Transcending the Trope: EJ Johnson on “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills”

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From EJ’s Instagram account, @ejjohnson

Rich Kids of Beverly Hills is standard E! Entertainment Network “reality” fare. Whether you call it a reality show, a docuseries, or unscripted TV, a reality rose by any other name is still reality. Well, actually it’s “reality,” glossed-up and staged and edited and yes, scripted, for the viewing pleasure of the type of people who made E! the network that the Kardashians built. If you’re sensing disdain in my tone, that’s because my tone is disdainful. I don’t care for that sort of programming for a number of reasons, and I had initially declared this particular show unwatchable because I don’t delight in watching young rich people being young and rich in an “unscripted” format. Also, the official name of the show is #RichKids Of Beverly Hills, which I find appalling. But I digress.

I caught a Rich Kids… promo before the series premiered, and one cast member stuck out immediately. EJ Johnson was onscreen for only a few seconds, but that was enough to make an impression. He appeared at first glance to be a cookie-cutter caricature of a young gay black man, but there was something genuine going on that I wanted to know more about. EJ is the son of legendary athlete and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his wife Cookie, and the family publicly acknowledged EJ coming out as gay before the series premiered and are vocally supportive at every turn.

I initially feared that EJ Johnson reads as the exact trope of the Sassy Gay Friend, a new-school mashup of the SBW (Sassy Black Woman) and the GBF (Gay Best Friend). On the show, he began in a small, supporting role. The show mostly follows other characters, who I find damn near unwatchable, but I have continued to watch the show for EJ’s undeniable delightfulness.

Photo from Out Magazine

In this discussion, I include EJ because despite the format, the EJ we see is still a character. That is not to say that he’s pretending or acting or to accuse him of falseness in any way, but to simply recognize that what we see when watching a television show is still the product of staging and editing, even in “reality.”

That said, I enjoy watching EJ onscreen precisely because he does read as real to me, even in his most flamboyant moments of utter eleganza. Physically speaking, EJ is tall and also wide and loud and pretty much everything in every dimension. His face is beautiful with soft features and a smile that could stop a thunderstorm.

EJ Johnson’s mannerisms and modes of speech could be described as effeminate, for wont of a better word. I don’t subscribe to the confining mainstream ideas of heteronormativity, so please do not read any judgment into that. The word effeminate has taken on a negative connotation that I seek to rid it of, though I acknowledge that may be a losing battle. To declare masculinity preferable to femininity is simply patriarchal bullshit that is far too commonly accepted and perpetuated, independent of sex, gender, or sexual orientation. EJ Johnson is effeminate and fabulous and all of the other code words like a motherfucking boss, and his incontrovertible winning-ness could hush the fool mouth of anyone who thinks swishing is a bad thing. To put it even more bluntly, EJ Johnson inhabits every inch of his outsized physique on Rich Kids… in a way that loudly flies in the face of the kind of basic jackass who would utter the hideous cliché “No fatties, no femmes.”

EJ with his castmates, winning from the back row.

Photo from EOnline

I am a pansexual black woman who has grown up with gay men as unofficial adoptive family members, and I’ve witnessed years of ugly infighting between certain gay men who deem themselves superior to others because they’re more “masculine” or “STR8 acting” than the men they look down upon. I’m always mindful of not taking up another marginalized group’s fight uninvited, so I want to be clear that I know I don’t have the lived experience to speak fully to conflicts between gay men. But as a friend, I have held the hands of “twinks” and “femmes” as they suffered the unnecessary discrimination of being deemed “less than.”

Unfortunately, mainstream entertainment tends to be quite comfortable with the stereotype of the über-feminine gay man, snapping his fingers wildly in the periphery while giving fashion advice or calling out someone’s bad dye job. Anything to avoid a portrayal of a gay man as a full human being and not just a punchline dispenser, right? Well, when EJ dispenses said fashion advice AND shows up with a handsome boyfriend, anyone with a functioning heart and moral compass can only cheer him on.

I have no doubt that qualifying as a titular #RichKid is a part of what gives EJ his joie de vivre, in addition to his more organic bounty like a charming personality and a loving family. EJ was born with what we call fuck you money, and with that comes a certain autonomy. I don’t know him personally, and I would never be so reductive as to suggest that he hasn’t known adversity, but speaking of the EJ we see on the show; he is livinnngggggggg!

His euphemisms and gesticulation are largely comprised of the sort of trope-isms that make me cringe, but EJ backs them up with palpable sincerity. He’s not a white Real Housewife appropriating what she saw a black woman do on TV, and he’s not a black woman appropriating what she saw a gay man do. He’s a black, gay man living his life with the volume cranked up to 11.

Screenshot from Rich Kids of Beverly Hills

The second season of Rich Kids… has just ended, and it brought us even more EJ screen time, though it’ll never be enough for my taste. He may be fluent in the superficiality that the show requires, but he also talks about community representation and was the Grand Marshall of San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade. He goes luxury car shopping, he pops champagne, he takes dance classes, and he does it all with charming humanity. And sometimes he does it in a diaphanous garment by Givenchy and a floppy sunhat. And you will deal.

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