IT BECAME A meme the second the words came out of Jennifer Coolidge’s mouth. Trapped on a yacht with a small group of ornately charming men who’ve lured her into their world with calculated flattery, she now realizes they have no intention of letting her ever return to the luxury resort where they found her. In the final minutes of the second season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” Coolidge’s rich, lonely, addled Tanya McQuoid pleads her case to the boat’s captain. “Please! These gays,” she implores in her signature husky bleat. “They’re trying to murder me!”
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That moment — the line that launched a thousand GIFs, not to mention T-shirts, coffee mugs and emblazoned hand fans — was brilliantly designed for the decontextualization it quickly underwent. But it also marked a milestone in the history of gay representation in film and television because … it was true: Those gays were trying to murder her! What better way to obtain her fortune and secure their status as haute Mediterranean palazzo dwellers? Although poor Tanya isn’t long for this world, she does manage to take down most of them before exiting, like the trained hit woman she isn’t. And the gay men in the show’s audience? We were the first ones cheering.
Why was this OK? (And yes, weirdly, it was OK.) It helped to know that a queer man, the show’s creator, Mike White, had originated the idea. If you’re gay, chances are you understood that you were on safe ground with the show — that this wasn’t homophobia but, rather, a joyous reclamation of the idea of gay monstrosity from the homophobes who held custody of it for decades.
The scene also upended the conviction that negative stereotypes can be assiduously monitored and tallied to determine whether a film or drama or sitcom or line or joke is with us or against us. For many L.G.B.T.Q. consumers of culture, including me, that kind of tensed, hyperwary watching — “Is this good for the gays or bad for the gays?” — is a hard habit to break. Several generations of us grew up exposed to movies and TV shows that forced us to develop a bitter awareness that, at any minute, we could be confronted with an ugly caricature or made the target of a cruel slur deployed to generate laughs or cheers from a straight audience. Several younger generations of gay men were raised in an era when the industry regularly patted itself on the back for earnest “representation” designed to show straight viewers that gay people were “just like us,” though only rarely were gay characters allowed to be just like themselves. And still younger generations have come of age in a world in which gay creators have increasingly taken charge of the way queer characters are depicted. But a murderous cabal of gays? Not since Sgt. “Pepper” Anderson broke up a trio of kill-crazy lesbians who ran a nursing home in an early ’70s episode of the Angie Dickinson cop show “Police Woman” had television gone there, and even 50 years ago, that story line was viewed as sufficiently retrograde to warrant a rebuke from critics and gay activists alike.
What “The White Lotus” did felt so backward that it was, paradoxically, transgressive — not to mention very gay. This punchline was so air quotes appalling that gay viewers could enjoy it without having to fret that straight viewers might get the wrong idea about us. (And if they did decide that gay people were lethal Eurotrash yacht queens? Better, I suppose, to be feared than hated.) In any case, “These gays …” was primarily about ownership. It wasn’t “We can take a joke”; it was “We can make a joke.”
WHAT WASN’T APPARENT when the show aired is that those killer gays presaged a trend: We’re witnessing an explosion of out-and-proud gay villainy. Showtime’s forthcoming limited series “Fellow Travelers,” created by the gay writer Ron Nyswaner, whose credits stretch back to “Philadelphia” (1993), is a kind of idiosyncratic dramatized history of gay-movement politics from the McCarthy years through the early days of the AIDS crisis. Its protagonist, played by the gay actor Matt Bomer, is not a heroic activist or a noble victim but a ruthless, chilly, opportunistic user, an ambitious closeted husband, father and eventually grandfather who, in an early episode, manipulates the timid male lover he dominates into writing an anonymous letter that could destroy the life of a lesbian friend. The character is complex, but nobody would call him a good guy.
Showtime recently canceled plans to air another limited series that is literally about a gay man who’s trying to murder people, but Netflix picked it up, and eight episodes of “Ripley,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” starring Andrew Scott as the obsessive killer, will likely be released next year. Readers first met Ripley in 1955, when Highsmith introduced him as a young American of indeterminate desires whose envy of the rich, indolent playboy he’s been hired to bring home from Italy shades into a kind of lethal longing — to be him, have him, replace him. Ripley’s sexuality is murky in Highsmith’s five novels, and in the hands of her many adapters, he’s been as heterosexual as when Dennis Hopper plays him in Wim Wenders’s “The American Friend” (1977) or as gay as when Matt Damon portrays him in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999). And this time? We don’t know yet, but Scott has already described him as “a queer character.”
A third limited series, “Capote’s Women,” a continuation of Ryan Murphy’s “Feud” anthology for FX and Hulu, will feature Tom Hollander — one of the murderous gays from “The White Lotus” — as Truman Capote. (Full disclosure: I am working with Murphy on an unrelated film project.) The Capote drama will apparently concentrate on the latter period of the writer’s life, in which Esquire’s publication of excerpts from his novel “Answered Prayers” (1987) was viewed as a friendship-rupturing betrayal by the society women whose company the author craved. Although it hasn’t been revealed which version or versions of Capote the show will bring forth, a degree of villainy is baked in, since Capote himself, on one talk show appearance after another, cultivated an image as a demonic, acid-tongued imp. It’s the Bad Gay renaissance we never asked for but somehow seem to have long wanted.
To be specific, this is gay male villainy — lesbians and bisexuals, long underrepresented in a world of pop culture still dominated by male creators, are insufficiently ubiquitous in movies and TV to be reframed as fun bad guys. (A delightful recent exception: the homicidal lesbian elders played by Judith Light and S. Epatha Merkerson in Rian Johnson’s “Poker Face.”) And trans villainy is, right now, not an option in pop culture: The struggle for acceptance remains too imperiled for anyone to be glib or ironic about goals like positive representation. White gay men make better marks; as members of two dominant cultures, we’re easy targets in a world in which everyone’s hyperconscious of identity, and we have enough clout to be labeled part of the problem without that critique being racist or sexist.
That itself is an indication of how far we’ve journeyed from, say, 1981, when the gay culture writer and activist Vito Russo published “The Celluloid Closet,” a book that traces Hollywood’s contempt for and mistreatment of gay characters from the earliest days of cinema. Russo explored a subject that had previously been viewed by moviegoers simply as the way things were — the treatment of gay people as pansies and wimps, perverts and tragedies, serial killers and suicides. He wrote the first edition of his book roughly a decade after the Stonewall uprising — during which, while television slowly but steadily humanized gay characters, giving them dignified guest appearances in ongoing comedies and dramas as well as the occasional TV movie, feature films continued to traffic in mincing best friends, bar-crawling lowlifes, killers and victims. The James Bond films, those bastions of heterosexual virility, toyed with a pair of gay hit men in 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever” and, in general, big-screen queer sexuality was often murder adjacent (“Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “American Gigolo,” “Cruising,” “Dressed to Kill”) when it wasn’t comical, absurd or doomed.
But what neither Russo nor his readers could have known was that AIDS was about to change the world. For the next 15 years, after the virus became prevalent, gay characters gradually became exemplary — the only choice during a struggle in which Hollywood felt compelled to represent the part of American society that didn’t want gay men demonized, marginalized or dead. This period, bracketed roughly by “Victor/Victoria” (1982) and “In & Out” (1997), wasn’t free of queer villains, but they were often greeted with ire and contempt: When the serial killer Buffalo Bill was showcased in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), backlash was so intense that its director, Jonathan Demme, turned around and made “Philadelphia,” about an admirable, likable gay lawyer seriously ill with AIDS. To say that many of these films were made with persuasion in mind is not to disparage them. Anti-gay agitprop had been a staple of Hollywood for decades; what was pro-gay agitprop but a long-overdue attempt to fight fire with fire?
By the late ’90s, Good Gays had become staples of both movies and TV series — 1998 marked the beginning of “Will and Grace” — and, not soon after that, it finally became acceptable for a new kind of Bad Gay to stand up and be counted. Twenty-three summers ago, a group of strangers went to Borneo and had their adventures filmed for 39 days and, when it was over, one of them was a millionaire. Richard Hatch, then 39, was the first gay villain of the reality TV era, and a shock at a time when L.G.B.T.Q. television presences were supposed to model relatability and safeness. On the night of the first-season finale of “Survivor,” more than 51 million Americans watched as one competitor Hatch had beaten offered a disgusted endorsement, labeling him a snake and his rival a rat, then telling her fellow jurors that they should honor what nature intended and vote “for the snake to eat the rat.”
It’s hard now to convey what a violation of accepted norms it was for a straight woman to use that language about a gay man on national television, especially since, in retrospect, Hatch’s malevolence was wildly overstated. All he was guilty of was figuring out how to work the game before everyone else did. What Hatch was doing — observing a playing field as only a lifelong outsider could, then using the ruthless detachment that exclusion can generate to his advantage — was, to many gay viewers, a recognizable survival strategy now revealed on a nationwide scale. The cultural ascent of a Bad Gay was a shock: Hatch had the dubious honor of becoming the first homosexual man America could hiss at when the country was only just past the most acute phase of the AIDS pandemic and beginning to uncouple male homosexuality from death. For gay people, the question was complex: Should we hate him, root for him or both?
IF YOU’RE GAY and over 30, you’re probably at least somewhat used to assessing negative reflections of yourself on a spectrum that stretches from the flatly unacceptable to the semi-embraceable. At the most extreme end, for instance, there is the slur that gay people are groomers, a charge closely tied to the idea that homosexuality is a spreadable disease. Because social conservatives have always found the accusation of preying on children an irresistible way to threaten sexual minorities, it should not be surprising that in the last couple of years, the groomer libel has been transferred from gay men to drag queens and trans people.
But history provides no shortage of other gay villain clichés from which to choose. There’s the trope that gay people — or gay-coded characters — are weak, cowardly, sniveling (think of Jonathan Harris as Dr. Smith on the 1960s TV series “Lost in Space” whimpering, “Oh, the pain, the pain!”). That one’s almost more boring than it is defamatory — but it’s still defamatory, even when drolly done. There’s also the old, double-edged McCarthy-era insult, intriguingly played with in “Fellow Travelers,” that gay people are security risks on two fronts: They harbor a secret that makes them susceptible to blackmail, and their resentment toward the oppressive straight world makes them obvious candidates for double agentry; in other words, we’re potential victims and potential moles. Then there’s the having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too stereotype that gay people are fine but gay closet cases are all potential serial killers. Finally, there’s the broad-brush (and essentially misogynistic) derogation of gay men as effeminate, an old insult that has been so effectively reclaimed by happily effeminate gay men that it’s lost much of its sting. As Harvey Fierstein subversively states in the 1995 documentary version of “The Celluloid Closet,” “I like the sissy,” and that stereotype, the movie origins of which can be traced back to the silent era, can range from hurtful and belittling to joyful and empowering, depending on who’s doing the sashaying and shantaying, and to what end it’s being used.
There’s one kind of gay villain, though, that seems especially alluring these days, including to gay men. It’s the Wicked Queen — the devious, manipulative, cunning, conniving male homosexual who has learned how to stay two steps ahead of anyone who thinks they can outsmart him. The Wicked Queen often shows up in stories that take place in a primarily gay universe: He’s the selfish one, the callous one, the one who’s a bitch to all his friends — his malice doesn’t need to be filtered through the gaze of the straight world. It’s our business, and it’s there for our delectation. At his most refined and extreme, the Wicked Queen seems not only to relish his criminality but to turn it into a louchely decadent performance piece. These are the gay villains who are currently having their moment in the spotlight. Performative, even showy gay (or gay-coded) villainy — the idea that we’re dark-souled masterminds who know how to be stylish and sociopathic in a single gesture — has been around forever; it’s evident in everything from George Sanders’s Addison DeWitt (technically straight but really not) in “All About Eve” (1950) to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s “Batman” TV series to Dr. Evil’s pinkie raised to his pursed lips in the “Austin Powers” movies to Divine’s early 1970s collaborations with John Waters to the latest seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Yes, it’s a vicious attack on our collective character but, honestly, as vicious attacks go, some of us kind of enjoy that one.
Perhaps, on occasion, we even wear it proudly. The murderous gays in “The White Lotus” certainly do; they escort Tanya to an opera not long before they intend to kill her, almost as if they were event planners pulling together a theme weekend, and to win her confidence, they actually pretend to be a different gay cliché — the obsequious Gay Best Friends, forever fluttering around and consoling the heroine, happy to serve as her supporting characters. Using one stereotype to conceal a worse one? That’s so ruthless, it’s applause-worthy; it’s what one of the drag house members in Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris Is Burning” (1990) means when he explains, “Boys are the stupidest. They don’t know how to do a stunt right. Now, faggots will do a stunt and, I mean, you will never catch up with it until years later!” Translation: Gay people know how to play the long game because we have to know; we’re tough, we’re smart and we’re sly because that’s how we endure.
It’s worth noting that the appealing Bad Gay is, and should remain, the province of fiction. In real life, if you internalize those personality characteristics too thoroughly, you do not become a fascinating charismatic antihero; you just become George Santos. But in pop culture, there’s something unexpectedly liberating, even progressive, about seeing gay characters unshackled from the necessity of making a good impression. (It’s why John Early’s staggeringly self-absorbed, needy gay millennial in the cult comedy series “Search Party” [2016-22] was so beloved by gay viewers.) In its first two seasons, the comedy series “The Other Two,” a savage and specific take on our boundless appetite for fame, presents one of its main characters, the aspiring actor Cary Dubek (played by Drew Tarver), as an essentially Good Gay, a young, appealing guy who came out on the late side and is now simultaneously learning to navigate the dating world and the thousand natural shocks and humiliations of struggling on the margins of show business.
But in the recently concluded third and final season, Cary finally makes it, if not to the top then to the middle, and goes full Bad Gay. He becomes a camera-hungry, friend-shafting, insincere, self-dramatizing narcissist. In the hands of the show’s co-creators, the former “Saturday Night Live” head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, it feels clear that Cary doesn’t lose himself so much as find himself — the monster he has been all along was just waiting for a chance to emerge. It pains me to say it, but this is, in a way, what diversity looks like (at least, this is one of the things diversity looks like): the dead-on representation of a type that a lot of gay men have met in life but that rarely makes it onto a screen.
It’s fair to ask whether we can afford this at a moment when those who hate and fear queer Americans are getting louder and bolder. But no minority culture has ever thrived by retreating to role model politesse in response to the menacing behavior of those who are never going to approve of them anyway. Besides, there’s something undeniably satisfying in saying to homophobes, “You think drag queens reading fairy tales to children is scary? We’ll show you scary.”
It’s also a welcome change from a time in which every single movie or television show that was good for the cause had to be greeted with a dutiful round of applause or show of support, no matter its faults. Almost 40 years ago, in his 1987 revised edition of “The Celluloid Closet,” Russo wrote, “There is a tendency on the part of politically committed lesbians and gay men to make allowances for the aesthetic shortcomings of films that offer a more accurate picture of gay life than has been previously seen. This is the temporary cultural reaction of people grateful for a refreshing change in the way their lives are reflected on the screen. This will also moderate with time.” Russo was right, but I wonder how he’d react to the fact that gay culture has virtually inverted itself. Rather than make apologies for stories with good intentions and dubious entertainment value, we now get to see ourselves as worse people in better product. It seems odd that the fragile, perhaps precarious luxury of being able to enjoy an entertaining range of gay villains is a signpost of progress. But a qualified win is still a win, and this victory can, perhaps, be counted as one of the strange spoils of a larger, long-fought battle: the chance to be ourselves — all of ourselves — even when we’re monsters.