Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why the St. Gays Aren't Helping (Tokenism Sucks, Okay?)

Okay, today I’m going to talk about a subject that is very potentially controversial. I’m going to talk about St. Gays. Since that’s a term I just made up, I’d like to explain it for you.

A St. Gay is a character who has no other defining characteristics than being gay. He or she (usually he) is an example of gaydom. A shining beacon of how to be gay. Or, he is a victim of vicious anti-gaying. A character who exists to be a victim and to show how bad it is to hurt gay people, and how good the hero is for standing up for the gays. The St. Gay is a standin for every gay person ever, in one nice convenient, personality-less package.

The St. Gay is shit.

If the entire purpose of a character is to stand in for all other people of that race, gender or sexuality, that’s what we call tokenism, and also bad writing. A good character is just that character. He or she isn’t every black woman or every gay man or every disabled youth. They’re just characters that happen to be these things.

Please note: I said good characters.

Badly written characters easily fall into this role when the writer makes their minority status the most important/interesting thing about them. Or perhaps the writer focuses all of that character’s storylines on their minority status.

Case in point: Glee. I know I love to rag on this show (I really, really love to rag on this show), but it’s just such a fetid pool of lazy writing and bad character arcs. It’s like candy.

In Season 1 of Glee there is a gay character: Kurt. Kurt comes out in the third episode, and while that’s an emotional episode, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. Throughout the season, Kurt’s storylines sometimes include his sexuality, as when he tried to seduce Finn, but also sometimes don’t, as when he and Rachel competed for the same part. That wasn’t really about his sexuality, just his identity as a performer.

Plus, Kurt was a full-fledged character. He made stupid choices, messed stuff up, and was not always the shining beacon of virtue. See his attempted seduction of Finn again. He was a character and he was interesting.

In Season 2, all of that went away. Now we had St. Kurt, who was gay, loud about being gay, confronted for being gay, threatened for being gay, transferred schools for being gay, looking for a boyfriend, talking about being gay, even discussing how being gay made him uncomfortable with religion in the awful religion episode. Kurt stopped doing things, and things just started happening to him.

He lost his fun snarky streak, and instead used every situation as a possible teaching experience. Every. Situation. No matter what was going on, we had to focus on St. Kurt and his gay opinion of the world. His standing-in-for-all-gays opinion.

That is bad writing.

It’s also the opposite of a couple of other characters from that show. Blaine began as another St. Gay, showing Kurt the way of acceptance, tolerance, and ridiculous dance numbers. But then he was found to be full of flaws, interesting, and prone to doing hilariously stupid things like serenading a guy he barely knew and making out with Rachel. All funny things. All likable things, to be honest. As a character, he messed up, then he kept going, while Kurt just sat on his glass mountain and scoffed at all the plebes below.

Also a case in point were Brittany and Santana, whose love story defined a lot of their episodes, but not all of them. Santana didn’t become St. Lesbian any more than she became St. Latina. She was still bitchy, a little crazy, and prone to face smashing anyone who messed with her Brittany. She had other stuff to do.

It’s not just that making a character a saint is bad writing, though. It’s also, well, offensive.

What this does is it implies that if you are gay, that is all you are. The only thing you can be if you are gay is gay. You are not funny or bitchy or bad at math or great at football, you’re gay. Just gay. Just like the St. Black is just black, nothing more. It turns characters into cardboard shells spewing out politically correct slogans. And those slogans lose their meaning when they are shoehorned into every plot, and not saved for the moments when they would be most effective.

And on top of all of that, it’s freaking annoying.

I’m not saying that all gay characters are secretly St. Gays, just like not all African-American characters are secretly St. Blacks. But I am saying that it happens. A lot. And it’s frustrating as hell.

And it doesn’t let you really learn to connect with the characters. If there aren’t any flaws, you don’t have anything to hold onto. In contrast, the character of Danny on Teen Wolf, a snarky, athletic, skilled hacker who happens to be gay, was so popular in Season 1 that fans rallied to make him a series regular and to find out what his last name was. They liked Danny. They wanted more Danny. Because they related to him.

Peter Guillam from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a super secret spy working to uncover a mole in British intelligence, who had been an agent in the field in Algeria but got shot, and who happened to be gay.

In writing characters you always have to be careful. You want to make your story diverse and interesting, but you also want the characters to be realistic. Too often, in the name of diversity, we sacrifice story and character. I’m not saying people should stop writing gay characters, I’m just saying that people should stop writing characters who are only gay.

No one is only one thing. Everyone has depths. It’s the job of a writer, and in the case of TV and movies, also an actor, to give the character multiple facets. So that no one is just their sexuality, their skin color, or their IQ.

So, Ryan Murphy? Fix it.

Sebastian Stan has made a pretty good career playing nuanced gay characters. See Kings and Political Animals as proof. Also Captain America, but that could just be me.


  1. So often with the token gay character like any token it ISN'T a character at all. It's a bingo square on their diversity card "behold how diverse we are! give cookies"

    And because it's a token, not only do they have no real personality or role, they're inevitably secondary and/or in service to the straight protagonists (leading to such fun things as the GBF trope). When doe we see Danny (who is very much a token - rarely seen, has none of his own plots and those exist only to further straight storylines), for example, when one of the straight cast don't want something from him? This representation presents gay people as non-entities, non-persons who exist to serve straight folk and support straight stories

  2. My favorite example of a gay character who is not tokenized - it's just one example of who he is, rather than his defining characteristic - is Agent Smecker from Boondock Saints. I love how it's just sort of an 'oh by the way no big deal' element of his character, and when people try to rag on him for it he basically tears them apart with his master snark.

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