What’s with all the Annoying Gay Characters?

Do the main characters in a book or movie or TV show need to be sympathetic?

Of course not.

But I think it is important that all your characters be interesting. The main characters on Breaking Bad or Girls or Game of Thrones aren’t necessarily sympathetic — they’re mostly all horrible to each other — but they’re usually pretty interesting, right?

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been seeing a whole lot of gay characters lately that I don’t find sympathetic or interesting.

Take the new TV shows The New Normal and Partners.

It turns out that the trend this year is gay couples where one half is uptight and fussy, and the other is “flamboyant.” I don’t know any actual couples like this, and maybe they’re just ripping off Modern Family (which at least frequently subverts both these hackneyed gay stereotypes). Anyway, I can see how this dynamic could make for good comedy.

What I don’t get is how incredibly annoying the “flamboyant” half of the gay couples on Partners and The New Normal are. Both guys are played by appealing actors (Michael Urie and Andrew Rannells), but the characters are written as completely superficial, frequently bitchy, and almost pathologically self-centered.

Since when is behavior like this charming, even on a sitcom?

Or maybe it’s just that the writing is sub-par. Will & Grace included a couple of incredibly self-absorbed characters, Jack and Karen, that were hilarious (at least until they got all warm and fuzzy in later seasons). I think the difference is we weren’t supposed to actually like Jack and Karen as people. They were objects of satireĀ  — pretty vicious satire at that.

We were laughing at them, not with them (at least I was). But it sure seems to me like we’re supposed to think the gay characters on Partners and The New Normal are somehow adorable.

It’s not that these characters are effeminate that makes them annoying to me. In fact, if I were effeminate, I’d actually be annoyed the way this type of character is portrayed on so many shows. (Don’t get me started on reality shows like The A-List, which seem to push people to be as bitchy as possible because it supposedly “makes good TV.”)

And sure enough, there are plenty of non-effeminate gay characters that seem just as pathologically self-centered these days. The “selling point” of the new Logo web series The Hunting Season is that the characters get naked and have sex a lot, so it’s probably review-proof. (They sell an “uncensored” version of each episode, which I admit is a pretty brilliant marketing gimmick.)

But despite the eye candy, the show depresses me every time I watch it with how incredibly superficial and self-centered the main gay characters all are — even the main character, who is only slightly less jerky than the others. (Truth is, I never really warmed to Queer as Folk either, for all the same reasons. I’m told the characters all mellowed in later seasons, but I never got that far.)

This all takes me back to The Russel Middlebrook Series and the reason I wrote Geography Club in the first place.

I was a book reviewer back then, in the 1990s, and I was being sent all these gay literary novels that had basically the same story: sensitive, young misfit is tormented as a kid and teen, and then moves to the big city to be openly gay, but rather than finding peace and happiness, he instead turns into a selfish, jaded, self-centered jerk who shits all over all his friends. Basically, the main character ends up treating the whole world the way he was treated, but he doesn’t have enough self-insight to ever realize that.

My partner and I used to call the whole genre “asshole gay fiction,” because the gay characters all seemed like assholes.

In fairness, this was a very trendy literary style at the time — in literary fiction in general, not just gay books. It had been very trendy ever since the 1960s and the rise of the master of uber-asshole fiction, John Updike. I think the idea was that for fiction to be truthful, it had to include even the main characters’ most negative traits and behaviors.

And I get it, I really do. And on some level, I even agree with the “warts and all” idea of writing.

The thing is, these gay characters didn’t seem like anyone I knew. My friends weren’t perfect, but they weren’t that wounded. They were mostly nice guys and girls generally trying to do the right thing. The few people who were negative and bitchy and self-centered? I chose not to be friends with them.

So all these books I was reading actually didn’t seem truthful to me: they seemed like writing exercises, designed to push the envelope and shock the reader.

Needless to say, these characters also weren’t very interesting to me. This is part of the reason why I am so drawn to YA literature (and I think so many readers are drawn to YA): sympathetic characters are still encouraged. Literary fiction is supposedly more “important,” but it’s not very fun to read.

Anyway, I wrote Russel Middlebrook and his friends: gay, bi, and straight. They’re definitely all flawed, but it was really, really important to me that when they make mistakes, they feel bad about it. And when they screw up, they try to make things right.

You know: they’re not assholes.

I didn’t think that was anything very radical. But maybe it is.

P.S. For an outstanding gay web series, try The Outs, which I think manages to pull off the difficult balancing act of gay characters who are really flawed, but are still not completely self-centered jerks.

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10 Responses to “What’s with all the Annoying Gay Characters?”

  1. Giselle 12 October 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    I haven't seen Partners or the New Normal so I can't really comment on what their characters are like. But I've been thinking about this so I thought I would comment.
    Do you think it's due to plagiarism? That producers have identified a trend ('I know, let's have gay characters on TV, it's the new 'in' thing!') and are going with it. Imitating successful shows as is their wont.
    And being a copy of a copy of a copy means that these characters cannot be interesting? Because television as an industry seems to be very scared of originality and any true-to-life genuineness. Superb irony that some of the most successful series do have original, fresh elements to them that must scare most industry insiders senseless.
    Sorry, I think I'm making a rather obvious point. But I was aiming at something else.
    In soaps the most interesting and talked about characters are always those that are vulnerable in some way. They usually have plenty of not so great traits as well as their good sides, but the main point of fascination is the vulnerability, the possibility for them to get hurt. Is it perhaps a case that these self-centred a-hole characters aren't allowed to show vulnerability? That they are stunted characters who don't get to be more fully rounded? More complex?
    Sorry that I'm commenting about shows that I haven't seen, I'm not in the US.

    • Brent Hartinger 12 October 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Interesting comment. I think the "plagiarism" is often unconscious. I think people think the stereotypes are waaaay more common than they are, mostly because media stereotypes are more powerful than they think. As a writer it is so incredibly easy to fall into character "ruts" — to have characters act exactly like all the other similar characters on TV and in movies do. It takes a really good writer to stop himself and say, "Wait. That's a cliche. Worse, it's a BORING cliche."

      And I agree with you that "vulnerability" is a big part making a character likeable. Self-centered assholes definitely strike first. Even if it's "understand," it's not very nice to watch… :-/

  2. Jarred 12 October 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    They still write asshole gay fiction. Boy, do they write it. I don't get it either.

  3. Brian 12 October 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    So my partner and I tried watching the New Normal twice. Both times it came across as so hateful and bitter, it was like an unfunny All in the Family. I don't understand why anyone would watch it – it's just painful.
    I love Cam in Modern Family because the stereotype is equalized by him having been born on a farm and he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty.

    • Brent Hartinger 12 October 2012 at 10:50 pm #

      I agree that Cam is a much, much better character, and was from the start. He's a little self-centered (like all of the characters on the show), but is almost never a jerk.

      I've tried to watch NORMAL twice too. Never made it through a whole ep.

  4. Gwen 19 October 2012 at 12:08 am #

    I watched a youtube series made up of 3 minute segments. It was about two gay men who, after gay marriage is legalized, get married after a crazy night in Vegas that ends with them waking up in a bathtub. After watching a few episodes I felt so much better about my ability to write realistic gay characters. I was worried about stumbling upon some horribly offensive stereotype. Now, I can tell myself, 'At least I didn't write that.'

    I've noticed that women write/create some of the worst female characters. Do other demographics have that issue?

    • Brent Hartinger 19 October 2012 at 11:56 pm #

      Hey Gwen: That's interesting about female writers — that hadn't occurred to me (mostly because there are so many HORRIBLE female characters written by men).

      I'm the first to say every writer should write his or her truth, and I think some writers genuinely want to "reclaim" certain stereotypes (a noble effort!). But I do think many writers are unconsciously drawn to stereotypes more than they realize or want to admit.

  5. Mike b. 24 October 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Well, I didn't hate the new normal and mainly tuned in to see what all the bad press was about, and continue to watch the show. Shows do have a way of developing given time. I have yet to find partners on my tv schedual, and don't watch happy endings or modern family. That's about it, right? Brent, point well taken but am on the fence about this one. Token gays or no gay visablity at all? With friends like this…. BTW loathed Jack.

    • Brent Hartinger 27 October 2012 at 1:09 am #

      I go back and forth too: but I think token are ultimately better because the move the ball forward a little. Although you look at blacks on TV and you think, "Wow, is every police chief black?" (convenient way to have a black character that SEEMS important without him or her being the lead). Anyway, I wonder: are things THAT much better for blacks on TV? So will things be much better for gay characters 10 or 20 years from now? I guess we'll see. All in all, things do seem to be getting better. I think I just hate Ryan Murphy.

  6. Mike b. 20 November 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    Well, no more Partner's. I did catch one episode and it didn't work, aside from and including the annoying gay characters. What a bomb.

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