Queering everything here
“Queer TV” features a vast scope of disciplines, objects of study, research interests, and analytical methodologies. In putting all of this material together, I decided to imagine the layout of articles and book reviews like a map. I think of that mapping not so much in terms of discursive or epistemological delimitations, but as territories sharing common boundaries, even overlapping in some places. As I will explain below, this map draws links between the 19 articles, six book reviews, and two interviews that comprise the special section. I have grouped the papers according to seven lines of inquiry:
- reality TV
- film and television
These categories demand the reader understands queerly. Categories create meaning and must be subverted in order to allow for these meanings to emerge fully.
Our first cluster of articles explore the challenges and complexities of queer television. Mainly articulated around mainstream US productions, this subsection addresses issues of identity, identity politics, closeted identities, visibility, queerbaiting, boundaries, and of course, ambiguity. The authors of this subsection find intricacy in the spaces between the margins and the norm, between visibility and identity, between coming out and coming in. Ambiguity here aims to rest in an inter-binary positionality that enables us to rethink these poles, no longer taken as references in terms of identity, but as possible fluctuations of binary tensions which point to new possibilities. What might emerge if we rest in the in-between? The section includes articles by Lynne Joyrich on Batwoman; Kinga Erzepki on Billions; Jordan Z. Adler on Transparent; Lauren Herold on the persona of Queen Latifah; Sarah E. S. Sinwell on BoJack Horseman, and finally a book review written by Christina Hodel on queerbaiting (Brennan, 2019). Ambiguities share a territoriality with the following subsection, “trans-iting”, and as such, I locate ambiguities as a compass for our queer sensibilities.
I titled this section “trans-iting” because I want to underscore that transness (and studies around it) is constantly in motion. Trans isn’t only an identity, a concept, or a point of activism; articles about trans characters, films, and television productions are found throughout the entire special section, as transness itself moves across landscapes, and permeates borders, shapeshifts. This subsection specifically refers to transition through the lenses of TV studies, literature studies, film studies, video games studies, fan studies, trans perspectives, trans utopias, trans-normativities, non-disclosure, trans children and so on. “Trans-iting” begins with an interview I conducted with Jack Halberstam on Queer Television, seriality, and queer and trans representation. The subsection also includes Deborah Shaw and Rob Stone’s paper on Sense8; Toni Pape on stealth gameplay; Mary Zabroskis on I Am Jazz, and Beck Banks’ book review on queer and trans struggle and the need for the “ordinary” (Cavalcante 2018).
Dear to queer and trans communities, camp plays a major role within queer sensibilities. Here, we analyze manifestations of camp in documentary and on mainstream TV. With a historical perspective on such representations, “Camp” discusses questions of archives, in/visibility, and the mise en scène of camp characters. Sid Cunningham’s work on Disclosure offers a camp perspective on trans media. The author engages the ambiguity between distorted binary positions and offers a reconciliation between the pain and pleasure suggested by mainstream visual representations. Katharine Mussellam reviews Quinn Miller’s groundbreaking book, Camp TV: Trans Gender Queer Television History (2019), and Astrid Fellner takes a camp Latinx perspective on Ugly Betty and One Day at a Time.
Many queer kids, myself included, learned about their queerness through television. Television teaches us through its display of underrepresented subjects and themes, but also through an exploration of various possible identities. Alexis Poirier-Saumure considers Ava Laure Parsemain’s The Pedagogy of Queer TV (a theoretical text referenced throughout this collection) to reveal how television both succeeds and fails to be a nuanced queer teacher, changing our relation to ourselves in the process. In looking at Sex Education and Schitt’s Creek, Tanya Horeck finds that both shows encourage a pedagogical responsibility within mainstream television. And finally, three filmmakers—Beck Banks, Miche Dreiling, and myself—discuss queer/trans filmmaking as a form of pedagogical engagement. Pedagogy gives us a real-life takeaway from mediatic forms of representation.
So far, most of the work referenced focuses on explicitly fictional queer representations. By contrast, reality TV occupies a unique historical position when it comes to queer television, as it challenges some of the boundaries traditionally separating media and spectators. Sean Donovan (Ru Paul’s Drag Race) and Philippa Orme (Are You the One) both explore current reality TV productions in their papers which study the intricate and delicate relations between a show, its audience, and their strange mainstream/counter-mainstream, ambivalent liaisons. The authors ask, what utopic possibilities appear in the disruption of queer identities as staged through reality TV?
Debates rage as to whether queerness is always political, and two papers in particular embrace this question head-on. Grace Jung discusses homophobia, policies, and discrimination in South Korea through the lens of the show Ask Us Anything. In the Canadian context, Ryan Conrad explores the importance of archives when it comes to queer histories, AIDS, and media productions by revisiting the Toronto Living with AIDS cable access project through detailed archival work.
Film & TV
As demonstrated earlier, film and television are queerly related. Film and television feed off one another; rather than being opposed, they represent a continuity of ideas and sensibilities. This subsection features two papers, one by Yaghma Kaby and the other by Patrick Woodstock, which look at continuities vis-à-vis Hannibal and its adaptation from book to film to television. Hannibal is a key text for discussion because it moves across numerous media platforms, and in this iteration, transforms from a homophobic and transphobic text in the hands of a queer fan (in this case, its showrunner, Bryan Fuller).
Danny and Karl meeting on the virtual reality game Striking Vipers X to have sex with each other│Black Mirror
In the same subsection, Nicole Morse and Lauren Herold discuss Mulvey’s “male gaze” in relation to a possible “female” or “trans” gaze by summoning Jack Halberstam, Joey Soloway, Todd Haynes, Barry Jenkins, and the popular sci-fi series Black Mirror. Also deeply rooted in a film theory tradition, Yaghma Kaby offers a book review on horror and television from the 1950s to the present in relation to psychoanalytic film theory, as well as gender- and class-based film theory. Teresa Caprioglio gives a detailed analysis of Veronica Mars and the series’ regendering of film noir in its television adaptation. And finally, Jenée Wilde explores the paradox of science fiction, film, queer representation, the transgender “look”, and intersex individuals by concentrating on the film Predestination (Spierig and Spierig 2014).
“Yeah, but we also want them to fuck!”
You might notice that there is barely any mention of sex in this collection. Absent from these multiple, varied, and highly nuanced texts is an extended discussion of sexuality. I find this to be an egregious act when working with queer theory.
Given that the authors of all of the submissions I received are so hyperaware of the explosion of LGBTQ+ representation in the media, I was initially surprised and dismayed that not one of the pieces tackled the flourishing evidence of traces of queer sexuality on television. But then I began to realize that this silence is rife with possibilities for analysis. I would like to offer some of my own thoughts on this subject.
As Jane Arthurs states, tradition centers television at the heart of the household, and television, in turn, centers tradition:
“Explicit representations of heterosexual activity, or even the mention of other more ‘deviant’ sexual behaviors, were unthinkable for a medium that transmitted the core values of the society from the public domain into the private sphere of the family home.” (Arthurs, 2004: 2)
At the same time, representation and visibility of sexuality transform the televisual apparatus in multiple ways, from sex scandals to pornography. They also transform queer publics.
Alongside the rise of LGBTQ+ visibility, there has been a concurrent rise of homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic hatred. Visibility is not value-neutral, nor free from the structures that govern our current realities, and television is no exception. Of course, this is not to imply that increased representation is not important, nor is it the cause of this increased violence. As many queers would probably attest, representation on television can be a lifeline, but the sad reality is that it can also result in death threats (some of these ideas are discussed in this collection, see Banks, Dreiling and Rouleau).
Our political climate contributes to this tension. On the one hand, fierce conservatives rail against what they call “liberal suppression”, claiming that queer and gender studies are not real studies, but a leftwing ideology that censors the expression of real (read: white) men and women. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, a stratagem for neoliberalism better known as “pinkwashing” begets the token incorporation of LGBTQ+ signifiers, but also represses any meaningful discussion of queer sexuality—even as it allows for better inclusion of queer people in the workplace, schools, and possibly family life (at least in North American social life). These two seemingly disparate political stances ultimately make the same argument: queer sex shoudn’t be televised.
For example, the #MeToo movement was (and still is) a major development in the television, film, and video game industries, despite being co-opted from its roots in Black women’s communities. It clearly demonstrates the sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are deeply rooted in our media industries and representations. As Robin James notes in a discussion of Laura Mulvey’s emblematic “Visual Pleasure”,
“both in art and IRL [in real life], things like sexism, racism, ableism, all that–they hide behind habits and techniques of seeing / ‘seeing’-as-metaphor-for-knowing that build a fourth wall. These habits and techniques make humanly constructed phenomena (like misogyny, sexist treatments of women characters, the tendency to kill off lesbian characters in TV shows, etc. etc.) appear as natural and true, as accurate reflections of how things really are. (James, 2016)”
In other words, how the industry functions is directly connected to the representations that are produced by/within it. By celebrating the expanded queer representations in mainstream media, we, as scholars, have fallen into a self-serving pattern of discourse. That is, by avoiding an extensive discussion of non-normative sexuality whilst celebrating a more “diverse” realm of representation, we give in to harmful conservative discourses about queer sexualities. If we are not talking about queer sex, not showing it on screen, not renewing shows that depict it, and not addressing it in its complexity, we are contributing to a cultural stalemate regarding sexual oppression. Our silence around the lack of representation of queer sexual expression becomes critical avoidance, the consequences of which include sexualized violence against queer and trans people.
What else is at stake with this absence of sex? What does this sanitization imply?
In their book #NSFW, Sex, Humor, And Risk in Social Media, Susanna Paasonen, Kylie Jarrett and Ben Light explore the regulation of sexuality within social media as hidden behind the hashtag Not Safe for Work (#NSFW). They argue that,
“This practice of conflating safety with the filtering of sexual content both builds on and bolsters an understanding of sex and sexuality as inherently risky, potentially harmful, and best hidden away and left unmentioned.” (2019, p.10)
In absenting sexuality within this special section, we too neutralize the “dangerousness” of queer sexuality. Let’s not forget how the AIDS pandemic also reinforced a safety discourse surrounding queer sex. [open endnotes in new window] For years, society at large did not discuss sex and/as pleasure, that is sex as creative and imaginative, but instead portrayed it as dangerous, life-threatening, and contagious. We are witnessing a contemporary version of this view of sex as what Foucault calls the “repressive hypothesis” and its “perverse implantation” (1994). That is to say, we suppress sexuality within the discourse while concurrently creating a way to talk about it without actually talking about it.
Put bluntly, “queer” stripped of sex is a new form of puritanism. Too often we make an overly simplistic analogy wherein any non-heteronormative representation is read as queer. What we fail to acknowledge as queer theorists of television is that this increased representation reproduces homonormativity when TV strives to present “queer” as safe and devoid of sex. This is also true of scholarship when we strip subversively queer sexual representation down to homonormative tropes in order to make queer sex seem safe, nice, and acceptable, even desirable to a voyeuristic straight eye. Regrettably, this special section is no exception.
To conclude, I’ve taken the liberty to open up this discussion in my introduction because the essays collected in this special section contribute to interrogating queer and television scholarships in so many ways. It is in this kind of theoretical space that we can challenge how we engage with queer sexuality on screen. As James mentions,
“Mulvey’s idea of the fourth wall and its role in film illustrates something that also happens in mainstream notions of politics, society, and government: when we focus just on individuals as they are in the present, we build a fourth wall that obscures histories and ongoing material practices/habits that shape reality in unequal, biased ways.”
By understanding and dismantling the fourth wall through a broader contextualization of where we come from, we will have a better idea of where we are now—and perhaps even a say in mapping out where we are going.