Flashback: 'That '70s Show's Very Special Gay Episode Does Not Age Well
Hanging out, channel surfing, I stumbled across a That ’70s Show rerun that caught my eye, because hey! Isn’t that teenaged Joseph Gordon-Levitt showing off his rad car to Topher Grace? I didn’t remember the ep, so I settled in over my cereal, not realizing I was revisiting a groundbreaking moment in gay representation on television. Before long though, I was revolted at how low the bar was not so long ago.
Airing on December 6th, 1998, the episode titled “Eric’s Buddy” centered on Eric Foreman (Grace) making a friend outside his basement-dwelling clique. When he starts buddying up to his lab partner Buddy Morgan (Gordon-Levitt), Hyde and Kelso are pissed, mostly because instead of driving them home from school in his station wagon, he’s riding around with his cooler, richer, more popular doppelganger with the matching floppy haircut. (A chipper montage shows them jump high-five over playing pinball, sucking at basketball, and buying weed.) Meanwhile, Jackie is disturbed because someone as uncool as Eric shouldn’t be able to make a clique jump this grand. Something must be amiss! And we learn exactly what that is when Buddy kisses Eric.
The big scene begins with Eric realizing he forgot to call Donna. Buddy asks if she’s his girlfriend, and Eric sighs, “I don’t know.”
“It’s okay to be confused,” Buddy counsels. (The laugh track audience begins to chuckle. Their scripted reaction will become an increasingly important indicator of how the show expects the audience to respond to Buddy.)
“Sometimes, you know, like, we’re in a movie (theatre), and I’m nervous around her,” Eric confesses. “And I feel like I’m playing this part, right? And it’s not me…”
Buddy agrees, and then moves in, and kisses Eric on the mouth. This is the first man-on-man kiss to air on North American prime time television. There’d been women kissing women on L.A. Law, Picket Fences, and Roseanne. But That ’70s Show beat Dawson’s Creek’s passionate liplock between Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) and Ethan (Adam Kauffman) by 5 months. Achieving this television landmark has won “Eric’s Buddy” retroactive love online, with several sites remembering the episode as “normalizing” a gay kiss, commending Eric for not reacting with gay panic, and crowing that Buddy was “always shown as a complete person and not a stereotype.” Frankly, I’m astounded over all this slobbering. Watching “Eric’s Buddy,” I was appalled by how Eric and his friends responded to Buddy being gay, beginning with that kiss.
Revisit it here:
For starters, the kiss is played for laughs. How wacky that less-than-macho Eric is assumed to be gay! How funny that he doesn’t know a kiss is coming, but we do thanks to the foreshadowing laughing track! When he is kissed, Eric literally flails, screams and stammers, “Woah! You—you are—you’re—you’re gay!?” It’s cartoonish gay panic that leads us into the commercial break. When we return, we’re greeted by this unnerved expression as Buddy drives Eric home.
When they try to talk about what happened, Eric is very defensive about Buddy assuming he was gay. When the pair get caught in an awkward silence, Buddy reaches for the radio, asking lightly, “Do you want to listen to the radio?” And Eric is so freaked out by the threat to his heterosexuality that he takes the hand’s movement toward(ish) him as another pass, pitches himself away from Buddy and yells, “Hey, I told you I’m not gay!”
Eric races back to the safety of his basement, where he lays a showy no-homo smooch on Donna in front of all his friends, then postures to present just how manly—and thereby super straight—he is. The “audience” yowls and hoots with approval. Eric feels his masculinity was called into question because someone thought he was gay, and even though it’s someone he likes and admires, it so panics him that he rushes to overcompensate with uncharacteristic and totally hetero PDA, bro.
Then we get to hear how the gang reacts—not to the kiss, but to Buddy’s sexual orientation—when Fez declares he’s “so obviously gay.” Outraged, Jackie rejects it outright, giving no reason. Then Kelso concurs, explaining, “If Buddy was gay he’d be all over me.” Because that’s how gay guys act, a lusty monolith unable to control their desire for dopey hunks. To That ’70s Show’s credit, the audience laughs at this remark. And I suspect the joke is intended to be more about Kelso’s vanity, and less about his insulting assumptions about gay men.
Later, as the group parts ways, Hyde and Donna corner Eric and ask directly if Buddy is gay. They appear excited by the idea, like it’s juicy gossip. And isn’t it hip if their little suburb has a gay kid!? They literally step in closer in anticipation of his answer, then practically celebrate with the sharing of this secret. They’re not supportive or accepting. Instead, Buddy and his not-public orientation are regarded like an achievement of their own coolness because they’re in on a shocking secret. Hooray, no one wants to beat up the gay kid. Yet this is still a crass form of tokenism. Buddy is treated not like a person, but like a groovy merit badge. But we’re not done yet, because next the pair mock Eric for getting hit on by a gay guy.
“Eric, he’s not going to make a move on you if he knows you’re straight,” Donna says sagely. (The audience hoots.) When Eric admits he doesn’t think “it’ll happen again,” the two shout in astonished chorus, “Again!?” Eric shuffles off embarrassed, and then Hyde hits on Donna saying, “If Foreman ever decides to dabble in the love that dare not speak its name, I’m here for you.” The audience loves it, laughing and clapping and ignoring the uncomfortable message that it’s shameful to be mistaken for gay.
Eric needs to resolve this mark on his heteronormative idea of masculinity. So, Buddy’s final scene is Eric confronting him on why. Why him? Why did Buddy think he was gay?! Told he’s “smart and sensitive and nice looking,” Eric refutes the first two, declaring he’s not as bright as he seems (duh), and that “sometimes I can be downright mean.” I suspect the real audience (as opposed to the raucous actors playing one on the show’s soundtrack) are meant to see Eric’s eagerness to be seen as a jerk over being perceived as gay as something absurd. The laughs in this scene are meant to be on Eric and his gawky anxiety, not on Buddy. However, imagine this from Buddy’s perspective for a moment.
In the scene, Buddy plays off Eric’s distancing, chuckling, “You’re so cute.” But this is a guy you crushed on, hung out with, risked rejection by making a move on him, and risked exposing yourself to the small minds and gossip of a stupid small town. And he’s straight. Okay, bummer. But it’s not enough that he’s not into and could never be into you; he needs you to understand how deeply you got him wrong. How he’s not like you. He’s not who you think he is. Not at all. It’s played as Eric being insecure and awkward, but it’s cringe-worthy because it’s Eric we’re urged to identify with, not the gay kid he’s treating like a contagion. The exchange ends with an awkward bro-punch to the arm, because straight dude. And Buddy is not allowed the natural and human response of being disappointed or hurt. He has to be the model minority, and just grin and bear it.
Now, yes, this is a show set in the 1970s, so how progressive can we really expect the show to be? Well, it’s fictional, so fuck historical accuracy. And it seems they couched the discomfort in this ’70s setting thinking that’d make the gay panic shtick more acceptable, because we were all so over it by 1998. (We weren’t. We aren’t. We suck.)
Besides, the writers had to know they were taking on a big taboo by showing a gay kiss in prime-time. They decided to play as much of that as they could for laughs, which makes sense. This is a sitcom after all. But since it’s an outsider (and interloper) to the main crew who’s gay, the show refuses to treat this as anything more than a flirtation with something vaguely outrageous. Avoiding being baldly offensive, they don’t present Buddy as a flamboyant stereotype with airy gestures, scarves, and lisps. Instead, he’s basically Eric, just cooler and more confident. But Buddy being acknowledged as “cool” is not the same as him being complex or a “complete person.” And though he and Eric decide to be friends, he’s never seen on the show again. Eric survived a brush with a gay guy, so why ever have Buddy back?
Some say that Buddy was being set up to be a recurring character on the series, but angry audience response killed that idea. However, I found little to back up this claim. Besides, it’s unlikely That ’70s Show would set up a character who looks so much like Eric (but suaver) to play a bigger part in the evolving series, especially in season one where they’re still getting to know the kids. More likely, the writers were looking to do a gimmicky ep to garner attention for the new show. So why not stunt cast with 3rd Rock from the Sun’s teen heartthrob in a surprising role! And that’s the other thing. It’s highly improbable that Gordon-Levitt would take on a recurring role on a Fox sitcom while his NBC sitcom was thriving.
To his credit, Gordon-Levitt doesn’t play gay for laughs. And while the script gives Buddy little to do beyond be pleasant and kiss Eric, the young actor rejects shame, regret, or embarrassment over the kiss. He portrayed Buddy as happy with himself, and not even lonely, just interested Eric. (Nobody’s perfect.) Perhaps wife-and-husband writing team Bonnie and Terry Turner—who created both shows—approached Gordon-Levitt with the role that’d be a break from his cantankerous old alien trapped in an adolescent body. Instead, he’d get to play a dashing dreamboat who smiles and struts, and hey, to boot he could make some TV history. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still proud of that.
In a 2013 interview promoting his directorial debut Don Jon, Gordon-Levitt told Pride Source that “Eric’s Buddy” was a “proud moment” for him. But—without calling out the show or its writers—he seemed to suggest it doesn’t age well.
I was actually just talking about this with a good friend of mine who’s gay. We were saying there really has been a change. I mean, that was more than 10 years ago that we shot that episode, and a lot has changed. I do think that television and movies have played a big part in it. (That episode) is certainly not solely responsible, but that has been a part of it becoming a more normal and accepted part of our culture - that some people are gay and that’s just how it is, especially for people who are not used to that or close-minded toward that. There’s been a pretty big change, and we’re certainly not all the way open-minded - I mean, there was a civil rights movement in the ’60s and there’s still plenty of racism in the world - but we’ve come a long way. I certainly am proud to have made that small contribution of whatever kind to that progress.
We have come a long way. LGBTQA+ representation is an ongoing conversation in pop culture. It’s not enough to have a gay character or a gay kiss or an “exclusive gay moment” anymore. If shows want to impress audiences and critics, they need more than very special episodes, one-off token characters, and “shocking” kisses. We now demand context and complicated characters who aren’t ashamed of their sexuality, and aren’t solely defined by it. But before Willow discovered Tara, before Sophia was imprisoned in Litchfield, before even Will & Grace showed a gay kiss, That ’70s Show offered a cool, cute and unabashed gay teen named Buddy.
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