Discourse, Media, and the politics of queer representation: Examining controlling images and their effects on LGBT activism
By: Calvin Alexander Sutton
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans have, within the past decade experienced a considerable increase in visibility in mainstream television and film (Harris, 2009; Avila-Saavedra, 2009). Given the exclusionary position to which sexual minorities have been relegated in previous eras, it would seem that a higher rate of visibility would be the ideal, and a proper motivation to assume that queer political discourses have progressed to a considerably substantial degree. While it is important to acknowledge the legitimacy of increased visibility within socio-political, cultural, and economic spaces, it is equally vital that this perceived political progress be summarily subject to critical scrutiny. Of particular interest to this examination is the degree to which queer males may be subject to controlling images.
Thus, in this essay I seek to examine the potential for the construction and propagation of controlling images of queer males in American television programming and film production, and the effects such images may produce in obscuring political discourses in LGBT activism. At the outset of my analysis I present an overview of literature that discusses current perceptions of the state of queer politics, the problem of queer representation in media, and the conflation of the gender binary relative to queer and heterosexual male characterizations. Further, I describe a theoretical framework that incorporates concepts from critical theory and poststructuralist queer theory. In proposing a content/discourse analysis of various texts featuring queer male lead characters, I lay the groundwork for a qualitative, inductive analysis of the issues discussed in the overview of the literature. I conclude the discussion by offering further research avenues for which the theoretical framework and methodology described might be deployed for further robust investigations, and assess the merits of the theory relative to the current investigation.
Review of the literature
The state of queer politics and identity
In posing the rhetorical question of “What’s left of lesbian and gay liberation?,” Alan Sears (2005) focuses a significant spotlight on the position of queer politics in the post-Stonewall era. Arguing that queer liberation fronts born of the Stonewall Rebellion have become viable commodities of capitalist pursuit in direct opposition to their anti-capitalist origins, Sears asserts that queer libratory discourses must be repositioned outside of commodified spaces in order to retain political formidability (2005). Drawing from Marx as his point of entry, Sears structures his thesis around an understanding of class dispositions as the nexus of the shifting of discourse in queer communities away from liberation toward an economically salient assimilationist project (2005). While LGBT Americans have fashioned spaces for individual expression and inclusive (albeit discursive) political agendas, these spaces have been infiltrated by capitalists as sites for economic appropriation, eschewing the necessity for the political urgency of queer activism (Sears, 2005). Further, Sears states “Gay liberation politics often insisted…that sexual freedom required a broader social transformation to eliminate the gender system and other forms of inequality” (Sears via Steven Seidman, 2005).
What results from the shifting focus, however, is the apparent reconfiguration of queer politics that assumes hegemonic compliance (Sears, 2005). In other words, queer liberation politics that once sought to separate itself from the oppressive domination of standardized heteronormativity, has increasingly come to appropriate aspects of heteronormative politics in exchange for perceived political capital and integration into desirable, heterosexually-dominated, socio-economic spaces. To the degree that economic viability correlates with increased visibility, queer politics have evolved toward more “respectable” discourses, leaving behind those members of LGBT communities who lack the economic capital and the desire to assimilate (Sears, 2005).
Sears explains the commodification of queer spaces thusly: “Open lesbian and gay life has thrived in the commodified forms: bars, restaurants, stores, coffee shops, commercial publications, certain styles of dress and personal grooming, commercialized Pride Day celebrations with corporate sponsorship” (2005). It is in these spaces that the banner of queer politics is being assumed and re-contextualized in heterosexual domains, effectively limiting the legitimacy of LGBT activism. Sears’ analysis reveals an agenda that subverts LGBT activist projects, and reconfigures them as tools of capitalistic gain by way of exploitative commercialization.
Sears’ observations describe a distinct positioning of queer politics in a precariously vulnerable state whereupon total absorption into heteronormative, capitalist spaces could potentially render queer politics and LGBT activism severely ineffective, if not obsolete.
With respect to Sears’ efforts to contextualize queer liberation, the discussion of homosexuality as a focus of individual identity versus social construct is, in itself a contentious debate embedded within the cause of defining queer subjectivities. Guillermo Avila-Saavedra illuminates this point stating “the debate over essentialism and constructionism is central to the studies of human gender and sexuality” (2009). Essentialists posit the biological inevitability of the encoding of sexual orientation, while constructionists claim that homosexuality is culturally and socially constructed. Michel Foucault asserts that sexual identities are socially crafted as repository sanctions against deviant sexual practices (1978, via Avila-Saavedra, 2009). In this way, heteronormative power is reinforced as homosexual practice is necessarily marginalized as deviant.
Within critiques of sexuality as a social construct lie the seeds of queer theory projects aimed at investigating the delegitimizing of homosexuality through power based hegemony. Queer theory, as a site of resistance, seeks to question notions of power relative to sexual identity. Avila-Saavedra notes the importance of the politically ascribed definition of the word “queer” as an ‘attempt to negate the notions of sexual identity, resulting as it did from poststructuralist debates that defy rigid definitions and categorizations’ (2009, via Jargose, 1996).
Negating the rigid applications to identity further broadens the scope of critical analysis to the degree that “considerations of hegemony and sexual identities in queer media cannot be divorced from issues of class and race” (Avila-Saavedra, 2009). This is an important distinction to make given the relative ease with which queer political discourses may misrecognize attempts to subvert hegemony as a monolithic activist project with no regard for cross-racial, class-based variability. In commenting on the commodification of queer spaces, Sears reminds us that queers “who have gained the most are people…with good incomes and jobs, most often white, and especially men. At the same time, queers of color…people with limited income…women…and transgendered people have gained less, or in some cases even lost ground” (Sears, 2005). Thus, a comprehensive critique of queer politics, identities, and—in the case of the current discussion—media representation must avail of itself the benefits of analytical intersectionality.
The problem of queer representation
Regarding the discussion, then, of queer representation in media spaces, it is arguable that homosexual characters—particularly queer males—are reproduced as political agents enacting subversive counter-cultural positions. Instead, queer male representations may have been reduced to culturally progressive extensions of hegemonic stasis; necessarily innovative in their ability to be perceived as an “other” for fun and profit, though potentially conditioned toward marketable palatability (Avila-Saavedra, 2009). In his discussion of queer assimilationist tendencies in the film Relax…it’s Just Sex, Jeff Bennett contextualizes queer representations, in general, in television and film providing that “although gay and lesbian programming is generally regarded as marketable, its livelihood frequently depends on its ability to refrain from explicit social commentary” (2006). Thus, we locate a substantial underpinning to the commodification of socio-economic, queer spaces and the necessity of controlling images to the degree that specifically constructed queer images align comfortably with capitalistic designations of visibility at the expense of explicit declarations of queer activist discourse.
What amounts to a “marketable” construction of homosexuality in media reproductions is that which adheres to the notion of sameness in relation to heterosexuality (Bennett, 2006). To the extent that LGBT characterizations in mainstream programming tow the line of a politics of universality, queer libratory politics are further obscured as a radically dangerous element, out of sync with common, inclusive notions of a thoroughly homo/heterosexual co-existence (Sears, 2005; Bennett, 2006). To that end, Bennett explains “Ellen can come out, but only if she struggles. Will can date, but only if he lives with Grace” (2006).
Bennett goes on to argue that the push towards framing queer representations under the rubric of universality relates directly to economic concerns (2006). Particularly within the film industry, studio executives must negotiate a balance of producing cost effective titles that will yield significant profits with artistically innovative ventures that facilitate a competitive edge (Bennett, 2006). In this regard, LGBT filmmakers and consumers interested in compelling projects targeted at challenging “apolitical commodifications of sexual identity” often turn to independent media outlets, and away from mainstream productions (Bennett, 2006).
When the focus of queer imagery drifts away from universal (heteronormative) constructions, particularly in regards to queer male representation, mainstream productions most often limit such representations to the downtrodden (Bennett, 2006). In the film Philadelphia, Bennett locates the double-edged conflict of queer male representation arguing that the film “purported to represent a “normal” man, who just happened to be gay and HIV positive in a world that isolated people with AIDS” (2006). While it is arguably necessary to acknowledge the political implications of the AIDS epidemic in America, it stands to reason that films of this nature, alongside titles such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), A Single Man (2009), and Angels in America (2004), inadvertently undermine the political legitimacy of diverse and expansive LGBT communities beyond purporting stayed notions of victimhood.
Moreover, in analyzing the positioning of homosexual masculinities in television and film productions, conflations of homosexuality and femininity abound in such programs as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Ramsey & Santiago, 2004). Arguing an intentionally contrived contrast to the “straight” guys to which the shows “Fab Five” attend as veritable “fairy god mothers” (2004), Ramsey & Santiago contend that “Queer Eye…genders the Fab Five as feminine through the stark comparison of the stars to the heterosexual men they are sent to transform” (2004). Linking this phenomenon to standardized queer male representations, they continue: “homosexual characters often provide a measure against which lead characters appear more masculine, thereby affirming the definitions of masculinity as necessarily heterosexual” (Ramsey & Santiago, 2004).
Consistent with the overlaying of queer political discourse with capitalist commodifction, television shows like Queer Eye have solidified their position in the broader American context. Having introduced terminology such as “metrosexual” into the popular culture lexicon, Queer Eye and its producers effectively reduced the efficacy of queer politics—as a site of resistance—to a mere fashion statement (Ramsey & Santiago, 2004). In other words, thanks to shows like Queer Eye, heterosexual men are afforded the luxuries of appropriating just the right amount of “trendy gay chic” to improve the quality of their lives within homogenized, hegemonic spaces, while the comparatively fatuous “Fab Five” remain sexless, politically disenfranchised mammies. Such designation provides credence to qualifying the “Fab Five” to be nothing more than feminized arbiters of style and beautification, while accomplishing little, if anything towards queer libratory ends; hence the paradox of increased, commodified visibility. Ramsey & Santiago conclude their analysis thusly: “So if in Quer Eye heterosexuality and masculinity are trumpeted while popular notions of homosexuality as feminine are maintained, who “wins” due to the success of the program? We suggest that the real winners here are the capitalists behind the products that Queer Eye promotes…” (2004).
Gender conflation and political homophobia
When compared to constructions of hegemonic masculinity the designations of queer males simply do not equate when it comes to offering substantial political wherewithal. How, then do such queer male representations manifest as reinforcements of the negation of queer political discourse?
W.C. Harris suggests that the images of queer males touted by mass media outlets feed directly into the underpinnings of all political discourses within the context of framing masculine identities (2009). Harris cites the 2004 presidential campaign as ground zero in the pointedly homophobic project of structuring masculine identities as a mechanism for suggestive cajoling of the social consciousness. Suggesting a strategy enacted by the Republican party that sought directly to call Senator John Kerry’s masculinity into question, Harris contends that Republican strategists overemphasized Kerry’s French heritage, and perceived indecisiveness as a “flip-flopper” as a method of feminizing the democratic candidate (Harris, 2009). In contrast to the decisively resolute, hyper-masculine (read: real American man’s man) incumbent, President George W. Bush, Kerry appeared to be little more than a “limp wristed” aristocrat with an overbearing wife, and a decidedly overemotional approach to the position of “Commander and Chief” (apparently evident in his disavowal of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War following his return from active duty) (Harris, 2009). That Kerry was also falsely accused by a FOX News correspondent of trying to appeal to female demographics by joking about his frequent appointments with a manicurist, following a presidential debate, also assisted in solidifying his perceived effeminacy (Harris, 2009).
Given the United States’ contentious relationship with France on issues concerning national security and the global “War on Terror,” Kerry being perceived as a French sympathizer (The French were opposed to military occupation in Iraq) cross-referenced with the construction of his perceived effeminacy arguably had a considerable effect on the campaign’s outcome (Harris, 2009).
A significant focus for the Bush campaign was centered on legitimizing the war in Iraq. Thus, the presentation of strength, decisiveness, and stubborn resolve would prove a viable asset to Bush’s re-election, in opposition to Kerry’s namby-pamby “flip-flopping” (Harris, 2009). Here we see direct notions of heteronormative masculinity (tinged with a homophobic undercurrent) called upon as indicators of strong leadership ability. Thus, if we are to believe that heteronormative “strength” and resolve are the nationally recognized necessary ingredients for an effective leader, where does this regard masculine identities inconsistent with hegemonic constructions of manhood? It further stands to reason that suffusing masculine identities into the political discourse of the election played naturally to the Republican’s favor alongside ballot initiatives in eleven states designed to ban same-sex marriage in that same election cycle (Harris, 2009). While there is no irrefutable evidence that conflating masculine identity played a direct role in re-electing President George W. Bush, or preemptively banning gay marriage in eleven states, I contend that a formidable case can be made that the rise in queer male representation in the media that began in 2003 (Avila-Saavedra, 2009; Harris, 2009), juxtaposed with the 2004 election reveals the potential for a cultural narrative worth investigating.
In considering a methodology for producing empirical analysis of the issues surrounding the controlling images of queer males in television and film, and the effects these potentially specious images portend in regards to LGBT political discourses, I turn to a bilateral theoretical framework incorporating elements of critical theory and poststructuralist queer theory. These two analytical methods provide a cogent foundation for a critical examination of the supposed pervasiveness of queer male controlling images and their functions as instruments of necessary oppression geared towards dominating the social consciousness. Both derived from Marxist ideology, critical theory and poststructuralist queer theory seek to cast a light on contradictions prevalent in capitalist productions, the construction and manipulation of sexualities, and—within the context of this discussion—a confluence of media generated, constructed sexualities and capitalistic deception towards delegitimizing and reductionist ends.
Beginning with critical theory, I cite two concepts that lend a substantial amount of analytical coverage to the discussion: immanent critique, and the culture industry. In his examination of critical theory, Robert J. Antonio describes immanent critique as “a means of detecting the social contradictions which offer the most determinate possibilities for emancipatory social change” (1981). Immanent critique, according to Antonio, finds its roots in Hegelian philosophy that identifies social progress as the manifest nature of the ‘dialectic in history’ (1981). In other words, the mechanisms for social development and subsequent collapse are all built into the historical foundations of societies. To that end, immanent critique should be understood as a method of contextualizing various social phenomena as a product of oppressive ideologies rooted in historical progress (Antonio, 1981).
To the extent that immanent critique can be a useful tool in uncovering contradictory discourses within various texts featuring queer male representations, it is my belief that incorporating this brand of examination into a content analysis of such texts (in the form of film and television programming) could be exceedingly revelatory. By applying immanent critique the critical observer can come to interpret a reading of a text in a variety of forms teasing out the very ideas and concepts the text may openly claim to denounce. In other words, while critics may praise television studios and film production companies for increasing the visibility of queer male representation, a closer reading of these representations may reveal dubious implications for their intended purposes.
Comparatively, looking at the culture industry—television, film, and most all marketable forms of popular culture—as a method of propagating various oppressive and repressive ideologies would establish an analytical continuum working in tandem with immanent critique. Conceptualized by Theodor Adorno, Max Horheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, the culture industry “administers ‘mass deception’ by churning out a never-ending supply of mass-produced, standardized commodities that ‘aborts and silences criticism’ (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007 via Bottomore, 1984:19). The critical theorists culture industry constructs an “ideal” by way of repetitious advertising and high quality presentation designed, ostensibly, to entreat consumers towards a pursuit of individuality. Realistically, the goal of the capitalist is to foster a desire within the individual to cleave to the collective understanding or reading of a particular text in the service of a uniformity in habits of consumption and, ultimately, social consciousness (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007). In this regard, applying the conceptual model of the culture industry to the reading of texts featuring queer male representation can make ascertainable various modes of social constructions of queer males designed to impede or delegitimize discourses pertinent to LGBT progressive politics.
Poststructuralist queer theory
Turning then to poststructuralist queer theory—in examining the potential for a hybridization of the two concepts—Ki Namaste begins the discussion by locating postructuralism as a particular school of thought outside of the foundationalist tradition that identifies the subject as the site of political action (discourse) (1994). Namaste states “[Poststructuralism]…argues that subjects are not the autonomous creators of themselves or their social worlds. Rather subjects are embedded in a complex network of social relations” (1994). Namaste further contends that while many modern theories of social discourse may acknowledge individuals as sites of knowledge, poststructuralism observes individuals as “effects of a specific social and cultural logic” (1994). To that end, postructuralist discourses provide that subjectivities presented as autonomous, self-contained agents should be ‘deconstructed’ and challenged (Namaste, 1994). Here, we return to Foucault’s writings on sexuality that purports that “social identities are effects of the ways in which knowledge is organized” (Namaste, 1994). Moreover, in Foucault’s treatment of the balancing of power and knowledge, the widely accepted notion that “knowledge is power” is reversed to substantiate his claim that power is never separate from knowledge, but rather embedded within it (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007). Thus, an examination of the power/knowledge relations of heteronormative and queer media reproductions is key to understanding the premises by which discourse takes its shape in queer male representation. At this juncture, we may begin to see the continuity between subject positionality and the presupposed oppressive agendas of media capitalists in their presentations of queer male subjects.
Taking the analytical possibilities a step further, however, I consider Jacques Derrida’s concept of “supplimentarity” that “reveals that what appears to be outside a given system is always already fully inside it; that which seems to be natural is historical” (Namaste, 1994). For example, Namaste argues the construction of heterosexuality can only exist by virtue of its binary opposition to homosexuality (1994). Thus, we begin to discover further implications for alternative methods of interpreting various texts. By closely examining the positionality of queer male subjects on television and in film, we can contrast their definitive designations as necessary binary oppositions to their more “traditional” heterosexual counterparts.
In developing an analytical model specific to the project at hand, I cite deconstruction, which Namaste defines as “the illustration of the implicit underpinnings of a particular binary opposition” as a useful tool in interpreting texts (1994). I seek to ascertain whether or not such analysis would reveal a commonality of subjectivities by which queer males function as a delegitimized appendage to hegemonic masculinity. Should the application of these methods uncover a power/knowledge assessment favoring hegemony, the perception that queer males lack the political capital to effectively shape discourses in LGBT activism could further prove self-evident.
To summarize, I combine immanent critique and the conceptualization of the culture industry with the poststructuralist queer theoretical model of deconstruction (the modern derivative of Derridean supplimentarity) as methods of interpreting queer male representations in television and film. By conducting a content/discourse analysis of current texts that feature such representations, I seek to investigate the potential for embedded patterns of constructed sexualities geared toward delegitimizing queer masculinities that may presumably stifle and conflate activist projects within LGBT political discourses.
The purpose of this examination is to organize a protocol by which analysis of texts may potentially reveal patterns of embedded consistencies of constructed identities—designated here as “controlling images”—within queer male representations in television and film. To that end, this study would incorporate a content (discourse) analysis of a variety of network, and cable based television programs that feature queer male lead characters, as well as a selection of mainstream, and independent films also featuring queer male leads. Such analysis centers a particular focus on a qualitative, inductive investigation designed to yield empirical data pertinent for methodological and critical applications.
In selecting a content/discourse analysis of proposed texts, I seek to identify recurring themes, narrative contexts, images, and socio-political discourses in which queer male characters are primarily positioned as the central narrative focus. Citing Acosta-Alzuru and Lester-Roushanzamir, Avila-Saavedra defines discourse as ‘a system of representation in which shared meanings are produced and exchanged. Discourse emphasizes relations of power while also attending to relations of meanings and the process of production and exchange are therefore “materialized” within the text’ (2009). Stated another way, discourse analysis does not attempt to define or assign specific meaning to the text. Rather, it favors analysis of the social construction of meaning through the text (Avila-Saavedra, 2009).
Theoretical Applications and Assessments
In teasing out the elements discussed above within the texts to which this method is applied, I seek to illustrate the mechanisms by which capitalists sanction the delegitimizing of queer male subjects. Bringing to bear the resources outlined in the theoretical framework section of this examination (deconstructing the texts) my project unfolds as a critique of capitalist productions designed to alienate queer males from enacting a formidable political discourse. By perpetuating the controlling images of queer masculinity and queer male sexuality positioned deferentially to hegemonic masculinity/sexuality, capitalists reinforce distorted notions of queer males for the implicit purpose of limiting LGBT political power. This hypothesis calls to mind various questions by which research of this nature might prove profitable.
Additional research questions
For example, the application of poststructuralist queer theory (by way of deconstruction) calls to the fore questions of what behaviors specifically constitute the perceived weakness of queer males compared to their heterosexual counterparts? Are such behaviors systematically recurrent in media productions? Returning to the examples of films like Philadelphia and Angels in America—two films that feature queer males infected with HIV/AIDS—such a question conjures curiosities regarding the subject positionality of queer males as victims unable to assume decisive authority without heteronormative intervention. Do we as a culture apply the same tack in observing heterosexual males struggling with potentially fatal medical maladies? Is it possible that heterosexual men are seen more as heroic given their perceived ability to withstand such adversity? Specific to the notion of HIV/AIDS infection, is there a cultural bias that perceives infected queer males dramatized in film as merely the victims of their own deviant sexuality? Moreover, are there sufficiently ascertainable political inferences embedded within queer male representations of victimhood? If so, how do these inferences translate to interpretations within mass consumer markets as manifest productions of the culture industry? One could hypothesize that a particular saturation of these contextualized images could easily invoke constructions of stereotypes, limiting the broader context of diversity in LGBT communities. There exists favorable potential in pursuing this line of investigation empirically, linking it to Harris’s analysis of constructions of masculinity in the 2004 presidential campaign, for instance. To this degree, the analysis produced by the present methodology could potentially lend itself to considerable investigations of queer male positionality within myriad social contexts; thus making it a potentially robust and far reaching investigative tool.
Having discussed the broader possibilities for the application of the purposed method and the theoretical framework which it comprises above, I should note that while the analysis could yield useful empirical data on the topic of queer male representation, the examination contains within it potential fallibilities. Given the discussion of Sears’ and Avila-Savedra’s focus on a comprehensive analysis that addresses race and class as commensurate with notions of gender and sexual orientation, for instance, the generalized scope of the current investigation does not directly address the racial or class-based components. Further, the current investigation does not properly define a specifically focused project regarding the resolute aims of political discourses within LGBT activism.
What the theoretical framework and methodology do successfully achieve, however, is flexibility within the scope of empirical possibilities. While the current investigation may not address these aspects of the problem of queer representation specifically, this same theoretical approach may be tailored to explore the more finite elements of a further complex network of socially stratified identities (i.e. race, and class). Additionally, while this discussion perceives an agenda whereby capitalists seek to focus the discourse of representation towards assimilationst drives, to thusly presuppose a collective discourse of liberation as the desired result of empirical study would stand to effectively undermine the intended projects of critical theory and deconstruction altogether. Ultimately these methods seek to educate rather than indoctrinate, thus, empowering individuals to enact agency as they deem necessary.
Above I have outlined critical analyses of the perceived problem of queer representation in television and film. Having presented a proposed narrative whereby capitalists have supplanted queer libratory projects with the homogeneous discourse of assimilation in queer commercial spaces, I argue the presupposition that, additionally, television and film reproductions of queer males have thusly been appropriated. Presenting a bilateral theoretical framework aimed at analyzing various texts incorporating queer male representations, I contend that questioning the veracity of these representations refocuses discourse to the extent that agents armed with a critical skepticism might be less inclined to accept controlling images that belie the multifarious subjectivities of LGBT Americans. As consumers embedded within the fabric of a capitalist economy, LGBT Americans must be cognizant of the devises employed by oppressive agents desiring the dismantling of discourse designed to challenge hegemony.
Echoing the sentiments of critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, I submit that ‘man’s emancipation from slavery’ (Appelrouth & Edles, 2007) is a political project that individuals must assume in order to subsist in a cultural context in which capitalist pursuits may silence and further disenfranchise citizens of a free society. Deconstructing and exposing all forms of potentially oppressive social constructs can richly embolden those subject to the oppression by reinvigorating the knowledge building process to shift the balance of power in the service of equality.
draft completed December 17, 2010
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