After Gar’s great post this week on African American stereotypes in Hollywood, I thought I’d follow up with another stereotype that came up for me this week.
I am constantly rewatching Notting Hill, I can’t help it, love Richard Curtis! And there’s a character in that film that – despite an eccentric turn on it by Rhys Ifans, his breakout role – we’ve seen a million times before: the puckish (that’s Puck from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), irrepressible, slightly lunatic magical ally/mentor that’s such an archetype in romantic comedy.
I could really teach a whole class on this one character – the “asexual”, usually meaning gay, friend who solves all the straight lovers’ problems. (Now, in Notting Hill Spike is not gay, but definitely Puckish, and he got me thinking about the origins of this character and what it’s really about.)
Modern romantic comedy has really overused the gay best friend archetype (see My Best Friend’s Wedding, He’s Just Not That Into You, Sweet Home Alabama, etc.), but it’s a centuries-old tradition – from Shakespeare and Commedia Del Arte, to Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies and Donald O’Connor in Singing in the Rain. These movies often ghettoized gay characters by making them buffoons and/or magical helpers for the heterosexual main characters – the exact role Spike Lee excoriated as the “Super-duper Magical Negro,” a secondary African American character who seemed to live to help the white main characters solve their problems, still unfortunately extremely prevalent in Hollywood – see The Help as the latest lauded and extremely uncomfortable example. (And the uber-successfull Hunger Games gives its heroine a gay African American ally/mentor. Just saying…)
Well, last week at LCC I was thrilled to be introduced by my friend Elle Lothlorian to the ultimate satire of the character: Sassy Gay Friend!
And there are more:
I love these videos for satirizing the archetype, and because it’s actually true. All these disasters could have been averted by a Sassy Gay Friend.
So yes, it’s a stereotype, but there’s something else working here as well.
For one thing, the dance movies I mentioned above were largely created by gay men, and for them, I’m sure it was a way to layer a subversive gay perspective into movies in a time when homosexuality was actually illegal and censors were keeping close watch. (Take a look at the trio dances in Singin’ in the Rain: who’s really dancing with whom?)
There’s no excuse for the modern romantic comedies that keep these gay characters subservient to the heterosexual leads, and deny them a romantic life of their own to boot (with rare exceptions – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). But I do understand these lame attempts at working gay characters into the action. There is an archetypal resonance about homosexuality that is a powerful draw. These characters have been over the rainbow, so to speak, and they have wisdom beyond the ordinary world that the rest of us want. It’s not entirely surprising that lost het characters latch on to them looking for enlightenment, or at least advice for the lovelorn. Also at play is the powerful archetype of Puck, the fairy (I’d say bisexual, but who really knows? There were all KINDS of things going on in that play….) who both meddled in and solved human lovers’ problems in perhaps the ultimate romantic comic fantasy, Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s that same “outsider” knowledge that people are grasping for in some depictions we see of African Americans that more often that not fall into stereotypes. But some of them, I think, are at least reaching for archetype. I love the character of “the Oracle” in The Matrix: the priestess/seer/sibyl that Morpheus takes Neo to see in order to confirm if he is “The One.” She’s played by Gloria Foster with a kind of Billie Holiday flair, and to me she’s a quirky personification of the Black Madonna, Lady Wisdom, the black Universal Mother who has absorbed the sins of the world. I respond deeply to that icon of the feminine.
The point I’m trying to make is that there can be a very thin line between stereotype and archetype. As authors we have to be careful not to fall into stereotype, but at the same time we can’t be afraid to dig for archetype.
So today – what are some character stereotypes that drive you crazy? And now – can you think of books, movies, plays that depict that same character, but raise the characterization to the level of archetype?
Here’s a partial list of tropes to get you thinking!
Chosen One, Cinderella, Mysterious Stranger/Traveling Angel, Knight Errant, Boy Next Door, Girl Next Door, Femme Fatale, Seer/Sibyl, Christ Figure, The Fool, The Third Son, The Third Daughter, Whiz Kid, Final Girl, Absent-Minded Scientist. Byronic Hero, Bad Boy, Bad Girl, Gentleman Thief, Reluctant Hero, Sinner Who Becomes a Saint. Supervillain, Shapeshifter, Trickster, Dark Lord, Evil Twin, Pissed-Off Brother (or Sister), Black Widow, Mad Scientist, Perverted Old Man, Mystery Villain, Witch, Crone, Evil Clown, Evil Wizard, Absent-minded Professor, Expert From Afar, Magician, Divine Fool, Wise Child, Seer/Sybil, Religious Nut, Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, Too Dumb To Live, Mary Sue, Manic Pixie, Martial Arts Master, Jedi Mentor, Cannon Fodder, Blonde, Ingénue, Jailbait, Jewish Mother, Magical Negro, Dark Lady, Clown, Crone, Fairy Godmother, Monster-In-Law, Pompous Ass, Nerd, Supernatural Ally, Wise Old Woman/Man, Snooty Clerk or Waiter, Devoted Domestic.