Andrew Sullivan’s Offensive ‘Looking’ Review and the Problem With Fighting Over “Real” Depictions of Gay Men

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Part of me is glad that HBO’s Looking, which premiered to low numbers on Sunday night, has inspired this week’s raft of thoughtful criticism. As with any other series depicting an underrepresented, marginalized community (in this case, urban gay men, who also happen to be the most represented individuals in the gay community), expectations are high. In the past week, many people have accepted Looking as a realistic portrayal of gay men, and many people have rejected it for what it lacks: namely, any realistic sex scenes or believable characterizations. The consensus on the show is that it’s boring (it’s how I described it in my original review), and so the problem the audience faces is this: can a dramedy about nothing be compelling television?

At Slate, J. Bryan Lowder claims the show’s aggressive realism works against it. “There was a time when this obvious truth may have needed stating — indeed, when speaking it might have been seen as a striking political act,” Lowder writes. “But surely that time was at least 20 years ago. And yet, the fact that most gay people are ‘normal,’ ‘real,’ ‘the same,’ or whatever other version of just as-lame-as-most-straight-people you prefer continues to be trumpeted by a certain contingent of the gay movement as if it were both a revelation and a passcode to the gates of utopia.” In trying to avoid the well-worn territory of previous gay entertainment, Lowder insists that Looking‘s determination to avoid stereotypes has had the opposite effect: “a cynical tokenism, a gay minstrelsy of another kind.”

In his response for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson argues that Lowder’s objection to the show is more personal bias than a criticism that examines whether the show’s tone is effective. “[I]sn’t it a tad presumptuous to assume that everyone within the gay community, as vague and amorphous an idea as that is, has discussed these topics to the point that they’ve become moot?” Lawson asks. “Lowder assumes that gay men who find Looking novel must have ‘assiduously avoided becoming familiar with other (perhaps older) gay people and gay thought in general.'”

As far as I’m concerned, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. While I agree that Looking is quite dull, its protagonists merely sketches rather than fully formed characters, I can certainly see how the appreciation of the show comes down to personal taste. Looking, despite what anyone will tell you, does not represent the broader gay experience, as much as Girls doesn’t accurately depict young women across the country. It exists within a bubble, a small, insular world of gay men in San Francisco, its residents roughly between the ages of 29 and 39. What I can appreciate about the show, as a 30-year-old gay man, is that these characters are not already fulfilled personally, romantically, or professionally; they strive to find happiness as much as any other person on television or in real life. I don’t, though, quite vibe with the characters themselves; to compare it again (groan) to Girls, these men come across as about ten years younger than they really are, seemingly struggling to find their footing despite not being dumped into the real world as post-grads.

As if to prove Richard Lawson’s observation that it’s almost impossible to criticize the show without criticizing the people who love it or hate it, blogger Andrew Sullivan ran his own Looking review yesterday on The Dish. I’ll be honest: I barely got through the opening paragraph without wanting to rip out my own hair:

A confession. I have long had an aversion to gay-themed plays, TV shows, movies, etc. I wasn’t born with it. I learned it. I learned it through what can only be called a series of cringes. I cringed at Philadelphia‘s well-intentioned hagiography of the “AIDS victim”; I cringed through Tony Kushner’s view of the plague as a post-script to the heroism of American communists; I winced at the eunuch, the sassy girlfriend, and the witty queen in Will And Grace; I had to look away as Ellen initially over-played her hand (understandably and totally forgivably, but still …). The US version of Queer as Folk was something I could not get out of my recoiling head for weeks – and I barely got through fifteen minutes of it. And please don’t ask me about Jeffrey. Please.

Um, what?

Look, I don’t like to throw around terms like “self-loathing,” but whenever I hear a gay man say something about avoiding culture that has, as its central theme, the gay experience… Well, I can’t not see a big, bright, pink neon sign flashing those words as rainbows burst forth from behind it.

But here’s the line that really killed me: “[Looking] is the first non-cringe-inducing, mass market portrayal of gay life in America since the civil rights movement took off.”

I can’t imagine another bit of hyperbole that brings with it so much offensive subtext. Andrew Sullivan wants us to believe that Looking and its characters are so much more real that any of Kushner’s tragic characters in Angels in America (a brilliant work of theatre that he ridiculously dismisses as some sort of communist propaganda), more real that the titular characters in Mort Crawley’s monumental play The Boys in the Band, even more realistic than the insipid B-movie comedy Bear City 2: The Proposal, which Sullivan gleefully promoted on his site because his partner, Aaron Tone, was in it. (Bear City, you may be surprised to learn, might just be even more cringe-worthy than the other two examples, which dramatically depict two important periods in the American gay experience.)

I wouldn’t call Sullivan a self-loathing gay man as much as I’d say that his review is indicative of a larger problem within the gay community that Looking has exposed: the inherent underlying misogyny that has allowed critics to claim that the characters on Looking are more “real” than any of the gay characters we’ve previously seen in film, on television, and on stage. Why is that? Because they aren’t catty queens like Jack on Will & Grace? Because their social lives don’t revolve around watching Drag Race contestants perform at clubs? Because they have the privilege of living in a very progressive city that allows them to live their lives with freedom, and they don’t worry about how their self-expression might put them in danger of assault? Because they have not yet expressed any fear of HIV/AIDS?

While I don’t think Looking needs to be about what the mainstream audience associates with the gay experience — the suffering, the plague, the fight for equal rights — it’s impossible to present these characters without at least acknowledging those issues in some way. And that’s because, despite what we like to hope, they are underlying problems that exist and that all gay men, especially those of the same demographic as Looking‘s three protagonists, face every day. To avoid them completely is to be dishonest.

It’s clear from Sullivan’s piece that he values the more masculine gay, the straight-acting gay, the gay whose wrist stays rigidly stiff. Sullivan doesn’t relate to those other kinds of gay men, and he wants to see less of them because they are stereotypes, whereas the boys on Looking, who sit around and smoke pot and eat mac and cheese and drink bourbon rather than pink cocktails, are real people.

The problem, of course, is that the Wills and Jacks you see on TV also represent real gay men. The Boys in the Band is still powerful because, even four decades later, those characters resonate with gay men today. I’d even suggest that the characters in Bear City 2 are also representative of gay men. Yet to place fictional gay characters into two camps — those on Looking and everyone else — only exposes how ridiculous and disingenuous this notion of “normal” really is.

Sullivan ends his gushing review of Looking with the line, “They are for the first time recognizable human beings who happen to be gay.” They happen to be gay. But the only reason that this show exists is because its protagonists are gay. It’s not an accident, it’s on purpose. The “premise” is the characters’ sexuality. Think about that for a moment. Isn’t it weird? That “Gay” is more of a genre than an experience?

The only thing these characters “happen” to be is the kind of gay men Andrew Sullivan, and many other viewers, would like to see on television. Yet gay men are — surprise — incredibly diverse. And to suggest that these characters are more real than anything we have seen before is not just to damn the great cultural achievements of the past, but also the real-life gay men who are not exactly like those on Looking — and who, believe it or not, are every bit as real as Sullivan and me.