The futures of queer televisions

by Jack Halberstam with Joëlle Rouleau

Jack Halberstam: Good afternoon. I’m Jack Halberstam, a professor of English and gender studies at Columbia University. And I'm excited to be talking to you about queer television today.

Joëlle Rouleau: We are looking at this paradox of queer television about ‘what's happening with television?’ or ‘what's happening with queer and trans identities regarding television?’

JH: If you think back, I don't know maybe 10 years, it seemed like television was going into a decline. Netflix primarily functioned as a service to deliver movies into people's homes, and it seemed possible that people wouldn’t go to cinemas any longer. They’d just stay home and watch a range of pre-selected products. Then along came streaming platforms to revitalize TV. This shift has had good and bad implications for the representation of queer and trans bodies.

The technologies through which queer and trans lives have been represented has always been important. Going back to the 1990’s if you think about a book like Alex Juhasz's AIDS TV, we see the confluence between the AIDS crisis and the hand-held camera. For that reason, there were multiple documentaries of the activism associated with the AIDS crisis. Portable cameras allowed in later years for films, but also on-the-spot material to circulate about the kind of political action that people were taking in response to an indifferent government around this health crisis. So, going back some twenty, thirty years, we can see that the platform for representation has had massive implications for the way queers and trans lives are represented.

In the context of television’s new era of popularity, we might ask about what difference it makes to turn to the small screen, the private screen, the home-centered screen or even the hand-held screen. Film has always been an ambiguous genre for queer representation —the history of cinema is, after all, the history of censorship. However, queer cinema did emerge in the 1990’s as a vital, experimentally rich mode of representation—but just as quickly, it became a route to mainstream representation for LGT figures and stories.

So new format, new representational potential, new platform, good and bad outcomes— that would be of sort of my take away.

Let's continue along this line. One thing to remember is that back in the 70s when TV stepped up its level of popularity as a form of media— electronic media (I guess electric media)—is that a lot of alternative communities hated TV and the television became a sign of corporate dominance. I remember watching Times Square, a queer film in the early 80s about two runaway girls who hung out together in NYC and, one of their signature acts of rebellion was to push old TV’s off roof tops. Kill your TV was a punk slogan in the 1970s. So, in songs like “TV Killed the Radio”, the idea is that with each new platform, the old platform is sort of a nostalgically endowed with the warm glow of an earlier era when media was simpler, and we were less manipulated and all of that. So, we might have expected that by now television would have fallen into that happily nostalgic category of a media form that is over and done with and fondly remembered.
Instead, what's happened, and this is super interesting, is that radio and TV, older media, have exponentially developed and grown and alongside all of the digital media. Television is an amazingly versatile form that—probably because of the ubiquity and the flexibility of digital platforms— has been reconditioned for a new era.

JR: Let's just jump on that: What are the possibilities offered by series that portray trans-identities and representation? How does this flexibility, offered by seriality, affect how we represent something? Some series experiment with very complex storylines and can do so because they have the time, because they can develop this complex world.

JH: Exactly as you say, television can do something that film can't do right now because it offers longer duration—serialized narratives for example, in which multiple plots lines can develop at once and narratives can twist and turn. In fact, people get deeply addicted to television series in ways reminiscent of the serialized literary forms of early industrial capitalism. The serial form pioneered in the 19th century was designed literally to seduce readership through the use of a narrative structure that would peak, create a cliffhanger, resolve, then build again, peak, cliffhanger, resolve. And truthfully a lot of the TV that we watch now rises and falls to these same rhythms while maybe lacking the courage to really commit to the cliff-hanger—especially in an era of tell-all/spoiler websites. But the drama of serial unfolding is very much a part of contemporary long-form shows, beginning with The Wire and The Sopranos but continuing to British procedurals like Broadchurch and Happy Valley and then being given a real work out in fantastic new work such as Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You—a truly inventive, daring and, yes, destructive show in which the main character unravels, hallucinates, collapses and then manages to wreak revenge upon her abuser all while unmaking the genre itself.

In a television series, you can tell much more complicated stories, slowly, and you can avoid being limited to good or bad versions of any given character. In the past, in cinema, as a result of the Production Code era, gays and trans figures were required to be represented within a moral framework; it had to be clear that the film within which they appear considers them abhorrent, immoral, and corrupt figures. You had a kind of moral universe in which the queer or the trans person had to be bad. And then, almost by way of correction, new LGBT films tried to offer impossibly “good” or positive characters. Neither one of those is desirable for the representation of, you know, what we might call complex personhood.

JR: Exactly. There's something to be afraid of in this over-celebrating of positive representation.

JH: Absolutely, and you were mentioning the gender-queer character of Taylor Amber Mason (played by Asia Kate Dillon) in Billions. In Emily Nussbaum’s great article on Billions in the New Yorker, she worried that in this representation of the universe of high-stakes banking, even though it seems obvious that everyone is implicated in corrupt practices, Taylor, because they are gender non-binary, they figure as the good guy to the boss, Axe’s bad guy. As his name suggests, Axe is the bad version of a capitalism out for money at all cost and Taylor is supposed to represent a human face or some kind of ethical commitment. If Taylor is supposed to represent a more ethical kind of banking, which is dubious, Nussbaum worries that this then sets up the gender non-binary person to be an impossibly moral person.

But what this argument obscures is that in either case whether we're talking about Taylor, Taylor's Banking Company or Axe’s, we're still talking about exploitive predatory practices that have absolutely nothing to do with social justice. This is one of those sleights of hands that Hollywood or mainstream TV often engages in. The pure fact of representing someone who is alternative, is seen as progressive.

JR: That would you say is Soloway’s take on this? How do Transparent or I love Dick differ from this?

 JH: Do you mean, how does a queer and trans produced show deal with the positive/negative character breakdown? Is there a different moral structure to the universe of Transparent? I think the answer is yes and no. And you mentioned both Transparent and I love Dick but I think they are really different examples.

I personally hated I love Dick and thought that it was a bit embarrassing for a number of different reasons. The most obvious reason is that the book I love Dick by Chris Kraus is an epistolary novel. It's a book about letters that the obsessed author writes to the object of her crush: Dick. And I think in a way Soloway didn't reckon with the form of the novel and the dynamism that the novel draws from this form. The book is a fantastic read, sexy and obsessive, deeply literary and interested in narrative as seduction. But the adaptation to TV reduced everything to a series of sort of cringe-worthy sex scenes and made the Dick character totally unremarkable as an object of desire. Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon are amazing actors, so it is too bad that they lost in this mess of a series.

Transparent I think offers a much more complicated viewing experience because it does cover a lot of ground that an urban queer or trans viewer might find fairly urgent, fairly authentic. It deals with storylines that actually we’re quite interested in. Also, there are no impossibly good characters and bad characters. And it's such a relief therefore to be in a TV world where people do bad things for bad reasons sometimes and good things for good reasons. Maura is a finely drawn character who learns over time and who fucks up and disappoints people and conveys a subtle balance of narcissism and care. The show went completely to hell in the last season, when they all went to Israel, so I am not really talking about that but in the penultimate season, season 3, Maura has to confront something that many trans people have to face but that is almost never represented in mainstream material on transgender experience. In a poignant scene in a doctor’s office, a scene that is so much a part of trans life due to the surgeries and hormone treatments that transgender people want, a doctor tells her why he cannot perform Sex Reassignment Surgery on her due to a heart problem. Maura, for whom this surgery obviously figures centrally in her transition, now has to confront the fact that she will not be able to live in a body of her choosing. This experience, not being able to access surgery or to take hormones, is central to many transgender people’s journeys and so, confronting the fact that there is no surgical magic bullet available is a really believable and interesting place for the show to land. It refuses the arc of transition in some way and leaves us in the messy middle.

Now the visual medium in particular has a hard time with the messy middle because there is a kind of double investment in passing—first, in order to represent a conventionally attractive male or female subject and second to invest in the otherwise unacknowledged visual pleasure that so much visual cultures derive from gender normativity on screen. In a nutshell, if a character does not pass, then every shot is about this failure. But if the character can pass, then there's a tendency as the narrative goes on to absorb the transness of the character back into the visual template of normativity. So, the visual medium is in so many ways a very difficult medium for the representation of all kinds of trans experiences. The indeterminacy of many trans people basically means that they cannot appear or disappear in the context of our visual regime. So, I happen to think that that Transparent made a real contribution to televisual complexity by representing trans ambiguation.

Maura is neither completely mean nor completely nice, it feels good. She conveys a subtle balance of narcissism and care.

And in that same season, the series offers a nice set of references about how privileged she is. This is important because up until then, the series has sort of presented Maura as struggling—struggling with her family and struggling with her identity and struggling with her embodiment. There's a switch in season three that allows the show to blossom and take the character to new heights precisely by representing her in a negative light. Maura, in episode one of season three, is volunteering at the LGBT suicide hotline. She speaks to a desperate trans teen and botches the conversation. The teen, Elizah, hangs up so Maura speeds off into South Central Los Angeles in search of the teen and quickly finds herself in trouble. In interactions with a Black shop owner and some Latinas shopping nearby, Maura reveals herself to be someone who always imagines herself as central in the world—she is going to save someone and is full of self-importance. But she is the one who needs saving in the end and when she faints in the heat, lost and frustrated, she looks around bewildered and asks plaintively: “What’s wrong with me?” The answer here is not—you are trans, but rather, you are wealthy, sheltered, blind and completely cut off from the realities most people face.

I thought the episode was a very effective way of reminding us that a show about trans people isn't simply going to be a show about people who need help or people who are helping. The whole mechanism of helping gets pushed out of the way and we access the messy business of living.