17 June 2013
Queering the Workplace: Lloyd Lee and Corporate L.A. in Entourage
I have worked in the restaurant culture for several years, as hostess, waitress, banquet server, and sporadically bartender. These jobs, however, function primarily in the front of the house with periodic trips to the back of the house. The back of the house is a space where, like an over-crowded bus with no air-conditioning stopped in traffic, temperatures skyrocket and tempers flare. This space has the reputation of bringing together people of many races and a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds, given that there is normally a chef with a culinary degree and several cooks that work “on the line” or “pantry” or “prep,” all designations for different stations that work in tandem but are organized by the method required for preparing food. With a variety of races and socioeconomic backgrounds, the kitchen would seem to be a space of rich “contact,” like Delaney speaks of in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, but my experience is that for all of the diversity present in the back of the house, it is a space marked by strong homophobia and rampant sexism. Intent on showcasing their masculinity despite donning an apron, the most common insults hurtled through the heat of the kitchen from cook to cook are homophobic ones like “fag.” I realize my argument here is beginning to sound like the myth perpetuated about small-town life and the assumption that queer lifestyles will not be accepted in rural locations. Kitchens are not safe for a queer presence. This is not true; there are queer people in the kitchen at every restaurant. Reflecting on my experiences in the back of the house over the years, there are nearly as many homoerotic interactions as insults blurted. There is a certain amount of grab-assing that goes on in the kitchen that is not only tolerated, but expected. Ironically, the restaurant that has employees sign a “sexual harassment agreement” to report and abstain from sexual behaviors at the time of hire is the site of the friendliest kitchen indeed. The definition of harassment involves the word “unwelcome,” so to some extent those who stay and never report these actions in the restaurant business “welcome” these interactions, myself included. Kitchens are a cross-race, cross-class, cross-gender space where I feel most human; they are at times a very welcome reprieve from graduate study.
The point of this anecdote about the workplace is to demonstrate how it is similar in some ways to the discussions we’ve had in class and online about queer lifestyles in rural areas and suburbs. To assume that the experience of queer lives outside of the city is sad is to accept the metronormative fantasy. Similarly, to expect the corporate workplace to be homophobic is to deny the presence of queer people in the business world or to assume that they have chosen a martyr-like career path, as opposed to a more liberal and accepting profession. In order to flesh out this idea, I want to use an example from the popular, though low-brow frat boy humor-infested, HBO series Entourage. I’d like to think Karen Tongson would appreciate this kitschy choice, considering it takes place in Los Angeles and mythologizes the corporate side of Hollywood in the same way The O.C. mythologizes an entire county.
In Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries, Tongson discusses how humor can be used as “an ameliorative mode” in examples like J.J. Chinois’ performances to claim the space of the suburbs for queer of color subjects, but also “instead of using humor or irony to make themselves distinct, or to stand out and apart from the popular mainstream, they cull from the popular to forge unlikely sociabilities, relationships, and alliances between themselves and the spheres of living and referentiality they are meant to be excluded from” (15). Tongson argues that there is sincerity as well as humor or irony at work in claiming spaces like the suburbs, or as I argue, the corporate workplace, for queer lifestyles. Through a discussion of two episodes from the sixth season of Entourage, I want to explore how Lloyd Lee (played by Rex Lee), a gay Chinese American assistant to an agent, utilizes both ironic and sincere positions to advance his career in the agency and claim the corporate space. Those familiar with the series might disagree with this assertion as Ari Gold, the agent Lloyd is assistant to, barrages him with insults through the previous five seasons; however, the sixth season marks a distinct change in the relationship between the two characters and moves Lloyd into a more central role. As a token queer character, Lloyd and his relationship with Ari isn’t afforded space previous to this plot point.
Within the context of Hollywood, there is a rich history of queer of color presence; however, the corporate side of Hollywood, the agents, firms, and studios wielding a lot of power, are portrayed in Entourage as part of the business world operating under a predominantly white male heterosexual power structure. Much like Tongson’s elaboration on The O.C., it’s important to recognize the portrayal of the agency within the series as negating or ignoring the demographics that are the reality. The series portrays the employees of the Miller Gold Agency as mostly clean-cut white male young professionals with the occasional attractive white woman in a sexy business suit. Lloyd does stand out at the agency in both race and style of dress. In an episode of season two Ari asks him, “What the fuck are you wearing?” Lloyd responds, “It’s my Andre3000 look, you like?” Ari is clear that he disapproves of the flashy garb: “No, I don’t. You look like Michelle Kwan in drag. Why don’t you do a triple fuckin’ axle over to the phone and try [James] Cameron again?” Such are the majority of the interactions between Ari and Lloyd in the early seasons of the series.
In the first episode of season six, entitled “Drive,” Lloyd steps into a much more powerful role. He sees Ari’s good mood upon entering his office for the day and seizes the opportunity to assert his own ambitions and demands in the corporate space. He recounts the family dinner with his father where he realizes how long he had been Ari’s assistant and that he had more than proved himself. His initial request for a promotion is somewhat weak as far as making ultra-masculine demands go. Ari is able to deflect his request with his own personal story about working hard as an underling before he earned a promotion: “Did you know that my father was very strict?…He berated me and he pushed me and he insulted me. It made me feel very insecure and lost. But I became a man, my own man. And now I berate! And I push!” Lloyd says, “I’ve noticed,” before Ari motions to the ringing phone for the fifth or sixth time during the scene. Later Ari asks, “What? Are you sulking, Lloyd?” He answers, “No. I’m not sulking, I’m steaming. I tried to talk to you, and you essentially ignored me. Do you have plans to promote me?”
“I haven’t even thought about it, Lloyd.”
“Well, you need to. Ari, promote me, or I’m leaving you!”
[laughing] “Leaving me?! Where would you go?”
“To another agency!”
“Another agency? Lloyd, you’d have to start all over again. You know that…”
“Every time I have broached this subject, you have responded with some wise ass comment. The time has come. I want to know if this is going to happen. I want to know when, and I want to know today.”
“I will not be strong-armed!”
“You just were, Ari Gold!”
Lloyd appropriates the ultra-masculine corporate discourse and strategy in this conversation. Ari is unable to counter him with even an insult.
Lloyd’s strong-arming of Ari doesn’t end in that conversation. Driving in his car later in the episode, his wife calls him to ask what’s wrong with Lloyd because he called her to say goodbye. Of course his wife and kids in chorus sing Lloyd’s praises and tell him how much they love him. Ari has been strong-armed by his own family to promote Lloyd. He’s forced to meet Lloyd’s terms; a meeting is arranged on Ari’s front step at 10:00 pm. Ari attempts retribution for Lloyd’s aggressive maneuvers by making him wait until 1:30 in the morning, but Ari ends up conceding to Lloyd’s demands for a promotion, given he can make it through 100 days of Ari’s insidious and outrageous instructions.
Lloyd’s business strong-arm and his re-inscription of Ari’s family as a weapon reveal his corporate savvy. When Lloyd shows up on Ari’s porch, he’s dressed in a loud sweater vest and striped socks that echo the Andre3000 look from the much earlier episode, so Ari’s concession to “Michelle Kwan in drag” is made all the more significant. Just as Tongson’s argument that “Southern California’s variegated and racially marked suburban counties pose a historical challenge to perpetually whitewashed imaginaries of the suburbs,” so Lloyd’s presence and later assertive career moves pose a challenge to the whitewashed imaginaries of corporate Hollywood.
Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
“Drive.” Entourage: The Complete Sixth Season. Writ. Doug Ellin. Dir. Mark Mylod. HBO, 2009. DVD.
Tongson, Karen. Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
What I find most fascinating about the example you describe is the way that Lloyd transforms his feminization (connection with the wife and children) and the forced submissiveness that goes along with his racial and queer coding (100 days of acceding to demands) into a “strong arm” tactic to make demands on his white male boss. Topping from the bottom, you almost might say. It makes me wonder whether Lloyd’s accession to power bodes any alterations in the masculine power structures driving Hollywood’s upper tiers, or whether he will end up assimilated.
Your two examples here are from very different strata of workplaces; I enjoyed them both, and I am curious about the ways in which they might connect with one another. Perhaps in the ways that queer and especially queer of color bodies cannot expect to be ‘safe’ (with all the connotations the idea of safety has, especially as Delany unpacks it; often ‘safety’ is used as shorthand for safety *from* racialized bodies) yet simultaneously find a place of comfort and even power…?