“Everyone is paid to be everywhere; it’s called an economy.”
— Christine, The Girlfriend Experience, episode eleven, ‘Fabrication’
Being rich and earning a lot of money is relentless, wearying work and having to work at relationships and intimacy is a further burden on the already time-poor. When rich men engage ‘the girlfriend experience’ they get more than just sex (as if ‘just sex’ were even a thing). With the girlfriend experience there are add-ons: comfort, affection, glamorous company, intellectual stimulation, distraction, flattery, an empathic ear—or at least an authentic-seeming performance of it, which is just as good. Of course there is sex, negotiated within certain parameters, but there is also a customised form of intimacy that is obliging and undemanding. The girlfriend experience is a bespoke romantic service, tailored to individual sexual and emotional needs. It is a rarefied form of sex work for an exclusive clientele, although in many ways the women’s labour is utterly mundane.
The Starz network’s reboot of the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film The Girlfriend Experience, shares its precursor’s conceit of a smart, beautiful young woman doing this kind of high-end sex work. The series revolves tightly around the working life of Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a law student who secures a highly competitive internship at a top-tier Chicago law firm that deals with intellectual property. Fellow law student Avery (Kate Lyn Sheil) recognises her classmate’s distinctive attributes and introduces Christine to the world of premium sex work by setting up her first ‘date’ and connecting her with her ‘booker’, Jacqueline (Alex Castillo). Christine is soon multi-tasking her internship, law school and after-hours escort work as ‘Chelsea’—“burning the candle at three ends,” as she puts it. Soderbergh is executive producer but the series is written and directed by showrunners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. Comprising thirteen half-hour episodes, season one documents Christine’s life distributed across these three competing spheres of school, office and sex work, which intersect in more than symbolic ways.
Christine is white, beautiful, smart and ambitious. She possesses a highly competitive suite of personal and professional advantages: erotic capital, mobility, technological literacy, education. Her skills and competencies make her especially attractive to certain elite segments of the job market: she’s assertive, brutally direct, motivated, and effective. She demonstrates a willingness to take calculated risks, deliver outcomes and work around the clock.
We quickly learn how some of these attributes apply to the sexual realm when Christine hooks up with a stranger in the first episode, titled ‘Entry’. She’s in a noisy bar when she spots a handsome young professional. She approaches, leans in and says something that he doesn’t hear. “I want to fuck you,” she repeats. In the next scene they’re in the man’s upscale but anodyne apartment and Christine is on top—a setting and sexual motif we’ll see again and again throughout The Girlfriend Experience. She gets off and sits on a couch opposite the man, masturbating. “Tell me what you like about this,” she orders.
Christine is confident and detached. We’ve already seen her nail an interview to secure her future at the prominent law firm, Kirkland & Allen. “You just say their own words back to them,” she explains to Avery affectlessly. “It’s what they want.” Her boss’s first instruction to “copy and paste” legal letters is an early reminder that time is money; every moment of (billable) time wasted, is money wasted. She is neither awed nor baffled by the corporate realm’s outwardly intimidating, looking-glass world. This same disposition helps Christine attract clients and dispense with them when required. These men are either fascinated by her opacity, or else happy enough to project their desires into her languid void. Her combination of confidence and detachment gives her a competitive advantage in entrepreneurial, neoliberal employment markets—confidence is good for leveraging your personal brand; detachment helps keep you mobile and flexible. In both her day and night roles Christine is ruthlessly pragmatic and self-assured.
We next see Christine preparing to leave the guy’s apartment. He tells her she can stay, which is a solicitation to further intimacy, but she turns him down, politely but with chilly civility. Men are instrumental in Christine’s world until they exceed their value, or they become obstacles or threats. The guy she has just fucked is inconsequential. He looks like a younger version of David (Paul Sparks), her boss at Kirkland & Allen, who she will have an affair with later in the season. The same guy approaches her later, in another bar where she’s having a drink with Avery. She’s forgotten his name and makes little attempt to conceal her indifference. She could be warmer, friendlier, offer him the impression of interest and potential availability, but why should she waste time and emotional energy when there is so little in it for her? It’s not that Christine is cruel—it’s just an obvious calculus of human resources. “I just don’t enjoy spending time with people,” she tells her sister, a lawyer, over a strained dinner. “I find it a waste of time, and it makes me anxious.”
Transparent is a family drama-comedy that circles around the later-in-life gender transition of Maura Pfefferman. Maura, born ‘Mort’ (Jeffrey Tambor), is a retired professor of political science. Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) is re-married to Ed Paskowitz (Lawrence Pressman), who is now debilitated by aphasia and has lost the ability to talk. Their three smart, charismatic, and self-absorbed children Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman) grew up in a large mid-century house in the Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles.
There’s a key scene in the much-discussed pilot in which Maura reveals to her children that she is planning to sell the family home. Actually, she intended to come out to them; and they, anticipating a significant revelation, are worrying (fantasising?) that their father has cancer. Maura and her children are sitting around the dinner table, talking over one another and making offhand jokes. A circular camera movement shows them eating ribs with their fingers and smearing barbecue sauce on their faces.
PULL QUOTE: A circular camera movement shows them eating ribs with their fingers and smearing barbecue sauce on their faces.
The 360-degree pan establishes some important things. The rotation from one family member to the next foreshadows the outlook the series itself will take, shifting among Pfefferman protagonists, never settling for too long on a single perspective. It also shows us a rolling family intimacy with very few clear boundaries. The Pfefferman family style is loose and disinhibited – very Euro-American migrant, very Jewish. Sarah affectionately wipes sauce off her father’s face. “Let him be as messy as he wants,” Ali protests, “We’ll hose him down at the end.” “We come from shtetl people,” Maura concludes. Their messiness is multi-dimensional and has a long history.
As well as intimacy, the circular camera movement suggests claustrophobia. Kinship is closeness but it’s also a kind of custody. The shtetl begets the ghetto. Maura’s grown up children are heavily dependent on their father, but not necessarily dependable; coming-out and selling the house promises her a kind of escape from the ghetto.
Transparent’s writer and director Jill Solloway has also spoken about the “circularity” of Maura’s story, implying that it is a self-consciously feminist mode of storytelling. Maura’s narrative will not follow the progressive, linear arc of the Hero’s Journey. Indeed, all of the Pfeffermans seem to move in circles; returning again and again to the Palisades house, turning repeatedly back to face the family past. This is where we find them at the end of the series: sitting around the family table, together, again. Histories of shame and of family secrets become part of a painful consciousness of negativity in the present, but also an imperative for understanding the family more honestly. Looking back in Transparent is a kind of queer disruption to the present.
Selling the house is a good initiatory conceit because cleaning up and sorting through possessions foregrounds family memory.
The Pfefferman home is one of those gorgeous Hollywood Hills-style houses with cantilevered rooms and the classic ‘post-and-beam’ design by legendary California modernist architects Buff and Hensman – how is it that, after the divorce from Shelly, Maura ended up as its custodian? In contrast, Shelly lives in a ’90s condo in a gated retirement community in Marina del Rey, all glass and concrete minimalism.
There is baggage symbolism in the first few episodes as the house gets packed up and Maura’s children are called upon to deal with the artefactual history of their lives. The state of the house literalises the dredging-up-of-the-past that Maura’s coming-out initiates. A big mess of stored memories tipped all over the floor, now made visible and needing to be dealt with. The Pfeffermans have so much shit to sort through.
For three entitled, semi-financially dependent adult children, selling the family house is a form of material and psychic upheaval. They all feel entitled to it in different ways. Sarah, Josh, and Ally are adult babies. “How did I raise three such selfish kids?” Maura asks her support group. In place of her plan to come out, Maura’s announcement of the sale is like an unconscious punishment, a tough lesson about adulthood.
PULL QUOTE: Finally being transparent with her children is liberating for Maura, but it has consequences.
Finally being transparent with her children is liberating for Maura, but it has consequences. Transparency promises a type of freedom, but also a new set of obligations and challenges. Maura takes her boxes and moves on to the next part of her life, a queer-friendly apartment complex named ‘Shangri-La’ in West Hollywood, leaving her children to squabble over the debris.
Explaining his hopes for his relationship with me, a lover once said that he imagined we would be “transparent” with one another. I don’t remember the other things he said, because I became fixated on the term “transparent”. I told him it was a good “buzzword”. I was mocking the term in the same gesture as approving of it. Transparency is a kind of liberty, but complete transparency is aspirational only.
Josh is reluctant to deal with the family mess because he’s busy being a hipster music executive, a complicated womaniser, and a relationship junkie. (“He wants to see in your eyes that you love him; that you’ve never met anyone like him before,” Ali’s best friend Syd, played by Carrie Brownstein, says.) That is until Sarah discovers an old cereal box belonging to him with an archive of love letters from Rita, the children’s much older babysitter with whom teenage Josh had a relationship. The Josh/Rita relationship was and remains an open family secret to which Mort and Shelly had more or less turned a blind eye. Transparent is too intelligent to present the relationship in the narrative mold of sexual predation, even though it was, legally speaking, statutory rape. Parental neglect is multifaceted.
“Baggage” is a good metaphor for secrecy and transparency, because packing and unpacking involves hiding and revealing and (re-)discovering things. When airport baggage security officers detect something dangerous in your toiletries case, like nail scissors, they are supposed to give you the option of a private room before they begin emptying things out for all to see: make-up, condoms, antidepressants. Some things are packed away with the assumption that they will remain private.
Sarah kind of anxiously blackmails Josh into coming to their father’s house by telling him she’s found the letters. It’s a small inter-relational exchange that makes little sense under any lens of emotional honesty or self-awareness, but it’s clearly part of a rusted-on sibling dynamic. Much of what we pack away is archived in our mind at some level, but some possessions are deliberately or otherwise forgotten. The re-discovery of Rita’s letters opens a rotten can of worms.
Sarah, a Silver Lake stay-at-home mum, is the eldest and the first to discover – and ostensibly accept – that her father has spent a lifetime dressing up as a man. In its austerity and serenity, the coming-out scene is astonishingly moving.
Sarah has also rediscovered and resurrected something from her past – a sexually charged romance with Tammy (Melora Hardin), her college girlfriend. She decides to let her explosive affair with Tammy detonate her life with husband Len Novak (Rob Heubel) and their two kids: the (queer) past disturbing the present. Solloway does an excellent job of choreographing sexy, credible-feeling sex scenes in Sarah and Tammy’s relationship without pandering to the dynamics of a male gaze. Neither is Sarah demonised for being a mother who destroys her nest.
Maura’s gender transition chimes for Sarah with her own intimate upheavals. They’re both radical and material forms of family transformation. Sarah’s acceptance and support of her father is warm and immediate. It’s also convenient, as she needs to move back into the Palisades home. Although Sarah seems pragmatic enough about all the accumulated baggage in the Palisades house, by mid season Tammy has moved in with her, and Sarah has allowed her to do a complete interior makeover.
Josh is the character who behaves the most badly in response to Maura’s coming-out, so he is an antagonist of sorts. He is also the last to find out. He tells his sisters that he thinks their father is “losing his mind” and claims she just wants to be the center of attention. “You guys think this is real?” What makes Maura’s gender real for him is an encounter with her bedroom in the new West Hollywood apartment: her vanity, wigs, and other intimate possessions on display. There is an intransigent materiality to possessions, and the material is sometimes powerfully gendered.
Perhaps Josh has always suspected (feared?) that he didn’t have a (real man for a) father, in the subconscious, Freudian sense. This suspicion (hope?) is literalised by Maura’s transition. Perhaps Josh feels resentful because he’s the only man in a family of powerful women? This may have its privileges, but may also feel like abandonment, like too much to carry. The Pfefferman women tend to infantilise Josh; accordingly, he behaves like a frustrated and spoiled child.
Shelly still calls Josh “Joshy”. She sometimes seems a bit of a caricature of a kibitzing, chalishing LA Jewish mother: “Have you met my Joshy?” she asks Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn). “He’s single and he’s very handsome.” But Solloway understands that jokes about Jewish mothers and Jewish mothers-in-law can be reductive and misogynistically-tinged. I grew up around women like Shelly who were in my family or the mothers and grandmothers of my friends. Their fussing and interfering can sometimes operate like a trench in which they protect themselves from that which is too distressing or too complicated to resolve. Shelly too has had to hold the weight of Pfefferman secrets, alongside but estranged from Maura.
Josh is beginning to reckon with the effects of Rita. His official line has been that he was lucky to have boned a sexy older women – every teenage boy’s fantasy. He’s still fucking Rita many years later and seems hopelessly dependent on her affection. He confronts her and asks why his parents never intervened. She says they are “very strange people”. We don’t know much about Rita though it’s possible she’s been telling Josh this story for a long time. Josh is furious with her but he’s even more furious at his parents. When he finds out about Maura, he yells at his mother, shaming her in front of Rabbi Raquel:
It’s clear why Dad wasn’t around. Because he was playing Little Bo Peep, but what about you, Mom? What’s your excuse? Have you got a little secret of what you were doing while you were paying Rita to distract me with her tits?
Josh’s distress about his father is childishly re-directed at his mother. Mothers are a repository for family problems and pain. But what was Shelly doing?
The Pfeffermans are cultural Jews, meaning they maintain some rituals, like Friday Shabbas. They make Holocaust jokes, use Yiddish words, and have a standing bagel order at Cantor’s Deli. Otherwise, they are secular. The Pfeffermans allowed Ali to cancel her own batmitzvah on account of her professed atheism. Shelley admits to Ali that the bat mitzvah was cancelled because Mort wanted to go to a trans camp that weekend which she calls “Camp Woman Wonka”. Ali tells Rabbi Raquel that it was “awful, horrible parenting”.
The camp is actually called “Camp Camellia”, an underground drag community camp in the woods. Mort and his cross-dressing friend Mark aka “Marcie” (Bradley Whitford) visit Camp Camellia in an entire episode flashing back to 1994. Mort’s alibi is an academic conference at which key historical information will be revealed about the Rosenberg trial. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as traitors for providing American secrets to the Soviet Union in 1951. Historians have feverishly debated whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or innocent of the charges, and the extent to which antisemitism informed the accusations. It’s a telling history for a man hiding his gender identity, as Cold War culture in American was freighted with secrecy, suspicion, and paranoia. In the Rosenberg case, Communism and Judaism were conflated. Another part of this history is that the Communist closet also overlapped with the queer closet. Cold War culture generated racial and sexual paranoias as part of its mechanisms of maintaining the family, the nation, and the American way of life.
Like the shifts in perspective, it’s not always clear whose memories are recounted in Transparent’s flashbacks, nor whether these retrospections are entirely reliable. While Maura is at Camp Camellia, Ali is left home alone and escapes to the beach. Ali’s memories of this are both melancholy and opaque. She may have lost her virginity the weekend she was supposed to have her batmitzvah. At this time, Maura was often absent in her own world of furtive yearning.
PULL QUOTE: The Pfeffermans’ best kept secret may have been the truth about Maura’s gender, but other secrets are cultivated, both as a form of intimacy, and also of manipulation.
A lack of transparency is sometimes a means of maintaining the status quo. Think of the way in which people hide extra-marital relationships or conjugal unhappinesses. The Pfeffermans’ best kept secret may have been the truth about Maura’s gender, but other secrets are cultivated, both as a form of intimacy, and also of manipulation. Maura promises money to all of her children and instructs them to keep these transactions a secret from their siblings. “Because that’s our family religion, right? Secrecy,” Ali says.
The trauma of (re-) discovering family pasts can be a queer kind of trauma. That is, retrospection or looking back at something painful from the past can upset—and transform—our understanding and perception of the sexual and gender status quo in the present.
Josh visits Rabbi Raquel at temple and he arrives just as she is winding up a sermon with the story of how Moses and the Jewish people wandered the desert for forty years after the exodus from Egypt. The fine print of this story is that the freshly liberated Israelites were in fact very close to the Promised Land but they were waywarded by Moses, in cahoots with God, so that those who had lived as slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt would die out before they arrived. Nobody with the memory of slavery was allowed to enter, even Moses himself; God was sure that the living memory of serfdom would contaminate freedom in the holy land. That’s a seriously biblical method of dealing with collective trauma.
And yet, in the persistence of the re-telling of the Exodus story every year during Passover, the requisite to remember is upheld. Generations of Jews became inheritors of this injunction to remember the slavery in Egypt. It’s a kind of conflicted relationship to the traumatic past. Don’t remember/remember. There are related types of memory paradoxes among Jews in the passing on of Holocaust memory. Past trauma is painful, sometimes so horrible it is unspeakable. But there is an injunction to speak about it and speaking about it can be transformative in the present. Looking back at histories of queer suffering and secrecy can also both undo and upset the present, and transform it.
We are encouraged to view gender as innate, as a product of the body’s biology, but influential theories of gender have shown us the ways in which gender is relational. That is, social environments—including powerful institutions, groupings of men, and families, for example—shape our ways of relating with others. When the gender of a family member changes, so too does the familiar social script, and we must negotiate and manage new and possibly unfamiliar roles and relationships. The families of trans people may participate in a radical process of “undoing” and “re-doing” gender. “It just means we all have to start over,” says Ali.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Phil Maciak writes:
Transparent asks what happens to a family when one of its foundational parts reveals itself to be something unexpected. It’s about that revelation, about that process of self-discovery and identification, but it’s also about the relationality within the group. Mort is now Maura, and the show is dedicated to focusing on that evolution, but what, it also asks, does that make everybody else?’
Shelly becomes a widow at the end of the series. What makes this a groundbreaking TV representation is that in wanting Ed’s life to be over, Shelly is not demonised for supposedly abdicating the woman’s caretaker role. Shelly has endured unbearable isolation and feels abandoned by her children. Like Maura’s transition, Ed’s death will be a relief for Shelly but will have consequences for her relationship with her children. Becoming a widow is a life change that precipitates a role change that precipitates relational change.
PULL QUOTE: They adjust previous perceptions of their father’s gender, but also, in so doing, their understanding and practice of existing gender and sex-related roles.
Put simply, “undoing and re-doing gender” is the active resistance of a traditional gender script, and it happens in relational ways. The Pfeffermans are engaged in this process as they adjust previous perceptions of their father’s gender, but also, in so doing, their understanding and practice of existing gender and sex-related roles. Gaby Hoffman, who plays Ali, says, “Maura’s coming out is invigorating, in ways which are positive and difficult; it’s turning everyone on, not sexually, but maybe a little of that too.”
At the Shabbas dinner table Maura takes on (and transforms) the Jewish matriarchal role of lighting the candles and saying the blessings. Ali invents the name ‘Mopa’, a portmanteau of ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’. Sarah starts using it. People tackle gender transformations in the family using both creative strategies and pragmatic approaches, while often continuing to honour timeworn rituals.
“After all our history, after all these deaths, we still don’t… have a gay culture… We have our sexuality and we have made a culture out of our sexuality, and that culture has killed us. I want to say this again: We have made sex the cornerstone of gay liberation and gay culture, and it has killed us.”
—Larry Kramer, The Advocate, May 27 1997.
The Normal Heart got a bunch of Primetime Emmy award nominations this year: Mark Ruffalo for his mannered and actually quite restrained lead performance as the relentless Ned Weeks; Julia Roberts for her supporting actress portrayal of furiously reasonable moral compass Dr. Emma Brookner; outstanding directing from Ryan Murphy of Glee fame (congratulations for bringing things down a couple of notches, Ryan); and, among the others, the ‘Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special’ nomination for Larry Kramer who adapted his roman à clef AIDS crisis agitprop play (1985) into the HBO drama upon which it is very closely based. In the end it only managed to claim ‘Outstanding Television Movie’, which it had also already won at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards, alongside the Best Supporting Actor in a Movie/Miniseries award for Matt Bomer.
The Normal Heart left me feeling devastated, insulted, and unresolved, so it definitely does some things right. The Liberation to Crisis narrative contains endless potential for all kinds of feelings. One of its principle fascinations is the brutal transformation of bodies from beautiful, proud embodiments of fleshy eroticism to frail, lesioned objects of suffering and sentiment, alongside resistance and rage. These images incite complex viewing pleasures and ethics, about which countless books on the politics of representation have been written. How a film handles the transformation and to what ends it serves is one of the questions at issue.
The Normal Heart seems destined to enter the pantheon of popular American AIDS movies whose version of this history will become the version that millions of people across the globe call upon for their memories of this time.
Among critics, the verdict has been almost unanimous: affecting, accolade-worthy performances from a sturdy and convincing cast; a powerful, heartbreaking melodrama of anger, resistance, compassion, and care; a vital contribution to the ever-expanding film archive of the early years of AIDS crisis in its urban American (mostly gay male) epicentres. “The Normal Heart might be HBO's most important movie” reads the title of an article on Vox. Says Slate TV critic Willa Paskin: “If some of this material — scenes of lesions and deathbeds, of men being denied the right to say goodbye to their lovers — is becoming a part of the tragedy canon, so be it: It belongs.” This effusiveness may partly represent some relief at seeing a familiar gay political drama after the confusing politics of a white, male, homophobe AIDS hero in Dallas Buyer’s Club. There's a sense that this screen remake will become an essential dramatic document of the era. Alongside Philadelphia and Angels in America and Buyer’s Club, The Normal Heart seems destined to enter the pantheon of popular American AIDS movies whose version of this history will become the version that millions of people across the globe call upon for their memories of this time.
But Larry Kramer is a fraught figure. On the one hand, he’s been a hero of AIDS activism for over thirty tireless years. He was a co-founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (from which he was later expelled – the circumstances around which are dramatised in both stage and screen versions of The Normal Heart) and after that he founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Yes, the man started ACT UP – the most prominent activist organisation to emerge from the crisis; that frank, furious, and relentless movement whose in-yer-face theatrical modes of demonstration became a watershed in modern activism. That ACT UP’s signature political stylings echoed the personal and political modus operandi of people like Kramer – unable and unwilling to temper either the message or the medium to make it palatable to the mainstream – is also the stuff of endless activist chronicles. The man, almost in his eighties now, is due his place in the canon of AIDS histories.
Kramer has long been a pugnacious ambassador for a version of gay life and gay politics that privileges monogamous love above all other forms of erotic expression.
On the other hand, Kramer has long been a pugnacious ambassador for a version of gay life and gay politics that privileges monogamous love above all other forms of erotic expression. Even before he wrote The Normal Heart – even before AIDS – he was writing furious polemics against the drugs and promiscuity of 1970s-era Liberation culture. His feelings about gay men and promiscuity are well known and well matured. Earlier this year, he came out with characteristically scathing comments against US federal health recommendations that certain people at risk of exposure to HIV take Truvada, the antiretroviral drug that HIV negative people can take as a preventative measure against seroconversion. His public position on treatment-as-prevention is just the latest in a long and legendary and specifically political type of slut-shaming of gay men who don’t pursue monogamy, in this instance contributing to the growing personification of men who elect to take these drugs for preventative purposes as ‘Truvada whores’. Kramer’s words:
“Anybody who voluntarily takes an antiviral every day has got to have rocks in their heads… There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom. You’re taking a drug that is poison to you, and it has lessened your energy to fight, to get involved, to do anything.”
Decades of radical, queer, and feminist political thought has questioned the centrality of equality rhetoric and the demand to be included in the failed institutions of the majority (like marriage).
Putting to one side the logic that a pharmaceuticals-promiscuity nexus works to (further) fatigue or demobilise gay men as an active political constituency, there is an irony in the assumption that Kramer’s preferred arrangement of intimacy – love and coupledom – would do otherwise. This irony is that decades of radical, queer, and feminist political thought has questioned the centrality of equality rhetoric and the demand to be included in the failed institutions of the majority (like marriage), arguing that it is these very institutions that de-politicise us.
This old issue of the sluts vs the suits may seem a little far away from what appears to be another fairly standard admission into the cinematic catalogue of AIDS Crisis revisitations, but in fact, I would say that it’s at the very political and emotional heart of this adaptation’s take on AIDS history. There is, in other words, a very robust argument to be made that HBO’s adaptation of The Normal Heart works to vindicate the rancorous anti-promiscuity polemics of its writer Larry Kramer.
The promiscuity problem and Kramer’s ambivalence about it is foregrounded revealingly in the opening sequence of the film. Not yet an activist, the character of Ned Weeks (the fictional stand-in for Kramer) gets off a boat at Fire Island in 1982, on the cusp of gay Armageddon. As in so many recollections of this place at this time, it’s a writhing cornucopia of Let’s Get Physical short shorts, muscular physiques, never-ending parties, and sex. To my eyes, HBO’s version looks more like the manicured, circuit-party aesthetics of The Gay ‘90s than Fire Island in the early ‘80s, especially when Ned and co attend what appears to be a ‘White Party’. It’s a bit weird given the White Parties began a few years later as HIV/AIDS fundraisers, but whatever: the main point is that this timeless homosexual bacchanal becomes shorthand for gay paradise on the eve of the apocalypse.
Some background: before this Fire Island prelude, Kramer had already published the novel Faggots (1978), an anti-promiscuity screed dressed up as fictional narrative. Like in The Normal Heart, Faggots’ protagonist, Fred Lemish, is a version of his author. Lemish, who wants to find love but feels thwarted by 1970s ‘fast lane’ New York gay culture, spends the novel wandering through one-nighters, orgies, and glory holes in notorious bathhouses, encountering poppers, quaaludes, PCP, LSD, pot, booze, valium, coke, and heroin en route. Because Kramer’s critique of urban gay sexual and drug culture had already made him a controversial figure, when The Normal Heart’s Ned arrives on the beach at Fire Island in '82, naturally, some languid faggots tell him to fuck right off. Not only is he bad PR for Gay Liberation, he’s a pretty serious killjoy. “You made us look terrible in your novel”, his pal tells him, explaining why he’s suddenly so unpopular. “Look around you, sex is liberating!” “All I said,” Ned responds, “was having so much sex makes finding love impossible.” Cue handsome young man (Jonathan Groff, the movie’s first AIDS casualty) dropping to the sand.
This brief early exchange is one of the film's flaccid gestures to the centrality of pleasure and desire to gay men at the time, even in the increasingly fraught, devastating and politically hostile world that AIDS would soon bring about. But as a gesture it remains just that – gestural. Had the adaptation been serious about considering the implications of a liberation sexual ethos in the early years of AIDS, it might have also at the very least dramatised the ways in which intimate sexual networks formed the basis for the informal and improvised infrastructure that literally invented – and then disseminated – the life-saving message and practice of safer sex with condoms. Although it makes it clear that it's a thing, The Normal Heart doesn’t say especially much that explains the emotional and political importance of sexual freedom and experimentation among gay men at that time. Here's a snapshot from John Rechy on it in his watershed work on these politics, The Sexual Outlaw (1977):
“Because our sex was forbidden harshly and early by admonitions of damnation, criminality, and sickness, sexual profligacy became... an essential, even central, part of our lives, our richest form of contact, at times the only one.“
I don’t know how these ideas might have more meaningfully evolved in the drama when the drama is Larry Kramer’s activism, but leaving them out of the story presents little opportunity for audiences three decades after the fact to make sense of gay men’s early reluctance to ‘cool it’. But this isn’t the story Kramer cares about. Instead, The Normal Heart ends with a deathbed wedding between Weeks and his lover, Felix (Matt Bomer) and this is the logic of its political trajectory.
But back to Fire Island: for Weeks, there is already something rotten about the culture gay men have made for themselves here. A couple of his friends are waxing their nicely toned chests, upon which another of his friend’s comments: “If you can’t beat them join them”. But Ned remains unconvinced. He can smell the rot of false consciousness in the air and he buttons up his shirt.
Weeks/Kramer is presented as a prescient figure – it’s as if he knows what is coming, and how best to respond. While he’s on Fire island, he drifts past an orgy in the sand dunes that is the first of two sex scenes in The Normal Heart that are shot in a dreamy, stylised way, contrasting with later scenes of tender, romantic sex between Ned and his lover Felix (Matt Bomer). The other of these is a bathhouse flashback that is scored and edited like a TV advertisement, clearly situating it in the genre of commercial flesh trade. It’s so completely weird in this otherwise realist narrative that you can’t help but feel you’re being preached to. Ruffalo’s character has to be literally reminded of this past encounter because he’s forgotten it, repressed it, like Philadelphia’s Tom Hanks did to a similarly guilt-ridden flashback to the porn cinema where he not only cheated on his partner but also contracted HIV. What we will come to understand over the course of The Normal Heart and the thirty years of gay politics that followed its events is something that Weeks/Kramer already knows: that there are two types of gay sex, one is normal, and the other is lacking in heart. After witnessing the sand dunes orgy, Weeks is back on the boat to the mainland; over his shoulder the camera shows us that he is reading the famous ‘Rare cancer diagnosed in 41 homosexuals’ article that heralded the first media account of a mysterious new disease.
If you think really hard about this moment in queer history, as many writers and thinkers and filmmakers have, it seems like the most unremittingly, unimaginably unfair that shortlived sexual freedoms would contribute to the conditions of ecological disaster. It’s kind of mind blowing, no matter how many times you muse on it. Worse still is to contemplate the fact that so many saw – or were frenziedly encouraged to see – in this disaster the horizon of a fair punishment. It’s also impossible to think about it – to really imagine that moment – without knowing what was coming next, after the orgy. This is obvious, of course, but the politics of The Normal Heart depends on this retroactive narrative logic: there is no seeing or knowing – of judging – that beach party without the sobering biblical story of paradise interrupted – the fall of Eden, the Genesis flood, Sodom and Gomorrah – when the ineluctable penalty for mankind’s crime against god ensues.
When that causal arc from promiscuity in one decade to AIDS in the next is drawn, it dumps the oldest of sexual moralities upon what is a historical process.
Periods of economic and cultural decline, such as the Great Depression in the ‘30s, are often similarly narrated as the inevitable consequence of the previous era’s recklessness and moral turpitude. But there have to be ways to restrain this narrative logic. When that causal arc from promiscuity in one decade to AIDS in the next is drawn, it dumps the oldest of sexual moralities upon what is a historical process.
After sex and death come politics. The rest of The Normal Heart is essentially a series of speeches turned into people talking to each other. Surprisingly watchable, given the original play is a hectoring, strident piece of agitprop. Ned Weeks is a mouthpiece of unapologetic rage against government inaction and what was an unspoken official policy of negligence in the US under Reagan. He’s furious also at the gay community for its timidity, its fear of marginalising potentially supportive agencies with bad press, and he’s especially angry at closet cases in powerful places. His public ‘outing’ of some of the latter was one of the many embarrassments that saw him kicked out of GMHC.
We get a gracious break from Kramer’s endless badgering in the story of Dr. Emma Brookner, based on real-life doctor Linda Laubenstein, M.D., and played here by Julia Roberts. I have said harsh things about Julia Roberts behind closed doors, mostly concerning the film Eat Pray Love, but she is nothing if not good at acting angry. If physicians in such films, severed from traditional Hippocratic values, are often adrift in an unethical universe, here we get a doctor on the right side of history. Even if the depiction is completely hagiographic, it’s refreshing after Jennifer Garner’s Dallas Buyer’s Club doc rendered entirely helpless and desperate by the film’s slightly conspiracy-theory version of medical and drug administrative corruption and malpractice. One thing the AIDS movie tends to show us is how inhospitable the modern hospital has become, and characters like Brookner restore some of our faith in the capacity of medical institutions to administer compassion and care. The best moment in the film involves her ripping a medical research funding review board a new arsehole for not funding her research – or any research – on the still mysterious sexually transmitted disease that by then had killed hundreds. The scene is on YouTube. Watch it.
But because Brookner is another prophetic figure (she knows anecdotally that HIV/AIDS – at this stage still ‘the gay cancer’ or ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’ – is almost certainly transmitted sexually), The Normal Heart has to make her into another spokesperson against rampant sex. This is in spite of Weeks’ warning to her that you simply can’t tell gay men to stop having sex: “Do you realise you are talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity as their main political agenda? They think sex is all they have.” When the good doctor delivers the message then it’s not only rational, common sense, it’s science.
Both director Ryan Murphy and lead Mark Ruffalo have said things in interviews that disclose the politics of their sympathies with Kramer and his play. For Ruffalo, what he admired most about Kramer was that he saw in gay men more than just sex:
Thanks Mark Ruffalo. For Murphy, the message was even more unequivocally about stressing the telos of Kramer’s thinking with the (ideo)logic of the current moment in gay politics – marriage, babies, lifestyle comforts:
An event, process or history is ‘teleological’ when it exists for the sake of an end. That is, a telos or final cause. In their emphasis on the telos of what is the new normal in gay culture, these two advocates of The Normal Heart express precisely why this play from the past seems so logical and so resonant today. HBO’s film ends with Dr. Brookner conducting a marriage ceremony between Ned Weeks and his lover Felix, a deathbed wedding that presages the particular passion of gay politics today and what we are all now supposedly clamoring for: marriage rights, or what we in Australia call ‘equal love’.
In The Normal Heart, early AIDS history is exploited in the service of a sexual politics that chimes all too neatly with a conservative consensus in which marriage and the suite of privileges that come with it have become the sin qua non of contemporary gay politics. That few critics have thought the triumph of monogamy in The Normal Heart even worth commenting on is some kind of testimony to the widespread success and emotional reach of this logic: Fire Island is in our past and ‘equal love’ is the new normal status quo.
Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender and cultural studies who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture.
This column originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue. Get your copy now.
Looking is a recently aired HBO series about three handsome gays who live in San Francisco. They are: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old corn-fed computer-game designer skating on the thin outer edges of twinkdom; Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), Patrick’s best friend and long-time flatmate, a jaunty but basically belligerent artist; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), their other best buddy, a waiter and ageing stud who Patrick once hooked up with in the distant past.
All three are in varying states of clement to inclement flux. Patrick and Agustín have been roomies since their early twenties, but Agustín is moving on to live with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle). Patty is a bit thrown by Augie’s departure and the news that his ex-boyfriend is engaged, plus his apparently clueless approach to hooking up and dating. I say ‘apparently’ because if there’s one imaginative obstacle in the setup of Looking, it’s the proposition that a man as handsome as Patrick exists in gay San Francisco in the era of Grindr and has managed to remain so coy and awkward about sex and dating. But it’s not unsurpassable. Patrick, in any case, is still trading on a wholesome boy-from-Colorado, adorkable ingénue shtick, though he appears to be finding its limitations. It’s a defence against deeper anxieties he has about mansex and what type of guy he might be happy in a relationship with.
Dom is single and one of the top three hottest homosexuals in TV’s short history of out gay men, but he has problems too. He is still waiting tables at thirty-nine and isn’t happy about it. He loves casual sex but knows he’s using it as a palliative for unfulfilled longings. He’s about to turn forty which is superannuation time for gays. “You know”, he says “at forty Grindr emails you with a death certificate?” To many, Dom will be the most recognisable of these three gay characters. His tagline: “I’m such a cliché. Thinking that sex will make me feel better. I mean, it does, but still.”
And Agustín. Oh Agustín. Augie is an artist who basically makes no art. He’s full of potential but has gone along charming everyone—including himself—and then failing to deliver the goods. Now he’s thirty-one and still just full of potential. Either through abject denial or a mildly chilling lack of insight, he doesn’t externalise much about this state of affairs to his friends or boyfriend, so naturally he’s bitter and confused, and this is exacerbating some pre-existing tendencies toward arsehollishness. Therapists call this ‘acting out’. For Augie it includes teasing Patrick to make himself feel better, having sulky tantrums and initiating threesomes with boyfriend Frank. Eventually he pays a sex-worker to hang out with him and have sex with Frank, ostensibly as part of an art project, which is quite a lame and unoriginal idea and also imprudent because he has no job or money. Poor Augie, he’s really behaving like a douchebag and it’s not clear what Frank—or anyone—get out of their relationship with him. It gets pretty hard to feel sympathy for him, even though he’s very cute, and hence writers on the internet have published articles with titles like ‘Why Are People Friends with Agustín?’.
Dom has a thick seventies clone-style moustache that gives his face a sort of permanently randy look. No words can do it true justice. Agustín has a shiny black, almost mountain-man beard. Patrick has no facial hair, so there is something here for everyone.
Because it raises the bristly issue of gay representation, HBO’s new series has been the subject of endless online commentaries and so-called think pieces. I say ‘so-called’ because a lot of these articles have actually felt not-so-thoughtful, which isn’t necessarily the fault of the writers, but mostly, I presume, an effect of having to produce pull-quotable critical proclamations under tight deadlines, maybe based on watching only a handful of episodes. In the case of Looking this procedure is especially unconducive to thoughtfulness, because it’s a restrained, slow-burning, un-ostentatious kind of show – not necessarily what we’ve become accustomed to from HBO (outrageous predicaments, staggeringly sprawling novelistic narratives, mythical structures, baroque generic compilations, etc.). Looking works with quite a small, intimate canvas. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times, “the show makes a virtue of its lack of virtuosity.”
If quality TV is about ‘high concepts’ and gay people are kinda normal now, and this is quality TV about gay people, where is the high concept? Answer: there isn’t one.
I don’t mean to disparage the clever and interesting things that have been said about the show by clever and interesting critics, but some of them have already recanted their early verdict that Looking is boring. ‘Boringness’ has been a telling flashpoint in the debates about Looking. I think in some instances, critics who say that it’s boring are expressing confusion about the show’s unspectacularity. If quality TV is about ‘high concepts’ and gay people are kinda normal now, and this is quality TV about gay people, where is the high concept? Answer: there isn’t one.
In other instances, a supposed boredom is the critical and emotional upshot of a politico-aesthetic perspective that feels disappointed with the show’s bland portrayal of gay life. For example, Rich Juzwiak in Gawker wrote that “in Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last. They get to look for love in barely different ways than straight people.” The Daily Beast’s contribution was titled: ‘Yes, Looking is Boring. It’s the Drama Gays Deserve’. What’s vexing these critics is that to them the show feels like yet another portrayal of homo life for people who aren’t living it. It’s an unsatisfying demonstration that gay people are essentially the same as straight people: normal, boring, yawn. None of those undignified queers—meth-addled barebackers, ugly lesbian butches, screaming queens—are present to challenge audience sensibilities. The characters love sex unapologetically, but they’re all handsome, presentable, relatively straight-acting men. No fats or femmes. Brian Lowder in Slate called it ‘a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look – butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.’
And while for some it is allowed to stand in for a particular type of political and aesthetic disappointment, Mike Stingley’s declaration of ‘boredom’ addressed to the straight male readers of Esquire provoked accusations of homophobia. In ‘A Straight Man’s Guide To HBO’s Looking: A show about three boring gay men’, Stingley wrote—ostensibly irreverently—that Looking ‘commits the heinous sin of being gay and boring’. He prefers his gays with more sass and more show tunes, “funny, mincing guys with witty one-liners and put-downs”; he’s bored by Looking’s “three ho-hum characters you wouldn’t hang around with if they were on SportsCenter”. So although on the surface he’s coming to the same conclusion—that Looking is a boring show—Stingley’s screed inspired a bunch of outraged responses and an insincere apology from Esquire, all demonstrating that when it comes to the issue of who decides what examples of queer TV are boring and what boring actually means we are in high stakes territory.
Looking has hit a cultural nerve. Even Andrew Sullivan has chimed in and, unsurprisingly for the man who wrote the bible of homonormativity (Virtually Normal, 1995), he loves the show because:
“the characters are not minstrels; and they are not eunuchs. They are for the first time recognizable human beings who happen to be gay. […] 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”.
For someone like Juzwiak or Lowder, the platitude ‘just happens to be gay’ is basically the most irritating thing that you can ever say. Talk about boring. And fair enough. It’s a valid critique and one that especially applies to a lot of what has come before Looking. I’m sympathetic to it. I myself have a very tightly wound homonormativity meter. I too want to rail against the disappointments of gay images in this post-gay marriage, after-normal pop cultural milieu.
…in the words of my housemate Jasmine, “it’s so fucking subtle and nuanced how can anyone think it’s boring?”
But, I think some of what is happening in some of these reviews is that the problematic politics of ‘normative’ are getting confused with ‘ordinary’ and then papered over with ‘boring’. It’s not quite a critical sleight of hand as much as a series of subtle conflations. And because ‘boring’ is an assertion of taste and feeling—a subjective appraisal as well as a political one—it’s harder to defend against. To my mind, the producers of Looking are far too switched on and self-aware to incidentally produce a show that is (homo)normative: what they’re actually doing is dramatising the ambivalent feelings and effects of this normalisation of gays. In an excellent essay in Grantland, Wesley Morris writes that:
“the anxiety about normalization courses through the show. It also courses through the criticism of the show. We’re all paying attention to Looking because it’s on HBO, which tends to warrant notice and puts it in both the enviable and unenviable position of being a bellwether”.
On the boring question I tend to agree with Craig Seymour who, in the Advocate, expanded on the aphorism that “boredom is for lazy people with a lack of imagination” by suggesting that “it’s not that watching Looking takes imagination per se, but in order to fully appreciate the show, it does take imagination’s more inward-looking sibling, introspection”. Or, in the words of my housemate Jasmine, “it’s so fucking subtle and nuanced how can anyone think it’s boring?”
The executive producer of Looking, and director of multiple episodes, is Andrew Haigh. Haigh wrote and directed the swoonfest indie romance, Weekend (2011), about a hot hook up between two men who talk, fuck, and take drugs together in real-time increments over the course of one weekend, and ultimately fall for each other in a way that is so much more credible and compelling than you could ever make a description of it sound. Weekend is also where Haigh developed the Instagram-filtered homo verite naturalism that to a large extent describes the aesthetics of Looking. Weekend’s narrative conceit resembles the prototypical hipster romance, Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995), to which it has been much compared, and Looking owes even more to this precursor: its stock scene arrangements are witty everyday walkin’ and banterin’ sequences from which dimensions of character and occasional pearls of wisdom emerge. Like Weekend, Looking adds drugs, casual hook-ups and facial hair to the mix, although in its twenty-four minute-ish episodes it has less time to languish in brooding hand-held camera shots of gritty urban landscapes and tasteful thrift-shop furnishings.
What distinguishes Weekend and Looking from other hipster romances is that there’s a more palpable razz between onscreen lovers and potential lovers. As I’ve written elsewhere, the performances of Weekend’s bewhiskered leads, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), together adds up to a strong argument for the verity of ‘onscreen chemistry’, something which in the casting and direction of Looking, Haigh proves he has an ongoing knack for. In other words: sexy. The frisson between Patrick and his dangerously flirtatious boss Kevin (Russell Toovey) is a case in point. My entire lounge room swooned when Kevin finally declared he was hot for Patrick:
“Do you know how much effort it takes to be around you every day? It takes all of my willpower not to lunge and kiss the fucking shit out of you, and I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, and it’s becoming a real fucking problem”.
Workplace power-relations, sexual harassment implications and general sleaziness aside, this is the moment we’ve been wanting-not-wanting for several episodes and it’s so-wrong-so-right you can feel it in your loins.
Haigh is basically pioneering the genre of sexy homo-mumblecore realism, until someone comes up with a better name for it.
Haigh has been called the gay Ken Loach, and I would say that yes, he’s the gay Ken Loach but less depressing, which suggests that realism and authenticity doesn’t always have to be synonymous with melancholy. People have wildly sexy moments in their lives as well as miserable ones. Haigh is basically pioneering the genre of sexy homo-mumblecore realism, until someone comes up with a better name for it. Looking is what realist queer indie cinema looks like when it gets whipped into the TV dramedy format. What sets his work apart from other doyennes of the hipster romance—like Sophia Coppolla, Miranda July, Xavier Dolan, or even Woody Allen—is, I think (and this is where critical evaluation meshes indivisibly with personal feelings and the question of who or what you identify with onscreen and how you relate emotionally to the prevailing culture of irony and whimsy), this commitment to sexy authenticity.
A footnote here: the best thing I have read thus far describing the conventions of the hipster romance is a post by Christopher Smail on Gorilla Film Magazine called ‘Hipster Love in the Movies’. “If you want to be classed as a hipster couple on screen,” he explains, “then there are certain criteria that you have to meet”. This includes chic clothes (“It can be flea market panache as Diane Keaton did so well in Annie Hall or a more refined, elegant look”), no openly expressed feelings (“Because being overly romantic with red roses and candy hearts is so lame, you know? It’s all done by metaphor and the occasional longing glance”), and romance unspooling in urban centres (“preferably in some kind of art gallery or a swanky hotel bar like Sofia Coppola did in her Tokyo anti romance Lost in Translation.”). My favourite—and the most excessive—examples are some of the films of French Canadian hipster auteur, Xavier Dolan, the most handsome and successful twenty-five year old in the OECD, of whom Smail says:
“The man has done more for the hipster romance genre than anyone on this blue dot. In Heartbeats three preposterously beautiful twenty somethings prance around Montreal in heart shaped sunglasses with sculpted Everest quiffs. They are far too cool to express their feelings for each other in mere words so must resort to an assortment of tricks: writing letters full of French poetry and buying expensive wicker hats par example.”
Smail doesn’t talk about Andrew Haigh or Weekend, but by his account of, for example, Miranda July’s The Future (2011), if we feel somewhat alienated from the central relationship of the hipster romance, it’s because the “world [the film] explores is so insular and the two main characters … are so egotistical that you end up feeling no sympathy for their deluded misadventures”. In Before Sunrise (and its sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight), the lovers “keep their passion for each other hidden behind their beautiful façade”. This is because, Smail argues, attraction conveyed as cool restraint is what “define[s] hipster love in all its glory”. On first appearance Looking may appear to be in the same school and does indeed share sensibilities with these hipster romances—an unhurriedness, an attention to quotidian detail, an emphasis on cinematography— but the difference, I think, is it’s actually more sensuous, more sexy, and has more romantic grunt, even if its feelings about sex are a bit icky and confused.
Have you seen the urban gays getting around San Fran, New York, or Melbourne for that matter? I’m pretty sure they have meet-cutes all the fucking time.
I guess you could say that Looking isn’t in fact realistic because people don’t have meet-cutes on city buses (which is where Patrick meets Richie, his Latino lover-cum-boyfriend), or look as pretty as Dom, or talk in witty repartees. And to that I would say, well, some people do. Have you seen the urban gays getting around San Fran, New York, or Melbourne for that matter? I’m pretty sure they have meet-cutes all the fucking time.
I guess you could also say—and this has been said—that the show isn’t sexually adventurous enough. Not enough envelope pushing, more coy than both UK and US iterations of Queer as Folk that, now over a decade ago, featured oral and anal sex and—wait for it—rimming in their very first episodes (Showtime in North America weren’t quite as bold as Channel Four in the UK where this sex scene happened between characters who were on drugs, and one of whom was legally underage). Juzwiak says about Looking that “it sucks that this supposedly forward-thinking, and self-evidently important series is deferring to straight society’s repulsion at the idea of two men having sex”. But that envelope has been pushed and Juzwiak is wrong. In the first episode alone we get park cruising, a threesome, a bathhouse visit and a Grindr hookup. And that isn’t even the point: Looking isn’t sexually squeamish, it’s sexually adventurous in different ways. When Augie teases Patrick about his crush on his boss, Kevin, he comments on “those ears you want to pull when you face-fuck him!” (I basically blushed while I was typing that). Earlier in the same episode, a conversation between Patrick and this big-eared Adonis boss of his is so loaded with chemistry it’s basically off the charts, despite the fact that this is several episodes before these two actually kiss, and despite the fact that they are mainly talking about arseless chaps, whilst looking down at San Francisco’s Folsom Street Leather Fair from their office windows. As Dan Callahan noted in a Vulture recap of that episode: “it seems appropriate that the sexiest scene so far on Looking is this teasing, electrically charged conversation between two fully clothed men stealing glances out a window at debauchery down below”. The leather-scene backdrop to this dangerous flirtation between workplace superior and inferior is a clue about both the trouble and the hotness of mixing sex and professional workplace relations.
Perhaps most uniquely, Looking has arrived at a ‘post-pride’ moment in which it is freer than ever to examine the subtleties of sexual shame; it’s more eloquent on that topic than anything I have ever seen on TV before. Richie asks Patrick, “Do you think you’d be embarrassed if your parents thought you were a bottom?” It’s a gentle but leading question, for Patrick hasn’t been fucked by Richie yet, although he says he wants to be. “Maybe a little bit,” Patrick admits. Looking isn’t deferring to a social queasiness with the idea of butt-sex but rather gently teasing out the effect this queasiness has on the gay men who internalise it. The shame politics of bottoming are so delicately and powerfully dramatised that, by the time Patrick gets fucked by boss Kevin in the final episode, we have a very intricate sense of what this might mean for him, as well as a powerful impression of the complex politics of office liaisons. The work/sex equation is also happening in Dom’s unresolved relationship with Lynn (Scott Bakula), an older gay man who is helping him get a restaurant idea off the ground, but who he insists on kissing despite probably knowing better. Looking is fascinated with the intermingling of romantic and professional lives, which of course we’ve seen in everything from LA Law to Mad Men, but not when it happens among the gays.
Patrick acts out competing sexual impulses, responding to competing messages that the culture sends gay men. He can’t go through with a hook up in the park: when his phone rings, he imagines it will be his mother, and he doesn’t want to be ‘one of those gays’. And yet he desperately wants Augie to acknowledge that he’s hooked up before, he’s not as sexually naïve as he appears to be, he knows what to do with an uncircumcised cock. He’s 29 and he’s still nervous about sex which obviously isn’t so unusual, but clearly, for Patrick, it’s embarrassing.
Gay shame is a subtle and many-splendoured thing.
There is a picnic for Dom’s fortieth birthday mid-way through the first season that is basically a set piece in gay shame and gay shaming. Patrick gets teased that his voicemail recording sounds girly (“It’s not gay; it sounds completely normal!”). Dom feels old. Augie shames his boyfriend Frank when they’re buying food (“You’re going to be the black guy who brings Cheetos to the party?”), then he teases Patrick some more by telling everyone “he spends all his time pretending to be a power top because that’s what all men are supposed to be”. Then he shames Patrick again for dating Richie, a working class Latino, by declaring that he is “slumming it”. (See, Augie is really acting out now!) Finally, Richie and Patrick bump into Patrick’s boss, Kevin, and his boyfriend who are as white and broad-shouldered and straight-acting as you can imagine. Kevin’s boyfriend tells them he is a sports doctor for a basketball team; Richie tells them he cuts hair, to which Kevin responds: “for a living?”. Gay shame is a subtle and many-splendoured thing, and its deep embeddedness in other orders of race and class and gender is delicately interwoven into these exchanges.
Like a cynical shithead, my attitude going in to watch Looking for the first time was ambivalent, much like the attitude I approached Weekend with in 2011. I wanted to enjoy it but clearly some part of me wanted not to enjoy it too. Two competing parts of me: one looking for gay drama that I could connect to, and the other part having read one too many gay representation think pieces. While I gradually, surely perceived that I was indeed enjoying the show, appreciating its quiet rewards, steadily perceiving the emergence of its characters, I sieved my excess ambivalence into hating on Agustín.
Poor Agustín. When a fetching young man I was looking to romance—vaguely, uncommittedly, in the hipster romance style—sent me an SMS in which he revealed “I am all about Agustín, all round pot-smoking babe”, I responded with irritation. “Agustín?! We hate Agustín. He’s hot, but I hope he gets run over by a bus”. After that I shaved off the lame beard I’d been trying to cultivate and, ironically, the fetching young man said I looked better for it. Now I realize that Augie is a loveable rogue who is just really in a deep, deep rut and I love Looking wholeheartedly.
Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender and cultural studies who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He’s a regular voice on fortnightly culture podcast The ReReaders.