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.
Maybe I should have sucked it up and celebrated each and every portrayal of gay people in any form – after so many decades and centuries of invisibility or minstrelsy. But, like many members of any minority group seeing themselves portrayed for the first time on screen, I felt betrayed when my own life wasn’t depicted, my worldview was ignored, my politics wasn’t acknowledged. In many ways this was utterly irrational. But it was emotionally real. When there are so few cultural expressions of your core identity, the few become weighted with far more cultural baggage than they can hope to uphold. In a fraught time – between liberation and mass extinction, between criminality and civil equality – it was hard to forgive anything that might be conceived as counter-productive or inaccurate or ideologized.
The same dynamic operated the other way on me, as well. When I rather naively became a gay public figure by answering “yes” to the question, “Are you gay?” after I became the editor of The New Republic at the crazy age of 27, the shoe was on the other foot. Suddenly I was supposed to represent all “virtually normal” gay men, because I was one of very, very few out people in the mainstream media in 1991. And boy did I not represent them. I never claimed to, of course, and said so explicitly; but that really didn’t matter. I was out there and not representative of many others. So I had to be knocked off my perch in a period of great exhilaration but also great personal pain. Looking back, the necessary madness of that period, its extraordinary range of sheer emotion as we fought not just for our dignity but for our very lives, seems clearer and more understandable now. But no less painful.
So when the opening scene of the new HBO series, Looking, shows a young gay man cruising for sex in a public park, I tensed up. But almost as quickly I realized that this was the most meta of the show’s moments (I’ve been able to watch all four of the first few episodes). As the dude starts to grope around, his cell phone goes off, the other guy’s hands are freezing on his cock, he tries to answer the phone, then drops it into a ditch. His friends – out for a lark to see if old gay culture still exists in San Francisco – were calling him; and they reunite to talk about the fun in exploring the old world of cruising. And so the circle is complete. Gay culture has evolved into a million-petaled flower, and the old petals are still in there, but ironized for many, if still urgent for others. Gay life in 2014 is … well, finally just life.
I loved the show. It is the first non-cringe-inducing, mass market portrayal of gay life in America since the civil rights movement took off. Well, the first since Weekend, the breakthrough movie of 2011:
For some reason, it wasn’t until Aaron reminded me last night that both Looking and Weekend are by the same Andrew Haigh that I put it all together.
Along with Michael Lannan, Haigh is the first director and writer to actually bring no apparent cultural or ideological baggage to the subject matter. There is no shame here and no shadow of shame. There is simply living – in its complexity, realism, and elusive truth. To get to this point – past being either for or against homosexuality – is a real achievement.
The emotional conflicts, the awkwardness of dating, the mixed feelings about some aspects of gay culture, the workaholism, the weed, the generational divides, the girlfriends and monogamish coupling, the weddings and the fetishes, the bears and the twinks: it’s all here, and served crisply as a well-mixed cocktail on the rocks. Sometimes, its realism becomes mere darkness as the show is filmed in weirdly dark tones. Sometimes there’s a false note: I’ve never heard anyone use the expression “Drug-Disease-Free” in speech, for example. It’s only ever used – with chilling HIV-phobic effect – on the web. And yes, this is not yet what I’d like to be able to watch: a convincing drama about gay men in, say, Houston or Atlanta, in 2014. And it doesn’t have the nuances and writerly quirks of Girls, even as it is close to it in realism (but not as much sex as in Girls). There are also a few frustratingly implausible plot developments and unpersuasive character developments that accumulate as the shows progress.
But I nonetheless recognized the reality of gay life now in this show. And not just mine – but intimations of countless others. The characters are not minstrels; and they are not eunuchs. They are for the first time recognizable human beings who happen to be gay. And that’s enough. Actually, it’s more than enough.
It’s an arrival.
Some other reactions to the new HBO series, Looking, which I reviewed yesterday. We’ll be airing your views soon as well. Eric Sasson calls it “the first truly post-DOMA show, luxuriating in the mundaneness of gay men’s lives without needing to dress them up in mainstream television’s usual tropes of same-sex marriage, gay parenting and ‘acceptance.” Emily Nussbaum reaches a similar conclusion. But many are not so impressed. J. Bryan Lowder:
[Looking] is an almost unbearably boring television show. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times and Rich Juzwiak of Gawker have said so directly, and more positive reviewers have still intimated as much. But the adjective, one I would normally consider critically lazy, is so apt in this case that repetition is warranted. Looking is so boring, so utterly flat in terms of narrative or characterization, so in need of occasional pauses in which to perform a few jumping jacks to bring one’s heart rate up to resting, that I would opt out entirely if we gay men—or at least gay male culture critics—weren’t contractually obliged to watch.
Mick Stingley was also bored:
Gays have largely been depicted in television and movies as either extremely fun and funny (Will and Grace; The Birdcage) or starkly sad and depressing (Philadelphia; Angels in America) so perhaps it’s time for a Hollywood portrayal of gay life as normal, tedious, and bland. Makes straight guys seem together and interesting by comparison, though. And if this show really takes off, prepare yourselves for a world of boring gay men who blend in and will probably talk to you about last night’s game and drink bourbon.
And that would be wrong because … ? Stingley’s throwback piece was updated with this note:
We apologize to anyone offended by our attempt at humor in this piece. It reflects one man’s viewing experience. He does not think all gay people are boring. Just this show, a little.
I have to say that I think, in this regard, the show is way ahead of this particular critic. In the first place, it doesn’t attempt to explain a gay show to straight readers.
It assumes we are all in the mix and that straight guys will understand – and even be diverted – by a simple dramedy about life, sex and love in a big city. Esquire is still obsessing over the gay-straight divide, while this show is past that. Equally, there’s Stingley’s dated attempt to insist that gay men really should be more fun, more super-thanks-for-asking, more witty and interesting than straight men. There’s this sentence that leaps out:
If this show really takes off, prepare yourselves for a world of boring gay men who blend in and will probably talk to you about last night’s game and drink bourbon.
For me, that is not a bug of this show, or of the gay rights movement. I have longed for the day when gay guys and straight guys can both talk about last night’s game over a bourbon, if they want to. Stingley sees the dawn of a new equality and yearns for the past. Looking looks directly into the face of the present and begins to imagine a future.
A reader writes:
I enjoyed your review of the new TV show “Looking”, and I’m right there with you on your criticism of Philadelphia and Jeffrey and your praise for Weekend. I’m guessing we might agree on the bulk of gay films and TV shows out there.
Do yourself a favor and check out the new French film Stranger by the Lake [trailer here]. It’s a fantastic drama that just happens to take place within a specific sub-culture of the gay male population, but the story asks questions which can just as much be asked of anyone gay or straight: what are the risks of love and sex, and why do we take them? It’s honest and intelligent, but the bottom line is that it’s just plain entertaining as hell. I promise I’m not a troll working for the film’s publicity department. I’m just a film nerd always looking for good cinema that portray gay characters with honesty and respect and doesn’t treat us like fashion accessories.
Another sends the above trailer:
If you are looking for a more authentic account of gay life, try the film Keep the Lights On. It’s about a relationship that finally goes south because of one partner’s meth addiction, but overall it’s totally free of all the things that make you cringe. Ira Sachs, the director, has another film at Sundance right now, Love is Strange, which in some respects eerily resembles the case recently covered on The Dish about the teacher in the Pacific Northwest who lost his job when he got married. Anyway, I think you’ll find that Keep the Lights On beautifully represents a couple plagued by many troubles, none of them necessarily related to being gay.
Another looks back a decade:
I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Six Feet Under in your discussion of gay men in the media. The character of David Fisher (played by Michael C. Hall) was portrayed in such a compassionate, human way – we see him break up with his long term boyfriend because of his inability to come out; engage in a period of self-destructive behaviour; and eventually grow up, become emotionally healthier, come out, and form a family. For me, following the life of this character, which is written and acted so naturally (indeed, all the relationships in this show are astonishing for how natural and right they feel, even when they’re dysfunctional or falling apart) that it really hammered home the idea that ALL people have the right to form a family with whomever they choose.
I hear ya. There’s a lot of bad gay-themed drama out there, stuff that thought it could pull in an audience just because it was “gay-themed”, in a world where there wasn’t much in the way of gay-themed art; stuff that tried so hard to be “representative” or “sensitive” that it forgot to have characters (“Take Me Out” and dozens of others too forgettable to name); stuff that relied on the titillation factor of getting its characters naked (“Party”, “Naked Boys Singing,” “Take Me Out”); stuff that thought being shocking was enough (“Taxi Zum Klo,” “F*cking Men”); stuff where the gay men acted more like suburban couples from the Mad Men era (“Love, Valour, Compassion” – ugh!).
And, yeah, as brilliant as the British “Queer as Folk” was, I couldn’t get past the first episode-and-a-half of the American series.
In fact, in all my years of seeing gay-themed theatre in Chicago, I can think of just two plays so good I could recommend them to anyone without reservation. In the 1990s, “The Expense of Spirit” by Michael Barto, and from this decade, “The Homosexuals” by Philip Dawkins (a terrific young playwright with a half-dozen plays of diverse styles and themes under his belt – three of which were being performed simultaneously by different theatre companies in Chicago a year ago).
I look forward to seeing “Looking” (but since I don’t have cable, that won’t happen until it’s available on DVD).
Dissents Of The Day
A reader writes:
Can I nominate your review of “Looking” for a Poseur Alert? That show is a serious case of the emperor’s new clothes. As a 31-year-old gay man (who has only seen the first episode), I was hoping to see a gay version of “Girls” or at least a show that had something smart/interesting/funny to say. You act as if the fact it is boring is an achievement in itself. Just because gay people are “normal” does not mean they have to be boring. Straight girls may be normal but “Girls” is still innovative.
I feel like every time a new show comes out featuring gay people, they always say, “This isn’t a show about being gay, it’s just a show about people that happen to be gay.” Puhhlease. I have never seen a show more “about being gay” than “Looking,” which would be fine if it were at least fresh. “Six Feet Under” was doing gay relationships in a way more interesting way years ago, and that was really not a show “about being gay.”
“Will and Grace” was also not really a show about being gay, it was a sitcom featuring gay characters. I think your comments about it featuring “the eunuch” and “the sassy queen” say more about your own unresolved issues that seem really antiquated to someone like myself. (And how was Will a “eunuch” when the show regularly featured his dating and sex life? For god’s sake it was a network sitcom, not a bareback porno.)
The show took a long time to deal with Will as a sexual being, and, when it did, applied different standards than it did to Grace’s romantic life. Maybe I should have explained that more fully than resorted to a quip. But it may – again – be a generational as well as a personal response. In retrospect, the early nervousness about Will as a sexual being slowly dissipated. My reader was 15 when the show began. I was 35. Another:
Oh please, Andrew. I’m betting your “confession” is not news to most of your regular readership. (I’m a proud Founding Member – at the ridiculously low $1.99/month rate. I’m retired and on a fixed income, so I’m grateful for the subsidy.) Anyway, I think you’ve made your feelings abundantly clear over the years about your aversion to gay-themed entertainment.
While you obviously have the right to your opinions – that’s why I read you! – I think you’re being not quite honest about what seems like an almost Pavlovian reaction to “Angels In America” and “Will and Grace”. (We can agree to leave Jeffrey’s critique to folks who care.) I’m betting you’re still nursing wounds suffered during the initial AIDS epidemic. I know you were attacked – sometimes viciously – for daring to veer from ’80s/’90s gay orthodoxy, but I don’t need to remind you of how brutal those years were and how some of the gay community’s self-righteous anger actually transformed government policy. Yes, you got caught in the cross-fire, but our loved ones were dying horrible deaths and any conservative approach was just not going to cut it. I was in ACT-UP/L.A. in the ’80s, and the movers and shakers in that group were by and large leftist. (I remember being somewhat aghast during an demonstration/arrest when one of my “fellow travelers” confessed to actually being a “red.” I quickly got over my own aversion to this self-proclaimed Bolshevik. Like I said, people were dying.)
With regards to Angels, I saw the play in L.A. before its starring turn in New York. (Tony Kushner – still an unknown writer – was in the back row that night doing rewrites.) To see that play on stage – while the AIDS epidemic was still raging – was electrifying, not to mention funny and shocking and, in the end, moving. Yes, Kushner’s politics were unapologetically leftist, but what he wrote was a powerful indictment of the powers-that-be. So what if Ethel Rosenberg wasn’t portrayed as treasonous?? She was sharp – and she was hilarious. As far as “Will and Grace” goes, the case has been made many times that, by bringing gay men (whether they were kissing or not) into America’s living rooms, the highly successful sitcom did more for gay rights than anything outside a Supreme Court ruling. The fact that Will and Grace (and Jack and Karen) were part of the entertainment zeitgeist of the (gay) nineties was more kismet than you give it credit for. Let it go.
I have. The post was full of the sense that all of the emotional turmoil was completely understandable, if very painful. One more:
While I generally found your take on Looking accurate, I found myself in complete disagreement with one sentence: “this is not yet what I’d like to be able to watch: a convincing drama about gay men in, say, Houston or Atlanta.” This statement is based on the assumption that no such life exists in Houston or Atlanta, or at least not in the “just living” context that Looking seeks to illuminate about gay life in 2014. This statement assumes that if gay life exists at all in either of those places, it is still in the closet and shame driven Boys in the Band style. It also wreaks of East Coast elitism.
As a gay resident of Atlanta who has also lived in enough other places to have perspective from which to compare it, I can say your statements could not be further off base. First, I’ve lived as an out gay man in DC, Chicago, and Boston and I can say that Atlanta’s gay community is just as visible and vibrant as all three of those cities. Second, while the state’s politics are not as progressive, I can assure you that gay people in Atlanta live just as normal, baggage-free lives as the characters portrayed in Looking. The city’s and state’s politics are not all that different from the DC you lived in less than 5 years ago. Before the recent passage of same-sex marriage, was DC’s gay community cloaked in shame and secret codes? Did the gay residents of DC not live the same normal lifestyles you see on Looking today?
My reader misunderstands me. My point was precisely his. You could have portrayed this dimension of gay life without centering it in San Francisco. In some ways, I think the cutting edge is precisely in those cities, and it would have been a little fresher in perspective. But the reader response to all this reminds me again of how fraught the portrayal of minorities in the mainstream media can still be.
A reader quotes me:
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 don’t think you’re the only gay person with that cringe. I know as a lesbian, that’s been my entire experience with any sort of lesbian movie, TV show, play, etc. My girlfriends and I would sit through the L-Word, repeatedly asking ourselves why we were watching such horrible dreck, absolutely embarrassed at the portrayal of lesbians and none of seeing ourselves in any of them. We were just so thirsty to see anything that had even a passing connection to our own lives on the screen. Older lesbian movies of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s are even worse in how incredibly amateur they look and feel. And yet, I’ve seen nearly every one of them at least part way through, cringing the entire time.
It’s almost a tradition in the gay and lesbian community, I think. I can’t quite remember the exact quote or where I heard it, but I think it was while watching Turner Movie Classic’s fascinating June series a few years ago, Screened Out: Gay Images In Film. An older lesbian was interviewed talking about conversations in her group of any hint of a lesbian in movies of the ’40s and ’50s. Same sort of cringe, but watch anyway answer. She would call her friends and say, “There’s a lesbian in this film. I mean, she’s a vampire again, but let’s go see it!” You had your minstrels, we got the vampires.
But I have to say, a vampire lesbian would have been better than any of those characters on the L-Word.
Update from a reader:
I believe she’s thinking of this quote from The Celluloid Closet, 1995:
“We are pathetically starved for images of ourselves. So much so that, you know, a friend will call you up and say, ‘Oh, there’s this movie you must see -‘ this happened to me – ‘this movie, you’ve gotta see. There’s this incredible lesbian relationship in it, and there’s this great love scene, and – alright, they’re vampires! But you gotta see it, it’s great!” – Jan Oxenberg, Filmmaker, The Celluloid Closet.
A reader continues the thread:
As a 36-year-old gay man who came of age in the ’90s, and who also happened to be interested in independent film, I was left so cold by cinematic portrayals of gay men in that era. And yeah, don’t get me started on Jeffrey. I once dated a guy who just raved and raved about how much he loved that movie, and when he finally convinced me to watch it with him, I nearly broke up with him right on the spot. How could he and I possibly have anything in common? I drifted towards the edgier stuff, which, somehow, while angrier, was also less overtly gay (more like coded gay). Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, that sort of thing. I liked it because of what it wasn’t (Jeffrey), but try as I might, I couldn’t get past the fact that most of those movies were just bad.
I was a programmer for a gay and lesbian film festival for a few years in a major city in the early 2000s, and the state of gay cinema depressed the hell out of me. One in every 30 movies had anything at all I could grasp onto as being interesting, or in any way related to me, but I also soon came to see that’s just art in general. Most of it is bad, aimed at the middle of the road, and not meant to ruffle feathers or be offensive in any way, or worse, have a point of view.
I used to rail against Will & Grace. It perpetuated nasty stereotypes, it was de-sexualized, etc etc. Then I started watching it on syndication a few years ago at night during a particularly rough period of insomnia and realized it was actually hilarious. Karen and Jack are a scream, while Will and Grace, ironically, are both deadweights to that show, totally uninteresting. But comedy and stereotypes are always how minorities have ingratiated themselves into society. If you can get past how utterly stereotyped it actually is, you might allow yourself to be amused by it.
The older I’ve gotten the less and less I want anything to actually be about being gay. I much more readily appreciate entertainment that skillfully weaves a gay perspective into something else. As another reader pointed out, both Six Feet Under and The Wire had wonderfully and fully realized gay characters that were realistic, complex, and banal all at the same time. I think that speaks far more powerfully to the gay experience than any show that purports to be about the gay experience. My life as a gay man is not about being gay. It’s about all the interactions I have with all kinds of people and contexts everyday. I just happen to be a gay person doing it.
Another with experience in the area:
Thank you for your discussion about gays and films, as I find it very fascinating. Perhaps I can add some perspective on the issue as I was the operations manager for a gay and lesbian film festival here in Washington for almost 10 years.
I agree, many of the films we showed were cringe worthy, stereotypical or had ridiculous plots. Often times the acting was worse than wooden, in the direction amateurish. Nonetheless, over a ten day period, we would sell over 20,000 tickets. Partly that is because audiences were so hungry to see images of themselves on the big screen. Remember, it wasn’t until the late ’90s where regularly saw gay and lesbian characters in mainstream movies and TV. Where else could we find ourselves anywhere and be able to watch them in a safe place? For decades, gay characters have been presented as evil, perverted, or ended up dead. You cannot underestimate the importance of seeing our stories being told by our people on the big screen, especially for people who’ve been fed a steady diet that they are perverted or unwanted.
For minorities within the gay community this was even more important. If we showed a film that featured primarily black actors I can assure you the audience would be packed filled with blacks, and often times that was the only film they would come out to see. Movies from Asia were seen primarily by Asian audiences. Lesbians flocked to movies about lesbians.
Furthermore, there were indeed some films that were actually very done. Some of the very best films we ever showed were documentaries, and these told our stories in moving ways. If you missed those docs you really missed a major cultural impact, and I’m sure you missed important moments in our histories.
Our filmfest, along with the dozens of other filmfest held across the United States and the world, provided opportunities for up-and-coming filmmakers. Without our filmfests, there would be almost no opportunities for their films to be shown anywhere. We created a market for gay and lesbian films where there was none before. By creating that market we encouraged and nurtured young directors and filmmakers, who otherwise had no outlets for their talents. You have to start somewhere and we gave many filmmakers that critical boost early in their career.
Over the years the quality of the films dramatically increased. If you think the films are bad today you should’ve seen what was being shown in the early ’90s. Back then, there was very little to choose from and what was out there was poorly done. I believe that the role of these gay and lesbian film fests around the world played a significant part in increasing the general level of filmmaking.
If you want better filmmaking as an art form then you have to become a patron. It’s always easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize that no one is doing good work. But I can assure you, if no one supports an art form, no good work will ever arise. We need audiences and we need people to support the art, or else it will surely never improve. This is a virtuous cycle, and by being a patron you can be a part of it. Just being part of the audience helps these from the filmmakers immeasurably. If you can take on the role of being a true patron of the arts then quality filmmaking will be happen even faster.