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Looking For Truth: Out of the City

Manuel here to offer this week's Looking recap filtered through a decidedly ranty diatribe on LGBT representation.

I was looking for glimpses of the city that had formed me. I didn’t hold out hope that a Hollywood product would show me anything I recognized beyond a consumer gay culture satisfied with glossy representations as a sign of progress. - Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

I couldn't let this week's recap go by without addressing that New Inquiry piece published last week about Looking which opens with a Rent anecdote and that quote above.

Sycamore's framing tells us everything about what I've elsewhere called "the burden of representation"; notice that every sentence starts with an authoritative "I" that is supposed to function as both a composite of those "I"s that Looking and the homonormative gay industrial complex displaces but which nevertheless points us to an individuality that would (and does) refuse an acknowledgement from such a representational vantage point. There is no hope that mainstream representations would present anything Sycamore would recognize; this is both the foundational claim and foregone conclusion of the piece. [More...]


"This one we're selling to some hipster fuckers who are going to sell shrimp meatballs out of it. Doesn't that sound so stupid?"

What follows is as a scathing (and perhaps necessary) review of the worst of gay male liberal progressive politics that so many are more than happy to join in allegiance with "affluent straights in ethnic cleansing as long as they can live as close as possible to the best single-origin drip coffee, the most creative craft cocktails, the sassiest sweatshirt boutiques, and the most exclusive indoor street food."

Looking becomes an excuse to rail against the Man (who, despite his newfound and out homosexuality, remains in the thrall of capitalism, sexism, racism and any and all ills that continue to plunge non-normative identities to the recesses of American life, something which Sycamore's endlessly readable edited collection Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? deals with in lucid detail, even if it also begins from the platitude that mainstream LGBT representational politics are not radical). Haigh's series, Sycamore argues, is "a tourist brochure for a gentrified San Francisco, an advertising campaign with bodies as billboards," presented uncritically to an audience who treasures such an aspirational mirror image in the media. This is, of course, a more sophisticated version of the "Patrick & co. are nothing like the gays I know!" criticism which has been leveled at HBO's show since its premiere last year (interestingly, last week's comments pushed pretty much against this very notion, arguing instead that the Looking boys are anything but a positive representation, so I guess we really are a diverse bunch not easily boiled down to soundbites and slogans!)

It's a fascinatingly dull conversation to have mostly because it both begins and ends with the assertion that Looking doesn't accurately represent the diverse world of gay San Francisco and that it is a mainstream show focused on three quintessentially contemporary gay men. What it should push us to do and ask is where and why there isn't more representation; Looking makes a great straw man but I don't think it's as oblivious of its setting and embodied politics as Sycamore would have us believe, nor should its representational politics be taken without context. I'm always left wondering what these critiques are supposed to effect; is this a plea for shows like Looking to be pulled from HBO? A call to dictate what types of representations are featured? Or, as it turns out, just ways of rehearsing larger conversations that a prestige show is unlikely to address and fix all by itself?

Thus, while we may want to "defend" Looking on the grounds of "look how far we've come!" this would only prove Sycamore's point ("yes, look how far you've mapped out a vision of whitewashed progress!") while a denial of its critique leaves us being complicit with it. The question then becomes whether (and IF!) Looking should be (as a friend posted on Twitter) a gay The Wire. Of course, what Sycamore is diagnosing is systemic; what straight shows on air are questioning the very institutions they're built on and representing those who get left behind or willingly displaced? The assumption at the heart of Sycamore's critique is the belief that Looking (and any LGBT representation with a platform) would have an implicit imperative to be queer because it features gay people. Haigh's show is not about oppositional queer politics but this is neither a new insight nor an indictment of it as a television show unless you see representation and visibility as its only raison-d'être.

As if on cue, though this week's episode saw Patrick venture outside of San Francisco, Eddie open up to Agustin, and Kevin opt to rekindle his relationship with the ever elusive John (might that couple end up being precisely the poster boys that Sycamore so disdains? More so than Patrick at least, no?). It was great to see Patrick out of his element (pretty much establishing the very insularity Sycamore diagnosis) and I actually loved seeing Richie's family forcing him and Patrick to deal with the homophobic banalities that those born outside of a privileged worldview have to deal with on a daily basis, from playful jabs to hostile barbs.


Best line of the episode I wish I could off-handedly use:

"Remember the gringo with the Vespa?”

Best Doris moment: None! Dom & Doris were absent but Richie's cousin Ceci more than made up for it, carefully walking the line between sassiness and bluntness that Doris's best moments so beautifully capture.

Best gif-worthy moment:
 Ceci's look when Patrick asks her if what she'd "jokingly" said about not dating white guys isn't racist. 

Previously:, 2.4

What's everyone's take on that New Inquiry piece and this week's Looking? Did this week merely prove Mattilda's assertion that the world of Looking is intent on giving "no hint of a queer alternative" or did its focus on Richie and Eddie begin opening up those cracks between Patrick and Agustin's privileged insularity?

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Reader Comments (10)

I mean, is it really that important be "the quintessential gay experience"? I mean, I don't live the type of life of some of these guys *at all* but that's never been a problem for me or stops me from giving a shit about the characters. Why put so much weight on a show like that? What I like about the show most is that it's not really about THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE GAY rather just somewhat ordinary people who also happen to be gay.

Anyways, I loved this Richie-centric episode. His cousin who gave Patrick so much shit, seeing what goes on behind Richie's veil of near perfection and of course, "I would be very sad if you weren't in my life anymore". I don't think I could be that mature but that was one sweet scene anyways. Props to Raul Castillo because he really did a great job.

February 16, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

I had a problem with the show season 1 because I felt like it was very whitewashed. I do have a problem with shows set in diverse locations that don't seem to showcase actors of color. In every other aspect, I can't complain about stereotypes or anything else because it's not their job to represent all gay people, and that's impossible anyway. To say that is to assume that all gays are the same and fit one bill, which just obviously isn't true.

I actually not only thought this was the best episode so far in the series, but also thought it was the most progressive. We really got to see another side to Richie. Speaking spanish, his cousin, the homophobia he has to face. And it was pretty clear that Patrick is privileged in that sense.

The show could feature more actors of color, but it focuses on so few characters that it's not as big of an issue as it was for me season 1. BUT I will say that there are a few here and there and for these characters, it seems like a realistic representation of what their lives would be. AND the show is positively (i swear that pun was not intended) portraying an HIV-poisitve person who isn't some sob story or anything... which is totally accurate nowadays. That kind of representation on a gay show is very important and IS indeed progressive.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

"It's a fascinatingly dull conversation to have....."

Yes it is. Every show that is about the LGBT experience or even has an LGBT character is declaimed in the same way so this is an old argument which is not pertinent. I would like to hear more about the show/episode itself rather than how someone else is upset that they felt they weren't invited to the party (And make no mistake, this isn't about equality, it's about Ms. Sycamore feeling hurt that it isn't called Looking for Matilda.).

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Love this show and its characters! Any word on renewal or cancellation? Really, really hope it gets to continue!

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterhaajen

Aw, come on, the best episode of the season, and its barely mentioned in order to highlight yet another pearl clutching op ed on the show's lack of diversity? Is there really anything in that piece that hasn't been hashed over a dozen times before? I get it - we all get it: a lot of people don't see themselves reflected in the show, and don't like that. Fair enough, but now that we've all noted that fact a million fucking times, maybe we can just talk about the episode? It was actually pretty damn great as long as you can get past feeling oppressed by it.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I am SO over the Mattilda Bernstein Sycamores of the world. One gets the feeling--after her bashing this show, Rent and Strange by the Lake--that this is the type of person who is never going to be happy with any gay representations in the mainstream media. Looking has never claimed to be the definitive portrait of gays, or even gays in San Francisco; that's something that people have ascribed to it. It's time to just ignoring these people and their think pieces.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBD

I wish people would SHUT. UP. about Looking and the fact that it is myopic in its worldview. OF COURSE IT IS. The show is about three men, who are gay and live in San Francisco, and their relationships. That it doesn't go much wider than that doesn't matter, because that is all the show is about, and in that specificity, it comes up with universal truths. It's what every piece of art aspires (or should aspire) to. The argument that it needs to be more inclusive or expand its boundaries or whatever is just as petty and boring now as it was when it was said about Friends, Sex & the City, Queer as Folk, Girls and any number of other TV shows before it. It is essentially wanting the show to be something it's not, and looking at it only from a surface level, no matter what other issues you try to read into it (Sycamore's initial premise, that Looking is showing a gentrified SanFran, is interesting, but is used for ulterior motives). Because the artistry on display in any episode of Looking, on just about every level, is unassailable. This is an incredibly well-made (and mostly smartly-made) show on an artistic level, and that's the level on which it should be judged, not on how well it meets the expectations of every Tom Dick and Harry who want to see THEIR gay experience represented exactly on screen.

To put it another way, there is no "universal" gay experience - although there are certain markers, everyone's situation is different enough to render those markers completely different in their own experience of them. I would say that there isn't even a universal human experience. But there are moments that speak to universal truths, and Looking has those moments in spades.

Oh yeah, and this episode was pretty fucking good, too. Love how Eddie really pushes Augustin's buttons.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

San Francisco is in the midst of economic boomtimes, which for many of us -- renters, artists, LGBT people on the lower end of the economic scale -- means that we're also in the midst of an economic crisis. It's expensive to live here. Really really expensive. Old countercultural icons -- people and places -- are disappearing. In a lot of ways, it really sucks.

Unfortunately, and unfairly, Looking has had to bear the brunt of this. To live here as a gay man -- who loves Looking -- is to have to fend off a zillion opinions (Mattilda's being the latest, and rather late to the party) which see Looking as a symptom of all that's changing and all that's wrong and inequitable in the new techie SF.

But what's the point of bashing this TV show, which has its heart and its aesthetics in the right place? It's not like the creators of Looking are in league with some corporate/tech oligarchy, plotting together to make sure that rents stay high and old dive bars go out of business. Looking is not the problem. Looking is a TV show that's actually doing a lot to capture this changing San Francisco. It doesn't wave the flag of the old queer left, but why should it?

Point of comparison: has anyone piled on "Togetherness," HBO's other new middle-class, white, comedy of manners? No! The blurbs of praise pour forth. No one's blaming it for misrepresenting Gen X parents, or for contributing to the rising cost of living in LA, or worrying that somehow some other more pure vision is going unseen while this one gets aired every week.

When the show is cancelled -- as its ratings portend -- the blame will be spread far and wide, and we'll be subjected to even more "think" pieces. But the fact is that this is a well written, well-acted, up-to-the-minute vision of gay San Francisco that we could be -- should be -- enjoying, rather than endlessly picking apart until there is no meat left on its bones.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

PS: I thought this past episode was the best of the season.

February 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

The latest episode is the best in the entire series! I really like the laidbackness of these characters where the different level of drama in each characters life kind of explodes from nowhere. Like the scenes between Richie and Patrick, nothing really happens, but still lots of drama going on. The entire episode is build up so well and made me really watch what was going on, indicates how smart and well written the show really is

I dont understand the criticism about people not relating to this. Are they all robots or something? There is so much drama, dating problems, being gay and single in their 30s and up and so on, to grasp on.

The only criticism I have is the Augustin character. He annoys the shit out of me. If I have had a friend with no money who really does not do enough or anything to get a job and lives for free in my apartment......ugh

I LOVED Ceci! "Please dont call me anything! when Patrick cannot pronounced her name or the Which part reply to Patrick about racism and dating white guys ha ha ha

February 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

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