Looking, HBO's new gay dramedy premiering Sunday, has to mean something more than just the story of three gay guys, right?
It's often the case that when a show comes along and features characters that aren't heterosexual white guys — not unlike Girls and Sex and The City —the cultural conversation it leaves in its wake ends up being bigger than the show itself.
Sex and The City became a conversation about the depiction of single women, the liberation of single women, and what it's like to be a middle-aged, skinny, white, never-naked woman living in New York City in a show promising a story about sex. With Girls it became a conversation of millennials, the liberation of young women, and what it's like to be a young, white, naked-all-the-time woman living in Brooklyn, in a show promising a story about girls. How to Make it in America became a conversation about—hahaha just kidding, nobody talked about How to Make It in America.
Looking looks more and more like the show we talk about on Mondays. The type of show that we'll surgically dissect over Gchat on Monday morning and hate-read think pieces about. After all, it's the first mainstream show in a while to devote itself to gay characters and it has the backing of the king-maker that is HBO.
So what are we going to be talking about when we talk about Looking?
Are Gay Men Going to Be Happy With Looking?
Until recently, gay men and gay characters in general haven't really been featured on television. You can practically count the number of major network and cable shows which prominently feature gay men on one hand (Will and Grace, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk, Modern Family, The New Normal, Happy Endings, Glee ... ). If you look at gay men appearing as minor re-occurring characters, that broadens the scope a bit (Sex and the City, Ugly Betty, etc.).
Last year, at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, GLAAD estimated that LGBT characters represented only 4.4 percent of all scripted series regulars on ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC. That was an increase from the year before. But, ultimately, there's a reason GLAAD publishes its annual study on diversity and gay characters on television: it's because there are so very few of them.
And that's the reason Looking is going to be picked apart.
Gay men on television are predominantly white (more on this in the next section), funny, sarcastic, and well-groomed. It's not the worst stereotype out there. I mean, there are shows like the Jersey Shore and COPS which do no one, cops included, any favors. But it's weird in that gay men aren't shown to be very grumpy, or very thoughtful, or awkward on television. They've mostly been relegated to surface-level laughs, and putty-knife scrapes of character delving.
With so few well-rounded, lived-in gay characters, that puts a unique kind of pressure on Looking. Perhaps unfairly (the show's producers clearly make the claim that the show isn't trying to speak some kind of universal truth) and its writers are going to be under scrutiny to break tropes and give people something "real." At the same time, the gay community is going to be examining if Looking blows things out of proportion or gets things "wrong."
Therein is this unavoidable dilemma of trying to tell a "real" gay story, without being too corrective or saintly — which is something I, a flagrant homosexual, worry about. And conversely, these characters will be cultural touchstones (even though they didn't ask to be), and whatever gets put out there — good and bad— has a lot of power to shape the way we think about gay characters on screen and gay people and their stories in real life.
The number of minorities working on television shows — both behind and in front of the camera—is low. Entertainment Weekly crunched the numbers and looked at the scripted-programming casts of the five major networks in 2008 and found that "each of the five major broadcast networks is whiter than the Caucasian percentage (66.2 percent) of the United States population. And all of the networks are representing considerably lower than the Latino population percentage of 15.2 percent." Even on Scandal and Grey's Anatomy, which are lauded as being two of the more diverse shows on network television, there are (give or take) five Caucasian characters to every Olivia Pope.
One major reason is that minorities aren't in television writers' rooms. The Writers Guild of America released a study in 2013 which found that minorities only make up 15.6 of the writing jobs in television. Further, the WGA found that almost one-third of shows did not have a person of color on staff.
Right off the bat, Looking is not going to buck those numbers. Two of the show's main characters are white, while one of the main characters is Cuban. And for a city with a large, Asian/Asian-American community (33 percent) it's a little bit surprising to see only one Asian character on screen (again, in the first four episodes), in a minor role. (Granted, there is also a surprising lack of Beyoncé, so maybe it's a dramatization of world where "XO" never exists and nothing makes sense.)
That's not to say that the show doesn't tackle the topic of race and racism in the gay community (where it still thrives). It does. But it's still coming from the perspective of a white lead character and under a lens of apologetic naivety or accidental racism (at least early on).
Sex and the City
In the first three seconds of Looking ,we have one of the few (maybe the first?) sad gay handjobs in television history. One small handjob for a gay man ... one giant leap for those who want to see gay sex or some permutation of it on television. After all, it's been a battle just to get Modern Family to show its gay characters, Mitchell and Cam, give each other pecks on the cheek after a full season of them raising a daughter together.
Jonathan Groff, who plays the show's lead character, has said that he's hoping the show depicts the reality of gay sex. "I hope that our sex scenes are sexy — and I think that they are — but I think even more than that what we’re trying to display is a reality of gay sex as opposed to the salaciousness of gay sex," he told Out. "We’re trying to get as close to reality as we possibly can. Hopefully, when people watch it, you’ll think, Oh, I’ve had that exact experience. I know what it feels like to be intimate with someone in that way," he added.
I believe there may be many men who would love for the gay sex on Looking to be their reality. Everyone's good looking, slim, and the lighting is pretty good. Even the computer nerd (Groff) has muscles on top of his muscles (if you would like to see this, please don't miss episode four). Everyone's eating greasy, creamy Thai food, drinking beers, engaging in sweaty white-boy dancing, and still have some steamy gay sex afterward. Gay sex that doesn't involve full-frontal male nudity.
But, well, at least it's there, right? Perhaps the more important question here is how it's depicted, rather than the imagery.
Growing up, I was always told from people who were supposed to be older and wiser than me that gay men are promiscuous and incapable of having monogamous relationships. The gay community, to this day, still has to fight this stereotype against bigots who like to perpetuate it (most notably as an argument against adoption and gay marriage).
One of the strongest aspects of the show is that there's a constant question of what kind of love the show's characters should be looking for versus which conflicts with what they are looking for. And while there are references to cruising, Grindr, OkCupid, and ways to find whatever that is these gay men are looking for, there's no clear answer, and it comes without judgment.