The late ’90s to early ’00s was an interesting era for portrayals of gay men on television. “Will & Grace” hit its peak popularity (it was the highest rated sitcom in the key 18-49 demo from 2001-05), in part due to the scene-stealing but deeply stereotypical character Jack (Sean Hayes). In 2000, Showtime debuted “Queer as Folk,” which centered around another stereotype: the party and hookup scene.
Then there was “Sex and the City.” In a show about friendships, the one that never wavered was the one between Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her gay best friend, Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson).
Garson, who was straight, passed away Tuesday at age 57 — but his character will live on as one of a pioneering portrayal of gay men.
Unlike the trim and impeccably coiffed Will Truman on “Will & Grace” or the muscular hairless party boys on “Queer as Folk,” Stanford did not conform to physical portrayals of gay men on TV in that era.
In a culture where biceps were valued over brains and sex over substance, Garson’s Stanford stood out. Bespectacled, balding and with a little bit of a belly, he wrapped himself in stylish suits (he was a fashion publicist) and hurled quips — two ways of defending himself in a culture where he felt he didn’t belong. “Puberty is a phase, 15 years of rejection is a lifestyle,” he dryly noted.
Stanford described himself as an “outcast among outcasts.” When Huffpost UK asked Garson about that line back in 2016, the actor astutely replied, “I imagine many, many gay men felt the same way. That they don’t feel like taking poppers and staying up all night, dancing to electronic music. I want to wear nice clothes and go to a nice restaurant and look for a boyfriend.”
Garson said he tried very hard not to play into prevailing gay stereotypes. “That was really important, that it wasn’t all just hooking up, taking drugs and dancing all night,” he said. “That Stanford was an actual person, looking for relationships. And that’s a really important thing, because to many people, that was what it looked like.”
That’s not to say that Stanford wasn’t looking for sex as well. The show, after all, was called “Sex and the City.” But it was the conscientious way he approached sex that differed from “Queer as Folk.”
In the Season 2 episode “La Douleur Exquise,” Stanford is revealed to frequent online chat rooms under the alias “Rick9Plus” — a online persona that he used to catfish men who (he believed) wouldn’t be attracted to his “real” self. After befriending another user, “BigTool4U,” Stanford debates if they should meet in real life at a gay club.
“What if he disses me? He says he’s really great looking and has a really great body,” he bemoans, verbalizing his insecurities to his best friend Carrie.
“Well Stanford, are you Rick9Plus?” Carrie replies.
“I am so getting your point,” he concedes.
Eventually, Stanford went to the gay bar, but hesitated at the entrance when asked to strip to the club’s mandatory clothing check. Looking in on the shirtless men gyrating inside, he decided he didn’t want to be the outcast any longer. He entered and was approached by a handsome man who ends up not being his online crush BigTool4U. It was at that point Stanford realized he needed to shed more than his shirt — he needed to shed his insecurities.
Of course, in a culture when there is always someone younger and hotter around the corner, confidence can wane quickly. Stanford’s insecurities resurfaced after he entered a relationship with Marcus Adant (Sean Palmer). An in-show gossip rag pointed out how mismatched they are: Marcus is as a Broadway dancer and Stanford is an “unidentified older gay gentleman.” Then Stanford’s gay rival Anthony Marentino (Mario Cantone) reveals that Marcus used to be a male escort, planting the thought in Stanford’s head that Marcus was only into him for his money.
Stanford and Marcus’ relationship was still intact when the show ended. However, Stanford and Anthony ended up together, even marrying in the second “Sex and the City” feature film.
“How did this even happen?” Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda asks. “I thought they hated each other!”
“It’s like musical chairs,” Kim Cattrall’s Samantha responds. “The music stopped, and they were the last two standing.”
As biting as Samantha’s comment was, it offered another glimpse at the reality of gay men’s lives rarely seen on screen: older gay men who have aged out of the party scene and settle down out of fear of being alone.
“Stanford gets the wedding of his dreams and I get to cheat,” Anthony tells the girls just before the ceremony, dropping another insight into the world of complexity of many gay relationships.
Before his death, Garson filmed scenes for “And Just Like That,” a 10-episode “Sex and the City” spinoff that will air on HBO Max. Whether he’s still married or single at that point, Stanford will still be Stanford.
As Garson himself put it, “It was also very important to the show, to show someone having fun being gay, being proud, open and comfortable with who they are. You know, we’d just come through the crisis and every representation of gay was kind of dark, and spoken in hushed tones. But Stanford was like, ‘Hey, I’m gay. Really gay. Super gay. And I’m happy about it, I’m looking for a boyfriend, looking for a husband,’ and it was very open, and different to what had been shown before.”