The 90’s are celebrated today for many reasons. It was the decade that brought about the most memorable fashion trends (chokers and block heels that are making a comeback now). For Hollywood 90’s was the time of some brilliantly written romantic comedies, starring Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Rupert Everett and many more. To us it was also significant because it was when the LGBTQ characters came alive in cinemas as major as well as supporting characters. According to Helene A. Shugart (2003) in, Reinventing Privilege: The New (Gay) Man in Contemporary Popular Media, –
“By the 1990s, the representation of gay men and lesbians in the popular mainstream media became de rigueur for film and even obligatory for television fare. Major box-office hits like Philadelphia, The Birdcage, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and In & Out featured sympathetic gay protagonists, and the gay secondary-but-permanent character became a staple of the majority of mainstream television dramas…” (2003,Page 3)
Most notably, movies such as Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Notting Hill (1999) and Clueless (1995), were amongst many that employed one of the most popular trope of that decade – the ‘Gay Best Friend’. The Gay Best Friend, now also known as the ‘GBF’, was the very popular stoic male character in the 90’s romantic comedies who played the supporting lead to the main protagonists, and most importantly was noted for his deep emotional connect with the female heroine who was often caught up in a situational comedy.
In My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Julia Roberts is convinced that she loves her ex-boyfriend and best friend Michael, and with the help of George her best friend who is also gay, plots to crash Michael’s wedding. In one of the scenes in the movie she describes Michael to George and says –“He is like you…except straight.” Towards the end it is pretty obvious that George and Jules share a deep friendship, a part of which is based on George’s sexual orientation. In the movie Jules significantly chooses to portray George as her fake fiancé, because she knows that as a gay man George won’t overcomplicate things by actually falling in love with her and hence the plot too is saved from forming another love triangle. As for George, his role revolves around Jules and we never see him engaging romantically with any other character.
Clueless (1995), starring Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy and Paul Rudd is another remarkable romantic comedy. Like My Best Friend’s Wedding, the GBF trope plays a significant role when Silverstone’s character Cher feels attracted to Christian, a new boy in school, markedly more dapper, suave and an impeccable dresser unlike the other high school boys in the movie. He displays interest in Cher, but when she tries to get intimate with him, he waves her off. It is then revealed that he is in fact gay and Cher declares that she harbors no ill feelings and in fact Christian is the best shopping partner she has ever had.
In both the films, the gay men are portrayed in a heteronormative set up. Both George and Christian are pushed into and are introduced in a heterosexual relationship (viz. the female protagonist) and like most of the GBF tropes their own personal and sexual lives have no space within the movie’s narrative. Suggesting that the only way an audience could accept homosexual characters was if they were ‘normalized’ by being in a pretend relationship with the leading female (heterosexual) protagonist and being largely asexual outside of that relationship.
In Richard Curtis’ 1999 movie Notting Hill, James Dreyfus plays Martin, Hugh Grant’s assistant, and is portrayed as effeminate and possibly gay. As a character he carries the stereotype of an effeminate individual, indecisive manager and an impeccable dresser. He doesn’t play an important role in Curtis’ movie but when it comes to mapping the GBF trajectory within Hollywood cinema, he perhaps occupies the middle ground between My Best Friend’s Wedding and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Why does Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), occupy the other extreme in this trajectory? Among the most films being produced in the 90’s that actively employed a homosexual character such as Object Of My Affection (1997), and the aforementioned films, Michael Newell’s very popular romantic comedy was one of its kind when it came to portraying a homosexual relationship between two major characters. Though the nature of their relationship is never explicitly stated in the movie, it is however signified through their intimate moments such as making breakfast together, dancing together and when one of them unexpectedly dies (killing of the LGBTQ character by the writers is another trope that has been popularized in the 2000’s) the partner delivers a heartfelt eulogy at the funeral. In the end credits montage one also sees the surviving partner moving on with another partner a couple of years later.
What is significant is that the portrayal is less stereotypical than the other movies in 90’s. Gareth is a pompous-soul- of- every- party-loving- Oscar Wilde kind of man, while his partner Mathew is quiet, serious and often found observing the party from a corner, and yet the intimacy between them is undeniable. In one of the scenes Hugh Grant’s character says that all of them in their friend circle wanted to move out from their single status, and none of them realized that Gareth and Mathew were already an old married couple.
In the contemporary times the GBF trope is not exactly passé but is slowly becoming redundant mostly through the television series and the upcoming web series. The very popular science fiction series like Orphan Black and Black Mirror serve as poignant examples when it comes to not stereotyping or heterosexualising the LGBTQ identity. The independent web series that largely target the millennial population is also slowly trying to abolish the age-old tropes and have fun and inventive comedies or suspense thrillers where the LGBTQ characters find their own space.
Therefore the purpose here was to not only chart a trajectory of the Hollywood homosexual characters from the mid-nineties, but also to bring about the common stereotypes and misconceptions that still occupy the sensibilities of the cinema going audience and the writers who create these characters. These misconceptions for a long time have needed a change which is beginning to erupt, albeit slowly. For the Millennial generation for whom these movies were a staple part of growing up and were perhaps even an introduction to the Hollywood cinema, the demand is that these misconceptions be made redundant.