thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Anti-Stereotype Squad of “Happy Endings”

In gender on February 25, 2012 at 10:38 am

Sarah Todd

When the ABC sitcom Happy Endings first premiered last year, many critics compared it to Friends. Both comedies feature six friends–three guys and three girls–in their mid-to-late twenties who live in a major urban city (Chicago and New York). Both pilot episodes feature a runaway bride whose actions shake up the group dynamic and set the show in motion.

But beyond these superficial similarities, Happy Endings is funnier, smarter, and far more complex. Its often absurd plots center around competitions to determine who’d be the final survivor in a zombie apocalypse and solemn interventions to break a friend of his debilitating addiction to V-necks.

Happy Endings also differs from Friends in its diversity. It’s a show that recognizes the reality that people of various racial backgrounds and sexual orientations might well find themselves living in a major city and hanging out together.

Happy Endings acknowledges difference without falling into the trap of making a minority racial background or sexual orientation a character’s sole defining trait. Brad (Damon Wayons Jr.) is black and Max (Adam Pally) is gay. These identities are a part of their characters, and the show’s dialogue and plots frequently explore what it’s like for Brad and Max to be black and gay, respectively, within their group of friends and in the broader world. But the show also makes them well-developed characters who are many things in addition to these identities. Brad is a delightfully enthusiastic investment banker with a penchant for men’s fashion, romantic comedies, and making out with his wife Jane (Eliza Coupe). Max is a sarcastic and cynical layabout who spent all of last week’s episode transforming into a bear, in a kind of extreme advertisement for the dangers of seasonal affective disorder. (He hibernates in a pile of blankets and gets his head stuck in a honey jar. It Could Happen to You, winter-friends.)

Max evolves into a literal bear-Zach Galifianakis hybrid.

Happy Endings seems interested in creating characters who go beyond defying stereotypes and enter the realm of the anti-stereotype. For example, Penny (Casey Wilson) calls Max “a straight dude who likes dudes” because his messy, gruff, video game- and sandwich-loving personality goes against her idea of what gay men are (or should be) like. He’s so far from the stereotype that his personality actually seems oppositional to it. A first-season episode highlights this point. When Penny tells Max he’s “the worst gay husband ever” because he’d rather watch football than go shopping and brunching, Max finds her a gay best friend who’s more in line with her conceit. Derek is a fun-loving, official Sassy Gay Friend, right down to calling Penny “a stupid clumsy bitch.” (He gets introduced to Penny in this scene at the 30-second mark.)

The contrast between Max and Derek underscores Max’s distance from typical representations of gay men in popular culture. Unlike Derek, Max is not, in his own words, “stereotypically flamboyant, cartoonish Sex and the City gay.” Next Magazine believes this is definite progress, heralding Max a refreshing change from the status quo since “television shows of years past presented gay characters as flamboyant, body-conscious and theater-loving stereotypes, and currently popular shows like Modern Family and Glee still rely partly on these stereotypes for humor and character.”

On the other hand, some critics have expressed concern that Max, who looks and acts ways that our culture identifies as straight, may actually be too oppositional to gay culture. In a thoughtful and balanced post, Tommy from OutspokenNYC explains,

Personally, as a gay man, I don’t want to be accepted by Mainstream America for all the ways I am straight. I don’t want straight people to look at Max and think, “See? I don’t mind those kinds of gay people. They’re fine by me. Why can’t they all just be like that?” Whether the “straight-acting” among us want to believe it or not, most gays just don’t talk, walk, think or act quite like their straight counterparts, and it is at our most unabashedly gay that we should demand to be accepted. We’re different, and thankfully so. The character Max doesn’t seem to be a proper reflection of that, and is a bit misleading about gays in general.

Tommy makes a valid point. And as an anti-stereotype, Max’s character can risk seeming to dismiss or condemn gay men who are less traditionally masculine and bear-ish than he is (although, as Max points out, he’s really more of a cub). However, I do think Happy Endings is careful to acknowledge that Max’s version of being a gay man is not better than, or preferable to, other versions. Derek, for example, is a hit with Max’s group of friends. And Max’s current boyfriend, Grant, is a character who’s neither Sex and the City nor straight dude who likes dudes. Instead he’s somewhere in the middle: classy, well-traveled, eager to please, and highly knowledgeable about effective back stretches–a sophisticated guy who inspires the other male characters to start dressing like him.

Max and Grant on Valentine's Day. Grant is so handsome. Sigh.

The hilarious Brad (Wayans) is another anti-stereotypical character. Pop culture representations of black men often (though not always) emphasize some combination of hyper-masculinity/sexuality and thuggishness, or else cast black men in one-note roles that require little character development while offering a token nod at diversity. Brad, by contrast, is a nuanced character: a smart, successful professional who is goofy enough to accidentally buy a t-shirt dress (“I had my suspicions,” he explains, “but the price was right and daddy likes a deep tuck”) and secure enough in his masculinity to make it work.

Brad’s passion for some traditionally feminine interests (romantic comedies, fashion) works against the stereotype of black male hyper-masculinity, as does his light-footed physical comedy. Wayans is an incredibly talented comedian, and he’s at his best when he uses Brad’s physicality to communicate his exuberant take on life. In one endearing sequence, Brad executes an extremely silly dance on his way to the dentist chair (video clip below). In another episode, when Penny invites her friends to twirl around her new condo to share her excitement, Brad is the only one to gleefully jump in. “What?” he says to his nonplussed friends, who’ve just mentioned that some people think he’s gay. “Oh, now a brother can’t twirl?”

But of course Brad can twirl–and his performance of gender doesn’t diminish his sexiness to his wife Jane in the slightest. They talk openly and loudly about trying out new positions, and make out in front of their friends so often that the rest of the group can tell the difference between their kissing-moods. Their supportive, loving relationship is one of the show’s strengths, and it also happens to be interracial. Although–as Alyssa Rosenburg points out at ThinkProgress–the show doesn’t emphasize race in their marriage very often, stray asides acknowledge their racial difference and their encounters with racism. One episode suggests that Jane and Brad won’t be accepted to a country club because of the color of Brad’s skin. A recent episode revealed that Jane dated other black men before Brad (named Jamal, Malik, and LaDainian) and that Brad’s mother is under the mistaken impression that she celebrates Kwanzaa. In that same episode, Jane and Brad have a fake fight for their friends’ benefit that encapsulates their tender, funny, and perfectly matched relationship (video embedded in the link). Brad throws a garbage can and announces that it was disgusting; Jane grits her teeth, stomps her feet, and offers to wash Brad’s gloves when they get home. “Thank you!” he yells sincerely, making an angry gesture. “I appreciate everything you do for me!” Their friends watch through a window, wide-eyed.

Best marriage ever. Brad is so handsome. Double sigh.

Happy Endings sometimes addresses issues of race more directly. Like Rosenburg, I was especially compelled by an episode that centers around Max’s discovery that Brad has been hanging out with a group of guy friends who are all African-American. Max feels hurt that Brad is choosing these friends over hanging out with him, as well as out of place when he tries to crash their gathering. Brad kindly and reasonably explains that sometimes he needs a break from their group (in which he is the only black person) and that it’s important to him to hang out with friends who are also African-American. Brad’s a member of multiple communities, and he doesn’t have to choose between them.

Brad and Max are successful characters not because they are simply anti-stereotypes with qualities that contradict cultural clichés about black and gay men, but because they are well-rounded characters who feel like real people. Anti-stereotypes can be as one-dimensional as stereotypes if they are not shored up by developed backstories, individual quirks, good writing, and gifted actors. Sitcoms in particular, which rely on exaggerated characters for comedic effect, often run into trouble in this area. Luckily, Happy Endings seems to have figured out a way to balance comedy and nuance. Of course, no show is perfect–but it’s enough to make me do a little twirl myself.

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