In last year's indie comedy Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the title character, Nick (Michael Cera), has just met Norah (Kat Dennings) at a concert. He's trying to get over his ex-girlfriend and she wants to stick it to her stuck-up friend, who happens to be the ex. She makes out with him in front of the ex, killing two birds with one tongue. They leave together, but first there's the matter of his broken-down car and her nearly passed-out, drunk other friend. How can they get her home, fix the car and fall in love all at once?
At that moment, a van screeches to a halt in front of them. Inside are Nick's impossibly helpful friends."It's not as ominous as it seems," Nick tells Norah.
That's because they're gay, a fact both characters seem to understand means "harmless." These gay friends will do them one better: They're not only nonthreatening, but they're here to save the day.
"Here's the plan: I'm gonna go give Nicky a pep talk. Dev, clean up the girl," declares Thom.
Norah hops in their van and changes into what Nick's friends think will better attract him to her, as if he weren't already. They fix his car, take the drunk girl off their hands — "If anyone's gonna get raped in that van, it'll be a guy," assures Nick — and bid them adieu on their quest to hook up.
This scene is a particularly egregious example of a long-standing trend in Hollywood: the vaguely mystical, anxiously accommodating gay friend to the straight lead. They are the gayous ex machina … the magic homos. And it's just as insulting today as it was decades ago when the role was reserved for blacks.
During a discussion with Washington State University students, filmmaker Spike Lee introduced the term "Super-Duper Magical Negro." He was pointing out the tendency of white directors and authors like Robert Redford and Stephen King to enlist mysterious black characters to aid their white protagonists -(in The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile, respectively). These oversimplified minority characters have nothing better to do than bestow their spiritual wisdom upon the white heroes of the tale, then shuffle off into oblivion.
At least a year before that discussion, Roger Ebert observed the same quality in his review of The Family Man: "It's a funny thing about supernatural movies. The black characters are always the ones with all the insights into the occult, but they never get to be the occulted. Consider Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance and now Don Cheadle in The Family Man. They're all on good terms with the paranormal, but act only as guides for Demi Moore, Matt Damon, Nicolas Cage, et al. They're always the medium but never the message."
Author Jabari Asim recently likened Barack Obama's ascent to this film phenomenon.
Now, it seems, it's the homosexuals' turn, especially in comedies. As far back as 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, in which Rupert Everett hops on the first plane to Chicago to save Julia Roberts from wrecking her best friend's wedding, gay characters seem to settle for being always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Also released last year, Zack and Miri Make a Porno featured a cameo by Justin Long (the Mac guy) whose sole purpose was to give the hetero leads the idea of making a home sex video in the hopes of paying their rent. He's never seen again.
This month's comedy He's Just Not That Into You borrows from Nick and Norah (and Sex and the City and many others), surrounding the hapless Drew Barrymore with a rainbow coalition of gay friends who want nothing more than to sit with her by the phone.
Another gay couple makes a brief appearance in order to tell the straight Kevin Connolly that gay signals are different from straight signals.
Writer Dixon T. Gaines described the film, in a recent piece on gay academia website Queerty.com, as a "minstrel show of homosexuality `that` can only be construed as Mincin' Jazz Hands," and compared the gay actors appearing in the film to Stepin Fetchit, a 1920s black actor who became successful playing African-American stereotypes like "The Laziest Man in the World."
Asks Gaines, "Why do gays have to slap on the gayface and do a faggoty song and dance just to get some screen time?"
As with a lot of issues in today's cinematic landscape, it's television that's paving the way for gay characters that aren't defined by their sexuality. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, True Blood and The Office all feature openly gay men and women who are integral to the narrative for reasons other than what they do in the bedroom.
It's not as if heterosexual characters are free from the shackles of stereotype either. Especially in comedies, the lead begins with the tabula rasa assumption of straight life and, throughout the film, must show a character arc that makes him or her interesting outside of that assumption.
Gay supporting actors, for better or worse, are given the head start of seeming like inherently fascinating people, and that goes double if they're flamboyant. Hetero extroverts are almost always played as somehow empty, their promiscuity and self-absorption acting as code for the audience that they must change.
Perhaps friends in movies can just be friends who, gay or otherwise, help out of the goodness of their hearts and not because their lifestyle mandates such a thing.
Or maybe hetero leads could grow a pair and help themselves. Here's a novel idea: the magic firstname.lastname@example.org