Women-centred movies may be in short supply today, but in the 1990s women’s stories reigned in Hollywood. The golden age of the rom-com was a boom time for a particular kind of actress: spunky, klutzy, pretty (but not intimidatingly so), white and thin. At any given multiplex on any given weekend, you could find Drew Barrymore, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock or, the queen of the meet-cute, Julia Roberts playing a bookshop owner or a baker falling for an architect through a series of star-crossed mishaps and pratfalls.
In most of these movies, the girl-gets-boy happy ending was guaranteed. A rare exception was Roberts’ 1997 My Best Friend’s Wedding, which turns 20 this week. In this sly, vinegary feature, a food critic named Julianne (Roberts) attempts to thwart her best friend Michael’s impending marriage to the impossibly naïve Kimmy (Dermot Mulroney and Cameron Diaz, respectively). Everyone is unlikeable, and deliberately so — Julianne is selfish, Michael is full of himself and Kimmy is a suck-up and a pushover. The only redeeming character is George (Rupert Everett), a gay man who is also Julianne’s editor.
Played by the suave Everett — who came out in 1990, making him one of the first openly gay male celebrities — George is wise, reasonable and playful. (In one of the movie’s best-loved scenes, he leads a group sing-a-long of “Say A Little Prayer.”) But as a dreamboat who exists purely to support and indulge Julianne, George became the prototype for a troubling pop culture trope that persists to this day: the Gay Best Friend.
The Gay Best Friend can be queeny like Sex and the City’s Stanford, uptight like Will of Will & Grace or flamboyant like W&G’s Jack; a helpful hottie like Clueless’s Christian, or comic relief like Mean Girls’ Damian (who is described as being “almost too gay to function”).
At best, the GBF gets some great quips and a few bitch, please eye-rolls; at worst he’s reduced to an accessory. Consider the way he’s talked about, as if he were a possession or a pet. In the movie Sex and the City 2, for example, Charlotte squeals about Stanford and his bitchy fiancé Anthony: “Her best gay friend is marrying my best gay friend!” Making this all the worse, throughout the TV series, the two men never even liked each other. The movie pairs them off in a lazy plot device because they’re the only two gay guys around.
Like the Sassy Black Friend, another offensive stock character from (white) female-oriented movies and TV shows, the GBF is a stereotype deployed in order to diversify a cast and to give the heroine something akin to a cheerleader and life coach. The SBF and GBF rarely have love lives or professional ambitions of their own. Their role is limited to shopping with the main character and doling out snappy advice like, “Girl, you should dump his ass!”
For straight women, the appeal of the GBF is that he offers male attention, approval and intimacy that isn’t sexual or conditional. In a 2016 article entitled “21 Reasons Gay Best Friends Are the Absolute Greatest,” Cosmopolitan Australia, reduced gay men to a camp stereotype of fashion-obsessed club-hoppers perpetually available to dish about cute guys and escort their straight female friends to parties. My Best Friend’s Wedding ends with George and Julianne twirling on the dance floor together at Kimmy and Michael’s wedding. In a shake up of rom-com conventions, Julianne’s been jilted, but her GBF is there to pick up the pieces.
It’s a progressive ending on one hand, affirming the value of platonic love and offering an alternative happily-ever-after. On the other, what about George? He’s spent most of the movie in the closet, pretending to be Julianne’s fiancé, in order to make Michael jealous. Is he happy to be Julianne’s on-call plus-one forever? Does he want a Prince Charming of his own?
In the 20 years since Everett’s George created the blueprint for the sexless, selfless GBF, much has changed in real life for gay men and lesbians. Most Western countries now have civil rights protections and marriage equality laws. But pop culture has a long way to go to catch up.
A few new LGBT characters buck the GBF stereotype. Kevin, an openly gay teenager on the comic book TV series Riverdale, is referred to by Veronica as her “best gay,” but despite being a secondary character, he does get to have a boyfriend and a father who is accepting of his sexuality. On Master of None, Denise (Lena Waithe) is the smart, deadpan, effortlessly cool childhood friend of Aziz Ansari’s Dev — and her blackness and lesbianism is treated as a matter of fact, neither stereotyped nor minimized. In the second season, an entire episode is devoted to Denise’s evolving relationship with her mother after she comes out to her. And Titus Andromedon, Kimmy’s gay black roommate on the comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt manages to be both an outrageously over-the-top stereotype and a sympathetic and fully-formed character, with significant storylines and screen time. He’s hilarious, but he’s no joke.
Still, mainstream movies and television shows with LGBT main characters remain rare. Since Everett became one of the first openly gay men to play a gay character in a feature film, only a handful of LGBT-themed films with LGBT protagonists have had anything close to widespread mainstream attention. Among them: Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are Alright, Milk, Weekend, Carol, Tangerine and Moonlight. Only a few of the LGBT roles in those films were played by LGBT people.
My Best Friend’s Wedding made Everett a hot commodity — for a time. Three years later, seemingly typecast, he played Madonna’s GBF in The Next Best Thing, a stinker of a movie which bombed at the box office, helping to tank Everett’s career as an actor.
In interviews afterwards, he often said he regretted coming out. He told the Guardian in 2009 that he believes that if he had been straight, he would have had a career like Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.
Of course, fame is fickle and there are plenty of other possible reasons, besides homophobia, to explain why Everett didn’t get bigger roles. Still, looking at pop culture’s ongoing dismissiveness of LGBT lives, it’s hard not to think that Everett, ironically, suffered the same fate as the Gay Best Friend character he helped originate: He was relegated to sidelines and never seen as the star.