How Gay Is Too Gay? ‘Friends With Benefits’ Has the Answer
It’s been a little over a month since the silly, sex-spiced rom-com Friends With Benefits hit theaters, making a modest splash at the box office but a more successful impression among critics. Benefits probably deserves most of the kudos it’s gotten, considering the entertaining balance it establishes between its two charismatic leads, as well as between its comedy and drama. But the movie’s seesaw finesse disappears completely whenever Woody Harrelson is on screen as Tommy, a supporting character whose sexuality aggressively defines his personality.
To give Benefits some credit, Tommy isn’t exactly a stereotype; aside from a nauseating scene in which he repeatedly propositions a straight man, Tommy actually defies the usual clichés with his love for sports, a wardrobe no different than that of his hetero brethren, and an understanding of women earned from hard-earned insight instead of an intrinsic intimacy with his feminine side. But Harrelson’s role still becomes archetype-ish overkill even without the stereotypes—by nature of being a giddily gay character that talks an awful lot about being giddily gay. Throughout Friends With Benefits, Tommy brings up his sexuality when sex both is and isn’t the topic of conversation, so much so that his every scene, with the exception of the film’s climax, includes dialogue reminding the audience of his quest for queer satisfaction. While this thankfully means the film’s sole gay character is the only one making the gay jokes, it becomes a bit tiresome when all Tommy makes is gay jokes.
Because Harrelson’s Tommy is gay-positive—written as out, proud, and happy and healthy in his lifestyle—Benefits’ treatment of homosexuality hasn’t set off any PC sirens amongst the masses. But the film’s approach to portraying gays still warrants caution, due to the fact that its overabundance of attention to the subject makes Tommy an “other” compared to his straight, more dignified counterparts who are silent on the matter of sexual preference. The movie’s heterosexual leads, Jamie (Mila Kunis) and Dylan (Justin Timberlake), spend the film’s entire duration talking about sex without ever talking about their sexuality. Because their sexual preference is a matter-of-fact given, there’s never dialogue set aside for them to over-announce, or to even simply announce, their straightness. Harrelson, on the other hand, has a mouthful of man-love to make a ruckus about near-always, rendering him more “homo” than human, and unfortunately fairly one-dimensional because of it.
Friends With Benefits is hardly the first film to overdo it when it comes to giving a minority character a minority-centric mindset. Although ignoring the sexual orientation, race, ability, class, size, and so on of a role can often smack of inauthentic fantasy, giving those characteristics too much weight can perpetuate the idea that the identities of minority groups are limited to what makes them minorities. Just as if paralyzed characters talked about nothing but their wheelchairs, or black characters went on about their curly hair, Tommy revisiting his preference for men ad nauseam carries an overreaching redundancy that confines his character to caricature, and nothing more.
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