Let’s get the obvious out of the way: no one looks good with a mustache. I have no idea what they were thinking in the 1970’s, but I assume it had something to do with drugs. Mustaches make their wearers look like pedophiles, ethnic stereotypes, or in the most generous circumstances, kindly uncles. There is nothing sexy about the mustache.
On the new HBO show Looking, Murray Bartlett plays Dom, a 39-year-old waiter entering a mid-life crisis. Bartlett is an absolutely gorgeous man (do an image search for him; I’ll wait), yet for weeks, I did not realize how gorgeous because Dom sports a mustache. Nor I did not realize that Bartlett played (the small but important role of) DK on Farscape, a show that I love. I blame the mustache.
The mustache is one of only two issues I have with Looking. My second issue is that there are only eight episodes, and I want more–all the more urgently as Looking has low ratings, and HBO has not yet renewed it.
Looking, based off of creator Michael Lannan’s short film Lorimer, centers around a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Andrew Haigh, a writer, director, and co-executive producer on the show, had previously come to prominence with his film Weekend, which told the story of two gay men in Nottingham, England who hook up on a Friday night and spend the weekend together. As Weekend is one of only a few truly great gay-themed movies, there was much anticipation about Looking. Gay-centered television series are rare, and fewer still of those have been worth watching. As such, expectations were heightened to unrealistic levels, especially for a show as subtle as Looking. Unsurprisingly, the show has been trashed by many of the loudest gay voices in the room despite general critical approval.
Ever since Lance Loud appeared on An American Family in the early 1970’s, gay men have had some kind of television presence. In the United States this presence has been decidedly mixed, especially in contrast to the British. The brightest star of gay television, Queer as Folk, was a terrific British show before it became a terrible American one. The original Tales of the City miniseries was a Channel 4 production. Showtime and Channel 4 co-produced the mediocre-but-watchable More Tales of the City, and Showtime alone produced the unwatchable Further Tales of the City.* The problem with American gay-themed television (the discussion in this essay is specific to gay men rather than the full LGBT spectrum) is that shows try to be important and meaningful rather than good. The two most prominent examples are Will & Grace (W&G) and the American Queer as Folk (QAF-A).
W&G was bitchy, campy, stridently pro-gay in message, reliant on exaggerated stereotypes, and startlingly sterile. The reason for the latter, we were told, was that intimate physical contact between two men might irreversibly alienate those little, old lady viewers in Kansas and Nebraska. Even though Will (the A-gay) and Jack (the camp queen) were virtual eunuchs, they were on network television (NBC) and were therefore changing hearts and minds. This self-congratulatory canard always irritated me, never more so than when it was repeated by Joe Biden in 2012. At best, W&G was a step sideways not forwards. Yes, there were gay characters on television, but was it truly a net positive when the show was a gay Amos ‘n’ Andy?
In one important way, QAF-A corrected the sins of W&G. Because it was on Showtime rather than network television, there was not only kissing between two men, but also copious, graphic, soft-core, man-on-man sex featuring the occasional, visible penis. Forget the little old ladies in Kansas and Nebraska; QAF-A’s intended audience was gay men (and younger heterosexual women). The characters of QAF-A were not any better developed than the archetypes–or stereotypes–of W&G; there were just more of them. There was the (handsome) central character, unashamedly sexual and irresistible to all; the (handsome) geek best friend; the (handsome) newly-out kid; the (handsome) camp queen; the (handsome) ugly, self-conscious guy; and the older guy with AIDS–who died and was replaced by the (handsome) younger guy with HIV.
Although, QAF-A was acutely aware of the present,** in most meaningful ways the show’s outlook was a relic of an earlier era, specifically the 1980’s. Where W&G revolved around a gay/straight friendship, QAF-A was tribal. Despite the presence of supportive straight characters (such as the overbearing, fag hag mother), the heterosexual world of QAF-A existed to relentlessly oppress the gay community. While it is true that QAF-A-era America was not nearly as good for gay people as it is now (DOMA and DADT were still in force, no state had marriage equality until late in the show’s run, George W. Bush was President), the us vs. them mentality of the show was akin to the anger of early AIDS activism and the street theater of ACT-UP.
Given that the there were varied and strong opinions about W&G and QAF-A, it should come as no surprise that there are varied and strong opinions about Looking. The most complex and sustained criticism of Looking is that the show is boring. One hears this from many corners, but the loudest voices have been at Slate, specifically from the gay men at the Outward blog, who enjoy taking potshots at the show (some sillier than others). This “boring” complaint however, needs to be unpacked. Looking is indeed slow and deliberately paced, which I enjoy; others might not. But the cries of boring from Slate are disingenuous; their true complaint is not about Looking‘s artistic merits but rather an anger that they do not see themselves reflected in the show.
Before addressing this anger, I want to defend the show’s stylistic choices. Looking is heavily influenced by Weekend, which in turn is indebted to the Richard Linklater masterpieces Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two movies which are very slow, very deliberate, and very dialogue-heavy. The movies may not be for everyone, but the boy-meets-girl love story is still universal. Weekend changed boy-meets-girl to boy-meets-boy but proved that a movie with a gay love story at its center can also be universal.
Looking too strives for the universality of its predecessors. (The show makes its Before Sunrise and Weekend connections explicit in its fifth episode “Looking for the Future.”) Patrick, Agustin, and Dom are gay just as Jesse and Celine are straight, but that does not mean only gays can enjoy Looking or only heterosexuals can enjoy Before Sunrise. Looking aggravates its critics because it lacks fidelity to the tropes found in other gay television shows such as the closet, coming out, camp, marriage equality, AIDS, politics, and homophobia, even as some of these topics were addressed in “Looking for the Future.”
It is precisely because Looking’s focus lies elsewhere that the gays at Slate dislike it. Take for example Tyler Lopez, who wrote that, “Looking somehow eschews any acknowledgement of advances in LGBTQ equality, presenting San Francisco as a dreary post-DOMA dystopia where gay men worry more about foreskins than politics.” One might ask what exactly is so dystopian or dreary about gay men living openly, honestly, and untroubled as gay men? Or why discussions related to sex and love, as opposed to politics, are frivolous? Does Lopez seriously believe there is more of an obligation for a show to be didactic than to strive to be a work of quality? Finally, what exactly is so wrong with a Virtually Normal universe in which gay people have successfully assimilated into society?
Assimilation is, of course, the looming yet unspoken fear lurking behind the “boring” complaints. Distaste for assimilation lies between every line of the most infamous hit piece on Looking, Bryan Lowder’s caustic review on Slate. Undeniably, Lowder is very well-versed in queer culture, a rarity these days, even among gay writers. He also has a fine appreciation for camp, so much so that he wrote a sixteen part treatise on the subject, in which he incisively tore apart what had been the seminal work on the subject, Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.'”
Lowder, perhaps as the defender of camp culture, takes it upon himself to play the contrarian to the overarching narrative of gay assimilation. He has therefore written critically about what the LGBT community embraces, for example Tom Daley and Jason Collins, same-sex marriage (multiple times), the boycott of Barilla pasta, Steve Grand, and (although I cannot find it), Weekend. Given this history, it should come as no surprise that he dislikes Looking. That, of course, is his right, but I find his reasons for disliking the show more interesting because it says less about Looking and more about the seismic changes to gay culture–changes Lowder clearly resents.
Lowder begins his review with a complaint on the artistic merits of the show: “Looking is so boring, so utterly flat in terms of narrative or characterization, so in need of occasional pauses in which to perform a few jumping jacks to bring one’s heart rate up to resting, that I would opt out entirely if we gay men—or at least gay male culture critics—weren’t contractually obliged to watch.” Lowder is no doubt trying to be clever; perhaps it is his attempt to achieve that perfect queeny snap. His cleverness fails him however; his barb was uninspired, and he himself acknowledges that his real problem with Looking “does not stem from aesthetic disagreements, at least not entirely.”
What really bothers Lowder is his belief that Looking is “a show that amounts to a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights.” Lowder continues that, “the show eschews elements that might be seen as artful or entertaining and instead depends on the peculiar idea that gay audiences should find ‘joy’ in watching gay characters move from one (maybe slightly stressful) quotidian situation to the next.” Lowder dismisses these so-called “quotidian situations,” by saying:
All these issues have been openly discussed within the community for decades now, with a level of nuance and intelligence that, frankly, seems hopelessly beyond the kind of grown gay men who, as we see in upcoming episodes, have nervous breakdowns about foreskin or titter like teenagers at an institution as venerable as the Folsom Street Fair.
His conclusion is that, “[i]n attempting to escape the dreaded ‘stereotype,’ Looking has run headlong into something worse—a cynical tokenism, a gay minstrelsy of another kind.” In Lowder’s view, the characters on Looking are sops to a straight world (and a gay one) that refuses to accept gay men who do not ‘act straight’. Previous generations of gay activists protested stereotypes such as the self-loathing queens of Boys in the Band, the BDSM leather serial killer of Cruising, the hedonists of Queer as Folk (American and British), and, most dreaded of all, the effeminate, camp sissy who found his widest audience as W&G’s Jack.*** Lowder, an opponent of gay assimilation, upends those old activists; he rejects the ‘straight-acting gay’ by tapping into the activists’ same primal fear: what will straight people think of us?
Yes, straight critics and viewers seeking liberal cred will find an easy tool here; Looking is, after all, gay without any of the hard parts (dick included), gay that’s polite and comfortable and maybe a little titillating but definitely not all up in your face about it. And in that, the show may represent the greatest victory to date of those who strive not for the tolerance of queerness in straight society, but for its gradual erasure as we all slide toward some bland cultural mean. Beneath the modern platitudes like love whoever you want and all families are beautiful, there’s a quiet, insidious demand that you blend in as quickly as possible. Don’t harp on the struggles of coming out beyond gay meccas, don’t complain about rampant homophobia and increasing gender policing, don’t lament the ongoing health crisis in your community—that stuff is too old-fashioned, too dramatic. Because some gay people can get married now, we’re past all that. And anyway, it gives your so-called allies a case of the sads.
You see, released in this moment of assimilation, Looking cannot just be a show about a specific circle of gay men; it is also unavoidably a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look—butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.
Whereas previously, generations of gay men feared that straight people would reject us for thinking we are different from them, Lowder worries that straight people will reject us after realizing we are different.† Lowder does not actually think Looking is boring; he thinks it is dangerous because it gives straight people a false sense of security. In effect, Lowder inverts the assimilationists’ old argument and uses it against them.
Ironically, in making his argument Lowder proves to be as judgmental toward assimilated gays as he believes they are toward his beloved camp culture. Lowder rejects out-of-hand as unworthy and oppressive any portrayal of gay life that is not a stereotype, particularly the queen who has “already sashayed on over to the isolation of Logo.” He never entertains the possibility that there exists gay men who are like the characters on Looking and that they should be able to see an honest portrayal of themselves. No, they are a fiction invented to appease the straight world.
Others have taken also issue with Lowder’s criticism of Looking, but I have not yet seen anyone examine the culture clash fueling his vituperative attitude toward the show and gay assimilation. Without engaging this background, any response to Lowder is only half complete.
Lowder, though in his mid-20’s, is a throwback to an earlier era of queer men whose culture was almost exclusively camp. Perhaps the one thing that Lowder and Sontag agree on is that camp culture is largely the domain of gay men. These are the gay men who worshiped Judy and Liza; who quote All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Mommie Dearest at length; who says things like, “Mary, please!” or “Get her!” to and about other gay men; and who will ensure that once the parade finally passes by Madonna, she–unlike Norma Desmond–will still have an audience to wave to.
What Lowder refuses to recognize–even if the insinuation is the eight hundred pound, pink gorilla in his queer culture think pieces–is that his beloved camp is the culture of oppression. Camp served as a means of communication and identity for gay men in bad times, which was most times. That is why much of camp is about the covert, the unintended, and the subversive. Yet oppression cannot always be at the center of one’s communal identity, especially in the face of acceptance. Camp is repellant to many gay men because of its inextricable association with the bad, old days. For these men, camp is something to escape not embrace.
Lowder’s first essay in his series on camp is titled “Camp is not dead. It’s alive, well, and here to stay.” That Lowder even has to defend camp’s existence is a clue that his opponents have been largely successful in shunting it to the side. Of course Lowder is correct; camp is not dead because concepts cannot be killed. Nevertheless, the conception of camp has been altered by assimilation and mainstream acceptance, and now the gay communal perception of camp has shifted from a positive to a negative. A queer culture that previously had no alternatives except camp or closet is being outnumbered by a new majority with many alternatives. Looking is self-consciously not camp, which is why it is both threatening and horrifying to Lowder. He is fighting the rearguard in the battle against assimilation, and it is a losing battle even if he cannot admit it outright.
The marginalization of camp culture is tragic. Much great art in modern history is a product of or bettered by camp. Camp is also a lot of fun, which is something assimilationists refuse to recognize. Marginalization however, is inevitable–even natural–for two related reasons: (1) the expansion of the visible gay community; and (2) the rise of a new generation of gay men. Due to expansion, the gay community has become so multifaceted in recent decades, that the monolithic gay community has been shown up for the myth that it is. In earlier times, camp had largely, but not exclusively, been the domain of an affluent, educated, urban, urbane, white, gay, male culture. That was the dominant gay male culture simply because if such men were not out exactly–although many were–they lived in glass closets. Camp was the culture of those who could not or would not hide and who suffered for it. Therefore, this practically homogenous gay community was “the gay community” simply because they were visible. As it is now easier to be openly gay in much of the country and in many more walks of life, a larger number and percentage of out gay men both within and outside of that demographic have the luxury of rejecting camp.
The second reason why camp culture is fading is due to generational replacement. In gay life, as in the world at large, each generation rejects what the previous one held dear. Take, for example, Judy Garland, the quintessential gay icon. On Towleroad.com, the question was recently asked about whether Judy still matters, and the animosity aimed at her in the comments section was stunning even for Towleroad. For older generations of “Friends of Dorothy,” Garland was a figure of enormous importance. Her career in general and “Over the Rainbow” specifically were at the very heart of gay culture, never mind camp. The are rumors that the rainbow flag, the symbol of the LGBT rights movement, was inspired by “Over the Rainbow,” and of course, the Stonewall Riots began the night of Garland’s burial.
Yet, a large portion of at least two generations of gay men either know little about Garland or reject her entirely. It is not hard to explain; whereas Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, etc. court gay fans, Garland rarely (if ever) acknowledged hers. Garland’s lack of acknowledgment is important insofar as it starkly contrasts to the present day where it is okay–even expected–for mainstream superstars to openly love their gay fans and speak out for gay rights. Ergo, young gays who might have turned to camp to participate in the cultural dialogue reject it because it is old and because they have been embraced by mainstream culture.‡ Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” may not be a good song, but its positive message to young gay boys is overt. Compare that to “Over the Rainbow,” an objectively better song that will be covered for decades (at least) after “Born This Way” is long forgotten. There is no specifically gay message in “Over the Rainbow,” but it spoke to gay men so they infused their own meaning into it. Young gays do not need to do that anymore, and camp is robbed of its purpose.
Looking is representative of these larger shifts. For the first time, gay men have a show which reflects how absorbed into the mainstream they have become. The characters are not classical archetypes; rather their normative experiences are colored by the fact that they are gay. This is a huge victory for assimilationists, and it is threatening to cultural arbiters like Lowder because their hegemony over the culture is ending.
For my part, if this means good storytelling with interesting characters, then I do not fear the change. But please, no more mustaches.
* The original Tales was superior for many reasons, not the least of which was Marcus D’Amico as Mouse (Michael Tolliver). The clean-shaven D’Amico was replaced by Paul Hopkins who sported an authentic 1970’s-style porn mustache. While Hopkins more closely resembled the book description of Mouse (and therefore author Armistead Maupin), again, mustaches never make anyone look good.
** One particular incident stands out for me. In 2001, Andrew Sullivan was publicly identified as the poster of an anonymous personal ad seeking condomless sex, which, in fairness to Sullivan, clearly acknowledged his HIV+ status. This was back when we were all still supposed/allowed to hate him for his support of the Republicans and his criticism of the gay left. (This was also before George W. Bush announced that he favored a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was Sullivan’s come-to-Jesus moment.) In January 2002, an episode of QAF-A, subtly titled, “Hypocrisy: Don’t Do It,” introduced a gay, conservative writer who railed against wanton, gay, sex culture, only to be discovered at a bareback party.
*** In the last two decades, the culture has added another stereotype, the ‘straight gay,’ a handsome man who lacks stereotypical gay mannerisms. Eric McCormack’s Will in W&G and Justin Bartha’s David in the short-lived The New Normal were classic straight gays as are the characters in Looking. Before Looking this character existed primarily to set up the jokes of his more flamboyant partner thereby making the straight gay the straight man.
† This is a common fear that all minority groups have when they know the majority is watching them, perhaps most famously encapsulated by the phrase, “But is it good for the Jews?”
‡ This is not universal by any means. Although the new generation of gay men is coming out to far more acceptance than previous ones, that is of little comfort to those individuals who are rejected by their families and communities and who face possible physical or emotional trauma.