‘Searching’ and Straight People’s Fear of the Queer Internet

Note: Spoilers for Searching ahead.

It’s no secret that queer people — from Twitter Gays to Tumblr Lesbians — love the internet. In a lot of ways, the internet dissipates the inherent loneliness of queer life, offering a getaway for everyone from small-town queers to big town queers who don’t leave their apartments.

The internet is a very different place for the characters in Searching, the internet hysteria-fueled thriller directed by Aneesh Chaganty and starring John Cho as a father searching for his missing daughter and Debra Messing as the police officer assigned to the investigation. The film is enjoyable, sure, and works in the new genre of computer screen-based films like Unfriended and Open Windows.

But more than Unfriended and Open Windows, Searching feels influenced by panic around the internet, social media and the dark corners of the internet’s one and zeroes. And something about that panic feels inherently anti-queer to me, especially because of the awesome queer potential of the internet.

Queer people have found refuge on the internet from its earliest days. Wired noted three of the top 10 most populated chat rooms on the internet in 1994 were gay-themed: men4men (#3) MenWhoWant2MeetMen (#6) and YoungMen4Men (#8), according to a 1997 study. In 1994, the internet had only about 10,000 websites and only about two million computers worldwide were hooked into it. It was still the Wild Wild West — and it was manifest destiny (except not colonial) for queer people looking to find themselves and others like them. Hey, Grindr even pre-dated any straight apps meant to hook up heterosexuals by a year or two.

In a way, movies like Searching come off as both queerphobic and like a gentrification of the internet. The heterosexuals have moved onto the block and fear the residents. In Unfriended and Searching, straight people take the very same thing that has helped queer people find solace and turn it into something dark and nasty. To extend the gentrification metaphor even further, the internet was a place that queer people needed to use in order to find themselves. We had to, straight people get to. And then they shit all over it?

Searching stands in contrast to another movie that came out this year about the internet: Love, Simon. Searching posits that the internet creates a chasm between John Cho’s dad character and his daughter, Margot Kim. But Love, Simon lives inside that chasm — hell, Simon’s dad, played by Josh Duhamel, even jokes about signing up for Grindr. Love, Simon is about the way that Simon is allowed to breathe (to paraphrase Simon’s mom, Jennifer Garner) online as an alternative to his claustrophobic closeted existence IRL.

Of course, Simon is still a mainstream, big-budget film, so the film must eventually reunite Simon with his family, and Simon leaves the internet behind for a real-life boyfriend and real-life smooches. But the internet will no doubt be there for Simon again when he and his boyfriend break up. What would happen in Love, Simon 2 when he encounters Grindr or Tinder or BBRT?

That’s not to say that the internet isn’t without its dangers, of course. But there’s something inherently stigmatizing about Searching that feels a bit too close to having your mom worry that someone you meet on Grindr — don’t tell her about Adam4Adam or early 2000s Craigslist — might harm you in some way.

But when I think about the internet, I think about my own evolution into a queer being behind a computer screen. I think about essays like “Fierce.net: Imagining a Faggoty Web,” which is about the positive possibilities of an even more queer, more radically inclusive internet, not the inherent dangers of one.

Searching ultimately doubts its own fear of the internet, which makes it feel even more empty. In the end, John Cho’s daughter is missing because of a suitor who feels rebuked — it wasn’t the internet! It was incels! But the movie still has a lot of bad faith about what it means that we live our lives online. And while social media is advancing at a pace too fast for most people to keep up, a lot of queer people will find the film’s worries old hat, conservative and, well, straight nonsense.

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