Looking at “Looking”: Talking bottom shame, gaysplaining, and a “Magical Negro” theory


Chad Kaydo: The fifth episode of “Looking” takes a detour from the storylines of the three main characters we’ve been following so far in the season. “Looking for the Future” focuses on just one day with Patrick and Richie, several dates after they reunited in the previous episode.

Between waking up and going to bed together, they have sex, go to a planetarium, eat hot dogs, and abandon a visit to Richie’s “senora”—a fortune teller who uses eggs to answer clients’ questions about their futures.

But mostly they talk, about Patrick’s favorite movie (“Goonies”), about HIV tests, about their first sexual experiences, and about “Friends” characters as symbols of their preferred sexual roles. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, one of the show’s executive producers, the episode felt like a miniature version of his 2011 film “Weekend,” which follows two men who spend a couple days talking and getting to know each other after a Friday-night hookup.  

The tone feels somehow both saltier and sweeter than previous episodes. Richie performs some oral tricks on Patrick, both front and back, barely off screen. (The sex is shot to feel real, but the camerawork is more concerned with showing Patrick’s reaction than body parts and physical maneuvers—it’s not XTube, it’s HBO.) Yet while it’s possibly the show’s most sexually explicit episode so far, it’s also the most romantic. (Speaking of cinematography: They walk and talk in long, uncut scenes, and inside the dark planetarium, we can make out only the outlines of their faces in their own private universe.)

Gentlemen, what did you think? Were you surprised? Turned on? Weepy with romance?

Matthew Phillp: This was my favorite episode so far. It was subtle and nuanced and the director, writer, and actors controlled it beautifully. I get frustrated and bored with people who insist that gay TV shows represent them as people in the world and who then get furious on a political level when a show inevitably fails to do that. It colors the way I approach shows like this—i.e., I just see it as a TV show and don’t equate myself with it in any way—I may consciously distance myself from that kind of identification with a show or just naturally do it, I’m not sure which. Either way, I don’t feel nervous about what is happening on screen on that socio-political level. 

This episode, however, involved at least mention of things I’ve not seen on screen before and I felt like something was at stake for myself. I identified with Patrick more than I ever have as he talked about his anxiety and it was totally heartwarming to watch Ritchie calmly take in the reality of Patrick and not get freaked out and vice versa. The brief mention of HIV anxiety and Ritchie’s ex-boyfriend being positive actually caused me to freeze and stare at the screen in shock. I’ve not seen much dialogue about magnetic relationships anywhere let alone on TV and I also think, as is the case with the way they had Patrick reveal his subtle racism, the way Patrick talked about his irrational obsession with HIV tests was almost breathtakingly executed. The fortune teller scene was such an inventive way of bringing up the point at which, despite the magic of the day, they actually don’t know each other much yet. 

Also, Patrick only shoveled a little food into his mouth while talking this episode so I was pleasantly surprised.     

Sam Wineman: I love this stage of falling in love, when your knowledge of each other is trying to catch up with your feelings. Patrick is consumed by Richie and the episode pays tribute to that newness by being consumed with their storyline. Nothing else—no restaurant update or rentboy career move. It’s all about each other and that thing that happens when it’s just two people beginning to experience one another. So weepy with romance? Not necessarily. But this episode, I absolutely fell for their falling.

As Matthew said, there were moments I knew I hadn’t seen on TV before—at least not this way. For me, the frankness of the blowjob scene was striking. In “Looking for Uncut,” Patrick merely kisses Richie’s crotch a bunch between giggles, something as a viewer I’m used to—the implication that something sexier is about to happen or maybe would have been happening right then if gay sex weren’t such an “explicit” act. But in “Looking for the Future,” Richie is blowing him, head-bob and all. Their dialogue feels real: It’s fine, “you just showered.” Even the moment before Patrick’s orgasm becomes a moment of discovery when Richie tells him he wants to top and Patrick balks.

Yes, this was a sexy scene, but this wasn’t just sex for the sake of sex. It was good writing. And visually, it was nothing short of radical.

That, and we finally see Patrick’s butt.

Jesse Oxfeld: We saw Patrick’s butt? I had my tonsils out last week, plus I got some sort of mouth infection that’s making it nearly impossible to eat anything, so I’m both high on Percocet and malnourished. But I wouldn’t have thought I’d miss that. Or maybe I was still just too fixated on Andrew Rannells’s amazing ass on “Girls,” which was the best view of the evening (except maybe for the one of the Pacific from the end of Golden Gate Park).

I liked this episode but didn’t love it. I said it last time: I get bored by these Patrick-and-Richie dreamscapes. (It was a dreamscape, right? That’s not just my own drug haze?) It was sweet, sure. And it was sexy, definitely. But there’s just so much talking, so much feelings. I guess I’m hungering for a different kind of show, but I just want things to happen here. This might be the time to admit I was totally underwhelmed by “Weekend,” too.

Or maybe I’m jealous of a happy, relaxed, sex-filled falling-in-love day?

Matthew: This is the same kind of criticism I heard leveled at the movie of “Where The Wild Things Are.” I heard people outside the cinema saying “It wasn’t ABOUT anything” and I can’t understand how anyone thought that. To me that film was like a play by Stoppard in that it was about everything ever. Jesse, I think you’re having the same reaction to this show as I have to anything by Anne Tyler though, so I get what you’re saying. This episode, for me, was about so many things. I’m hesitant to champion it as the finest piece of art I’ve ever seen but I couldn’t help but feel as though an enormous amount was happening in this episode.    

Chad: Last week we talked a lot about how gay this show is or isn’t, and whether we think these are fundamentally gay characters and situations. I’d say that the conversations in this episode seemed pretty specific to gay relationships: talking about your first sexual experience with another man, coming out to your parents, whether or not you want to get married, are you a Ross or a Rachel? Is “Looking” getting gayer as it goes on?

Matthew: I was thinking about that as I watched this episode and on the surface I think it is a fair look at some of the things gay men experience and, in that sense, it might be a window for straight people into the anecdotal experiences of gay men. Coming out to your parents, particularly. The rest of the things you listed are fairly universal. I’m still sticking with my argument that this is a show that is about universal human themes. I think it’s a preoccupation with on-screen sex for titillation that prompts people to see a distinction and that’s a myopic way to view a show. 

Jesse: I saw a tweet when I got up this morning that joked this week’s episode should have been titled “Gaysplaining.” I’m not sure the parallel quite holds up—if “mansplaining” is when a man explains something to a woman as though her gender prevents her from possibly understanding it, then “gaysplaining” would have to be when a gay person speaks to a straight person as though his heterosexuality prevents him from possibly understanding it. Which, now that I’ve said it, is exactly what was happening last night. But it also felt a bit as though gay people (the show) were explaining gay people to gay people (the audience) in a way that felt introductory, if not remedial. Are gay people just their preferred sexual position? Their coming-out story? Their furtive back-of-the-bus explorations and Mormon blowjobs? At some point in a magical all-day date, wouldn’t you talk about, I don’t know, friends and passions and TV shows and movies? Careers and ambitions and disappointments? Things you want to experience and places you want to visit?

And also, a Ross or a Rachel, with a “Ross” as the bottom? Unless I’m very much misunderstanding how straight sex works—which is not impossible—I’m pretty sure Rachel was the bottom. A power bottom, entirely possibly, but still a bottom. 

Sam: A power-bottom with a haircut that inspired millions. Everything you need to know about Rachel Green.

The things that they were talking about in their daylong-date-bliss didn’t feel contrived to me. I was into it. We’ve had four previous episodes to see that gay people are more than just their coming out experience, so it doesn’t bother me that the writers allowed these two to bond over some gay story-swapping. That and they did mention interests outside of their orientation (Patrick and the Goonies, Richie and his senora).

I just marathoned “Looking” with a guy I’ve spent some time with recently. We were constantly pausing the show and talking about things that came up, moments that sparked questions about each other. By the time we got to episode 5, we were relatively quiet because we had just covered all the ground Richie and Patrick were moving through. Yes, I’m sure somewhere along the way, we talked about other interests too, but gay or straight, sharing formative experiences is a part of developing intimacy in those early dating stages. I admit I could be mirroring it to my own situation, but I’m just saying, it all felt very on-target to me. 

Chad: I definitely recognized those conversations (pretty gay) and that lovely early period in a relationship when you start to learn about someone and reveal yourself a bit too, and everything feels like a detour from your regular life (pretty universal). I can remember a spring day when a new boyfriend and I called off work to wander around together. (Also, we’ve all used our finger as a toothbrush in someone else’s apartment, right?)

Jesse, I think a key component of mansplaining is a note of condescension, and I didn’t feel that here. This felt like showing, not telling.

Actually, there might have been a bit of remedial education for gay people who reduce each other to their preferred sexual position. (Although, Jesse, as you point out, the Ross/Rachel definitions—as cute as I found them—don’t hold, or at least trade on retrograde ideas of the dominant personality being the top.) 

I’d probably rather discuss this with a couple drinks in me and not in a forum open to my parents, but can we talk more about the top/bottom conversations here? (Am I outing myself as a bit of a prudish Patrick?) Over on Previously.TV, Mark Blankenship calls Richie “the mouthpiece for an attitude about gay sex that I find both refreshingly frank and devoid of immature bullshit.” Richie’s proclaimed versatility and openness to whatever comes along clearly matches his approach to the rest of his life, but would you have pegged Patrick as a top with bottom shame? Did their navigation of the subject feel true?

Sam: I love that this episode put a name to such a frustratingly real part of gay sex: bottom-shame. While I do think that Richie is partially motivated by self-interest (he reveals after his rather progressive monologue that he is “probably usually a Rachel”), he’s onto something here. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who have a strong preference to one or the other, but when Richie says, “Those terms are for people on websites,” he is rejecting a big part of the social guidelines of how to build a relationship. I’m using this word again, but it feels so appropriate this episode; to me it felt radical. As if Richie’s character himself is an act of protest. Not to the heteronormative world at large, but a challenge to the constructs within our own community.

My favorite quote from the episode was, “You’ve gotta be adaptable. Otherwise, you’re gonna miss out.” As we’ve seen from previous episodes, this is rather applicable to Patrick’s life. But is a two-top relationship really that easily resolved? I guess only time will tell.

Jesse: Yes, that whole scene was the best part of this episode, and that specific exchange—because it’s so true, and so different from how things are usually depicted, whether in mainstream media or elsewhere—is worth quoting in full. “Those terms,” Richie tells Patrick about top-vs-bottom-ness, whispering in the dark in a nearly empty planetarium, “are for people on websites. How do you know what you’re into with a guy sexually until you’re with them? I mean, you gotta be adaptable, otherwise you’re going to miss out.” Patrick replies flirtily: “I do hate missing out.” And then Richie, who’s pulled Patrick into his happy world of no labels and no positions, drops his trump card. “That being said,” he continues, in their world where Ross is a bottom and Rachel a top, “I probably usually am a Rachel.”

By the by, food for thought: While Richie is dreaming of a world in which gay couplings are judged not by the placement of their penises but by by the content of their chemistry, should we consider that his character—wise, patient, exotic—is just a demographically updated version of that classic TV trope, the Magical Negro?

Sam: Uh oh. You just dropped some major truth. I was so captivated by their chemistry that I didn’t even see it. 

Matthew: That is a distinct possibility for sure. Particularly when you look at how confident and angst-free Richie has always been—especially compared to Patrick. One of the main things I liked about this episode was the exchange of vulnerabilities though. Patrick talked about his HIV anxiety and his difficulty bottoming and Richie calmly pointed out the flaws in Patrick’s thinking, but then the seemingly magical Richie talked about his own anxiety by way of his senora. And Patrick immediately turned around and pointed out the flaws in placing responsibility for one’s life decisions in the hands of someone else. It felt like an even exchange of very human anxieties. I mean, I guess there’s some kind of potential racial cliche here where the Mexican guy has his primitive mysticism and the white guy has his neurosis but on the whole it felt like a humanizing exchange—one that brought dimension to Richie.    

Chad: I want to fight the Magical Negro label (partially because a rush to use it can discount any wise character of color, even if the trope is real), but Richie is pretty idealized so far, and previous episodes have shown that Patrick is attracted, at least partially, by Richie’s otherness. And, let’s face it: The gay strain of a Magical Negro is going to be a top who bottoms for the right boy.

Judging from the preview of next week’s episode—when Agustin returns to tell Patrick, “You’re slumming, and it ain’t cute”—the show may explore this next week. And so will we.

Chad Kaydo is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. He edits the “Back 9” section of FourTwoNine magazine and tweets at @ChadKaydo.

Jesse Oxfeld is the publisher of Tabletmag.com and the theater reviewer for The New York Observer, in which capacity he has twice seen Jonathan Groff’s bare tush. He lives in Greenwich Village and tweets at @joxfeld.

Matthew Phillp is a writer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn. He is minutes away from completing the final draft of his first novel and has banned himself from all all forms of social media until it’s done.  

Sam Wineman is an Orange County-based writer and dating veteran. Watch his web series “Date Trip” at thedatetrip.com.

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