Embarrassing story: After watching the first three episodes of Girls in succession, I stood and applauded the TV. Yes. Alone in my bedroom I rose from my desk chair and gave my 2002 Toshiba television a rousing standing ovation. That's how impressed I was initially with the accuracy of Lena Dunham's HBO series about overprivileged, overeducated, cloying, embryonic and narcissistic white 20-somethings living in Brooklyn. I grew up in New York, and the moments rendered by Dunham were entirely familiar to me. They perfectly mirrored my personal experience and the experiences of many who I grew up with, a quality I both cherished about Girls and one that also made it difficult for me to watch without retching.
It's certainly exciting to absorb art that speaks so directly to you, but it's also nauseating when the reality on screen is as revolting as the one rendered on Girls. This balance of thrilling and grotesque was singular, something Girls has only intermittently sustained since, but it gives the show its unique power and quality.
This Sunday, HBO premiered its new series, Looking, which has been pegged unjustly as a "gay 'Girls.'" And when I say "unjustly" I mean it's unjust to Girls, a show about which I have my qualms, sure, but which is far superior to Looking. Looking isn't bad, it's even above average, and the pilot gave me some of the same queasy joy that Girls once did by realistically portraying scenarios from my personal life (the opening scene gave me shades of a botched Grindr experience I once had).
But my main takeaway was less about the quality of the show and more about how rare it is to see even fleetingly accurate representations of what it's like to be a modern gay man portrayed in mainstream pop culture. The bottom line is we still exist in a landscape where gay renderings like those on Looking are notable and in 2014, that's just wrong.
Looking has prompted much debate in the past couple weeks about whether or not it is "hetero-washing" gay culture by portraying only gay characters who, in some critics' opinions, fit neatly into hetero-normative mainstream society. The characters on Looking are not "clown" gays, as I've heard them punitively described, which is to say they are not the well-worn queeny characters who have pervaded gay representations in pop culture over the past couple decades. Even Girls, which is ostensibly about portraying a certain subset of millennials with pinpoint accuracy, presents its primary gay character as a one-dimensional accessory that hits all of the cliched marks of a "gay TV character" like a figure skater going for the gold at the Olympics.
Despite these issues, I still enjoyed Looking for the very reason that it felt novel and validating to see some of the unique complications of contemporary, urban gay life portrayed on screen. I giggled particularly knowingly when, following an off-kilter OKCupid date with an older doctor, lead character Patrick is forced to confront the awkward scenario of splitting the check on a date, a confusing nuance that is truly unique to the gay courting experience. My face was plastered with big dumb smile throughout the whole scene, and it actually gave me a sense of camaraderie -- of knowing and belonging to a certain group, however flawed -- that I don't often get while watching television, and one that I haven't experienced since those first few episodes of Girls.
What fascinated me even more than the show itself, or even my own reactions to watching the pilot, were those of the people watching it with me. I watched the Looking premiere twice this week, first on Sunday night with my younger sister and then again with her later in the week plus my 20-year-old, football-loving brosef cousin from Connecticut, a NYC student living in the third bedroom at our apartment.
The first time through, as we reached one of the more sexually explicit scenes in the pilot -- a threesome between one of the leads, his boyfriend and a (male) (gorgeous) third party -- my sister turned to me and marveled, "Whoa, gay guys have threesomes?" (I feel it's worth noting here that one of my sister's most endearing qualities is enduring naivete about sex in general).
I looked at her dumbfounded. "Are you kidding?" I responded, kind of peeved at the question. "Of course gay guys have threesomes! Gay guys have every kind of sex that anyone else would have. And more, considering we are all dudes with fairly inventive imaginations." "Woah, sorry" she replied, "I guess it's just not something I've ever thought about before! Sounds great though, 'cause everyone is totally into everyone else."
I immediately felt badly for barking at her, but I was struck heavily by the the fact that my sister, a life-time New Yorker who works in fashion and has a gay brother and uncle to boot, had never once been confronted with media that has forced her to think about gay sex beyond in its most basic (boring, hetero-normative) form. After Stonewall and "Paris Is Burning," after Elton and Cher and Madonna and Will & Grace and Queer as Folk and Brokeback Mountain and Gaga and Frank Ocean, how was this even possible?
While I grew up confronted by straight sex in every form across every media platform for my entire life (and despite the fact that I don't plan on personally experiencing it again), her pop culture experience was so "straight-washed," if you will, that she didn't even realize homos have threesomes. Let's call it "homoignorance," and it's not her fault.
The second time we watched the pilot with my cousin, which presented a whole other brand of homoignorance and further highlighted just how much buried homophobia permeates straight male culture, even in the East Village circa 2014.
My cuz and I are constantly playful with each other about what I perceive as his unconscious homophobia, and he is overarchingly a very smart kid with his heart firmly in the right place. "I'm not homophobic! Would I live with a gay guy if I was homophobic?" is his favorite response when I call him out for jovially lapsing into "gay voice" when describing anything related to fashion or emotions.
In fact, the moment that prompted us to force him to watch the show came when, while watching a different HBO program, an ad for Looking aired and prompted him to blurt out, "Yuck, definitely won't be watching that." While his knee-jerk response stung for a second, I quickly realized that it was just that: A reaction programmed into him from a lifetime of experience with the broader homoignorance, and indeed homophobia, present in American culture and media. It had nothing to do with how he he really feels about me or gay people on the whole. I've never felt anything but acceptance, love and respect from him when it comes to me being gay.
Furthermore, this moment highlighted exactly why it's important that Looking, imperfect as it may be, exists. After watching the pilot, we asked my cousin how he felt about the show, by which, full disclosure, he seemed fairly riveted. "It was fine. A little boring, but fine," he said.
And while I can't argue much with that critique, and while he may not be compelled to keep watching the show, I felt like we had made progress by making him watch the show, even just this one time. Sure, it doesn't challenge as much as it could and should, lacks fully shaded characters and needs more of a compelling plot. But by portraying this subset of gay culture which exists in reality and which is, for better or worse, a more accessible aspect of gayness for straight culture to consume, it is an important step forward.
It is wrong that in 2014 this is one of the first real opportunities that my cousin, sister and I have had to interact with this kind of content on television, and it's great that we are now taking steps to rectify that inadequacy. I hope Looking will continue to find its footing and depth. We need this show because we still live in a society where my mom, with the purest of intentions, feels the need to reassure me that I can "absolutely still have children," even though it's not something I've ever personally questioned. It's important because a New York sophisticate with numerous gay family members is unclear about whether or not gay guys have threesomes and a relatively evolved 20-year-old male who is roommates and close friends with his queer cousin still recoils when he sees two guys kiss on TV.
What we consume in pop culture is immeasurably important to the way we understand the world around us: Minutes after I came out of the closet to my therapist, I ran upstairs to my room to be comforted by Will & Grace. I'm hopeful that Looking can, one day, become an even more apt bastian of reassurance for another young gay kid. More importantly, I hope the show steps into its power as a potential bridge towards a society where no grown people, myself included, need to be surprised by seeing real gay intimacy on TV.