This post contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of HBO’s Looking.
When Andrew Haigh presented his film Weekend three years ago, it was clear he had a fresh perspective to share about the evolving world of gay life and relationships. Now that Season 1 of HBO’s Looking has completed (also largely written and directed by Haigh), we see an expanded picture of his perspective: one that integrates the influence of gay culture — past and present — with a lived experience that is largely free of discrimination and stigma. Gay men cannot escape the influence of gay culture, but they can play tourist to it instead of feeling they must let it define them. In other words, Looking’s portrayal of gay men shows that television has evolved in its complexity just as gay men’s identities do in real life.
In 1979, researcher Vivienne Cass presented one of the first models for understanding how individuals process the development of their sexual orientation identity. Though her linear model was a bit simplistic (and plenty of theories have since built upon it in more complex ways), it still provides an interesting framework for understanding not only sexuality, but media’s portrayal of it as well. There are six stages that describe how people may come to terms with a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity: identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis.
In media, Will & Grace demonstrated mainstream “acceptance,” while Queer As Folk may have exemplified the “pride” stage, an over-identification with the gay community. The former presented a limited portrayal of gay men that was palatable to a mainstream audience, and QAF presented a world where almost every primary conflict was related to the main characters’ sexual orientation: hate crimes, discrimination, family acceptance, family planning, gay drug culture, HIV, and stigma in general. More often than not, those stressors were mitigated with PFLAG-mom love, the go-go boys at Babylon, and lots of sex. It was a show defined entirely by gay culture and/or a hackneyed perception of gay culture.
In fairly stark contrast, Looking offers characters who rarely interact with homophobia and who don’t strongly identify with the gay community but who nonetheless have complex gay lives, exhibiting a greater “synthesis” with their identities. Despite taking place in the “gay mecca” of San Francisco, very few of the scenes even take place in that city’s gay hub, the historic Castro. The Folsom Street Festival and The Stud are places the characters don’t identify with, but have no problem visiting. This might be why many viewers reacted to the premiere by feeling that it was boring; indeed, there’s arguably not a single plot line from the first season that couldn’t translate to a heterosexual context. That is not a weakness, however — the fact that it is a nevertheless a gay show is to its credit.
For example, Patrick was nervous about introducing Richie to his mother, but it wasn’t just because Richie is a guy. Yes, Richie would have been the first boyfriend Patrick every introduced his family to, but he was also nervous about how his mother would react to Richie’s race and socioeconomic status. That’s a device that exists in plenty of non-gay plot lines, but it still rings different in Looking because the potential for her to have a reaction that is also anti-gay adds a different layer, reflecting the intersectionality of people’s multiple identities. There’s a complexity at stake that involves the characters’ sexuality without being wholly dependent upon it.
In many ways, the gay cultural expectations that were simply norms for Queer As Folk’s characters — particularly around sex — serve as the primary conflict for Looking’s characters. Agustin wants to open his relationship and Frank wants them to move in together, so they try both at the same time, which harshly backfires. Agustin was trying to find meaning in sex at the expense of his commitment to Frank, which Frank quite plainly calls out as he kicks him out in the finale: “You don’t know what you’ve been, because you don’t know who the fuck you are.” Dom turns to Lynn for support in his restaurant venture but feels like he needs to offer sex as thanks despite not initially being interested in him, which dampens their relationship. In the finale, Dom actually realizes he has genuine feelings for Lynn because of the respect he’s been shown. And of course, Patrick is wrestling with every aspect of gay culture he encounters: Is sex in a park an important experience for me to have? Am I into uncut guys? Does not being into anal sex mean I have “bottom shame”? (Probably not.) And most crucially, does having a consistent sex partner mean that he’s my boyfriend? While Richie places sincere value on their relationship and its potential, Patrick’s boss Kevin embodies echoes of regression: lust and ambivalence for marriage. No doubt, the two will continue to tug Patrick in different directions during Season 2.
Exploring these questions exemplifies how Looking is a show about integration. As Haigh told ThinkProgress before its premiere, his goal was to demonstrate how gay culture has become “more part of a larger community rather than just being in like a ghetto.” Indeed, in a 2014 world where stigma doesn’t force gay men into closets, the men of Looking don’t feel like they need to burst out of one either. They can be queeny when they want to, sex-driven when they want to, and relationship-oriented when they want to, but they don’t have to conform to either heterosexual or homosexual norms to find community. Instead, they can respond to expectations from both in ways that make the most sense for them as they pursue careers and relationships. It’s not post-political and they’re not “just like straight people”; if anything, they are more complex, synthesized characters who have shed the “Just Jack” stereotypes and Brian Kinney pigeonholes of the past.