Popularized by Margaret Cho and Will & Grace, the archetype of the "fag hag" once had something to offer both gay men and straight women. Now, says Thomas Rogers at Salon, its time is up.
Rogers does pay homage to the fag hags of the past. He writes,
The classic fag hags were theatrical, brassy, unconventional; they were the Liza Minnellis, Bette Midlers and Liz Taylors of the world. They drifted toward gay culture because they perceived themselves as outsiders, and bonded with gay men over shared feelings of social rejection, and love of camp, and appreciation of John Waters movies. And hey, they both liked men. A lot.
He also says that "for most of gay history," fag hags and gay men had "a mutually fulfilling relationship: Men got the appearance of heterosexual legitimacy and intimacy free of sexual tension; women got a touch of glamour and performance and exoticism." Now that gay men are less in need of "heterosexual legitimacy" — Rogers cites a study that puts the average coming-out age at 13 — straight women have less to offer them. But some still want a "gay boyfriend."
Rogers paints a pretty damning picture of today's post-Will & Grace fag hag, someone who feels that (to quote documentarian Justine Pimlott) "every straight girl should have these accessories: Manohlo Blahnik shoes, and a fag." According to Rogers, such self-absorbed fag hags think of a gay man as a "must-have item," someone to listen to her guy problems and watch as she tries on clothes. No longer misfit women seeking to bond with other outsiders, today's fag hags are "demure, and conventional — with square-jawed boyfriends and glittery sweat pants and seemingly little understanding of gay culture." These women want a gay man to bitch to, Rogers implies, even if they have nothing in common with him.
Part of the complexity of Rogers's piece is the fact that it really deals with two different stereotypes about gay men. The first — gay man as trendy, fashion-forward accessory — comes straight from Sex and the City's Sanford Blatch (whom Rogers calls Carrie's "queeny sidekick"). The second and perhaps more complicated stereotype is that of the gay man as nonsexual, unselfish helpmeet, a nonthreatening man charged with buoying up a woman's ego. The assumption that gay men exist to make straight women feel better about themselves may owe something to Will & Grace (Rogers is not the first to accuse the show of having "neutered gay characters"), but it's also related to how women's gender roles have played out over the past few decades.
The idea that a woman needs a man to tell her she's beautiful and awesome, but without the implied danger of sexual interest, finds expression in film, TV, and in real life. It's linked to the idea that a woman's worth is tied to her looks, but more importantly to the belief that women must be insecure about themselves and must seek approval from outside sources. And this belief is one of the most marginalizing forces women face.
Rogers argues that gay men need fag hags less as they themselves become less marginalized. He writes,
If part of the glue that holds together the fag hag relationship is the gay man's need for refuge from the mean jocks and the judgmental parents, what happens when the jocks and the parents stop caring? As the New York Times recently pointed out, friendships between gay men and straight men are no longer the taboo they once were. Most of the gay men I know (especially those my age) are happily mixing with all combination of sexes and sexualities, and, for my part, I'm as likely to take a straight male friend to a gay bar as a straight woman.
According to Rogers, the time has come for gay men when they no longer need the restrictive term "fag hag" or the restrictive view of gay friendship it implies. Hopefully that time is coming for women too. When women can reject a culture of self-snark and body-hate, and concentrate on pleasing themselves rather than other people, they can seek out friendships based on mutual respect and just plain liking people, rather than on a self-serving need for validation. Rogers closes his piece thus:
So what happens to those fabulous gay-loving straight women of yore, who close down the gay bars at 4 a.m., and pump their fists at the pride march, and stand in long lines for tickets to "Xanadu: The Musical"? They might not be as key to some young gay men's coming of age as they once were. For others, they'll be as crucial as ever — but hopefully they'll be calling themselves something more accurate. Like "friend."
There may have been a time when women and gay men needed each other as bulwarks against outside cruelty. But as both groups fight back against marginalization, their relationships may become not about needing a "gay boyfriend" or a "fag hag" but about wanting a friend.