By Eng-Beng Lim
If only “trashy looking for the same” could substitute for the overly earnest, self-same search of gay looking, ads and apps like Grindr might be slightly more inclusive, and maybe even fabulous. But until then, the erotic prerogatives of this gay libidinal economy need no justification as a tradition of looking with an established visual vocabulary around what counts as “the look,” who gets to look, and who is put on display.
For the uninitiated, “masculine looking for the same” is the planetary vulgate of white Gaytriarchy-speak with all the contours of liberal consciousness. The search is also a call for a common experience based on the visual logics of the market, private sexual preferences, and swipe-able “likes.” Tinder right, or tinder left, among other interfaces, is its new, fingering practice. What is there not to like? Who doesn’t like stories of beautiful white gay men looking for other beautiful white gay men? Well, such rhetorical questions as a starting point are precisely one of its many problems.
HBO’s original series, Looking, isn’t nearly as completely narcissistic but its romantic conceits navigate the same self-same terrain with the privileged “I” struggling with familiar racial phobias, liberal guilt, and the all-too-human foibles of gay men in San Francisco. There is a certain level of purity about its hegemonic gay vision that expresses itself ever so earnestly in the show, and its singular achievement is the dramatic makeover of white Gaytriarchy-speak into the dulcet tones of homonormative je ne sais quoi. This is perfectly played by lead character, Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff) whose nerdy sense of wonder at everything, renders a sweet, boyish affect as unthreatening as a bowl of noodles, or a kind of modern day, Castro district Peter Pan.
But Patrick’s day job as a video game designer puts him squarely in the conversation about the city’s “ruthless gentrification” by tech companies, an issue that is heavily sugar-coated by his inter-racial romance with Richie Ventura (Raul Castillo). The gay bar, Esta Noche, in the Mission District, a dive-y latino institution for drag queens, which inaugurated their romance is closed in real life to make way for “another swanky cocktail bar geared toward 20-somethings with disposable income.” The uncanny semblance of Patrick as a representative of that demographic, and his subsequent phobic reactions to Richie’s working class background are all part of the emotional fissures of gentrification.
But the show misses the opportunity to deepen an exploration of their tumultuous relationship through the lens of economic and racial violence. Generating an inter-racial encounter between Patrick and Richie appears to be the limit of its commentary. It turns the story instead into Patrick’s emotional histories involving his privileged upbringing, and his relationship with a persnickety mother. We know, in contrast, nothing about Richie’s background, or for that matter, any of the other characters. If there was any doubt Patrick is the central character of the show, the focus on his family, albeit short, puts that to rest. The show could well be retitled, Looking for Patrick, Looking with Patrick, or Looking like Patrick. He is, shall we say, the new poster child of gaytriarchy’s troubles.
Richie is, in this regard, no more than an emotive emollient or an exotic cipher for Patrick’s superficial psychic pain and class anxieties. His love for Patrick is poignant for its indescribable yearning to enter a world he has uneven or no access, and the show is both frank and brutal about this negative treatment. This makes the normative romantic contrivances of their extended date, lovingly captured in one episode where they become “tourists” in their own city, deeply problematic. It depicts Patrick’s openness to dating someone outside of his race and class as heroic while designating Richie as the good latino boyfriend. But as the show progresses, it is evident Patrick is not even really looking at Richie as a viable option.
In contrast to this slum dating, Patrick and his boss Kevin Matheson (Russell Tovey) have an affair with all the conventional markings of shiny gay desire, including brief sex scenes that invite our pornographic gaze on their bodies of ecstasy amidst material wealth.
The illicit dimensions of professional and emotional crossing in this case (Kevin has a boyfriend) are celebrated as dangerous and exciting, a version of the “good looking, masculine guy looking for the same.” But like the other sex scenes in the show, they are tantalizing snippets that draw on more mainstream imaginations of gay sex. In other words, they are discreet peepholes into gay sex acts, invoking what is deemed improper, including inter-racial threesomes, as a form of excitement. If they also seem readily consumable, it’s for a reason: they show nothing!
Looking is the product of our homonormative times with a sweet, blue-eyed, white gaytriarch bottom as a leading character. If Patrick’s gaze, a throwback to the 90s, is a way of looking, what does this mean for contemporary queer looks in the U.S.? How is it possible we are seeing a lot of different races and cultures but what is solely visible is the pink race of the gay middle class? Is diversity merely a front for the gay’geoisie-mode of living and looking? While Patrick is pondering on his next moves with his set of gay friends on the lookout (also an actual bar in Castro), we might turn to the avenger website, Grindr douchebag, to address the banality of gaytriarchal racism and class entitlement so painfully obvious to everyone except its perpetrators, including those smiling je ne sais quoi lookers so caught up with their own foibles to see what they are doing to their neighbors.