Can queer TV teach on its own?
review by Alexis Poirier-Saumure
Ava Laure Parsemain, The Pedagogy of Queer TV. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, 261 pp.
With The Pedagogy of Queer TV, Ava Laure Parsemain offers a most contemporary and up-to-date exploration of queer televisual representation’s explosion in the last decade in the United States. Indeed, the 2010’s have witnessed the unstoppable ascension of private networks and streaming giants, and with it the advent of new worlds of queer representation. As it has already been pointed out by queer media studies scholarship, the very idea of queer TV seems antithetical. Isn’t the core idea of queerness, that is, a subversion of the norm, irreconcilable with television, normative space par excellence, a place defined by the mainstream, by the ordinariness and normativity of domesticity (p. 2)? Beyond this fundamental theoretical (im)possibility, Parsemain argues that television can indeed be queer, but that such possibility resides in how we observe it. The potential queerness of television, in the recent years, has been apprehended in terms of visibility—a rather limited understanding of representation issues. With her book, the author aims to “go beyond questions of visibility to critically investigate such representations” (p. 3) through the prism of pedagogy. Hoping to “demonstrate that entertainment techniques can function as pedagogical tools” (p. 7), she embarks on a journey to observe how pedagogical queer TV can be, or maybe (although not obviously), how TV can be pedagogically queer.
Groundings: the scope and methodology of
The Pedagogy of Queer TV
Parsemain’s book ponders queer TV’s educational potential through an analysis of eight fictional and reality TV shows in the United States: Glee (Fox, 2009), Empire (Imagine Television & Fox, 2015), RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo TV & VH1, 2009), The Prancing Elites Project (Oxygen, 2015), I Am Cait (E!, 2015), Looking (HBO, 2014), Transparent (Prime Video, 2014)and Sense8 (Netflix, 2015). Her work is critically anchored in the field of audience studies. Indeed, Parsemain’s initial move is to depart from the now obsolete framework of media effects (p. VI), a rather passive, linear frame of thought about audiences’ reception of (entertainment) media, toward an understanding of what learning occurs through media consumption in a more active model. Wanting to go beyond what queer TV can teach, which would limit her argument to a somewhat tired statement about visibility, the book
“explores pedagogy as a method and emphasizes the ‘how’ questions […] it examines the pedagogical models, techniques and tools that television uses to teach about queer identities and related social issues”(p. 4).
Entertainment, education and pedagogies
Parsemain gathers a few central concepts in preparation for her endeavor. First of all, she mobilizes the notion of “eudaimonic entertainment—the merging of enjoyment and learning” as a “key to understanding the pedagogy of television” (p. 5) and a way to add her voice to the decades-long debate within educational and media studies about the possibility of educative entertainment. The whole book is also premised upon a distinction between two pedagogical models. First, she eschews a transmissive pedagogical model in which learning happens unidirectionally, from an all-knowing single speaker to passive recipients—related to the much criticized discourses on media effects. She then espouses a constructivist pedagogical model, in which learning happens throughout a process where the learners actively come to change their understanding. (p. 7).
Although that distinction is surely useful in order to position her argument within a media studies genealogy and along the lines of Stuart Hall’s theory of reception, it is noteworthy and rather surprising that no scholarship on critical and queer approaches to pedagogy is referenced on the page. For example, how can we discuss the notion of a constructivist pedagogical model without considering Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a work that became a pillar for elaborating the vast field of critical pedagogies—where education about one’s condition of political and ideological subordination becomes a first step toward liberation? And how does a book about queer TV and pedagogy not engage with the vast theoretical field of queer pedagogy, for example the work of Susanne Luhmann (1998) or Deborah Britzman (1995)? Indeed, one of the tenets of queer pedagogy is that it must go beyond a pedagogy about queerness and actually queer pedagogy itself (ibid). In a way, this is what eudaimonic entertainment strives to accomplish, so why then not engage with such queer studies scholarship?
What surprises even more is Parsemain’s inaugural definition of her use of the term queer, a mandatory epistemological location for anyone who ventures on such theoretical terrains. Although she assembles various authors who make for a rich resource for thinking queerly, she also positions herself quite rigidly with regards to an enduring debate within queer theory: the so-called opposition between queer as ontology and queer as praxis. Citing Richard Dyer (2002), she agrees that,
“Queer is something you are, constitutively, rather than something you might do (or have done) feel (have felt), mainly, sometimes, once, maybe.”
I do appreciate this thinly veiled critique toward “bi-curious” straight identities and other homo/heteronormative fantasies of sexual/political radicality. However, the decision to prioritize queer solely as an identity and to foreclose the possibility of queer as a set of material interventions on a normalized social plane runs the risk of reaffirming a useless binary opposition, of falling into essentialism. It may also allow for the proliferation of apolitical, performative accounts of queerness. Clarifying this position further, Parsemain reminds us,
“This book does not focus on textual queerness (queerness of the medium). It is concerned with depictions of queers (as a noun) in series that portray LGBT+ identities” (p. 14).
Although this distinction is unavoidable for a book aligned with the epistemological groundings of audience studies, it is worth asking if such a separation really serves the purpose of the author: Isn’t she herself attempting, in some way, to “queer the medium” by claiming that TV can be queer?
‘The pedagogy of…”: queer TV as teacher?
The first chapter situates us historically, going over the last three decades in terms of U.S. queer televisual representation, marking the 90s as its emergence, the 2000s as its becoming mainstream through normalization and depoliticization—gaystreaming—and asking if the 2010s could be dubbed a “Golden Age of Queer Representation.” The rest of the book analyzes several TV shows through a pedagogical exploration—singling out narrative elements which serve as titles or subtitles and presenting them as “… as pedagogy/pedagogical tool” or “the pedagogy of…” and thus creating efficient rhythm and coherence.
The chapter lineup makes for a collection of close readings of the shows analyzed, one show per chapter. For each of them, Parsemain exhaustively and carefully points out what stands for positive (i.e. “progressive,” nuanced, non-stereotypical, marginal, anti-oppressive, critical, non-normative) and negative (i.e. “bigoted,” stereotypical, too mainstream, oppressive, normative) representations of queerness. Within such a structure, queer TV is portrayed as a nuanced teacher who guides its students through consideration of multiple points of view and facets of characters, plots, and narrative elements such as melodrama, reality and realism. This teacher highlights the complexities of profoundly portrayed identities, picks up on shallow, stereotypical, harmful representations, and also leaves room for ambiguity of interpretation and a commitment that is ethical and caring rather than moral and prescriptive (p. 10).
Importantly for the premise of this book, tethered to the pedagogical potential of discrete narrative elements of entertainment, Parsemain offers a nuanced account of how such elements both deepen and foreclose engaged understandings of queerness. Following this thread, every chapter ends on a formal weighing of the good and the bad, of the possibilities for critical understandings of the shows as well as the reaffirmation of oppressive discourses. Throughout this structure, Parsemain is able to relate her analysis not only to broader issues of sexuality and gender, but also of race, class and social mobility, thereby successfully “linking private and personal matters to broader societal problems” (p. 40).
She also guides her readers through a larger world of representations by mobilizing the notion of “cross-textual seriality by linking different representations of queerness across the medium” (p. 13). She thus goes beyond each single show portrayed and keeps relating and contrasting them with myriad others throughout the entire book, making for a very convincing, coherent, well-rounded argument that does not limit itself to the eight main shows analyzed. However as previously stated, the book remains limited to television production and reception in the United States. As such, it assumes notions of queerness and pedagogy that stem from this specific sociocultural context, which is more often than none premised upon a teleological narrative of neoliberal progress and individual betterment, and less on a systemic, critical understanding of the social production of (queer) identities.
This ecological rendition of Parsemain’s analysis—the way she keeps connecting threads and highlighting common/divergent processes within a complex, fictional inter-world-system of interlocking meanings—is probably the strongest element of her work. However, the same ecological sensibility is not applied to the notion of pedagogy. Parsemain, in her portrayal of TV as teacher, fails to recognize that TV is not pedagogical on its own, not really a teacher. Even as her book is an undoubtedly useful tool within an ecology of critical, queer and anti-oppressive approaches to pedagogy, such an ecology is left undefined as the necessary environment in which her book might actually get to work. She does an outstanding job at pointing out the pedagogical potential of TV but leaves us empty-handed as to the ways in which such an analysis can be pedagogically taken up. Although such a decision, again, stems coherently from a commitment to audience studies, where the audience might act as an endpoint, the book might have benefited from a slightly deeper engagement with critical pedagogical scholarship.
Looking for “real” change
The specter of audience studies shapes another element of this book, which is the author’s investment in the language of measurable outcomes and “real change.” TV-as-teacher, within this language, should lead to societal and individual change prompted by understanding and interpreting its pedagogy. Noticeable effects like “a broader acceptance” or “promoting acceptance,” constantly mentioned in the text, signal how Parsemain conceptualizes anti-oppressive change in relatively narrow terms (especially given the fact that such language is often accompanied by “LGBT+’, a strong marker of liberal progressive considerations characterized by a decidedly un-queer discursive economy). Feminist and queer critique of progressive social policy has already pointed out how discourses trying to measure outcomes of anti-phobic trainings and resources through questionnaires and based on short term cycles actually merchandize measurable outcomes treated as ideological profit. The change that the author hopes to instill in viewers is often expressed through the notion of self-reflexivity, which she wants to occur in the center of the relation between queer TV and its audience. While she is precisely right about the importance of viewers’ self-reflexivity within a process of anti-oppressive change, its definition and the conditions of that term’s use remain muted. Its presence within the televisual process appears as a given, which leaves the reader without an actual idea of how self-reflexivity might emerge from representation.
Parsemain, in The Pedagogy of Queer TV, offers a comprehensive, finely studied and pedagogically useful account of last decade’s multiple universes of queer televisual representation in the United States and their educative accomplishments and possibilities. Although the book sometimes reifies pedagogy as a stand-alone process in a somehow static relation with televisual representation, it does an incredible labor at dissecting with nuance and ambivalence the minutiae of complex queer worlds and characters. It is also enlightening in terms of how it describes our changing relation to television, a medium deeply tied to the social reality of a slowly vanishing 20th century. Indeed, television acts as the ultimate figure of Western domestic economies of representation and leisure which, in the past 20 years at least, have been overwhelmed by numerous sociopolitical and cultural paradigm shifts. As new aesthetics of performance and spectacle emerge on screens that have nothing to do with television, this book shows us how we are, no matter how differently or queerly, still intimately connected and committed to TV.
Britzman, Deborah P. 1995. “Is there a queer pedagogy? or, stop reading straight.” Educational Theory 45 (2): 151–65.
Dyer, R. (2002). The culture of queers. London: Routledge.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
Luhmann, S. (1998). “Queering/Querying Pedagogy? Or, Pedagogy Is a Pretty Queer.” In Pinar, W. F. (Ed) Queer Theory in Education (pp. 120-132). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.