7 times we've seen the Closeted Bully TV trope and why it's problematic

Many have criticised the Closeted Bully trope because it suggests that homophobia stems from hidden queerness.

Split screen with 3 characters who embody the closeted bully trope: Ben from Heartstopper (left), Nate from Euphoria (centre) and Adam from Sex Education (right).
Image: Via Twitter - @OsemanTimeline, @micrugi, @jckieferrentino

The so-called Closeted Bully trope is one of the oldest way in which queer characters have been represented in movies and TV series. Lots of LGBTQ+ folks see the trope as problematic because it suggests that homophobia stems from hidden queerness.

Basically, the Closeted Bully is a story device where a character that is secretly queer deals with their internalised homophobia by bullying other LGBTQ+ characters, usually one they secretly have a crush on. They often embody toxic masculinity and keep up the pretence of being straight in public in order to be accepted by their peers.

The trope is a legacy of the famous Hays Code, namely a set of rules enforced in Hollywood between the 1930s and the 1960s. The Hays Code mandated that characters who displayed “immorality” could not be portrayed in a positive light and it is responsible for the queer-coding of many villains in the history of cinematography.

Many have pointed out how the Closeted Bully trope sends a troubling message because it depicts homophobia as an expression of repressed sexuality rather than a form of hate that builds on generational prejudice and societal power structures. The fact that the homophobic behaviour of these characters often stems from their attraction to the character they bully directly links queer attraction to violence and abuse.

This is not to say that the portrayal of closeted homophobes on TV is universally problematic. In some instances, it can give way to interesting character development and exploration of queerness, but it must be approached with caution.

Here are nine examples of how the Closeted Bully trope was used on popular TV shows.

Ben from Heartstopper
Probably the least likable character in this absolutely heartwarming series, Ben is the guy with whom the protagonist Charlie has a relationship at the beginning of the story. Ben is in the closet and is constantly pressuring Charlie to keep their relationship a secret. While no one should be made to come out when they’re not ready, the way Ben brings Charlie down and tells him that no one else would date him is unacceptable. Thankfully, Nick arrives to save the day.

Karofsky from GLEE
Probably one of the most memorable examples of the trope, Dave Karofsky is the stereotypical jock bully who relentlessly pushes Kurt around for being gay. It’s only after Kurt stands up to him and Karofsky impulsively kisses him that we find out that the character is secretly gay and arbours feelings for his victim. At least this bully has a more profound character development and eventually comes to accept his sexuality and tries to make amends for how he behaved before.

Adam from Sex Education
Adam Groff starts off being the villainous bully that regularly harasses the openly gay Eric. However, throughout the seasons he goes through a journey to work on his issues and eventually ends up starting a relationship with his former victim. While some supported the pairing, many others were disappointed in seeing the Black gay and proud boy fall for his previous tormentor.

Mickey Milkovich from Shameless
Mickey is the love interest of one of the members of the Gallagher family, Ian. He is the violent neighborhood thug that uses homophobic language to cope with the struggle with his sexuality. His feelings for Ian, however, lead him to eventually come out and the couple does get a happy ending in an episode titled with their ship name “Gallavich!“.

Nate from Euphoria
It is unclear whether Nate himself is queer or if his erratic and aggressive behaviour is only a reaction to his father, who is the real closeted homophobe who constantly pushes his son into being a certain stereotype of man while hiding his own struggle with sexuality. Whatever the case, Nate ends up being a bully that has outbursts of rage toward his girlfriend and is extremely violent towards any man whom he perceives as threatening to his masculinity.

Paige from Pretty Little Liars
Considered a rather unlikable character by most fans of the teen drama, Paige’s character is one of the few women that fit into the Closeted Bully trope. She starts off by bullying the openly lesbian Emily, until she surprises her and all watchers by kissing her. It might have almost looked like a happy ending but really, fans were overjoyed to simply see her gone from the series.

Montgomery de la Cruz from 13 Reasons Why
This is a clear example of how the Closeted Bully trope can be taken to the extreme. This character from 13 Reasons Why does not just bully other gay characters, he is extremely violent towards them, to the point that he brutally beats another boy at a party after hooking up with him. His character serves more the purpose of shocking the audience than of showing the complexity of internalised homophobia.

These are but a few of the many instances that portray queer characters as bullies who are not able to face their LGBTQ+ identity with a positive and healthy outlook. However, many queer people take pride in who they are and celebrate their identities, making this narrative device a limited and shortsighted type of representation.

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