a little detour en route
by Queer TV Special Section editor Joëlle Rouleau
How do we look?
There is a fuss (and a fuss yet to be made!) around queer media, and I embrace it as I edit this special section on Queer TV for Jump Cut.
To my mind, “queer” is an amorphous goo that you cannot hold or control, that seeps into everything—it is both a deeply bad and good word. I love “goo” because it is profoundly playful, and profoundly gross. Goo sums up the stickiness, the slipperiness of boundaries, the ambiguity and tension that make up queer culture, since “queer” now encompasses issues of identity, gender, theory, politics, and culture. As a cultural studies scholar, I find it antithetical to try to integrate queer culture within a predetermined methodological or theoretical conceptualization. Why try and pin down goo? Thus, I use the term “queer sensibilities” (Muñoz 2009, Nash 2010) or “queerity” (Nowlan, 2010) to describe what I mean when I talk about queerness. This not only allows for an extensive and shifting conception of that culture, but it also underscores a need to refrain from establishing what is or is not queer, what does or does not belong to the goo. In my writing and my teaching, I try to interrogate what viewers and researchers of various mediatic forms might perceive of or read as “queer”. The notion of “sensibilities'' allows me to consider the multiple dimensions of identity which inevitably accompany how we as media viewers (and researchers) position ourselves when thinking about representations of ourselves and our communities.
I am reluctant to ask whether a media representation is faithful to a specific identity category or not. I find that such identity categories collapse under a signifier such as LGBTQ+. Consequently, that signifier becomes a placeholder for neoliberal, value-hungry strategies to reify the inclusion of sexual diversity, in particular in media representations. Furthermore, an emergence of politically correct [open endnotes in new window] discourse surrounding LGBTQ+ themes and representations indicates yet again the rigidity, orthodoxy, and superficiality of the current acceptance of LGBTQ+ realities (the anti-goo!). Of course, socially, I advocate for the development of open, sensible, and progressive measures to work toward a better, more inclusive world. But I question the ideological motivations underlying what has quickly become an abundance of queer representations, especially on television. There is a saying in my own Québécois French: “Trop, c’est comme pas assez,” or, “too much is the same as not enough”. This abundance of representation speaks to an innate bias against its own absence and lack: a hyper(in)visibility.
This special section seeks to question the representations, receptions, perverse readings (Staiger, 2000) and fan creations around the so-called LGBTQ+ spectrum in audiovisual media. I see this collection of essays as a probing of/for queer sensibilities. Collectively, we wish to explore the aesthetic and narrative forms of the various cultural objects selected here in a way that asks Jump Cut readers to interrogate what these objects produce, both in terms of visibilities and invisibilities. Moreover, taken together, these essays allow readers to think about methodologies in queer media studies, and they encourage readers to compare how the authors’ queer sensibilities relate to their unique objects of study.
As a good “lezzer,” I absolutely despise stand-up comedy. When Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette came out on Netflix, numerous friends, colleagues and students enthusiastically encouraged me to watch. “But I hate stand-up comedy!” or so I thought. It was only one night, when I found myself lonely, tired, and dispirited, that I reluctantly decided to give Gadsby a try.
I laughed, I cried—so much that it hurt. My reaction as a viewer sent me spinning over my own life and choices. Something happened that I hadn’t expected: I felt that Gadsby was queering stand-up comedy in a way I had never seen before. It’s not about her feminist jokes or her queerness: it has to do with her approach to comedy itself. Gadsby exposes the power dynamics which enable comedy to function culturally. She takes the box consisting of stand-up comedy and folds it in on itself:
“Let me explain to you what a joke is. And when you strip it back to its bare essential… components, like, its bare minimum, a joke is simply two things, it needs two things to work. A setup and a punch line. And it is essentially a question with a surprise answer. Right? But in this context, what a joke is, is a question that I have artificially inseminated. Tension. I do that, that’s my job. I make you all feel tense, and then I make you laugh, and you’re like, ‘“Thanks for that. I was feeling a bit tense.’” I made you tense. This is an abusive relationship. Do you know why I’m such a funny fucker? Do you? It’s because, you know, I’ve been learning the art of tension diffusion since I was a children [sic]. Back then it wasn’t a job, wasn’t even a hobby, it was a survival tactic. I didn’t have to invent the tension. I was the tension.” (Gadsby, Nanette, 2018)
For Gadsby, to queer stand-up is to no longer be the butt of the joke, but to queer the set up. I love to laugh, and I am a great audience, but my ability to endure teasing and making fun of someone’s experiences (for whatever reason) is shortened by the years of homophobic bullying I experienced as a queer kid. Today, as a queer feminist killjoy (Ahmed, 2016) my relationship to comedy is complicated, because my ability to access most stand-up is shaped by that experience. When Gadsby engages with this trope of the humorless lesbian feminist (“What sort of comedian can’t even make the lesbians laugh? Every comedian ever” [Gadsby, 2018]), she is also acknowledging that something is rotten at the core of stand-up comedy. Queer communities are resplendent with humor—queers love to laugh and to tease, just check out your local drag show, for example—but mainstream stand-up comedy often uses denigration and humiliation as a lever and a tactic of tension and diffusion.
Gadsby is well aware of this, and she uses our expectations of comedic tension to explore what it means to use self-deprecating humor as a queer, marginalized individual. Before watching Nanette, I was not aware that this is exactly what I do when I teach and when I write. When I crack a joke (which is admittedly not my forte), I humiliate myself as terrain for my queer pedagogy. Engaging with Gadsby’s stand-up made me realize what I had been doing for years: making myself small to make the lessons clear, more accessible, and less dangerous. I soften the edges of my queerness so as not to offend their lack of queer sensibilities, and in doing so I undermine myself.
Since watching Gadsby’s stand-up, my teaching practice has changed, almost without trying. I don’t know if it’s for the better, but I know that I feel more comfortable owning my queerness: how I look, what I say, how I feel, who I am is no longer something that I wish to degrade.
This is how I engage my own queer sensibilities with Nanette. I describe this experience to indicate what I think these queer sensibilities might mean, and why I am focusing on this framework in assembling this special section on queer TV. To me, queer sensibilities are the state of being both angry and hopeful, loving and enraged. A queer sensibility contains all of these complicated and overwhelming feelings simultaneously, all of the time. Politically and emotionally, a queer sensibility means not giving up because the world is doomed, but not trying to fix it by patching holes in a sinking boat, either.
Queer sensibilities give us historical flexibility. As Bob Nowlan put it, queer becomes a doing more than simply a way of being:
“For queer theorists, ‘queer’ is, therefore, not so much an adjective or a noun that refers to the broad array of contemporary lesbigay identities, but rather a verb that marks out a shifting field of gender and sexual discourses and practices that work ‘to queer’ both the straight and the lesbigay. This queering, in other words, proceeds by taking up the position and the interest of those who occupy the sexual margins of mainstream lesbigay sub-cultures as well as the far fringes of dominant-straight-culture. In sum, it is not a question of being queer but rather of doing queer.” (Nowlan, 2010: 9)
This special section aims to study the queering of media, the doing of queer, much more than it wishes to study media considered queer or featuring queer representations. I do not want to offer readers a more complex label of some aspect of gender identity; that would be paradoxical. Rather I would like this collection of essays to contribute to subverting and challenging established norms of media production and reception. Such innovations in media scholarship are made possible through our very own queer sensibilities, and I invite you to bring your own to this work.
Queering television as queering media
This collection began with a Queer Television Conference I co-organized with my colleague Marta Boni at the University of Montréal in May 2019. The conference and the experience of editing this special section revealed to me that queer television is intertwined with many other types of media. Of course, many papers here focus on television shows—from animation to documentary, independent to mainstream fiction productions, even talk shows and soaps. But the limits of genre are not clearly defined/definable: is Netflix television or Internet streaming? Do we define Internet streaming through its relation to television? If Netflix, Crave, Prime Video, Hulu, Open Television, or any other streaming platform could broaden our understanding of television, then is a movie produced by such a platform effectively a made-for-TV movie? Or is it something else entirely?
The array of work published here, the amalgam of different objects of study and different levels of focus, may seem too inclusive. However, the assortment of writings reflects my conviction that many older and newer manifestations of media production now fit best under the rubric of television, since television has always shown the potential to bend the frame of its own box (terrible pun intended, and now you know why I don’t make jokes!). As evidenced in the categories listed in the Table of Contents, this vision of television as a “gooey” genre has shaped my mapping of the material at hand. Television is at the center of this special section, but film and video game studies come into our orbit as well.
In the introduction to The Queer Art Of Failure, Jack Halberstam’s conceptualization of high/low theory resists binary opposition to suggest that these theories depend upon each other as a “model of thinking” (2011: 15). Halberstam extracts this useful modus operandi from Stuart Hall’s assertion that “theory is not an end unto itself but “a detour en route to something else’” (Hall, 1991: 43) (2011: 15). In my own work, I have found that there is something about television studies that is more permeable than any other media scholarship, especially if we have a flexible concept of television as integrating networks, web series, streaming platforms, cinema and video games. Television—“c’est tout et rien”. That is to say, it is everything and nothing, at the same time. It is a medium, a technology, an apparatus; it’s also a platform, a narrative art, a system, and an industry.
The essays in this special section also bear the burden of asking, “Can television be queer? What would that look like?” The range of issues raised within this collection emerge from observing new tendencies—especially the proliferation of LGBTQ+ characters on television—which increase the visibility and necessary debates surrounding the queerness of specific shows, series, personalities, characters, etc. This line of reasoning seems simultaneously progressive and regressive, as corporations regularly appropriate “subversive” representations for their profit-making potential (Himberg, 2018) by taming them and thus erasing their disruptive elements. From one standpoint, homonormative narratives shape what is understood as queer representation: we hope for inclusion, love, and diversity by portraying attractive narratives of successful queer love/life stories. By contrast, an alternative reading of non-LGBTQ+ narratives emerges as fan fiction is queering hetero/homo/normative representations. How can queer television’s usefulness to corporate media allow for increased production of LGBTQ+ representations? Can television hold space for complexity? Does TV drive social change, especially in terms of gender? Or, as Quinn Miller argues, does queerness lie outside a show’s dominant narrative (Miller, 2019)? Where might queerness be located in or beyond overtly LGBTQ+ content?
The lines of genre between film and television are increasingly blurred, and with that, so too are the distinctions between different forms of media scholarship. However, film and film studies in particular have something to contribute to our discussion of queer television: in the ‘90s, New Queer Cinema (Rich 1992) offered an extensive and shifting, even malleable, way of thinking about queer events on screen. B. Ruby Rich identifies the birth of New Queer Cinema (NQC) at the intersection of four elements: the AIDS crisis, the Reagan era, camcorders, and cheap rent (Rich 2013, p. xvi). Almost 40 years later—that is, 40 years of globalization, neoliberalism and Trumpist political paranoia culminating in a global pandemic—we are galaxies away from queer cinema’s original media environment or social context.
Today we find multitudes of explicit LGBTQ+ representation in the media since the inception of New Queer Cinema. B. Ruby Rich argues there is little relevance for such a term, since the genre itself has lost some of its edge. Rich writes: “[…] in truth, [NQC] had begun to shapeshift during the mid- to late 1990s into a launching pad for temporarily bankable movies to usher into the multiplexes (p. xxii)”. As Rich observes, the attraction to gay-related themes in cinema shifted exhibition away from counter-hegemonic productions and visibility. Even so, queer cinema still exists, but its “constellation” needs to be rethought. At the moment, we have a “being” of queer cinema (television and media). I’m suggesting that we could have a “doing” of queer cinema (television and media). Instead of interrogating what a film portrays, research informed by this approach could focus on how film interacts with the social, cultural, and political power relations around it. If we think of cinema now in terms of queer sensibilities, queer cinema enables a disruption, a subversion. It aims to break from a conventional representation of sexuality. It breaks up the dichotomy of gay/straight themes and (re)makes them its own. Queer cinema moves away from the dichotomy of being either “good” or “bad” for the community. Queer cinema embraces the harshness of being an outcast because of one’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, or any combination of these.