I’ve been consumed by coverage of the Television Critics Association press tour for the past couple of weeks, but I wanted to step out of the flow for a moment to talk about a piece that Esquire published on January 20. Now appended with a note that calls it “our attempt at humor in this piece,” Mick Stingley criticized HBO’s new half-hour show Looking, about three gay men in San Francisco, as boring. He’s not alone in that, though his reasoning is rather singular.
Stingley wrote, again, in “an attempt at humor”:
It’s a big deal because it features gay men being gay and doing whatever without resorting to stereotypes. 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. Now, instead of listening to women figure out who the “Samantha” is around the office, you’ll have to watch women try to spot “Patrick” (borderline alky hook-up fiend), “Agustín” (unlikeable hipster know-it-all), and “Dom” (brooding 40ish waiter). You’ll save time pointing out the dullest men in the room….
Gays have largely been depicted in television and movies as either extremely fun and funny (Will and Grace; The Birdcage) or starkly sad and depressing (Philadelphia; Angels in America) so perhaps it’s time for a Hollywood portrayal of gay life as normal, tedious, and bland. Makes straight guys seem together and interesting by comparison, though. And if this show really takes off, prepare yourselves for a world of boring gay men who blend in and will probably talk to you about last night’s game and drink bourbon. Good news for fans of Coldplay, though: The 40-Year-Old Virgin stigma will soon be replaced by Looking. You know how I know you’re gay? You’re boring.
I get that this isn’t meant to be the positions the author actually holds. But in addition to just being factually wrong about the characters in Looking it’s close enough to actual attitudes people do have to be revealing. And rather than making me angry, it actually makes me sad.
First, how depressing is it to want the same thing in your culture over and over again? I suppose a world that’s composed entirely of snappy-but-functionally-asexual gay men (but no lesbians), black men who pop up occasionally to be funny and affirming (but again, no black women), supportive girlfriends or wives and friends who want to watch the game but don’t have any problems with which they might burden you is one in which some people want to live. But is that really the only thing you want to see in your entertainment, over and over again, for the rest of your life? Are there really no other fantasy worlds you’d like to explore? Is the purpose of your TV to reaffirm the value of a limited approach to your life, or to let you visit new environments, as long as those variations might not challenge you too much (the latter explains a great deal of the success of Chuck Lorre and CBS)? That’s an awfully grim idea.
And second, it’s easy to see why pop culture presses members of various minorities into stereotypes: it’s to contain their influence and neutralize the extent to which they unnerve people who are afraid of them. But there’s something awfully sad about the “dance for my entertainment!” attitude that shows up again in Stingley’s piece. The idea that gay men are supposed to be “extremely fun and funny” or “starkly sad and depressing” is an attempt to shove them into their proper place of serving straight men’s amusement. How terrible would it be to get to know actual gay humans, instead of treating gay characters as levers we can push to get specifically designated treats? It’s a lost opportunity, and people who really do think as Stingley jokes they might, are the ones denying themselves opportunities to have new cultural experiences, and new human experiences as well.