’s more than that: she’s a living, breathing, thinking character whose tropes fall more in line with the hard-boiled crime stereotype than within “accepted” butch lesbian boundaries. She’s not at all what you expect from a “standard” lesbian character, but at the same time, she can’t be accused of throwing off the community she represents. As velvetpark.com said, “Faust’s main character is what a small-town butch like myself aspires to be: confident, cocky, masculine, and sensitive all in one package.”
The Gay Villain
This particular trope is not about villains who are also gay, but villains who are villainous because they are gay. This is a bit of storytelling that could provide some unique psychological insights into the make-up of The Villain as a Person, but often falls very short of the mark. Rather than explore the whys and hows, gay villains are usually played up as extremely brutal, cold, unfeeling, and evil because they have, recently or systematically, been rejected by their (usually straight) crushes.
Most notable of these are characters such as Tom Ripley, whose yearning for Dickie Greenleaf provides some suggestion of “emotional investment” in The Talented Mr. Ripley, or American Beauty’s Frank Fitts, who is so deeply closeted that he hinges a murderous decision on a rejected (and fumbled) pass.
A sub-set of the Gay Villain is the Fabulously Gay Villain, who is airily effete and perfectly coiffed, often played by men with the same kind of sardonically delivered panache as Carson Kressley. In many cases—usually permeated through Hollywood satires—the Fabulously Gay Villain is catty, cruel and cutting because it’s “fashionable”, suggesting that living the life of the Fabulously Gay anything leads to bitterness and empty relationships.
My Experiences with the (Fabulously) Gay Villain
I’ve been on the receiving end of some rather nasty verbal assaults from people I would—in the social drama that is my movie—classify as “villains”. I have also seen the full force of the angry gay villain unleashed upon others. The thing that I came to understand was this: gay villainous types are no different than normal villainous types. They are lashing out for reasons that could be as deeply personal as a bone-deep hurt or as unreasonable as a bad day.
There are any number of serial killers who they’d say after, “We found some gay paraphernalia”—heaven only knows what they’re classifying as “gay paraphernalia”—“and so that explains it,” which pretty much makes me insane with rage. Look: Sexuality struggles repressed long enough can and often does lead to long-term imbalances in the same way that anxiety issues too long repressed can and often does lead to long-term imbalances. Anything can be the reason for behaviors we don’t understand, and to pigeon hole “the gay thing” as the singular reason for villainy is to take the lazy writer’s way out. Don’t be lazy.
To be perfectly blunt, gay men and women are people, and people do shitty things for shitty reasons. Some people—straight, gay, questioning, whatever—are simply awful people. There are always reasons. Delving into those reasons is what makes a character come to life. Villainy for the sake of villainy gets treated in fiction the same way it gets treated in real life—we stop caring.
Surprisingly, it’s an old 1955 classic that wins this round. Diabolique features a villainess who conspires—with her abusive lover’s wife—to murder the man abusing them both. In this movie, the closeness and affection between the strong, dominant Nicole and the quiet, meek Christina is not the reason for the crime, but a by-product of it.
Following Diabolique is Omar Little from The Wire. This guy is seriously badass, a Robin Hood kind of villain—and possibly even arguably a “villain”—who can literally clear the streets just by walking into a corner store. He’s gay, but he’s not a robber, thief and stick-up man because he’s gay. He is who he is for reasons that span the gamut, and that’s the way it should be.
The Sorority Sister
Every movie and TV show that references college or college-aged characters includes references to the freaky sorority sisters who engage in “college lesbianism”, then come out as bisexuals before they graduate—only to, often, “revert” back to straight-ness once they become “adults”. Drinking and drugs are often aids to this sexuality “discovery”, thereby prolonging an unfair stereotype that all bisexuals are a) female, b) college-aged, and c) faking it.
Bisexuals in books and media tend to hover around high school or college-aged, are most frequently women, and spend more time cozying up to the opposite sex save when the occasional fan service is called for. Witness the yo-yo’ing of Britney and Santana in Glee, or the antics of Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body—which was a decent enough movie (seriously!) but still managed to “excuse” Jennifer’s sexuality as “all because of the thing inside her”.
The overwhelming theory behind bisexuality—one that infects even the LGBTQ community—is that bisexuality is just a fancy way of saying “I haven’t decided yet”, and this tends to color most characters who are painted with the same brush.
My Experiences With the Sorority Sister
I dropped out of (community!) college three times and never even got near a sorority sister, much less pledged to a house. I am bisexual. Yes, I happen to be female, I am married to a man, and I figured myself out around college-age, but I am really very comfortable with my sexuality—which happens to include perving on all genders; yes, you’re welcome for that.
I know and know of men who are bisexual—who can forget possibly the most famous bisexual man of all time, Mr. David Bowie?—and I know women who are bisexual, in and out of college. All of us are amazingly complex, wonderful people. Our sexuality is as much a part of us as yours is of you—sometimes a bigger part, sometimes less so (no innuendo intended, shush)—and to discount the bisexual man or woman out of hand as a “phase” or as “undecided” is a massive disservice to people who aren’t any different from you. While I may joke and call myself “greedy”, I am much deeper a person than that, and bisexuality in a character should reflect this: bisexuality is more than just a reason to screw everything in sight.
Can’t touch this one without looking at what is shaping up to be my favorite show on TV—Lost Girl. The thing I love most about this series, which features succubus and bisexual Bo as the titular lead, is that Bo’s sexuality is simple present. There is no message hammered over your head multiple times, there’s no constant nod to it, there’s nothing. It simply is. It’s a part of who she is and it’s generally accepted by the other characters with no sly wink, no raised eyebrows. Nothing that may suggest that there’s something wrong with it but that it’s okay because the others accept her. Such a refreshing change.
Chasing Amy happens to be another favorite. Although the Kevin Smith film begins the movie with the female protagonist, Alyssa, as a “verified lesbian”, she falls in love with the male protagonist and gives this speech that stuck with me for years:
You know, I didn’t just heed what I was taught, men and women should be together, it’s the natural way, that kind of thing. I’m not with you because of what family, society, life tried to instill in me from day one. The way the world is, how seldom it is that you meet that one person who just *gets* you – it’s so rare. My parents didn’t really have it. There were no examples set for me in the world of male-female relationships. And to cut oneself off from finding that person, to immediately halve your options by eliminating the possibility of finding that one person within your own gender, that just seemed stupid to me. So I didn’t. But then you came along. You, the one least likely. I mean, you were a guy. … And while I was falling for you I put a ceiling on that, because you *were* a guy. Until I remembered why I opened the door to women in the first place: to not limit the likelihood of finding that one person who’d complement me so completely. So here we are. I was thorough when I looked for you. And I feel justified lying in your arms, ’cause I got here on my own terms, and I have no question there was some place I didn’t look. And for me that makes all the difference.
in the end, what it comes down to is this:
I am a member of the LGBTQ community, and I am not your #&@% fairy godmother. I am not your fabulous villain with perfect hair, I am not your easy lay sorority sister, and I sure as hell am not your butch lesbian in serious need of some deep dicking.
Conversely, I have days when I’m all for helping a girl out with her hair, or go shopping with a fellow for just-right jeans. I can do make-up with the best of them and I love dress shopping—when I’m in the mood. So, yeah, I’ll hit those tropes. But I don’t live there.
I have hopes, dreams, and desires, and I have flaws like whoa. Every decision in my life is not shaped by my sexuality, but there are decisions that are. I am, like you, just like everyone else. And I deserve to have the same shot at love, at trials and victories and adventures, as every other character out there. We all do.
Obviously, there is a remarkable shortage of three-dimensional LGBTQ characters in fiction, each falling upon tropes that depend on lack of depth to achieve the goal, and the disservice this does the LGBTQ community is ridiculous—because we are people, too.
I’d love to hear your suggestions for tired LGBTQ stereotypes that need some serious refreshing in the comments. Pony up, y’all. What are you tired of seeing, and what would you like to see instead?