Talking about the depiction of gay characters, specifically gay men, in Hollywood almost always leads to the gay best friend—or GBF for short. The cliché gay best friend can be described as an accessory to straight women characters, as replaceable as a purse or a pair of shoes. The Woman in Red (1984) is looked at as the first example of the gay best friend, but the mid-to-late ‘90s cemented this character trope. Through staples in the cultural canon like Clueless and Sex and the City, gay best friends were some of the earliest on-screen representations of LGBTQ+ people.
The widespread acceptance of gay characters coincides with the popularity of teen coming-of-age dramas, in which gay best friends were historically used as nothing more than a sounding board for other people’s problems, or dropping snarky comments as comic relief. The television landscape has completely changed, and with that comes changes in how characters are depicted. Gen Z, the most sexually fluid generation yet, demands a lot more depth from their queer fictional characters; over a decade after Damian was introduced as “too gay to function” in Mean Girls, the stereotypical gay best friend is all but obsolete.
It’s hard to look at on-screen queerness without talking about Ryan Murphy. Glee’s 2009 premiere changed the narrative for LGBTQ+ representation, depicting gay, bisexual and transgender people as main characters with fleshed out storylines. It was far from perfect, but the Glee Generation watched a working-class, football-loving father unconditionally accept his gay son on prime-time broadcast television.
Whereas Glee was the exception for its time, the demise of the gay best friend trope could not have come without the widespread adoption of the “coming out” narrative. On Gossip Girl, audiences saw a closeted gay teen struggle with self-harm and self-acceptance, while Pretty Little Liars featured a rarer example of a woman’s coming out story. The “struggling gay teen” subplot was at once groundbreaking and limiting; important as it was to see the journey of coming out to friends and family represented on screen, pop culture reduced queerness to dramatic tension-inducing narrative devices. Halfway to becoming full-fledged characters, gay characters on television couldn’t fulfill the clichéd obligations of GBFs because they were too busy coming to terms with their identity.
The subplots that positioned gay characters as sympathetic solely for being gay pandered to heterosexual audiences, and once again illustrate why simple representation just isn’t enough. What was once seen as praise-worthy is now just lazy writing, because there’s no reason why queer characters should be defined by “just” their queerness, just as there’s no reason that being gay means characters have to struggle to accept themselves. The expectation of multidimensional diversity has rendered previous depictions of gay people as hopelessly outdated.
The uncomfortable realism of Euphoria and sexual fluidity on Netflix’s Elite cater to Gen Z’s demands for more accurate coming-of-age dramas. Then there are shows like Sex Education, which succeed in flipping the script on the gay best friend by introducing a gay man who is a best friend and has a character as developed as his peers. Look to HBO Max’s Genera+ion to see what the post-“it gets better” era looks like, presenting a world where sexual binaries don’t exist; it’s a world not unlike the real one, where sexuality or gender identity isn’t the sum of one’s personality.
The gay best friend doesn’t exist in modern coming-of-age television simply because there is no need for him. As much as the gay best friend existed as an accessory for women protagonists, America needed these gay men to be its best friends. With the AIDS crisis not yet in the rearview mirror, American audiences in the ‘90s needed to be told that it’s okay if their kids come out as gay.
It’s been a long time coming, but LGBTQ+ people are being treated with more nuance and respect on screen than ever before. Queer characters are allowed to be as complex as their non-queer counterparts, and while queerness can inform storylines, it has moved away from a narrative device. Gen Z’s gay characters don’t sit by on the sidelines as the main girl goes to prom with the misunderstood jock—they go and win Prom King.
Omar Taleb is a Toronto-based writer, marketer and content creator fascinated by the future of news media and the intersection of pop culture and politics. On any given day, you can find him bouncing around between HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prime, or on Instagram @omar.taleb5.