HBO’s Looking is in a strategic position to present a fresh perspective on gay men. It joins a roster of water-cooler behemoths like Game of Thrones, True Blood and Girls. It may bring a new view of gay men to the mainstream but it seems to unintentionally (or intentionally) bash other minority groups in the process. It exposes an underbelly of class, race, and sexual discrimination inherent in our culture. But the most offensive part is that it’s not bothering to make a point.
Looking follows the lives of three gay men in San Francisco. Jonathan Groff plays Paddy, the anti-Casanova, a dating-obsessed video game designer with verbal diarrhea. His friends are Dom, a slightly over-the-hill waiter and Agustín, an artist in a new relationship. Compared to its lead-in Girls, it’s notable that the cast has people of color. Agustín is played by Cuban-American actor, Frankie J. Álvarez. His boyfriend, Frank, is played by English bi-racial actor O.T. Fagbenle. Paddy’s co-worker Owen, played by Andrew Law, is Asian-American. Paddy even gets a love interest, Richie (Raúl Castillo), who is Mexican. Great, a show set in San Francisco actually acknowledges the racial make-up of the city’s residents. However, with great minorities come great responsibilities.
The series may be diverse on paper but it doesn’t present people of color as full-fledged characters. Instead, it panders to stereotypes. Owen, the Asian character calls Paddy a “Japanese schoolgirl” for using an emoticon and then offers, “I have some Pokemon cards if you want to borrow them.” Then he rolls back to his desk. Yes, the choice of the video game designer being Asian is a little trite but must he constantly reference his race? Is his character the Asian guy who Asians a lot? When Richie meets Paddy on the bus, Paddy first responds with fear and timidity because Richie’s a working class Latino. Why is he scared? Up to this point, he’s had two failed attempts at romance, what’s wrong with a guy flirting with him on the bus? He later describes Richie as not his “type.” Is it because he’s Latino? When he describes Richie to his friends he whispers the word “Mexican.” The show is trying to make gay people seem like everyone else but it seems to take time out of the show to reference race but not make a statement.
The Richie/Paddy relationship quickly degrades into unabashed sexual fetishization. Paddy is so love-starved that he tries to get into a deep conversation with an anonymous white sex partner that he later reveals he isn’t even attracted to. And yet, Richie is never considered a viable romantic candidate and instantly designated a prospective “f**kbuddy.” Paddy spends the entire episode fixated on the prospect of seeing his uncircumcised penis. Because we’re meant to believe that 99.9% of Latin men are uncircumcised. But, since Agustin says it, it’s not racist. A guy obsessed with seeing an uncircumcised penis is the making of a hilarious plotline. But why does it have to be an uncircumcised Latin penis? If you had any doubts about the racial connotations, Paddy does a Latin-specific Google search.
The wanton sexuality assigned to men of color seems like a throughline throughout the first three episodes. Despite the somewhat tame nature of the show, Agustín and Frank have sex twice in the premiere episode. #firstimpression Agustin starts to entertain the idea of becoming an escort. It’s great if the show wants to take a sex-positive approach and/or explore the lives of sex workers. However, given the treatment of the Richie character, it seems like the series creators think Latinos are only good as sexual playthings. Why not have the Asian game designer moonlight as a gigolo? In a later scene set in a bathhouse, Dom is able to have a civilized conversation with another gay gentleman, Lynn (Scott Bakula), until he’s summoned by a masturbating Latino man.
The show continues into murkier waters. In “Looking at Your Browser History,” Agustín gets painted as a delinquent. When asked where he got their placemats he says he stole them from Target. (read: Latinos are thieves). Later, angry for no reason (read: Latinos are feisty), he unabashedly tells his boss how much he dislikes her work. Then, obviously, he gets fired. Is the implication that Latinos can’t keep jobs? Granted, that might seem like a huge leap, if a few minutes later Owen didn’t say “I’m Asian, alright. Our DNA rends itself apart when we lose our jobs.” The implication is, as an Asian person, he is less likely to take risks with his employment. So, via the transitive property, are we supposed to see Agustín as irresponsible with his job? Isn’t the definition of racism that certain value judgments or prejudices are assigned to different races?
The show does deserve some credit for diversity. In a post-Sofia Vergara media world, the main Latino character doesn’t have an accent. However, in an interview Álvarez reveals that his character was originally meant to have an accent, be Venezuelan, and have green card issues. Despite this somewhat progressive take on one character, Richie, the other Latino character, is flummoxed by the word “oncology.” Are we meant to laugh because Latinos mispronouncing words is funny (see: every episode of Modern Family)? Richie has had no problem eloquently flirting up to this point so why do they need to insert a Dangerous Minds moment with Paddy correcting his English?
It’s not Utopia. It’s HBO. Looking shouldn’t have to be crushed under the weight of political correctness. However, you can’t ignore the irony. The show tries to give voice and authenticity to gay men not normally represented in media. And yet, it implicitly subjugates people of color with the same stereotypes we see everywhere else. It would be fine if these borderline racist moments were germane to the plot or made a statement. It would be great if Paddy’s racism taught him a lesson as to why he’s so unsuccessful with men. But he may have been speaking for the writers when he flatly said, “I think I may be racist.”