It ain’t easy being femme. Most femme and queer men in America grow up in a culture that idealizes hyper-masculine athletes, cowboys and war heroes. But some of us just want to live lives filled with beauty and acceptance, free from all that macho, misogynist, heteronormative bullshit. That’s why we appreciate having a history of fictional femme characters in TV, literature and film to help provide a view into how to live out loud.
As part of Hornet‘s own #MyFemmeSelf campaign, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of the most famous femme characters of pop culture. These 30 queer men overcame society’s burdens and were unapologetically themselves, inspiring countless queer men’s imaginations and values in the process.
These 30 fictional femme characters changed history — and us in the process:
1. Albin from La Cage Aux Folles
Six years before it was adapted into a stage musical, La Cage Aux Folles (literally “The Crazy Cage”) delighted French audiences with its “Odd Couple” depiction of Albin, one of the most famous femme characters of all time.
Albin is a melodramatic nightclub performer, and George is his slightly subdued lover who owns the nightclub where Albin performs. Though Albin is presented as overly sensitive and ridiculously sentimental, he fills rooms with joy.
In the 1983 Broadway musical based on the original stage play, Albin also provides a moral backbone, proudly singing “I Am What I Am” after being told that he is too effeminate to meet his stepson’s highly conservative parents.
2. Albert from The Birdcage
What would the 1996 remake of La Cage aux Folles be without its irrepressibly flamboyant comedic star? Not only does Albert (played flawlessly by openly gay actor Nathan Lane) provide most of the film’s laughs — especially when his lover tries to teach him to be butch — but his unexpected masquerade in the film’s second half as his stepson’s biological mother kicks this comedic film into overdrive, making him one of the funniest and most warm-hearted femme characters of all time.
3. Ricky Vasquez from My So-Called Life
While this 1994 show only lasted one season, openly gay actor Wilson Cruz made a long-lasting impression with his sensitive, nuanced depiction of a queer Latinx teenage boy who wore eyeliner and colorful clothes in the face of school bullying and familial rejection. Over the show’s 19-episode run, Vasquez fully blossomed into one of TV’s most three-dimensional femme characters rather than a one-off “very special episode.”
True to form, he admitted early on in the series to one of his female friends, “You blend in, unlike me, who basically never will.”
4. Emmett Honeycutt from Queer as Folk
This Southern-born gent provided witty one-liners and fabulous fashion sense to the groundbreaking Showtime series. He was also one of the show’s most sincere characters. His unabashed love of men throughout empowered both a pro football player and the aging wealthy owner of a pickle company to come out. Both men landed in his bed and eventually accepted their gayness with pride. Ah … the power of femme characters.
5. Jack McFarland from Will & Grace
It seems almost laughable now that Sean Hayes, the actor who plays Will’s spunky sidekick, was ever in the closet. But he actually didn’t come out until 2010, four years after the show’s original run ended. Though he apologized in 2013 for not coming out sooner, this character made a huge impression as the spirited, supportive, fun-loving (and, yeah, rather superficial) gay BFF that America loved laughing with.
6. Hollywood Montrose from Mannequin
While this 1987 romantic comedy and its 1991 sequel haven’t aged particularly well, the supporting character of Hollywood Montrose (played by straight actor Meshach Taylor, also from Designing Women) added a much needed splash of color and sass amid its story about a talented window-dresser fighting button-down corporate culture while romancing a woman who everyone else sees as a mannequin.
Montrose’s biggest moment in the first film comes when he takes a firehose to a group of misguided police officers, spraying them down while declaring, “Two things I love to do: fight and kiss boys!” In the sequel, he directs a flamboyant theatre performance, teaching his actors how to camp it up.
7. Toddy from Victor/Victoria
If it weren’t for Toddy, the nightclub performing gay bestie from this gender-bending 1982 musical comedy, protagonist Victoria Grant would still be a penniless singer trying to sleep with her landlord for a meatball. But Toddy comes up with a brilliant scheme to trick all of Paris into thinking Miss Grant is actually a gay Polish female impersonator named Count Victor Grazinski. The two pretend to be in a relationship while, in reality, Toddy successfully seduces a burly mob bodyguard named Bernstein. You go, Toddy.
8. Mickey Dean from The Comeback
American actor and playwright Robert Michael Morris capably played the best friend and hairdresser of Valerie Cherish in two-season reality show spoof ostensibly documenting Cherish’s return to acting. While the Mickey Dean character was closeted in the series’ first season (even though pretty much everyone knew he was gay), he had a much more pronounced role in the show’s second season. Sadly, the character and his real-life actor were both diagnosed with cancer, and Morris passed away three years following the show’s second season.
9. Uncle Arthur from Bewitched
While flamboyant comedic actor Paul Lynde lived much of his public career in a glass closet, his sense of humor came blazing through in his many TV roles, including playing the prank-loving warlock uncle of suburban witch Samantha Stevens.
10. Ethan from Love, Simon
Even though the protagonist of this 2018 teen comedy is a male high schooler struggling to come out, he’s contrasted with Ethan, the already-out gay kid who wears pastel sweaters, has well-coiffed hair and doesn’t try to fit in.
That doesn’t mean life is easy for Ethan: Jocks bully him and his own mom lies to relatives about Ethan’s “girlfriends.” Even so, Ethan still dispatches his bullies with quick-witted comebacks and weathers life with style. Interestingly, Ethan’s character didn’t even exist in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the 2015 book the film is based on.
11. Titus Andromedon from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Among the many zany eccentrics in this New York City-based comedy, Andromedon stands out as a seriously self-absorbed (and seriously funny) wannabe actor who has a strong yet rather misguided heart.
He successfully hid his gayness in high school — being a football player, prom king and marrying his best female friend — and he later moves to New York City where he changes his name, repeatedly auditions for The Lion King (failing 20 times over) and accidentally poisons an entire cruise ship while trying to take over Dionne Warwick’s role on the cruise’s stage.
He’s probably one of the most famous contemporary femme characters on this list.
12. The Pardoner from The Canterbury Tales
Bet you didn’t think we’d have any femme characters from 1387 in this list, did ya? Among Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetic pack of stories delivered by pilgrims on their way to Thomas Becket’s shrine is The Pardoner, an unordained cleric who sells “indulgences” that allow people to get their relatives’ souls into heaven.
Scholars commonly read the Pardoner as both femme and queer since Chaucer describes him as a female horse or eunuch. He makes everyone wait for his story while he eats and drinks ale and is at one point threatened with physical violence for speaking out against the church and some of the pilgrims. This library is open, y’all.
13. Johnny Henshaw from Airplane
Amid the brewing disaster in this 1980 slapstick comedy, gay actor Stephen Stucker played the wise-cracking air traffic controller. Among his many one-liners, when reporters ask him what kind of plane is in trouble, Henshaw replies, “Oh, it’s a big, pretty, white plane with red stripes and curtains in the windows and wheels, and it looks like a big Tylenol.”
14. Most male Disney villains (Scar, Jafar, Governor Ratcliffe)
Many of Disney‘s most femme characters are actually effete, aristocratic villains like Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, Professor Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, Jafar from Aladdin, Scar from The Lion King and Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas, pictured above.
All of these male characters are well-spoken with a deep voice, notably lacking in female companionship and (in several cases) love to wear dainty capes which they dramatically flourish while speaking. They’re not flattering roles by any means, and have have been criticized as problematic throughout the years, but these characters are flamboyantly unforgettable and fiercely femme.
15. Layfayette Reynolds from True Blood
In the books that inspired this HBO vampire drama, the character of Lafayette is murdered at the start of the second book by members of a secret sex cult. But the HBO series kept him around for all seven of its seasons, possibly because viewers loved his unapologetic performances as a short-order cook, occasional witch and drug dealer who wears hoop earrings and headscarves, smokes weed and capably takes down any homophobe who dares condescend to him. He’s definitely one of the fiercest femme characters of all time.
16. Lamar Latrell from Revenge of the Nerds
When the collegiate nerds of this (also rather problematic) 1984 comedy decide to incorporate into a new national fraternity, Latrell tells the all-black fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda that he wants to make sure they’re accepting of all sexual orientations, much to their surprise.
Though actor Larry B. Scott said he received disapproval from black filmgoers and potential girlfriends for playing a gay role, he was happy to do it. Fans of the movie know the Latrell character, in his trademark kerchief and short shorts, goes on to successfully throw a floppy javelin and do an impressive rap performance that helps the nerds beat the jocks at the film’s climax.
17. Douglas from Eastsiders
Though most people know Willam Belli from RuPaul’s Drag Race and the musical parody tracks he’s released since, on this gay webseries he plays Douglas, a drag queen who goes by Gomorrah Ray. True to his trademark style, Belli’s character is a complex, stylish yet self-effacing mess who is at turns tart-tongued and vulnerable while navigating romance in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
18. Michael from Champions
NBC canceled this comedic family drama after just one season, but much of its humor came from Michael, one of the youngest femme characters ever to grace the small screen.
Michael is the saucy, outspoken 15-year-old son of a gym-owner named Vince. Michael is fussy about his appearance, overly idealizes New York City as a magical place and makes non-stop theater references. Meanwhile, he says, his dad has the fashion sense of the abusive boyfriend from a Lifetime movie.
19. Mr. Wilberforce Claybourne Humphries from Are You Being Served?
From 1972 to 1985, this BBC sitcom about apparel department store co-workers included the campy, cheerful and very gay co-worker Mr. Humphries, played by gay actor John Inman. Although his high-pitched voice and mincing walk made him the butt of many homophobic jokes, he was also good natured and liked by all of his colleagues. He also occasionally wore women’s fashions or showed up late to work, wearing weird outfits from his previous night’s adventures.
20. Earl ‘Brother Boy’ Ingram from Sordid Lives
Openly gay actor Leslie Jordan really helped sell this beloved 2000 Texas comedy by playing a dead matriarch’s estranged son who was forced to live in a mental asylum just for being gay.
Much of the film’s dramatic and comedic moments occur when Brother Boy faces off — in a wig, makeup and earrings — against the asylum’s villainous Dr. Eve Bolinger, a psychologist who wants to “de-homosexualize” him so she can become famous, go on Oprah’s daytime talk show and get a better job.
Brother Boy also appeared in the 2008 Sordid Lives TV series and in the ho-hum 2017 sequel A Very Sordid Wedding.
21. Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss
Heavens to Murgatroyd! This pink mountain lion’s nasally, high-pitched voice, theatrical manners and cleanliness make him widely read as gay. In fact, in 2008, Saturday Night Live‘s news segment Weekend Update had Snagglepuss serve as a commenter about gay marriage, and a 2017 six-issue comic book miniseries depicted Snagglepuss as a Tennessee Williams-style playwright who visited the Stonewall Inn bar in 1950s New York City.
23. Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman
One of the funniest femme characters of all time, this unsinkable “Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway” director from the 1997 Christopher Guest mockumentary sports a single earring, bright clothes, a bowl haircut and a lisp while directing an poorly performed, over-ambitious staging of the history of Blaine, Missouri (“the stool capital of the United States”). St. Clair says he has a wife, a woman named Bonnie who no one has ever met, but she’s likely just a cover so that he can occasionally go clothes shopping in the women’s section.
24. Cameron Tucker from Modern Family
Even though Tucker was a starting offensive lineman at the University of Illinois, his character in the award-winning ABC family comedy has a love of musicals and Japanese flower arranging as well as a flair for the dramatic which often annoys his uptight husband, Mitchell. He’s also emotionally sensitive and touchy about his weight, but always looking to help people in need, even when they don’t want his help.
Interestingly, though Tucker is one of the most popular femme characters on TV, he’s played by straight actor Eric Stonestreet. Stonestreet has become an increasingly vocal supporter of gay rights since taking on the role.
25. Kurt Hummel from Glee
For an entire generation of TV viewers, Hummel (played by openly gay actor Chris Colfer) was the most visible femme characters in media. Hummel is a gentle, light-voiced, angelic-faced student who studied ballet as a child and is obsessed with the latest fashions.
Though he gets bullied by his school’s jocks, he’s also brave, fighting for his right to perform female songs at school performances and eventually taking the initiative to leave his alma mater for a better life at a more accepting private school.
26. Stefon from Saturday Night Live
Played by Bill Hader, this ultra-hip city correspondent on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update news segment regularly cracks up while suggesting outlandishly themed parties and wildly inappropriate underground clubs for New York City visitors.
Here’s a taste of his kind of recommendations: “If you’re looking for a berserk night out in the new New York, I know just the place for you. New New York’s hottest club is Whimsy. Condemned by GLAAD and the EPA from Ghostbusters, this old, wet BandAid found in a jacuzzi is the kind of place that makes you feel weird the next time you see your parents. This place has everything: kufi hats, congas, MTV’s Dan Cortez and that TV channel at the hotel that’s, like, about the hotel.”
27. Justin Suarez from Ugly Betty
In this late 2000s dramedy, openly gay actor Mark Indelicato played a young baby-diva who likes fashion magazines, home economics and musicals.
Suarez’s sexuality was the object of viewer speculation during the show’s earliest seasons when the character was barely a pre-teen. But once Suarez turned 16 in the show’s fourth season, he came out and began secretly dating another kid at his school. Suarez’s open effeminacy got him bullied and teased by others, but his parents still supported him, even from earlier on in the series.
Though Indelicato himself faced bullying after coming out (and endured lots of online hatred for his character on the show), he has talked about the positive impact femme characters can have on viewers.
Indelicato said, “My fan mail is mostly kids, especially kids that don’t really fit in and people don’t really understand them. They go, ‘Thank you, because you’re helping me to be understood by my peers,’ and anybody else who doesn’t understand them.”
28. Harold from Boys in the Band
Pictured above at left, Harold, the birthday boy in this 1970 film based on a 1968 Off-Broadway play, enters his birthday celebration literally wearing rose-colored glasses, smoking a joint and dressed in a green velvet suit and shiny leather shoes. He immediately kisses the sex worker who is his birthday present and breaks out in shrill, delighted laughter.
When his host criticizes him for showing up late and stoned, Harold says, “What I am … is a 32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy. And if it takes me a while to pull myself together and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?”
As the night devolves into loathing self-pity spurned by alcoholism and societal homophobia, Harold remains defiantly and proudly himself, a counterpoint to the anger, bitterness and despair displayed by his host. He’s one of the earliest-known femme characters ever to grace film and stage.
29. Jack Ferry and Brian Slade from Velvet Goldmine
These two femme characters from gay director Todd Haynes‘ 1998 glam rock epic represent an older and younger generation of queer creative expression. At the film’s outset, we see a young Jack Ferry beaten up by his classmates. Left lying in the mud, he discovers a green gem there that once belonged to Oscar Wilde. Soon after, Ferry uses the blood from his busted lip like lipstick as he smiles at himself in the mirror — an illustration of how queer men can transform their suffering into a beautiful edifice.
“Jack was a true original,” says one character. “Everybody stole from Jack.”
This rings especially true when Brian Slade, an ambitious David Bowie-esque folk singer disparaged by festival-goers for his fey style, confronts Ferry after one of Slade’s earliest performances. Slade passionately kisses Ferry in private. Only later does Ferry realize that Slade has stolen the green gem he wore as an earring.
With the gem in his possession, Slade goes onto to become a rock legend, creating eye-popping music videos filled with grandeur and glitter, only to go down in flames and then return like a strange phoenix later on.
30. Hellen “Greg” Gregson from Summer Heights High
Mr. G is the school’s flamboyant theatre director in this 2003 – 2007 Australian TV mockumentary sitcom. He’s unconventional, horribly self-involved and completely unaware. Instead of producing classic plays, he makes students act out his entirely original theatrical productions including a musical based on another student’s fatal drug overdose and Tsunamarama, a musical about the tsunami tragedy set to the music of Bananarama.
Fiercely in love with the spotlight, he uses inappropriate improv acting exercises with his students, like pretending to have been shot or asking one female student, “Where’ve you been, bitch?” And when the school principal refuses to destroy the special ed classrooms and build a 10,000-seat theatre complex for his autobiographical play, he quits in protest but drives around the school daily, asking students if his resignation has had any impact on the school at large.
What do you think of this list of fictional femme characters? Did we miss any?
This story was originally published on Oct. 1, 2018
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