Will and Grace mattered to me in the Nineties – and they should stay in the Nineties

Gay best friend? Give me Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. 

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If you know what “GBF” stands for you probably, like me, watched TV in the late Nineties and early Noughties.

The “gay best friend” was a fashion statement a little bit like those circa. 2003 handbag Chihuahuas. In Sex and the City, the only accessory that competed with Carrie’s Manolo Blahniks was an inevitably sassy bald guy called Stanford. Then, there was an entire programme about having a GBF. And that programme, of course, was Will and Grace.

Nearly 20 years after the first episode of the show aired, a Will and Grace reboot is scheduled for this month. And, along with the show’s cast, its concept has aged.

I was a teenager when I last watched Will and Grace, and I don’t think I’ve revisited it since. In all honesty though, this is less down to the show’s #problematic premise and more that I was never that huge a fan. It was just one of those background shows that had its moments (I will never not find Megan Mullally hilarious, for example). But, I don’t want to underplay the importance for me, at the time, of seeing gay characters on TV. And Will and Grace had two of them: Will, the straight, bland, potato-ish gay; and Jack, the “gayer than Christmas” stereotype. Which, for the time, was a veritable smorgasbord of gays.

Around the same time, I was also watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, another early 00s American classic, where – in each episode - a squadron of hilarious homosexuals become one straight guy’s collective BFF, buy him some terrible clothes and teach him how to bathe. The idea being that straight men are giant babies who need a woman (or ideally several effeminate men) to clothe and burp them. Both Queer Eye and Will and Grace placed gay men in this weird sidekick/court jester role, where their only job is to offer fashion advice, emotional support and catty comebacks. The GBF, actually, is one of those very rare examples of men being objectified by women, in a genuinely quite damaging way.

It will be interesting to see if the new season of Will and Grace has moved with the times. Maybe Grace is going to upgrade to a lesbian best friend (sorry but gay men are so 2002) and Jack is trying to make it as a vlogger. Either way, by now, fictional gay characters should be complete human beings who have more to offer than their (apparently oh so fascinating) sexuality. If Game of Thrones can do it (I’m looking at you, Yara Greyjoy) then so, I hope, can Will and Grace version 2.0. In the age of Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, I’ve sort of got used to LGBTQ characters who aren’t there purely to entertain straight people while solidifying any preconceived notions they may have about us.

One recent show that, depending on how you look at it, either satirises the GBF relationship, or perpetuates it is Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Titus, played by Tituss Burgess, is Kimmy’s ultra-femme, ultra-witty GBF. Then again, Titus is very much his own thing. And, with his subplots taking up prime real estate in most episodes, he’s hardly a sidekick. Titus is also black, financially unstable and wonderfully bizarre. If he was in a room with fellow (wealthy, white) GBFs Will and SATC’s Stanford, he’d probably shade them to death.

What works in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is that, as much as Titus is Kimmy’s GBF, she’s his straight best friend. While Titus is black, queer and poor, Kimmy has just been freed from an underground cult, where she was imprisoned for 15 years. They both have struggles, and they prop each other up an equal amount. This is where GBF becomes plain old “BFF”. And that’s how it should be.

 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.