2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
Gay TV and Straight America
by Hollis Griffin
Gay TV and Straight America by Ron Becker (Rutgers University Press, 2006), 283 pages, $23.95.
In Gay TV and Straight America, author and media scholar Ron Becker asserts that during the 1990s, Americans became increasingly familiar with gay people and gay culture. In the wake of the AIDS crisis, the tenuous successes of multiculturalist discourses, the laborious efforts of gay rights advocates, and the booming niche-oriented economy of the post-Fordist United States, gay people became not just tacitly accepted but warmly embraced by mainstream culture at the close of the twentieth century.
Becker mobilizes the term “straight panic” to suggest that the 1990s marked a major turning point in the lives of many gay Americans. Historically, the term “gay panic” refers to a courtroom strategy used to defend those accused of homophobic violence in the United States. Eve Sedgwick has used the idea of “homosexual panic” to underscore the wildly indeterminate yet violently defended line of demarcation between homosociality and homosexuality in Western society. Becker uses these ideas in order to suggest that this particular cultural moment should be understood as a period in which vast swaths of people in the United States started to understand the problems inherent in assuming heterosexuality’s universality. He posits that a cultural climate arose that allowed gay men and women to cast a long shadow on heterosexuality’s exclusive claim on the U.S.’s cultural center. Becker is particularly interested in the ways in which this climate influenced industrial practice in U.S. network television, and the ways in which media texts narrativized anxieties about changing sexual mores. He argues that U.S. network television narrated gayness for economic gain even as it contained it for political expedience.
The archive Becker draws on for explicating “straight panic” includes a mix of academic literature and popular media coverage on a variety of topics. These include
Becker underscores the multivalent nature of these social developments, emphasizing that these discourses frequently conflated the category of “citizen” with that of “consumer.” These developments often defined gayness in economic terms in ways that elided people and practices too frequently placed on the fringes of U.S. society. As a result, gay people and gay issues were rendered via affluent, whitewashed notions of “progress,”and queer sexual practices were obscured in favor of images of gay “normality.”
During the time Becker considers, competition from emerging networks, cable, and then the Internet vastly limited network television’s audiences and its attendant advertising revenues. He places “straight panic” in the context of U.S. television industrial practice in the "post-network" era. But he complicates the traditional narrative of network dominance in U.S. television by suggesting that the network era involved more complicated industrial maneuverings than many accounts of media history offer. Becker illuminates these occurrences by chronicling the history of targeted marketing.
Becker demonstrates that narrowcasting — frequently cast as something unique to the era of media convergence — has actually been a common practice in consumer culture, generally, and the television industry, specifically. And that happened well before the television audience erosion that characterized the late 1980s and early 1990s. Using trade press and economic scholarship, Becker details how the peculiarities of the post-Fordist U.S. economy, particularly the aims of the advertising industry, made targeted marketing an increasingly central part of the U.S. economic landscape from the 1970s on. And not just any kind of targeted marking, but particularly methods that focused on psychographic appeals to consumers. Becker meticulously examines the impact that these kinds of marketing strategies had on television via accounts in the medium’s trade press, scholarship on advertising, and various interviews with people working in those industries.
This focus on psychographic marketing resulted in advertisers placing a premium on television programs that courted “quality” audiences, as opposed to those that reached out to an undifferentiated “mass” audience. Becker coins the neologism “slumpy” to describe how network executives, program producers, and advertising buyers imagined the composition of this “quality” audience as comprised of socially-liberal, urban-minded professionals. He is careful to assert that "slumpies" are somewhat an imaginary category, one dreamed up in search of ever-scarcer advertising dollars. He states that as networks reached out to this psychographic group, they developed programming that tried to be hip, sophisticated, with a distinctively edgy and ironic sensibility.
Becker aligns the “slumpy” sensibility with the social process of “straight panic.” He charges that the slumpies, as a category, were likely to be attuned and sensitive to the far-reaching political, economic, and cultural shifts in which gay people and gay culture were imbricated in the 1990s United States. He asserts that this relationship between the slumpies and straight panic was made material in the texts of U.S. network television: the television industry anticipated and exploited it by reaching out to audiences with many representations of gay people and gay life during the 1990s.
The remainder of the book describes various representations of gay people on network television during the 1990s, charging that these representations were — and largely remain — in the vein of the warm and comfy yet often bland and disappointingly asexual. For instance, programs often narrate single gay people without ever showing them in relationships, sexual or otherwise. Frequently, gay couples appear for an episode or narrative arc and then disappear, framed as things for the main, heterosexual characters to “deal with.” Gay characters and their romantic relationships are often wholly conventional and conservative, cloaking gayness in an aura of middlebrow respectability via the signifiers of class status, monogamy, and family. Becker details these representations over the course of the decade, using trade and popular press to frame them via various events occurring behind the scenes in U.S. network television: personnel shifts, series cancellations, and so on. More important, he offers a typology for the ways in which these representations operated in the framework of “straight panic,” suggesting that they furthered network television economic objectives yet staying squarely in the realm of conservative political propriety. This typology includes:
Becker stresses that these typologies aren’t all-inclusive or mutually exclusive, but narrativize gay people and gay life for an ostensibly heterosexual mainstream. This section, in particular, is especially useful for teaching these issues in undergraduate classes because it identifies specific textual trends and engagingly illuminates some of the ideological issues raised by the representation of gay lives in an increasingly niched medium.
Becker self-consciously limits his discussion to a highly particular avenue of cultural production: prime-time network television. As such, programming on cable networks like Showtime’s Queer as Folk — key to debates about gay-themed content appearing in the medium in the 1990s — falls by the wayside. While constructed via different circuits of cultural production, texts on network and cable television circulated among similar publics nonetheless; after all, U.S. cable networks often utilize modes of address similar to those employed by network television in reaching out to the same pool of viewers. As such, they raise similar issues about television audiences’ relationships to representations of gay people as well as the ways that the television industry imagines and targets various publics. Their omission here opens up additional avenues for inquiry among other scholars, but it feels like a curious elision considering the textual similarities and the many parallels between the different audiences imagined by network and cable television. Similarly, Becker sidesteps the issue of gay people’s reception of these particular modes of address, asserting that the economics of network broadcasting prevent too much attention to gay people as an audience to be served. While I am inclined to agree with him, the ways in which gay publics consumed the content he analyzes beckon for intervention here.
On a more theoretical note, there are several instances when Becker uses his discussion of “straight panic” as a “cultural climate” to posit some kind of causal relationship between culture and television programming. In one instance, he charges that the public outrage after the 1998 murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shephard may have helped keep gay-themed programming on television after the cancellation of the situation-comedy that staged comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out in 1997. This program is the kind of ur-text for this analysis, perhaps necessarily given the tremendous amount of attention it received in the press as well as in scholarship of the medium, both its narrativization on television and its occurrence in the life of the program’s star. But firm relation of the “success” of programs to adjacent, largely unrelated “real world” events feels like a case in which the interpretive frame devolves into post hoc ergo propter hoc. It reads as an instance when the connections Becker draws between gay people, television, and culture are, perhaps, too hard and fast and may require some complication.
Further, Becker’s employment of the term “gay” underscores some tensions at the very heart of so many projects invested in gay politics and media. Identifying connotative queerness in the texts of popular culture and endeavoring to re-read the labors of queer people working in the culture industries have been at the heart of many, many projects in media analysis for decades. Becker locates his project as one adjacent to this body of work — after all, industrial analysis and political economy critical frameworks do not always sit well with the vagaries of deep textual analysis. In many ways, the two theoretical enterprises frequently arrive at different answers because they essentially raise different questions. In this way, playful textual deconstructions often read more optimistically about the libratory potential of media for gay people than do more sober analyses of target marketing via representations of sexual difference. Becker’s skepticism about the television industry’s utilization of gay-themed content is both warranted and apt, but in sidestepping the question of reception among gay publics, the project illustrates the discrepancies between various modes of inquiry in media analysis.
And yet this is no fault of Becker’s, particularly when considering that the debate between political economy and cultural studies theoretical camps so frequently ends with the valorization of one mode of inquiry over the other depending on which is in vogue at any given moment, or from which corner of the academy the critic making such a call is situated. Nevertheless, it raises larger questions among media scholars when we identify consumerist appeals used in corporatized cultural production as being “gay” yet largely unmoor these from the various “queer” readings that have been occurring in academia and the general public throughout history. It goes without saying that sexuality is a slippery business, and its textual representations necessarily signify differently to different viewers — particularly in cases when representations of marginalized groups are utilized to reach out to broad publics. But I left Gay TV and Straight America wondering if there is a way for projects invested in industrial imaginings of “gay” content and the many projects locating “queer” potential of various texts to be in dialogue?
In the discussion of “homosexual panic” in The Epistemology of Closet to which I referred earlier, Eve Sedgwick charges that this particular turn of phrase “rests on the falsely individualizing and pathologizing assumption that hatred of homosexuals is [a] private and… atypical… phenomenon in this culture” (19). As such, there are profound risks in applying Becker’s “straight panic” rubric too broadly and/or uncritically. His caution about the differences between consumers as imagined by the media industries and notions of politicized citizens is an insightful, oft-illustrated caveat throughout the book; he’s right to cast something of a cloud on the ways in which popular discourse collapses these categories. Yet complicating this conflation is an ongoing project in many different corners of media studies, it requires that scholars invested in it amass a diverse archive using an array of methodologies and varied critical perspectives. In addition to complicating existing frameworks for studying television’s appeals to audiences, Becker’s analysis enables further study of media texts and practices via different lenses and approaches, making the project a crucial, highly insightful contribution to media studies.
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