'Looking' Reveals the Problem with Gay Men's Female Best Friends
For two seasons of HBO's Looking, Doris (Lauren Weedman) has been a constant breath of fresh air. She's the antidote to the show's "sausage party," as she referred to it in the second season premiere. She's been increasingly featured in storylines throughout the show, and on Sunday night, she finally got her focus episode. "Looking for a Plot" was great in large part thanks to Weedman's consistently expert work as Doris, but also because it showed that Doris is so much more than just the snarky female friend.
In "Looking for a Plot," Doris' father dies, and she has trouble processing the news, both initially and upon her return home to Modesto, Calif. She barely absorbs the news when she gets a text from her aunt — "That's not my coffee. I never got my coffee," she says to busy herself and avoid the subject. She flip-flops between whether or not she wants to see her father's body, paralyzed with fear. Every note of Weedman's performance is pitch-perfect.
Thanks in large part to Weedman's work, Doris was made a regular character at the beginning of season two. Since then, she's been given chances to show shades, emotions, variations — in short, she's a human rather than a joke machine. For a character on a prestige HBO dramedy, you would assume that to be a given. Yet the show received a great deal of criticism in its first season, mostly for being dull. The second season's reception has been better, and "Looking for a Plot" is a sign that Looking is now not only good, but great.
Looking now understands how to work with a character like Doris. That's something lesser shows couldn't do half as well — and even it couldn't do very well at first. During season one's sluggish first few episodes, Doris was the wisecracking respite from the three gay male leads's dramatics, always ready with a quip. Unfortunately, the show didn't have much more for her to do for a while. She seemed destined to be the sassy female friend to the gays; nothing more, nothing less.
The female-friend-of-gay-man stereotype, often referred to by the off-color terms "fag hag" or "fruit fly," can be dangerous if portrayed as nothing but a quippy accessory. 30 Rock and Desperate Housewives took satirical aim at the idea in separate episodes. Bravo shows like Real Housewives often play it a bit more seriously. In many ways, this cliché is the harmful complement to the gay best friend trope: reductive and dehumanizing to both parties.
The cliché of the "fag hag" is as harmful as the gay best friend trope: Both are dehumanizing to both parties.
Portraying female friends of gay men as nothing more than their sidekicks underestimates just how valuable those friendships can be. These women are humans too — they have their own lives. The lesson of Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D-List was that the saucy redhead who loves her gays has an incredibly vivid interior life, from doing stand-up for American troops in Iraq to wading through a divorce to coping with the death of her father. The more we can see the complex inner lives of these women, the more we can understand their relationships. They look less like caricatures, and the gay male characters keeping their company look less shallow as a result.
Looking's Doris is one of the most unique characters on TV right now — neither the star like Will and Grace's Grace Adler, but not a sass factory like Will and Grace's Karen Walker. She occupies an important space. Hopefully, as more friendships between gay men and women find their way onto TV, these new characters can follow her example.