Last year, Canadian psychologist Nancy Bartlett conducted the first-ever quantitative analysis of the rare North American "fag hag." For those who have never seen Sex and the City , Will and Grace , or any other syndicated Lifetime sitcom, this curious creature, also known as the "fruit fly" or "fairy godmother" latches herself onto " sassy" gay men in order to extract life-sustaining doses of companionship, affirmation, and beauty advice. In television, film, and scholarly literature, so-called fag hags are portrayed as "lonely single women," usually ugly, fat, or otherwise undesirable, "who are attracted to gay men as a rather sad substitute for what they are not getting from heterosexual men."
Bartlett and colleagues rounded up 154 women to investigate two ostensibly competing hypotheses: First, that low body esteem and rejection by straight men are predictive of having a higher number of gay male friends. Second, that increased contact with gay men positively correlates with body esteem. The psychologists administered surveys to measure how many times the women were broken up with in the last two years and the number, closeness, and duration of their friendships. To assess body esteem-specifically, the "feminine" subcategories of weight concern and sexual attractiveness-researchers used a questionnaire requiring respondents to rate 24 of their own body parts and traits on a five-point scale. To their surprise, the authors found that "there was no association between relationship status, number of times on the receiving end of a break-up, or weight esteem and the number of gay male friends."
Of course, as the authors readily acknowledge, the use of self-reportng rather than more objective measures of conventional attractiveness prevented them from concluding that the women were no uglier than average. Nevertheless, the finding that women who surround themselves with gay men are not more likely to be pathetic cat-hoarding refugees from the straight dating world may help to dispel the persistent, denigrating stereotypes that have long plagued all the Golden Girls and Grace Adlers of the world.
One issue that goes unmentioned in all of this analysis is the rapidly changing face of the fag hag. Cultural observers like Tablet’s Alana Newhouse and Salon ’s Thomas Rogers have argued that while the "classic fag hags were theatrical, brassy, unconventional … the Liza Minnellis, Bette Midlers and Liz Taylors of the world," influential shows like Sex and the City and Real Housewives have corrupted and commodified the once-sacred and singular bond between quirky women and their gay male confidantes. With the success of feminism and increasing inclusion of LGBTs in mainstream culture, women and gay men relinquished the sense of marginalization and otherness that had long united them. As a result, women of all political stripes, women with little to no connection to gay or feminist culture, have been clamoring for their own personal Stanford Blatch . Perhaps Bartlett’s results do not shatter stereotypes so much as spell the end of era in gay-guy-straight-girl relations.
In fact, recent evidence supports this idea. According to a study published last month in Feminism and Psychology , psychologists found significant "sexist and heteronormative discourse … that may trouble the assumption that heterosexual women and gay men are 'natural’ allies." As both groups have grown complacent with their increased power and acceptance in society, it can no longer be assumed that all gay men support the feminist agenda or that all women will fight for gay rights.
Photograph of Will & Grace stars Eric McCormack and Debra Messing by Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment.