“You’re such a Renata.”
Depending on where your allegiances lie on The Great Cultural Moment that was HBO’s Big Little Lies, that’s either an insult or a compliment. All I’ll admit on my part is that I was sitting alone in a restaurant when I heard a young gay waiter shriek this description at one of his fellow servers. She hadn’t yet seen the show, so the meaning was lost on her. Still, it provoked a conversation among the staff and us solo-dining patrons, all of us strangers, whisper-shouting into our Negronis about how “iconic” Laura Dern and the female executive she played on Big Little Lies remains. The female bartender in front of us told us that she thought her other colleague was incorrect about their third colleague. And that, well, Renata was kind of a bitch.
I should mention that this was a nearly a week after the first season of Big Little Lies concluded. It’s only been longer now — and yet the show still comes up near daily in my life, not just among friends and co-workers and people at restaurants I like, but in overheard discussions at coffee shops and subway stations and gay bars and all the other places where nervous, chatty city people let their private opinions become public. The passing of time has only seemed to strengthen the attachment people feel. As the sheer volume of television renders most shows obsolete as soon as their finale airs — if not before — it’s impressive that Big Little Lies has remained such a Thing.
These conversations usually meander their way toward one destination: The show’s viewers — by which I mean women and gay men (did straight men watch this show? IDK) — declaring whether they or their friends are more of a Madeline (feisty!), a Renata (powerful!), a Jane (mysterious!), a Bonnie (achingly cool!), or some combination thereof. No one ever claims to be Celeste, probably because that would beg for further elaboration, which, catch-22, isn’t a very Celeste thing to do in the first place.
If you haven’t argued about this with your friends, you’ve probably overheard others do it. Or seen, or perhaps taken, the seminal Buzzfeed quiz (“Which Big Little Lies Mom Are You?”), replete with fancy SUVs and glassed-out homes and Alexander Skarsgards that help you make sense of your psyche and its preferences. And if you find yourself still befuddled, Glamour U.K. went so far as to provide a helpful, bullet-pointed list.
This isn’t the first time that HBO has managed to create the kind of characters that viewers like so much that they start to identify as them. Just over a decade ago, when I was finishing up college and first moving to New York City, it was impossible to be among a group of gay men and women without someone (someone who was possibly drunk) going on about a different show: Sex and the City. It, too, offered archetypal women — the protagonist, the prude, the slut, and the smart one — who viewers couldn’t help but claim as their own. But it was easier then; the SATC squad was a bit more stereotypical. I don’t mean that as women, but as pat little packages of personality that folks — gay men in particular — loved to see in themselves.
Of course, the distinctions between these shows also reflect our changing culture: Sex and the City was a comedy, created by a gay man who hired many gay writers, many of whom it was presumed were living out their rowdy fantasies (and freedoms) via Samantha’s plotlines and one-liners. Big Little Lies is a drama, no doubt, developed by two famous women, adapted by two straight men, and based on a novel by a third famous woman. It’s more emotional, darker. But the latter would not exist without the former. As Francine Prose put it in the New York Review of Books, Big Little Lies is “Sex and the City in hell.”
In between, we got Girls — the HBO show that most people probably look to when trying to define our Zeitgeist — though I’ve never heard a friend say, over brunch, “I’m such a Hannah Horvath.” Those characters’ personalities are simply less desirable. And the show inoculated itself from that sort of comparison from the very first episode, when it became a joke that Jessa had never seen Sex and the City, even though Shosanna thinks she’s “definitely, like, a Carrie, with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair — a really good combination.” (Related, but not exactly: Elijah Krantz is a better gay character than we got to see on any season of Sex and the City.)
Thinking about all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder … what is it about shows like Sex and the City and Big Little Lies that make gay guys so obsessed with identifying as female characters? It is some sort of reclamation of camp to proclaim that you’re a total Madeline or Samantha? Or is this more about the grabbing fabulousness by its horns, bolstered by the fact that all these women on all these shows have incredible homes, and chic outfits, and hot husbands? Is it because these women can get away with being bitchier than any bitchy queen ever could himself? Or is it a way of participating in the long gay tradition that is drag without actually, you know, putting on a dress? All of the above, I’d argue. By which I really mean: straight-up aspirational living.
When I was with my group of gay friends last weekend, the ones I see all the time, I brought this all up. Are gay men perhaps a bit overly obsessed with the women of Big Little Lies? The question bopped around the room, some refuting the idea, until one friend said something (in jest, I think?) that became the only answer anyone now remembers:
“No, but seriously, guys, I’m a total Bonnie.”
He wasn’t incorrect.
Another friend, Joey, a filmmaker with a degree in semiotics, suggested that it had less to do with gay men’s obsessions with these specific characters and more to do with Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman themselves; the former because of her performances in Cruel Intentions, Election, and Legally Blonde (three movies so beloved by gay men that they have, at one point or another, been workshopped as musicals); and the latter because of Kidman’s virtuosic roles in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, considered a canonical gay classic, and Moulin Rouge.
He also gave me a book. Called My Diva, and edited by Michael Matlack, it’s a 2009 compendium of essays by gay writers on the bonds-from-afar they’ve forged in their lives with the Julie Andrews, Bette Midlers, and Nina Simones of the world. In one of them, in which Edward Field goes deep on Sunset Boulevard’s Gloria Swanson, he writes: “There is something about these larger-than-life movie stars that represents our yearnings for vindication, in which we see ourselves transcending the difficulties a gay man faces in the world.” This argument is quoted in the book’s introduction, along with the idea that women like those in Big Little Lies and Sex and the City — divas, that is — protect us, guide us, and delight us. “Perhaps in loving our divas,” Matlack adds, “we have found a way to love ourselves.”
All of that is a bit rich for me, if I’m being honest. (And I’m not sure gay men circa 2017 need any more justification for loving themselves.) But just like the divas that came before Big Little Lies, and the ones that will hopefully come back for a second season of that eventual HBO campfest, I agree there’s something larger-than-life about these associations, something cosmic even. It’s not that different than astrology, that strange game in which people convince themselves that the date on which they’re born has some say in how they will act, in who they will become. Perhaps that’s why, when I go on Facebook today, I still see people talking about Big Little Lies. Maybe they’re just catching up on the show, or maybe it’s just fun to look to the stars. I can admit that, as a great big gay fan of a great big gay show. And, too, as something else: A total Madeline, Renata rising.