Manuel Betancourt

HBO’s Looking or How the burden of representation claims another victim

January 21, 2014 · in Queer, TV

HBO premiered its new show Looking last night. And it took less than 24 hours for a straight male journalist to resort to humor (of course) to react to it. And yet, the piece is indicative of the burden of representation that befalls media that grapples with the lives of minority subjects.

LogoedLooking-300x300Despite Mick Stingley‘s assertion that gays are unequivocally funny and interesting (at least in the media he’s been exposed to; “But instead of, say, funny, mincing guys with witty one-liners and put-downs, Looking introduces three ho-hum characters you wouldn’t hang around with if they were on SportsCenter”), Esquire magazine — with its tone-deaf and non-apology apology caveat (“We apologize to anyone offended by our attempt at humor in this piece”)– points out we are in fact humorless. While I don’t want to spend time pointing out how vile the article’s tone is (as it seems, straight men need culture that isn’t in their purview constantly translated to them), or how it is steeped in heterosexual panic (“borderline alky hook-up fiend” in HBO’s Looking: bad; straight-up alky and hook-up fiend in AMC’s Mad Men: great!). If you’re wondering what makes such a distinction appropriate, ask Stingley (“So there are a few things you should know while you’re waiting for Mad Men to start up again” he opens, making this juxtaposition all the more laughable).

Instead I’m more interested in the claim that the show is boring and the related (if not necessarily logical) conclusion that gays are boring: “You know how I know you’re gay? You’re boring,” Stingley closes. If this article teaches us anything is that male heterosexual critics (and some gay viewers) will continue to make LGBT television an issue of representation even when said show is more interested in debunking such notions. As long as you read Looking as giving us a template of LGBT life, you’re already giving up on a more interesting conversation.

Since its debut last night I’ve read that Looking is boring and normalizing, and I feel these are ways of saying the show is about the mundane. In this sense it’s much more enthralling as an attempt to not normalize but make LGBT subjects legible outside of insidious stereotypes (which Stingley neatly divides into funny like Will and Grace or sad and depressing like Philadelphia). Yet here is Looking attempting to do neither, quel surprise!

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While I’m not a big fan of Andrew Haigh’s film Weekend and find that Looking is following in its footsteps of presenting male same-sex intimacy as necessarily mediated by alcohol and drugs, I find it is worth having because of the way it works well in threading LGBT identity politics (gayness is intrinsic to these characters notions of self) with queer notions of identity (imagining a more transgressive way of presenting characters outside of normalizing images of gay subjects). This is nowhere more apparent to me than in Dom’s line at the end of the first episode when, confronting Patrick, the cookie-cutter, gay that epitomizes the normal, boring gay that seemingly Stingley can’t believe is being represented and which gay viewers might read as presenting a palatable vision of gay male sexuality: “Stop worrying about what your mother thinks.” For all its banality, there is a streak of transgression in Looking. I’m interested to see where Haigh and his actors take Patrick & co. More importantly, I’m fascinated by the notion of seeing a show about gay men that is at once particular but never bills itself as representative, giving us characters that, in their banality, open up spaces for not (necessarily) better representation, but gives us at least more of it.