Warning: The Perfect Date spoilers ahead.
Romantic comedies are full of tropes. It’s part of why we love them. There’s comfort in knowing there will be an epic sprint-through-a-crowd scene. Or a dramatic make-out in the rain. Or a declaration of love in an airport. Or that the main character’s one true love will be the person who annoys them the whole movie. Their soulmate was there the entire time; they just didn’t know it! Internet Boyfriend Noah Centineo’s latest Netflix rom-com, The Perfect Date, is full of these familiar clichés, including the sneaky soulmate hiding in plain sight, the histrionic breakup at prom, and another rom-com staple that isn’t all that comforting: the Gay Best Friend.
You know this trope. The Gay Best Friend is the sidekick who exists for comedic relief and solely to advance the plot of their straight BFF. The GBF is the lead’s moral sounding board, there to deliver punchlines and to aid in bringing the clueless couple together. The characters typically have no real agency and are hollow shells compared to a fully-formed romantic lead. See: OGs like Buddy in 1984’s The Woman in Red or Hollywood in 1987’s Mannequin. The ’00s brought Christian in Clueless, Stanford in Sex and the City, and Brandon in Easy A.
Even in the current post-feminist, supposedly woke rom-com resurgence era, which I am eternally grateful for, the Gay Best Friend trope endures. Many of these new rom-coms are progressive in other ways — the leads aren’t white (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) or their stories are told with feminist twists (What Men Want) — but even when we’ve made progress in terms of racial diversity or female empowerment, these movies fail to show complex LGBTQ+ characters.
In The Perfect Date, the GBF is named Murph and he’s played by Odiseas Georgiadis. It’s Centineo’s Brooks Rattigan (yes, this name is as embarrassing as the movie’s premise) who gets the spotlight and the better storyline. Brooks enlists Murph to build him an app to get single women to rent him for dates — Brooks needs money to fuel his unhealthy obsession with going to Yale and dating popular girls. Not only does Murph do this willingly and without compensation, he builds TWO apps — one for the dates and the other so that Brooks can track his financial progress. In return for his kindness, Murph gets treated like shit by his best friend and bitten by a German zombie (if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t ask).
Oh yeah, Murph is also Black. In one character, this rom-com has filled its diversity quota. The Perfect Date is far from a perfect movie but its biggest flaw isn’t its shaky script or that Noah Centineo and Laura Marano’s chemistry leaves much to be desired (where’s Lana Condor when you need her?) — it’s that the film treats Murph like a culmination of ticked boxes instead of a fully fleshed-out human being. Murph doesn’t get to be the titular “perfect date” of the film but he is the perfect example of how so many romantic comedies do a disservice to their LGBTQ+ characters by relying on them for plot advancement, cute moments, or quippy one-liners but never giving them material to shine as bright as their counterparts.
Murph is given a sliver of a side plot: He has a crush on a guy who comes into the sandwich shop where he and Brooks work. They call him “Tuna Melt” because of his go-to order. Murph and Tuna Melt barely interact (when they do, it’s adorable). Murph, and the audience, don’t even get to find out Tuna Melt’s real name. Their romance is relegated to a few background moments at a fake prom. It’s a credit to Georgiadis’s muted but memorable performance that we’re even talking about Murph at all since his role is so minimal, but he’s so endearing — an impressive feat beside Centineo, Netflix’s resident King of Charm — that the movie leaves you wanting more Murph.
The obvious answer to the GBF dilemma is for there to be more LGBTQ+ characters written as the leads of their own rom-coms. For sure, that’s one solution. With the box-office success of 2018’s Love, Simon, a perfect teen romance that finally starred a gay lead character, or the upcoming Billy Eichner gay rom-com produced by Judd Apatow, there is some progress being made, but that doesn’t mean straight rom-coms no longer have to be held accountable for their gay characters. Look no further than two of (straight man) Pete Davidson’s recent rom-com roles to see the GBF still exists and the roles are still as problematic as ever. In Set It Up, one of Netflix’s many 2018 rom-rom offerings, he plays Charlie’s (Glen Powell) gay roommate Duncan. Duncan exists to make jokes about how many dudes he’s slept with — not much else. In this year’s What Men Want, Davidson plays the love interest of Taraji P Henson’s assistant. He’s a gay jock. That’s it. That’s the gag.
Even films that do away with one of rom-com’s most persistent qualities (white leads), we’re still left with one big regressive plot point (underdeveloped gay sidekicks). The audacious and hilarious Oliver in Crazy Rich Asians was criminally underused. He becomes a glorified stylist for Rachel without any other discerning characteristics. In The Incredible Jessica James, Jessica’s best friend Tasha is a lesbian. Aside from that detail and her friendship with Jessica, we don’t get to know much more about her. In To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, one of the boys Lara Jean loved turns out to be gay, and while Lucas becomes Lara Jean’s trusted friend and confidant for the rest of the film, his role is to be LJ’s sounding board.
Lucas is another Black GBF, and while his inclusion may seem like a good look for representation — and the filmmakers’ may have had the best of intentions — it feels hollow when his sole purpose is to prop up other characters. Instead of just being there for zingers and moral support, queer characters, especially Black ones like Lucas and Murph, seem to exist as a way to give these movies inclusivity credibility. It’s like studios know that in 2019, you can’t get away with an entire cast of straight white people without Twitter calling you out, so they sprinkle a little colour or some sexual identity diversity in there, pat themselves on the back, and move on.
Dismantling the reductive Gay Best Friend trope is not a new conversation. The stereotype is so well known, the rom-com parody film Isn’t It Romantic had a running gag about how gay characters are portrayed. The problem: its sole gay character didn’t have any depth, either. So, if the film was aiming to be subversive, it missed the mark. Isn’t It Romantic just reinforced the idea that gay people in rom-coms aren’t as deserving as their own narratives.
Sure, rom-com sidekicks, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, have always been brushed aside for bigger storylines (see “quirky BFF” roles played in the ’90s and ’00s by Judy Greer and Kathryn Hahn) but sidelining queer characters as the Gay Best Friend is damaging because we know that LGBTQ+ representation in Hollywood is still severely lacking. A GLAAD report released last year, noted that Hollywood is continuing to fail its LGBTQ+ characters. In 2017, just 12.8% of movies released from major studios (that’s 14 film if you’re counting) included LGBTQ+ characters, down 5.6% from the previous year.
Those abysmal stats don’t include Netflix, which is doing a better job at including queer characters but still relegates them to the sidelines. There’s an argument to be made that at least these movies have openly gay characters at all, since we know how rare that is, but we should aim higher than just using these roles as glorified props. The Gay Best Friend character can be done right, like George in My Best Friend’s Wedding (a film ahead of its time) who turns out to be the unlikely hero of the film, or Sam in 2018’s Blockers who gets her own coming-of-age story as she wrestles with her sexuality and losing her virginity on prom night with a sincerity rarely afforded to teen girls on screen or gay characters, let alone both. In these cases, the characters break the mold of the one-dimensional caricatures we’re used to. But both of those characters are white. It’s hard to name a recent Gay Best Friend of color who has been given any substance.
And that’s a shame especially for The Perfect Date, a film that desperately needed saving. Murph is the one character that could have brought much-needed spark to a dull movie that had all the elements of a typical romantic comedy, but like so many of the genre’s past leads, missed out on the lovable character that was there the whole time.