St. Gay of the Perpetual Chaste Bro Hug

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Television is a relatively progressive medium when compared to say, film.  For the simple fact that there is a lot more time to fill, far more tv shows than movies pass the Bechdel Test (The test is: are there (1) two women (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.  You’d be surprised how many movies don’t even pass part one. This is important because if women aren’t talking to one another, then they aren’t advancing plot, and once again women are relegated to the audience of heroic manly deeds).

But tv is also like a parallel universe with strange rules.  Angry grown ups say things like “Mother flipper!” and no one says “Goodbye!” or “Later!” when they’re hanging up the phone.  For this reason it’s possible for tv shows to appear extremely dated even when they’re currently airing.

One of tv’s enormous failures is its inability to portray gay men as actual human beings (and lesbians as people who exist at all, but we’ll get there).  While popular mythology suggests that the gays are promiscuous drug using whores and OMG if we let them marry each other it’s humans and DOGS next!!! On tv the gays are usually best friend props to straight women and completely desexualized.

In the 90s the gays tended to be chaste saints dying of AIDS whose primary purpose was to give us breeders an Important Lesson about living life to the fullest.  In Beverly Hills, 90210 season seven, Kelly works at a hospice and befriends a dying patient, Jimmy Gold.  (Two asides here, first, IMDB tells me he was the accompaniest in Girls will be Girls, a Booze Tube favorite film, second Jimmy Gold? The other Jew along with David Silver? Come on, 90210!) Jimmy contracted HIV from his dead boyfriend who wasn’t faithful, whereas Jimmy hasn’t dated anyone since his partner died. He teaches Kelly about the magic of living life to its fullest, before dying concluding his three episode arc.

(The Real World’s Pedro was another dying AIDS Saint, whose icon was recently trotted out for a bizarre movie remake based entirely on docu footage.  Between this and Grey Gardens it’s like an art/life ouroboros.)

On Melrose Place our main gay, Matt has not yet, in the four seasons I’ve watched gotten AIDS, but he did date a soldier with it, and the soldier’s paranoia contributed to the end of the relationship. But Matt is constantly engaging in a tv behavior that cracks me up: the chaste bro hug.

Now when straight people on tv are in a relationship, they often hold hands, kiss, cuddle and wake up in bed together. When gay guys are in a relationship they pull each other into four second hugs while thumping each others’ backs like they’re trying to dislodge a chunk of Chinese food.  The night before Billy’s doomed wedding to Allison, Matt hooks up with the best man, who Billy previously assumed was straight.  We the viewers see Billy watching through the window as Matt pulls Best Man in for a bro hug and then the camera turns to Billy’s disgusted and horrified face.  The next day Billy can barely name what he saw, but Matt tells us it was kissing.  Billy (rudely!) interrogates Best Man as to whether he’s ever been attracted to him.  (Presume much?)

And let’s not forget the disaster that is Will and Grace. Will was freaking hot, so how come he never dated anyone longer than a couple months? Why did he never seem to have a boyfriend? Why was a show about a gay guy and a straight girl really just about a straight girl and her gay handbag?

Fast Forwarding to the naughties, boys can kiss on tv!  Adorable Erik van der Woodson from Gossip Girl has a steady boyfriend! Progress!

Except not quite. The Perpetual Chaste Bro Hug has transformed into the Perpetual Invisible Relationship.

Now we trade on the idea that the first thing to go in relationship (other than leg-shaving, amirite brah!) is the sex. Hetero tv characters in their teens and twenties switch up partners like they’re in their teens and twenties while gay characters end up like Nancy Drew who was given boring Ned for a boyfriend specifically so that readers wouldn’t wonder why she didn’t have one.

Sure, gay guys have boyfriends, but they’re rarely seen, and the inner workings of their relationships are invisible which would be fine if the topic of the show were “Establishing world peace” or “How to bake awesome pies,” but on shows like Gossip Girl or Secret Life of the American Teenager, relationships are the topic, and it’s an area of life in which we’re only comfortable letting the gays be bystanders.

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12 Responses to “St. Gay of the Perpetual Chaste Bro Hug”

  1. FilthyGrandeur Says:

    this was an excellent post. the portrayal of gay characters just comes off as awkward. and hello? there are lesbians too! in tv they’re just like unicorns–mythical and rare. ugh.

  2. gnatalby Says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m having a hard time coming up with non cable shows that even have lesbian characters. I guess there was the girl Kelly was in the fire with on 90210. (I love me some 90s tv, can you tell?)

  3. FilthyGrandeur Says:

    yeah, unfortunately i don’t watch a whole lot of tv–not for grownups anyway. i enjoy spongebob.

    i think your point about will and grace is an excellent one, how he seems to be her accessory as a straight woman (as if all us straight ladies keep a gay best friend someplace, like a sort of novelty). it’s also interesting that there aren’t any shows (?–refute this if i’m wrong, but i can’t think of one) where the main character is gay or lesbian, and it’s about his or her problems, not the straight character. i would like to see them as main characters, not just ones in the background. in fact, i would love to see a show where the straight character is presented as “other,” and quirky, a token friend to the gay and lesbian characters.

    i don’t watch a whole lot of 90s shows anymore, but i still watch Golden Girls.

  4. gnatalby Says:

    I mean, I’ve never watched the L Word, but presumably that’s all lesbian all the time.

    I would have said that Liz Cruz from Nip/Tuck was a decent lesbian character, but this season it came out that all along she just needed the right penis to cure her.

  5. FilthyGrandeur Says:

    i know! i was so mad about that! i really liked that liz was a strong female character that didn’t give into christian’s bs, and then all this shit where lesbians still want dick comes up–ugh! it’s frustrating. and then just perpetuates this thing where some men are so cool they can “cure” lesbianism–man, he’s so studly.

    this is not to mention all the homophobia on the show…

  6. doostyn Says:

    Oh Nip/Tuck how you confound me…it’s hard to know what to say about this show’s treatment of the Gays. First, seems the show was ahead of the “bromance” curve with Sean and Christian’s relationship. They let us know repeatedly that each regards the other as the end-all of their personal relationship pyramids (grand pronouncements along the lines of “I would DIE for you!” are routinely exchanged between these bros, but not really to their lady loves.) So yay for allowing men to be great friends for each other without it being detrimental to their heterosexuality.
    But this recent season’s Liz storyline…to borrow a phrase, that shit “stank bitch.”

  7. FilthyGrandeur Says:

    don’t forget the time christian punched a gay man who came on to him–protect your masculinity!
    and the transphobia, where matt beat up a trans woman, and consistently reminds himself that he lost his virginity “to a man.” no, to a woman. i could go on with the trans-hate, but i don’t have the energy today.

  8. doostyn Says:

    I think the show wants to have it both ways. Consistency…so not a strong suit. So when Christian punched a guy…was it a gay guy? Wasn’t it Mario Lopez….I’m not sure his character was gay. Either way, Christian was threatened, but it was because of his recent dreams about him and Sean in a ‘mo relationship. I think the show was trying to say “Christian’s behavior IS homophobia, and homophobia is WRONG.”
    Matt’s storyline that season ended with him rescuing a transsexual woman (who Julia was nice to, so I guess this was a trans woman worth the loving?), so I think that made it okay (in the writer’s minds).
    Ultimately what baffles me about Nip/Tuck is what type of show it’s trying to be. If it’s trying to be a ridiculous soap satire, then fine, some of these storylines might be taken a bit differently. But then, so many other times it seems to take itself sooooooo seriously (even more brain tingling is that the best camp is usually camp that knows not what it is). Again, I think the show once it all ways (how it comes across to subjugated groups, its style), and because of this it definitely does not always succeed.
    Also, Ava (played by the fantastic Famke Janssen) was one of my favorite characters ever on the show. She was NOT a good person (i.e. an incestuous child molestor nutjob)…..Matt’s reaction in the wake of the revelation that she was transgendered is a different matter though.

  9. doostyn Says:

    Ah, just remembered the kid who was a ‘mo’s play thing and the ‘mo wanted the play thing to get some surgery. Not sure where that plot was in relation to Christian’s gay dreams about Sean. (Obviously this show has issues when it’s not clear what someone means when they say “the time Christian punched a gay guy” and you have to think “which time?”)

  10. FilthyGrandeur Says:

    all valid points–the trans woman thing though is still baffling as to its intent, at least to me. the trans woman that matt saved was the one that he beat the shit out of, and then she and some other trans women beat the shit out of him. and then they had that weird make up truce thing. still pretty violent beginning though.

  11. gnatalby Says:

    I suppose when it comes to Nip/Tuck I view the show as basically amoral. We’re clearly not supposed to want to emulate any of these people. I remember reading a fluff article a long time ago about the depiction of gay people on Nip/Tuck and how “the gays” feel about it (like they’re some monolithic group) and all the fans were like: “The gay people on Nip/Tuck are horrible people…. and so is everyone else.”

    I think part of the issue with Ava was not that she was trans but that she was intersex and had been assigned woman but actually felt herself to be truly a man. So if that was the case, then Matt was doing the correct thing by saying he lost his virginity to a man, although not, I think for the right reasons. But my memory of that SL is sort of vague, since it was a long time ago and I accidentally watched it dubbed into Italian.

  12. 10 Things I Love About 10 Things I Hate About You « Booze. TV. Food. How Do *You* Spend Friday Nights? Says:

    […] really exist, it’s either all for the guys or a short detour from the guys. It’s the chaste bro hug for the […]

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