by Johan Clarke
The new series Looking premiered on HBO this past Sunday, opening with a jab at the “cruising” trope as one of the main characters, played by Jonathan Groff, awkwardly tries it just for fun. From there, the show begins to look at his failures in the dating world, showing fairly honest portrayals of the lives of gay males in a fairly liberal American city. The show seems like it wants to destroy certain images about the gay community, and in some regards, it does.
To a certain extent, it does better than many other shows that have tried to do the same thing by having characters that are not just white. One of the main three characters in the show is Latino, but the show does not necessarily define him by his background. He and the other Latino character are not exotified (yet), but they keep their identities and are not wholly white-washed.
This representation is nice to see, but some of the creator’s comments on it have been less than ideal. In response to certain concerns that the show would be as lacking in diversity as Girls, which plays on HBO right before Looking, creator Andrew Haigh commented, “We have two very prominent Latin characters. We have an African-American character. We have an Asian-American character, so I think we are dealing with different ethnicities. There’s always a limit to what you can put in a half-hour show and we’ve never tried to represent the whole of the LGBT community because it’s an enormous community made up of lots of different elements. All we can really do is try and tell a story about our characters.” The comments sound similar to many other responses in the past from shows with lack of diversity. They have every right to tell a story about their characters, and as of now they do tell stories about the queer people of color fairly honestly. However, the beginning of his comment is akin to the “I have black friends” argument many people with white-savior complexes tend to use to say or do things they really shouldn’t be doing.
The problem is that they could have these characters, they just choose not to. At the moment, there are no characters on the show who identify as bisexual or pansexual, though Dom, one of the main characters, alluded to a girlfriend in the past, though it was done more as a joke. There are also no trans* characters on the show, furthering trans*-erasure in media. And they also have no lesbians in the show.
In fact, in the entire thirty minutes of the first episode, only one woman had a somewhat significant speaking role (there was one other woman, Augustín’s artist boss, who had a total of about three lines and was on screen for less than half a minute). The show does not even pass the first criterion on the Bechdel test. In a scene at a wedding ceremony, there is a shot of the guests, and the crowd looks uncomfortably masculine. The only female character is Dom’s long-ago ex, who is shown for about a minute as she gives him dating advice in a fierce, almost sassy manner. The only reason she is on screen is because she is a support for the male character to not make a bad decision, treading dangerously close to the rather sexist “fag hag” trope.
Some people may argue that the show is about gay men, so why would there be women? If the show wanted to accurately portray gay life, though, it would have at least more than one woman in it, or the woman would have more screen time. Gay men do not exclusively hang out with other men, and when they do hang out with women, they do not have to be overly feisty and talk only about the men’s love lives. This way of thinking has dangerous implications in creating a new trope of the “token female friend”, as the show is also dangerous to tokenize its characters of color.
If the show is not supposed to have women because it is a show about gay men, then it proves that female characters can only be love interests. Gay men would never have a girlfriend or would never be romantically involved in one, so why would they be allowed a character on the show? In fact, the only woman on the show is an old romantic interest because in media logic, men and women can never just be friends. It’s the same basic logic that fuels the notion of the Friend Zone.
Looking has great promise, but it has also set itself up for possible failure in regards to representation. For a show that claims to represent the real gay man, it does little outside of obsessing with his dating habits. If it wants to really show what it’s like to be queer, it will have to show more than one letter of the acronym LGBTQIA, and show that there are queer women as well, or any women.