Sassy Gay Friend! Character stereotypes and archetypes

by Alexandra Sokoloff

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:

EVE –…

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.


26 thoughts on “Sassy Gay Friend! Character stereotypes and archetypes

  1. Shizuka

    Asian martial arts master/mystic/shaman who takes the protagonist under his wing for no reason other than that's what he does.

    As seen in BATMAN BEGINS and the TV show REVENGE.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, yeah. Shizuka. But there's an example of what I'm talking about. No matter what race, a mentor DOES take you on for not always quantifiable reasons. Some stories work the angle that the student is the Chosen One, who has an urgent mission to fulfill for humanity (The Matrix, Star Wars, LOTR), which provides some self-interest as motivation. So what would lift the stereotype to archetype?

  3. Nancy Martin

    Great post, as always, Alex.

    My contribution: Happily Married Cop Who Will Surely Die Because He Has a Nice Wife and Cute Kids. On Justified last week—the episode before the grand finale–Tom, the hard-working, no nonsense state trooper, said he had to skip his son's Little League game to help Raylan My husband and I groaned. We knew instantly. He was going to die! We call this the "I want to live in Montana" moment. (See Hunt For Red October. As soon as a sidekick voices aspirations for his life, he's doomed. Only the hero who has no expectation of happiness will survive.)

  4. JD Rhoades

    Nancy: this trope was satirized in the movie "Hot Shots" where there was a fighter pilot who kept talking about his wife and kids, and his plans for the future. His call sign was "Dead Meat."

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Omg, Nancy, you couldn't be more right. That character has a spotlight over his head just as surely as the angel-faced baby brother in old Westerns! And SO common! UGH.

  6. Gar Haywood

    Brilliant! Sheer genius!

    (I'm not joking. I really loved this post.)

    Avoiding things readers and viewers have seen a thousand times before is one of the toughest jobs we writers have. As a novelist, you pretty much have the freedom to take your best shot at this, but it ain't so easy in the realm of film and television, as so many knuckleheads you have to pitch to and write for believe stereotypical characters are a dramatic necessity because viewers EXPECT to see them and those expectations must be met at all costs.

  7. Sarah W

    As is usual with your posts, after I stopped laughing, I went scurrying off to see how many stereotypes and archetypes I have in my projects. . . and then stuck my fingers in my ears and chanted "la la la I can't hear you."

    But I LOVE the Othello ep of Sassy Gay Friend. Whenever I see that play, I want to yell the same thing to Desdemona across the theater: "Desdemona! Pack your bags and GET OUT!"

    I am so tired of Too Dumb to Live I can't stand it. If there's a archetype in there, I don't want to know.

    Sherlock Holmes is probably a Gary Sue/Byronic Hero, but we love him for it. Watson would be, what, Devoted Domestic/Boy Next Door ?

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You're depressingly right, Gar – Hollywood executives almost always go straight for the stereotype. But out-and-out racism and misogyny is also at play, too much of the time.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Actually, Sarah, with your Sherlock examples you remind me that I left out the "sociopathic genius" and "autistic savant".

    I think you're dead on about Watson, but he's also a character type I guess we could call the Boswell/Ishmael/Nick Carraway – the point of view character who is the real main character in an epic, observing a mythic character and being our window onto that largely unfathomable being.

  10. Allison Davis

    After reading Angels and Demons, I tried reading other Dan Brown books and they all had the older male mentor with the young female who gets betrayed/seduced or otherwise screwed by the older male mentor. Yuk. The paternalistic mentor…

    I already put in my two cents on Gar's post the other day, but yours is another take. I think that as writers ilt's fun to take the sterotype and give it a twist — the sassy gay friend is really a hard line hero (make him a decorated Army Ranger), thus satisfying some readers expectations and delighting them at the same time?

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Don't forget the albino self-flagellating priest, Allison! (The albino villain – never need to see THAT one again in my life…. although now that I think about it, Charlie Hunnam was a great one in COLD MOUNTAIN…)

  12. David Corbett

    First, I will be eternally grateful for Sassy Gay Friend. OMG.

    I also love your list of stereotypes. I think of these as standard dramatic roles — characters who seldom live (except with a truly creative performance) because they're confined to their function.

    Dickens was great at giving these characters incredible vividness while also making them relatively "transparent," as James Wood described them: We see their entirety in a glance. That doesn't mean they don't serve incredibly useful dramatic purposes; they're just not as complicated or resistant to instant interpretation as their more "opaque" counterparts. (He uses transparent vs. opaque instead of E.M. Forster's round versus flat.) The problem with a well-fleshed out transparent/secondary character is her propensity to be a scene stealer. But I'd rather have that than ventriloquist's dummies.

    One character type or role I actually like I'd call the Sympathetic Heavy. He's the member of the villain's crew who develops a bond with the hero, sympathizes with her plight, and provides useful insight or assistance. Examples include Mike (Richard Crenna) in WAIT UNTIL DARK and Salto in BELLMAN & TRUE. Unfortunately, this makes him pretty much as obvious a target for death as the noble sidekick who missed little league (Dusty & Nancy — great back and forth on this). But done subtly, their moral ambiguity can be used to great effect.

    Let me play the apostate and conjecture that the way to make a stereotype an archetype is via the counter-intuitive path to specificity. The more general you make a character, the more you tend to hit stereotype and cliche. It's only by uniquely imagining the character as an individual human being free of any "archetypal" baggage that you get at the unique psychological depth that makes the character truly register on the deep level that archetype strives for. If you try for an archetype, you'll hit cliche almost every time.

    This is one of the great ironies of art. The universal is obtained through the specific. And yes, the devil is in the details. (Or, as Simone de Beauvoir put it: She who speaks to us from the depths of her loneliness speaks to us of ourselves.) By making the character unique, individual, real, you increase the likelihood of the audience feeling empathy for that character, and it's through empathy you create universality. Put a real character in a situation we can all understand, you're further along the path to archetype than trying to elevate a cliche. That's just dressing up a scarecrow in new clothes.

    Great post, Alex. Made my morning.

  13. David Corbett

    Gar: Um, you're welcome?

    I need to go back to school as well. I should have said one of the great paradoxes of art, not ironies.

    Yes, I know, shoot me now.

    BTW: related story, on THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and its twists on standard slasher cliches. I tried to post the link but Captcha would have none of it. You can find the article on Slate.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, I don't know, David. I'd like to see you post on that specificity thing. Because some of the the thunderclap archetype moments I can remember offhand, at least in movies, are often UNspecific, like the little old Indian woman who tells the hero: "Win it for India", in Slumdog Millionaire. And I wouldn't even call Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock all that unique a take – he's quintessentially Byronic, as Sarah W. said, and British to the nth degree (that scathing wit and rapid fire monologue.) He just does it BETTER than anyone else.

  15. David Corbett

    I'd say he does it better because he brings unique details to the part, and those are what render it a living portrayal. I remain steadfast: Go trolling for archetypes, all you'll get are cliches. Archetypes are earned by digging into your psyche in unpredictable ways. You rig the journey, you'll end up in the same old place.

  16. Nancy Martin

    The specificity thing–I think this is where voice comes in, too. Early chick lit seemed so fresh, I think, because the voice was different, and the characters did not appear to be tropes–at first–because their language and specific character traits seemed new. (I mark the movie Notting Hill as the moment chick lit went bad.)

    JR–You might guess Hot Shots is not a movie I have seen. I will add it to my list, thanks to you. (Well, my husband will thank you, I'm pretty sure.)

    When will someone write the definitive theory of voice in Alex's excellent analytical way?

  17. Shizuka

    If the mentor has a hidden, interesting motive to help, the stereotype becomes something different.
    Batman Begins failed on that front — the reason was that the mentor had a subversive streak.
    And although there was a twist (the mentor/villain wasn't who he seemed), the motivation didn't ring true.

    Morpheus worked for me because a) he seemed to have a reason to exist besides just being the mentor (I'm not a fan of characters that seem to have no role beyond helping the protagonist), b) Neo was the chosen one, and c) he had tons of character.

  18. KDJames

    Alex, I wonder if part of the reason for that role of sassy gay friend (in a ROMANCE) is because if you have another male character who is wiser or more fun or more whatever than the hero, at the point in the plot where all seems lost for the H/H (often because the guy does something stupid or supposedly unforgivable), the audience then starts to wonder why the heroine doesn't just dump the jerk and fall for the other guy. Because he'd be a much better prospect. Can't have that. So the easy fix? Oh, let's make him gay! And sassy!

    Not excusing it, mind you, but I can see the logic.

    When I first read this, I thought you were saying Elle was your new sassy gay friend. And that seemed odd. What can I say, it's been a long tiring work week. She's very funny, BTW (loved her Frog book).

  19. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alex — sorry to come late to this!

    I thought the Sam Rockwell character in Galaxy Quest was a lovely nose-thumb at a stereotype of the sci-fi/Star Trek genre. At one point he says, "I'm not even supposed to be here. I'm just "Crewman Number Six." I'm expendable. I'm the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I've gotta get outta here. "

    I think he fits in the Too Dumb To Live, but goes so much further.

    And for the Devoted Domestic, I think Michael Caine's turn as Alfred in the Batman movies is a cut above the rest.

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    KD, I think you're on to something, there, about the SGF in romance. That probably IS the reasoning for a lot of people.

    Interestingly, Elle just rewrote her SLEEPING BEAUTY – a parallel version – to address this very topic! You should check it out –

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great twist on TDTL, Zoe! I love Sam Rockwell.

    And speaking of the devoted domestic: Sir John Gielgud in ARTHUR manages to cross that and – I believe – a sassy gay friend.

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