Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sassy Gay Friend! Character stereotypes and archetypes

I am constantly rewatching Notting Hill, I can’t help it, I just 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-successful Hunger Games gives its heroine a gay African American ally/mentor. Just saying...)

Well, a few weeks ago 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:

HAMLET - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnvgq8STMGM&feature=relmfu 

EVE - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQhkzYVlLl8&feature=relmfu

OTHELLO - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKttq6EUqbE&feature=relmfu 

 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, Female Scientist/Academic Who Just Needs to Let Her Hair Down, Retiring Cop with Target on His Back, 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. 

 - Alex


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chihuahuazero said...

Hmm...interesting post on the thin line between stereotypes and archetype.

I have one thing to ask you though, about your YA book The Space Between.

What was the main point of Scott? It was interesting seeing a gay character, even if he was slightly sterotypical, but when I read your book, I though of him as a character that would likely be axed for a movie adaptation. In my opinion, Mandy could easily carry out any of the little actions he carried out.

Sorry if this sounds a bit negative, but I'm just curious.

runebug said...

So many! I hate all the Magical Mentor from an Oppressed Group variations. The Magical Negro, The Magical Native American, The Sassy Gay Friend, The Psychic Disabled Person, The Wise Servant, The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

I also hate the Chosen One. It takes all the fun out of it. I don't want to hear "This person has been chosen by the gods to defeat the evil villain. Now here's the story of them doing it." I want to hear "This is a normal person who could never hope to defeat the evil villain. But wait, they've got resourcefulness and moxie and they're going to try anyway!"

It's like when Star Wars decided to explain that The Force was a result of microbes in the blood. It ruined it for me, because the appeal had been that anyone could get The Force.

Anne Gallagher said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head with all your archetypes. I can't think of another one. It's funny I should read this post today, as I've just finished the editing process on my latest novel and find, that I've committed a major sin using the black gay friend who solves all the heroine's problems. Or at least gives her food for thought. He even has a toy poodle as a guard dog. I guess I should rethink his character.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's an interesting question!

Well, MOST characters in books (and even in scripts) are axed or combined for movie adaptations (I'm afraid I've done my share of that kind of axing). Luckily in novels one character doesn't HAVE to carry all those functions, which almost always seems forced to me, a restriction of the really compressed form/time frame of a movie.

I think Scott understands something about Tyler that Anna isn't letting herself face, and for me he's the right character to open that door for her in the dream, while Mandy would not have had the same understanding.

And it just wouldn't feel realistic to me to have only one outsider character in the whole school. Three outsider characters doesn't really even begin to address the reality!

I also think there's more to Scott that will surface in a sequel, since that story really is going to have to be a trilogy.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Wait a minute... the Force is microbes in the blood???

Lucas should have been banned from making more Star Wars sequels after Return of the Jedi.

(Personally I love the Chosen One...)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, Anne, it's just a post, I'm not saying it's a SIN. But I hope he gets his own sex life, at least...

If you haven't seen Scott Pilgrim, you might want to check it out. There's a gay character who doesn't allow himself to be ghettoized, and yours doesn't have to, either.

Paula Millhouse said...

This is a great post ales, and timely for me as well as I think out the structure to my new short story series. I'm going to need some characters, and your list is full of those to avoid!

My question is this - because there is such a fine line between stereotype and archetype if I take a sampling of your tropes and twist them up into secondary characters we haven't seen before, that's fair game, right?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paula, a new spin is always welcome, but remember - there is NOTHING truly new. No matter what, we've seen the character before. I'm just suggesting that we all need to watch and keep ourselves from taking the easiest, stereotypical way out.

chihuahuazero said...

Your answer makes sense. Three outsider characters do only present only a fraction of the outcasts.

And there will be a sequel? I thought The Space Between was pretty self-contained, but I will buy the sequel--if I start actually start getting a budget for e-books.

But I want to see a little more of Sample Space.

Valerie Michele said...

Thanks for getting my brain going this morning Alexandra.

This is how my mind operates: when I read your list my thoughts go to how I can best take these stereotypical characters that serve have served the functions you cite in film and television and give the a significant twist! A twist that can be either subtle or powerful but recognizable and valuable.

I see an opportunity to embrace them but with an eye toward how can they evolve. How can they transform into, well, new forms? It's a juicy challenge for a writer.

~Val Oliver
Partner/Creative Director
Media Classics Limited, U.K.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Chihuahua, the whole point of a sequel (really I have a trilogy in mind) is to explore Sample Space! Thanks for your input, it really helps.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Val, exactly! That's why it's so important to be aware of tropes, cliches and stereotypes, and always be alert for interesting takes on the characters.

Author Marty Beaudet said...

Great post. I shared it on Facebook. This was exactly what I was rebelling against when I introduced major gay characters in my political thriller, By A Thread. And also one of the reason straight men tended to shun it. (Women and gay men loved it,though!)