“Looking” at Queer Time and Place in a Broader Context

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Vulture described the new HBO show, Looking“not [as] a series about what it means to be gay, but a series about a group of men who happen to be gay” (Zoller-Seitz, 1). Although to the passive reader this may seem completely banal, the show’s ability to not only address queer narratives, but also, to situate them among countless others narratives, such as those related to heterosexuality and race is extremely forward thinking for a television show about gay men. This is a departure from previous representations of the queer community, like Queer As Folk, which centered on stereotypically queer narratives isolated from not only the mainstream community, but also other minority groups. Looking presents a modern depiction of queer life by allowing queer time and space to exist in the mural of a greater narrative about life of all people, regardless of  their sexuality.

Judith Halberstam’s “In a Queer Time and Place,” asserts that understanding queer time and space requires and “understanding the nonnormative behaviors that have clear but not essential relations to gay and lesbian subjects” (Halberstam, 6). In other words, it is important to understand the activities that many queer people engage or do not engage in, such as reproduction or starting a family. However, queer time and space is not entirely prescriptive and may apply to some members of the queer community, but not others.

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This concept becomes particularly evident in Looking’s seventh episode, where Patrick, the protagonist, attends his sister’s heterosexual wedding, however, the ceremony itself is mainly a backdrop for the episodes main action. The episode opens with Patrick getting dressed for the wedding and Skyping his mother, who shares that she is excited to meet his boyfriend Richard. Patrick corrects that his boyfriend name is actually Richie. His mother seems confused that Richie is not short for Richard. This is the first clue of culture difference, which translates into shame on Patrick’s behalf.

Patrick is clearly nervous about introducing his non-white boyfriend, employed as a barber, to his own WASP-y mother. Richie, not Patrick, plays the quintessential role of the “other” in this episode. In one scene Richie is unable to obtain Patrick’s mother’s phone from the front desk of their hotel, because he doesn’t look white enough to be part of Patrick’s family. Richie doesn’t make it to the wedding, because he and Patrick get in a fight while driving.

The remainder of the episode is filled with long shots of Patrick, alone, juxtaposed against the crowd of wedding guests. This image is complex, because he is not alone due to his homosexuality, but instead because of inability to establish lasting and stable romantic relationships with other men. This point is driven home in the episode’s pinnacle scene, a conversation cum argument between Patrick and his mother. Patrick tells his mother she should be relived she didn’t meet Richie because “he’s a Mexican” and he “cuts hair in a shitty barber shop and has little ambition to do anything other than that”. That choice of specific description touches on the self-deprecating nature of Patrick’s character, because he subconsciously wants his mother to find a flaw in his boyfriend. The conversation then turns to his mother’s general desire for what is “best for him,” and by best it can be inferred that she wants what is familiar to her.  There is a casual mention of his mother’s initial trouble accepting Patrick when he came out which suggests that Patrick is very troubled by living up to his mothers, possibly unattainable, expectations. Patrick’s life in San Francisco is decidedly separate from heterosexual conceptions of time, so it seems fitting that his feelings of inadequacy would surface at his sisters, heterosexual, wedding outside of the city. However, his inadequacies, although indicative of the struggles of some, can’t be attributed to the queer community as a whole. Both family and race issues lead to the flaws in Patrick’s character.

At the close of the conversation Patrick admits that he didn’t know his mother was on anti-depressants and she remarks that he would know how she was doing if he asked once and awhile. This illuminates the narcissistic nature of Patrick’s character. This likely is related, but not directly caused by, Patrick’s focus on his own self-discovery as a gay man. The life he inhabits in San Francisco is both freeing and limiting in the sense that those who likely define themselves as “others” in some way has chosen the world Patrick inhabits as their home. He is boxed in to a niche community.

 Looking is important as a piece of media depicting queer life, because it pinpoints a current crossroads for the queer community. Finding acceptance as a queer man of economic privilege is not particularly difficult, because economic fluidity allows for an easy move to a queer friendly geographic location. However, as this episode points out, moving to a more accepting place doesn’t mend wounded relationships with family members and it doesn’t erase racial stereotypes that may be held by a small group, or throughout the nation. Additionally, although Patrick is able to escape heterosexual conceptions of time and space in his everyday life they are obviously still on his mind, because he wishes to please his parents. Looking marks a new frontier of queer media depictions which both reference queer issues in context to society as a whole while also acknowledging the changes society still has to make in order to become a truly queer “friendly” place.

By: Alan Quinn

Works Cited

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005. Project MUSE. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/&gt;.

“Looking for a Plus One.” Looking: Season 6. Writ. John Hoffman. Dir. Jamie Babbit. HBO. 2014. Online.

Seitz, Matt Z. “The No-Fuss Radicalism of HBO’s Looking.” Vulture. Vulture, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

 

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Commercialized Queer Representation

Renault Twingo Gay Marriage Ad

A young woman and an older man are in a fancy car (Twingo) and they drive up to a church, are obviously going to a wedding, presumably the woman’s wedding. The relationship between them is guessed by the viewer to be father-daughter, and the father is giving away his daughter at the wedding. However, walking up to the altar, smiling at the groom, the woman says, “Congratulations, Dad”, and roles are reversed — she’s giving her dad away at his gay wedding. The two middle-aged white men kiss and walk out of the church. The text, Times have changed/the Twingo too appear on screen as a friendly male voice reads them and additionally says new Renault Twingo. Renault’s slogan is asserted at the end, Drive the Change.

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Toyota Corolla Lesbian Ad 

Sitting on the steps of a suburban house, a father and daughter converse, with playful music playing in the background.
“Mother tells me you think you’re in love”, Father says.
“Yep,” the daughter says.
“Is he just like all the others?”
“Nope.”
Her lover drives up in a blue Toyota. Father says, “I like him”, approving of the car.  He goes inside, and the daughter opens the car door, sits next to and kisses a short-haired girl, they drive off. Text on the screen arrives, Corolla/One thing you can count on. The commercial ends with the Toyota logo.

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These Renault Twingo and Toyota Corolla commercials are part of the phenomenon of trying to advertise to “the gay market”. They are also rich to analyze as texts alone. Regular viewers may be happy to see symbolic representation of queers in the media — to see them included in the consumer landscape. What’s interesting about this is the idea that there is a binary between what’s on screen and what’s off screen. As Joyrich says in “Epistemology of the Console”, representation shapes what queer sexuality can be in popular culture, and how it can be understood. As Sender says in “Selling America’s Most Affluent Minority”, rather than advertising to a pre-existing gay consumer base, queer advertisements create that gay market. These two commercials tell us how we should understand both queer sexuality in our culture, and the gay market.

The film, Further off the Straight and Narrow, does a good job of providing framework to analyze media content. One of the most salient things about these commercials is that they feature mostly gender-conforming, white folks with the classically high class markers that come with car commercials. The film asserts that the price of admission to be the good queer is to be rich and white, where all others will not be taken seriously. On top of all of this, gender non-conforming and transgender characters are traditionally evil, their non-conformity signifying something deeply wrong with them morally. The makers of the Toyota and Renault queer commercials use current media stereotypes about gender, class, and race to associate themselves with good queers.

While both commercials use a queer dynamic to sell their cars, each dynamic is slightly different. The Renault Twingo ad’s through line was that, Times have changed, the Twingo too. The Corolla ad’s final assertion was that the car was one thing you can still count on, addressing the straight viewer in a world of confusing change. They differ in their ideology — the Twingo ad aligns its own originality and new product with “changing times” of queer culture (citation). However, the Corolla ad plays up its originality as counter to new queer young people. According to Joyrich, in her Epistemology of the Console, there are many ways to analyze the queer aspect of media content. The main mode that these commercials use is enlightening, where queer characters are there to show that the main character of the ad is tolerant/enlightened. The main character, or focus of the ads, are the car brands, and we are shown that the queer characters are there to do the work of being a force for newness, originality, change, quirkiness, for the brand to either distance itself from (Corolla) or to embrace (Twingo). This queer quirkiness is constructed in the narrative by being included in two gay twist endings, by playing playful music, and by being played by affluent looking white people. The receiving of queer people in culture is influenced by pop commercials like this.

Advertisers like to target the gay market because of its cultural link to affluence, which further strengthens that cultural link, as Sender analyzes. This pigeonholing of the gay market as white and rich gives fuel to the normalization of LGBTQ representation, or the erasing of the actual queerness of LGBTQ characters. Advertisers want to attract queer consumers, but they don’t want to alienate the majority, straight consumers. Therefore, differences are smoothed over, which erase aspects of queer difference in both pop culture and in the gay market. According to Canadian commenter mutedthud on Jalopnik.com, the Toyota Corolla commercial with the lesbian characters aired for a short time in Canada, at which point it was considered too controversial and the butch woman in the driver’s seat was replaced by a punk/rock boy. Instead of wanting to continue advertising actively to the gay market, Toyota’s ad company pulled the ad and replaced it with something less controversial, to maintain a consumer base.

Each ad lives on on the internet, on YouTube, part of “Funny Gay Commercial” compilations, serving as gimmick ads, intended for niche markets rather than for mainstream use.

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Joyrich, Lynne. “Epistemology of the Console.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. London: Routledge, 2009.

“Renault Advert Trends On YouTube As Gay Marriage Commercial Goes Viral”. Huffington Post – United Kingdom. 1.13.12. <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/01/10/renault-advert-youtube-renault-twingo-gay-marriage_n_1196862.html&gt;

Sender, Katherine. “Selling America’s Most Affluent Minority”. Columbia University Pres. New York.

Wert, Ray. “Toyota Corolla: Lesbians Love it!”. Jalopnik.com. 7.25.07. <http://jalopnik.com/282250/toyota-corolla-lesbians-love-it&gt;

Edit: order of citations

 

Weekend: One Night Stands and Self-Identification

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUU_WzRBHX4

Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) concentrates on the relationship between two young men after they find their one night stand growing into something more serious over the course of the weekend.  During this two or three day period in Northern England, Glen and Russell form a strong bond and understanding of each other, helping each other to better understand the inner conflicts they face with their self-identification.  While exploring the often confusing and inconsistent paradoxes of gay identity in a ‘post-closet era’, Haigh presents this subject in more of a universal and unambiguous way that could be understood by any audience rather than one simply restricted to a gay audience.  As Haigh focuses more on natural aspects of sexual desires and its emotional significance for the people involved, he does not exclude anyone, but instead invites his audience to see how an initial sexual desire between two people can quickly lead to a complex connection regardless of the societal constructs that would otherwise limit these two men by their sexual orientation. 

This dialogue-driven film is unique in that it avoids many of the archaic Hollywood cinematic stereotypes and caricatures of gay men that still dominant mainstream media portrayals.  Instead of making the two lead characters unique in their sexual desires, emphasis is placed on their individual characteristics and the lack of any concretely formed self-identification.  The fleeting, yet intense infatuation that these two young men feel toward each other allows for new and honest discussions regarding many of the political and social concerns left unaddressed by many other media portrayals of both relationships in general, but same sex relationships in particular that become more complicated after considering societal constraints that call for conformity from minority groups. 

The one and a half hour long representation of two young men that fall hard for each other juxtaposes two completely contrasting personalities to provide a commentary on the conflicting opinions and views that exist within gay self-identification itself.  Since this form of identification does not have such a concretely formed foundation in societal understanding of relationships like heteronormative ones, there are still many different individual qualities that require examination to further extend a rather limited mainstream view of what it means to self-identify as gay.  Haigh’s representation of two men who do not so narrowly fit into the political and social systems of learnt identification becomes clear through the psychological exploration of maintaining one’s identity.  Russell, who grew up in a foster home, has a strong relationship with his foster brother.  He sees him as happily married with a small child and thinks this is something worth having, yet something that he is incapable of attaining unless he assimilates to a heteronormative system of homosexual normalcy.  In contrast, Glen, an art student who is about to leave to study in America for two years, thinks that marriage provides an artificial happiness, finding little worth in the institution.  Russell is out to his brother, but not his coworkers.  Glen is out to everyone, completely unashamed of his sexuality and even willing to talk to strangers in bars about this heterosexual normalization of homosexuality.  The two young men affectionately argue their differing opinions throughout the film, allow the audience to understand, or at least witness, many of the different perspectives of self-identification as gay.  The film delivers contrasting personalities and political beliefs, mirroring the multiple ways a person self-identifies.  There is not single way of portraying gay identities because different people want different things, even if both people are categorized by society in terms of their genital activity. 

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In her book The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick places emphasis on this idea that ‘People are different from each other’ and therefor place different meanings on different acts, and sometimes this is lost amidst all of the categorization that social constructs require in order to keep binaries in place.  The idea that even the same sexual acts may have different meanings to different people is brought up the morning after Russell brings Glen back to his apartment and has sex with him.  As part of an art project, Glen asks Russell to talk into a recorder about the previous night in order to understand what Russell was thinking and why he was thinking it.  As Russell is quite shy and reserved when it comes to his sexuality, he becomes embarrassed, perhaps suggesting that his sexual desires are more easily acted out rather than discussed with another person.  The reason for the embarrassment or shy behavior when it comes to discussing his sexuality stems from a societal construct that tells him that it should not be something so easily talked about.  Glen, in contrast, is unabashed by his sexual desires and has no difficulties making known what he wants or how he feels.  Later in the film when the two men discuss their coming out experiences, Glen says that he told his parents, “Nature or nurture, either way it’s you’re fault.”  He breaks out of a traditional cultural desire to explain why he is the way he is.  He lacks any desire to agree with a “biological based explanation for deviant behavior that are absolutely invariably couched in…the fetal endocrine environment” (Sedgwick, 43).  Haigh provides insight into what it means to be a gay man and the struggle one faces with mainstream culture asking them to explain why they are gay.  Haigh creates a character and a voice that refuses to explain why he is different and instead tells other people to deal with their unwarranted discomfort if they have any. 

Hollywood has no doubt produced many one night stand films over the past decade.  Though sex and sexual desires are making more appearances in film, these usually follow an artificial structure that often end in a committed and loving relationship that closely follows heteronormative values.  The chart for ‘Media Images’ that Larry Gross borrows from sociologist Elihu Katz in his book Up From Inivisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America, shows the sequence of representations of minority groups in popular media.  Most frequently, the formula calls for minorities to conform to idealized majority conventions in order to assimilate to mainstream society and only then can happiness be achieved.  Unlike the heteronormative fantasy of happiness that Hollywood repeatedly sells to audiences, Weekend ignores Hollywood conventions with its truthful portrayal of the difficult nature of developing intimate feelings for another person.  One scene in particular that breaks Hollywood conventions occurs toward the end of the film when Russell goes to his niece’s birthday party.  His brother notices that Russell seems preoccupied and for the first time, Russell open up to his brother about his relationship with another man.  Though his brother knows he is gay, they never discussed in detail his past relationships.  His brother points out that Russell never opens up about his relationships and expresses a desire to know more about his relationships and to make sure he finds happiness.  Glen is about to leave for America and Russell wants to give him a proper goodbye.  His brother insists that he should drive Russell to the train station so that he can bring a meaningful close to his time with Glen.  Instead of scolding Russell for leaving his daughter’s birthday, he encourages him to finally stop doing what he thinks society wants him to do and to instead give into his desires. 

Visibility of sexual minorities has increased in the last twenty years, placing more emphasis now on the difficulties of self-identification within a dominate heteronormative system of categorization.  Weekend, though an LGBT film,serves as a reminder to all audiences that this heteronormative system of identification and representation is no longer the only valuable way of living.    

 

Works Cited 

Gross, Larry. “The Mediated Society.” Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Introduction; Axiomatic.” Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California, 1990. 1-63. Print.

Can Love Bloom on the Battlefield?: Queerness in Metal Gear Solid

Mainstream video games are a media dominated by masculine heterosexuality. Whether it’s muscular, stoic gun-slinging heroes or scantily clad heroines, the main audience of large, industry-leading developers is straight men. Among other games with high levels of success, Metal Gear Solid is a series that aims to subvert traditional video game tropes in many different ways, including in its portrayal of male intimacy. Two of the male leads, codenamed Solid Snake and Otacon, are never stated as anything but straight friends, but their relationship parallels a healthy queer relationship. The textually queer characters, however, are frequently sexually and romantically unhealthy, are villains, and eventually die. It is safe to name villains as queer because their identity does not challenge the heterosexual audience, but the protagonists, even when they are in healthy and loving homosocial friendships, never end up having a queer romance.

Looking at the homosocial relations of protagonists, the queerness in them is conferred to the “knowing” player. Often, when playing MGS, it is the “keen and artful presence of a certain absence in the texts—and the accompanying logic of undecidability, incongruity, and allusion—that seems to mark them as somehow queer” (Joyrich 30). Nearly all heterosexuality is in the form of short-lived romances (often quite literally; the majority of female characters end up dead). What replaces romance is deep, meaningful, same-gender friendships.

Of course, for the knowing player, these relationships are barely platonic. The subtext is overwhelming. Solid Snake and Otacon live together for about 10 years and adopt and raise a daughter. Kaz and Big Boss get in a naked wrestling match and, in an unlockable Easter egg, can go on a date. Ocelot was confirmed in a commentary track to be in love with Big Boss. But these things never quite show up in the main narratives of the game.

There is plenty of queerness that does show up, but it is of a much less healthy nature. Vamp (named such because he is bisexual) is a major villain and makes unwanted advances on the protagonist, Raiden. Vamp’s lover, Scott Dolph, is not evil, but is killed within the first hour of the game. Volgin and Raikov are lovers, but they are the main villains of MGS3, and Volgin sexually assaults Naked Snake. Ocelot is one of the main villains of the series and is never quite explicitly queer. Strangelove, for once, is not a villain nor does she die, but she has no female love interest (and her subtextual one dies) and is heavily implied to end up with a man.

The problem with Metal Gear Solid is not that it lacks queer characters—in fact, it has an overabundance of them in comparison to other video games at its level of success. The problem is that when a character is outright stated to be queer, they are almost guaranteed to be a villain or to be killed off. Reading protagonists as queer is not hard; sometimes the subtext is just too much to ignore. But none of the many intimate homosocial relationships (Solid Snake and Otacon, Big Boss and Ocelot, Big Boss and Kaz, Strangelove and The Boss, and many more) have been stated in-text to be romantic and/or sexual.

Interestingly, where canon queer characters are villains or dead, the subtextual queerness is of an amazingly healthy variety. Solid Snake and Otacon’s overarching narratives are, in a large part, about losing and finding family. Solid Snake was a clone who killed his own father and brother (the original he was cloned from and his twin) and goes to self medicate his PTSD in Alaska with dog sledding and alcohol. Otacon was sexually abused by his stepmother which led to his father committing suicide, after which Otacon ran away and had no contact with his family for years. But after they meet and become best friends, both of them enter a narrative about learning how to love and be loved. Otacon explicitly says in MGS2 that after he met Snake, he “realized you can’t wish for happiness, you have to make it happen” and he “learned that [he] could love”. Otacon has no significant relationships with women between MGS1 and 2; he could only be talking about Snake.

The tension in queer representation in MGS arises in the problematic nature of these explicitly queer characters and the positive subtextual queerness. The problem with these forms of queer knowledge, where villains and victims are explicitly queer and heroes are only implicitly, is that it does next to nothing to challenge the heteronormativity of video game culture. There is a long tradition in films and other media, as seen in The Celluloid Closet, of implying or even stating queerness in villains. This otherness, their strange sexuality, is used as a way to mark them as outsiders and untrustworthy. At no point in the Metal Gear Solid series does anyone say there’s anything wrong with queerness; if anything, homophobic reactions are frowned upon. But the fact that the heroes of the stories can be almost, but never quite, in a queer romantic relationship still enforces the idea of queerness as other.

When queer knowledge is inferred or conferred, even if it is still present, it is still putting queerness as something that must be kept quiet and only implied. If MGS were a revolutionary queer series, there would be no subtext, only text. The fact of having queer representation is not just about having characters identified as queer, but having queerness and queer identities portrayed in a variety of places, characters, and moral alignments.

This is not to gloss over the importance of the positive, healthy homosocial and implicitly queer relationships. These are rare, especially in video games. There is hardly ever a “no homo” moment to push the characters into strict heterosexuality, only the emphasis that these (supposed) friendships are the most important things in their lives.

The problem with Metal Gear Solid, interestingly, comes not from a lack of queer characters, or a lack of positive queer subtext, but from a tension between textual queer villainy and death and subtextual queer love and romance. The obvious solution to this problem is to make the subtext into text, to explicitly confirm the queerness of the protagonists. Given the state of the video game industry and the fact that MGS is drawing to a close as a series, this is unlikely, but perhaps other games can learn and improve on this model of queer representation.

Joyrich, Lynne. “Epistemology of the Console.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. London: Routledge, 2009. n.p. Pdf.

Under Her Spell: A Queer Analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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Towards the tail end of the twentieth century, representations of gay individuals across the media landscape experienced a newfound popularity that, while progressive in some sense, often left a lot to be desired in terms of character development and avoidance of stereotypes. One show that succeeded in showcasing a gay character who was not relegated to the sidelines was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On Buffy, the main character of Willow Rosenberg came out as a lesbian in the show’s fourth season, a landmark statement when the nature of queer representation in the media at the time is taken into context. Unlike other shows that relied on a prolonged coming out narrative or did little to elevate their gay characters out of the shadows, Willow’s coming out developed naturally and organically, and her queerness would remain an ongoing narrative throughout the course of the show. Willow’s burgeoning sexuality is important because it was never approached as some intense internal struggle or random experimentation and simultaneously allowed for the creation of a queer family structure surrounding Willow, and her girlfriend Tara, in the form of her close friends. Buffy showcased Willow simply falling in love with someone of the same sex without alienating or desexualizing her character, an important feat in an age where queer characters, regardless of their increased visibility, were still relegated to the outskirts of television narratives.

Much of Buffy’s success can be tied to its central theme; the use of the supernatural as a metaphor for the horrors and hardships of everyday life. On Buffy, the character of Willow was often portrayed as the lovable, nerdy sidekick, shy and meek in the early years of the show. Although her confidence was initially shaky at best, her interest in the occult and witchcraft added a new dimension to her character and led to the eventual discovery of her sexuality. Willow became more involved in witchcraft during the show’s fourth season upon entering college and breaking up with her high school boyfriend, simultaneously meeting a fellow witch named Tara who would be a key factor in the development of her power and her sexuality. Willow and Tara’s relationship emerged slowly, allowing the viewers to come to an understanding of the true nature of the relationship at the same pace as the two characters involved in it. This particular representative aspect of the couple is important because it set up a scenario in which Willow’s sexuality was not something that was played for shock value. As oblique as it was initially portrayed, it would be difficult not to note the direction in which Willow was heading in with Tara, especially among queer viewers.

In contrast to other representations of queer characters in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Willow and Tara were never made to exist outside of social norms primarily because the entire show existed outside of any sense of traditional normalcy. By tying Willow’s relationship inextricably to witchcraft and magic, the exploration of the coupling never felt awkward or forced, it simply was another occurrence in the already strange universe of Buffy. This is not to say that there was not some shock to Willow’s newfound sexuality among her core group of friends, but the way in which Buffy handled this issue was also pretty profound for its time. Instead of showcasing a scenario in which Willow and Tara were rejected by family and friends because of their relationship, the built in family structure of the “Scooby Gang,” as the demon fighting group of protagonists were referred to, created a uniquely comforting safe-hold for the two characters. Even though there was some surprise at Willow’s sexuality, she was never made to feel excluded by her friends.

The idea of a queer family structure is of chief importance throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and can be adequately viewed through the season five episode “Family.” At this point in the show, Willow’s sexuality and relationship with Tara had been firmly established, although her friends still felt some sense of disconnect with the character of Tara who, while assisting often in demon fighting, still felt more like Willow’s witchy girlfriend than an actual member of the group. This changes when Tara’s family arrives in town to remove her from school in anticipation of her upcoming birthday by claiming that she has a demon in her lineage that only affects women and will soon show itself to her friends. In an attempt to hide this, Tara casts a spell that makes the scoobies, including Willow, unable to see demons. The spell backfires when a group of demons attack Buffy and her friends and they are unable to identify the assailants, leading Tara to lift the spell and explain her actions. When her family uses Tara’s behavior to highlight why she needs to come back with them, the scoobies do not allow them to take her away, arguing that they are more of a family to her than her blood kin will ever be. It is an extremely heartwarming and important episode in the canon of the show. For the first time Tara is truly integrated into the core group not just because she is Willow’s girlfriend, but because she plays just as important a role in the group as the other characters.

As previously stated, the successful depiction of Willow’s sexuality and the queer family structure that surrounds it is largely due to the fact that Buffy itself can be considered a show full of outsiders. Although the main protagonist Buffy is a straight, white female, her inescapable destiny as a “vampire slayer” means that her character can never truly belong to a mainstream version of society with the rest of the main characters following suit by pledging their lives to helping her fight evil. In his book “Up From Invisibility: Lesbian, Gay Men, and the Media in America,” Larry Gross writes, “like other social groups defined by forbidden thoughts or deeds, we are rarely born into minority communities in which parents or siblings share our minority status…sexual and political minorities constitute a presumed threat to the “natural” (sexual and/or political) order of things, and thus we are always seen as controversial by mass media” (Gross 13). The characters belonging to the “Buffyverse” can all be categorized as a threatening minority, but it is through this very classification that the gang, and especially Willow and Tara, find a comforting safe haven outside of a traditional family structure.

Another important representative aspect of Willow’s queer sexuality has to do with the physical nature of her relationship with Tara. Although Buffy would later become the first show on a major television network to depict a lesbian sex scene, involving Willow and a later girlfriend, it is interesting to note the ways in which Willow’s sexual relationship with Tara was depicted, especially in the episodes prior to an overt explanation from Willow concerning the exact nature of their union. In an age where television shows with major gay characters, such as Will and Grace and Dawson’s Creek, often shied away from depicting anything alluding to actual queer sex, Buffy found a way to symbolize the sexual tension between Willow and Tara, most notably in the form of witchcraft. Gross writes, “…the most effective form of resistance to the hegemony of the mainstream is to speak for oneself, to create narratives and images that counter the accepted, oppressive or inaccurate ones” (Gross 19). Using witchcraft to aid the development of their relationship, Buffy was able to build a uniquely queer narrative, one that did not simply compare queer couples to traditional media representations of heterosexuals. Recalling the ways in which major Hollywood productions operated prior to the acceptance of homosexuality, Buffy relied on codes to build a solid sexual narrative between the two characters. The most obvious motif of queer sexual practices on Buffy can be observed when Willow and Tara cast spells together, often leaving the two breathless and overwhelmed. It is interesting to note that in later seasons, once the relationship has become a cemented storyline, the sexual content between Willow and Tara becomes more explicit, a change that can be attributed to a more progressive stance in television representations or, more likely, Buffy’s unique ability to broadcast storylines that were true to its characters and not to hetero-normative expectations of society at large.

   

            Although Buffy has been off the air for almost twelve years, the depiction of Willow’s sexuality and her relationship with Tara still seem current and relevant. Buffy’s eschewal of stereotypical portrayals of queer figures in conjunction with the fact that Willow’s sexuality was explored through a unique space in which the abnormal was always considered normal, allowed for the show to push the boundaries of televised queer sexuality without alienating its core group of viewers.

Works Cited

Gross, Larry. “The Mediated Society.” Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Spring Break Teens vs Drag Show Queens; What Constitutes “Camp”?

What do college spring break trips and drag shows have in common? (I promise, this is not the setup for a terrible punch-line) If you look at the general structuring of both types of event, they’re actually pretty similar; both require appropriate costumes (either tiny bikinis/muscle tees or lavish gowns and wigs), both include a certain level of rowdiness and/or drunken debauchery, and both celebrate excessiveness, especially with regards to overt gender performance. However similar the two may be, spring break is accepted in our culture, representing almost a right of passage for American youth, while drag shows, typically much less well received, get slapped with a label; camp. “Camp”, a term made popular by Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on “Camp”, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical behavior (especially effeminate or homosexual).” If you eliminate the parenthetical element of that definition, it applies just as equally to a raucous college spring break as it does to a flamboyant drag show. What is so different about the motivation behind the gender performances involved in drag shows that earn them the designation “campy” while spring break gets a free pass?

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             Right off the bat, it becomes clear that, though seemingly just tacked on to the definition of “camp”, the main requirement for something to earn the designation “campy” is the element of exhibiting homosexual attributes. Otherwise, spring break rituals could be considered just as campy as drag shows. Labeling anything as “camp”, then, is a perfect demonstration of Eve Sedgewick’s concept of nonce taxonomies, detailed in her essay Epistemology of the Closet. Nonce taxonomy is the practice “of making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up the world” (Sedgewick, 23). Basically, it is an innate human desire to want to categorize and invent terms for people we encounter who are different than us in order to make sense of things we don’t fully understand. Our society, a predominantly heterosexual white male order, thus has constructed a concept of “normality” based off the desires and behaviors of heterosexual white men. Anything else, “the other”, needs to be categorized or labeled (homosexual, lesbian, gay, transsexual, pansexual, asexual, bisexual, etc.)

The problem with trying to create categories based off sexual orientation and gender expression is that the wide range of ways human beings can choose to express their gender and sexuality would lead to a never-ending list of complicated labels. For instance, the term ‘lesbian’, a woman who sexually desires other women, is a fairly simple and widely recognized label. But what, then, would we call a woman who used to be a man who sexually desires women? Or a man who identifies as a man, but dresses like a woman and has a girlfriend and an ex boyfriend? What would we then categorize his girlfriend as? To allow for more fluidity concerning sexual identity, we can employ the overarching term ‘queer’, which all of the aforementioned parties could be classified as. In her book Queer Theory, Annamarie Jagose defines queerness as “gestures or analytical models, which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relationships between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (Jagose, 3). Anyone who doesn’t conform to norms assigned to them based on their chromosomal sex is considered queer. Drag shows are a perfect example of this because chromosomal males wearing ball gowns certainly do not conform to clothing norms dictated by their sex.

Though it still creates a distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” (which is fundamentally wrong because it requires one party to be identified as lesser than the other), the term queer at least allows for more fluidity when it comes to sexual identity than the traditional gender structure Judith Butler discusses in her book Gender Trouble. To illustrate the rigidity of the traditional masculine/feminine dichotomy, Butler describes two socially constructed “gender bubbles” which society dictates we must act within, lest we be categorized as abnormal, or queer. People who act outside these bubbles, such as drag queens, cause “gender trouble” by pointing out that what we believe to be gender ‘norms’ are just fictions which are reinforced as the truth by the media. After all, how can something as random as one’s chromosomal, or birth, sex be used to justify or prohibit any activity of behavior?

Spring break, the straight person’s gender performing equivalent of drag shows, utilizes similar exaggerated gender performances to reassert traditional gender rolls instead of to defy them as in the case of drag shows. Choose a handful of typical colleg-ey spring break themed movies (Spring Breakers or anything ever shown on MTV is a good place to start). What themes and images remain constant throughout all of them? Girls in string bikinis acting like drunken sluts, and guys trying to get with as many of them as possible. As opposed to a drag show’s satirical critiquing of chromosomal sex dictating nearly every aspect of how one is to behave, spring break reinforces the linearity of Jagose’s imagined “stable relationships” between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire; straight men are shows asserting their masculinity by acting aggressive sleeping with a lot of girls, and straight women are shows expressing their femininity by showing their figures and basking attention from ogling boys. Therefore, one could argue that though spring breakers exhibit many of the same types of gender performances that earn drag shows the designation “campy”, spring break is actually the antithesis of “camp”, as it is basically a celebration of those who not only follow, but exemplify gender “rules”.

Even though the primary definition of ‘camp’ identifies it as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical behavior (especially effeminate or homosexual),” it becomes clear when comparing gender performances exhibited in spring break to those in drag shows that it is the queer aspect of drag culture that earns it the distinction of being “campy”. I think the current definition of the word ‘camp’ could use some tweaking to clarify the concept (after all, how can the definition of a word remain static when those it attempts to describe are always evolving and changing?); first off, the word ‘homosexual’ should be replaced with ‘queer’, a la Jagose’s definition of the word, as ‘camp’ has grown to encompass way more than just homosexual culture. Second, less emphasis should be placed on the ‘theatrical and exaggerated’ performance elements of ‘camp’, and more on the non-conforming behavioral aspects that place one outside of his or her assigned “gender bubble”. Possibly the main flaw of the term “camp” is that there is no straight equivalent, which subliminally suggests that there is only something atypical about exaggerated gender performances when the one acting them out is gay.

 

 

 

Works Cited;

Butler, Judith. “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 135-40. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Introduction; Axiomatic.” Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California, 1990. 1-63. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on “Camp”” Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Dell Pub., 1966. N. pag. Print.

 

The Real QueerWives: Reading Queer Interpretations in Three Cities

Take 5 or 6 women.  Place them in glamorous social situations.  Throw in a couple free trips to glitzy tropical locations.  Toss in one or two sassy gay friends, a few rocky marriages, a betrayal, an abundance of lies, an adorable pet, a despicable attention seeker, a whirlwind reunion special and over-the-top fashion, and voila – you have America’s newest favorite past time, the Real Housewives franchise.  With baited breath, millions across the United States find themselves indulging in the greatest national guilty pleasure of the last decade.  The Real Housewives and each of their subsequent cities (in chronological order: Orange County, New York, Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and Miami) have proven themselves a cornerstone of the camp world.  Whether it’s a drag re-enactment or as the stars of the pop video of year, the Real Housewives have cemented themselves as an important cornerstone to discussions on all things queer.  I want to make the case that the Real Housewives, on its significantly large platform as a prominent facet of popular culture, is wholly queer with its unique representation of queer characters, large queer key demographic, and gay production leadership.

Inspired by the massive success of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, Bravo introduced the first incarnation of the franchise, the Real Housewives of Orange County in March 2006.  Bravo as a network was consistently known as the place of gay/lesbian skewing shows with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy consistently heralded as their prime money maker.  The first Real Housewives of all time included Kimberly Bryant, Jo De La Rosa, Vicki Gunvalson, Jeana Keough, and Lauri Waring.

From the get-go, RHOC (as it is colloquially known) played with over-sexualized tropes and blurring of gender norms.  In the pilot of it’s first season, viewers were introduced to sparring couple Jo and Slade.  Jo was young and full of life, craving intense sexual experiences and the freedom to do as she pleased within the domestic space her partner often relegated her to.  For all of his conditioning towards keeping Jo in a domestic space where she would care for him and his son (one she always seemed to rebel against), reinforcing his perceived version of “masculinity”, Slade represented iconically “gay” tendencies and was introduced as the paradigm for the burgeoning “metrosexual” identity.  In the pilot of the first season, we saw Slade naked multiple times emerging from the shower, engaging in various skin care routines, and discussing his bygone modeling days.  It is interesting to note, seeing as Bravo’s key demographic at the time was affluent gay men, the juxtaposition between Slade’s archaic ideals of masculinity and his “metrosexual” identity and the unnecessary justification he provides for their coexistence.  In addition, Slade’s role in the first season played with gender roles in a parenting sense, as a large focus was on his caring and nurturing for his children as Jo went out to clubs and partied with her girlfriends.  This reversal of stereotypically maternal characteristics can be identified as queering of the gender norms.

With RHOC, Bravo hinted at subtle queer realities in a tongue-in-cheek way, allowing queer audiences to interpret as they chose.  But queerness was taken to an entirely new level with the introduction of the franchise’s next incarnation, the Real Housewives of New York City.  While there are several representations of characters in the series whose actions/behavior could be read as queer (Bethenny Frankel’s embodiment of characteristically “lesbian”/masculine tendencies, Ramona Singer’s manipulation of linear narratives of time and space), season 3 addition Sonja Morgan can continuously be identified as the entire franchise’s most queer-skewing character.  Judith Halberstam presents the argument that “queerness…has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space,” indicating the queer individuals exist in spaces that run perpendicular to “normative” standards.

Sonja, ex-wife of JP Morgan heir Harry Morgan, rebels against any linear timeline/structure of behavior.  Engaging in near-hedonistic levels of sex, the series continuously presents her as a character confident and proud of her sexuality.  Her ability to prolong a sense of adolescence and remain in a period of sexual liberation, freedom, and exploration far beyond what is societally acceptable characterizes her as queer to a certain extent.  Her relationship with best friend Ramona Singer is often playful, yet hyper-sexualized.  The show finds the two of them often fondling each other, announcing their sexual attraction, watching each other in various states of undress, and engaging in sexually liberated activities.  Many of the other housewives criticize Sonja’s behavior as being immature or problematic but her large-scale embrace of this sexualized behavior is queer behavior at its most prominent.

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Sonja’s sexual identity is markedly heterosexual and references are made constantly to her sexual desire of men, but as Judith Butler mentions, her gender practices still seem to thematize “the natural” in parodic contexts that bring into relief the performative construction of gender itself.  In an anti-aging treatment in which she sits with Ramona (clad only in underwear), she boldly exclaims “Stop it! You’re making me horny!”  In another example, on a trip to St. Bart’s, Sonja brings home a man significantly younger than her and indicates certain sexual practices (BDSM among a few others) that are definitely far from the normative heterosexual practices.  One of the cornerstones of her time on the series are her noted burlesque cabaret performances, categorized by their complete over-the-top campiness and explicitly sexual content.  Oftentimes, she performs this behavior for a sense of comic relief, mocking the very constructs that she feels force her to behave a certain way because she’s a heterosexual woman, and provides the show with a reprieve from the cattiness and toxic drama that sometimes envelops it.

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With a voracious and healthy sexual appetite and a proclivity towards younger men, Sonja embodies certain stereotypically male tendencies and is careless in her embrace of these facets. Recently, in the show’s sixth season, Sonja rejects the idea of monogamy, dating several men at the same time, unapologetic for her sexual relations with each of them; a concept that many would argue is intrinsically queer.  One of her largest story lines this season is her relationship with 23 year old real estate developer, almost twenty years younger than her.  Her consistent rejection of patriarchal normative standards has her consistently heralded among viewers of the show as a “gay icon.”  It is rare, in a series with such wide reach and scope, to see a character that so explicitly “dramatizes the incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (Jagose, 3).

Speaking of Jagose’s theory about the nature of queerness, it is integral to discuss the third and most popular incarnation of the franchise, the Real Housewives of Atlanta.  There are arguments to be made about the innate queerness of some of the characters (Nene Leakes’s manipulation of gender roles, her refusal to cooperate with “image appropriate” fashion standards, etc.) but most interesting in this series, is the representation and visiblity of its gay characters.  Gay culture in Atlanta, or at least the Housewives’ Atlanta, is uniquely different from most places.  Here, it seems gay men (referred to as Judy(s) by the woman of Atlanta) serve as a sounding board and beautician for their female friends, to give them sassy words of advice, or to gently assist in stirring the pot of the story line.  If we are to extoll the franchise for their portrayal of Sonja’s boldly queer character in RHONY, it’s important to criticize the reductive representation of gay/trans* people in RHOA’s world.  In a startling example, self-proclaimed gay icon, Nene Leakes used the word “queen” to derogatorily refer to a fellow cast mate’s gay friend after a fight broke out at one of her parties in a recent episode.  In the world of RHOA, gay men serve only to applaud the tactics of the women on the show and are completely one-dimensional characters with no story arcs of their own.

Perhaps most problematic however is the representation of Atlanta’s resident queer character, Miss Lawrence.  Miss Lawrence is a gender-ambiguous character, who is often referred to as a man, but prefers to be addressed as a woman (something the other women on the show often fail to recognize, or mock in doing so).  Miss Lawrence’s only purpose is comic relief and to throw in a couple sassy head nods and “bitch, PLEASEs”.  The show offers no other dimensional representations of the character, relegating him to just that – a character.  As a result of the audience’s favorable reception to Miss Lawrence, Bravo awarded her a Fashion Police-esque show entitled Fashion Queens.  Still however, the network makes no attempt to dispel the stereotype surrounding these “queens”.

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Despite a lot of the progressive work of the series in its representation of gay/queer characters, a lot of work remains to be done.  Lesbian and bisexual representation has been weak or not nuanced enough (although the most recent season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills made significant strides in its representation of queer characters Carlton Gebbia and Brandi Glanville and Real Housewives of New Jersey recently gave a beautiful and complex story to lesbian sister Rosie).  In addition, several of the characters on the other series often have anti-gay/anti-queer sentiments by way of ignorance (RHONJ’s Joe Giudice’s several comments and problematic language).  But in the end, the franchise can be deemed slightly progressive for it birthed the first openly gay late night talk show host and its representation of diversity and a vast variety of different sexualities.  Certain aspects of the Housewives franchise are irrevocably queer, whether by interpretation or by actuality.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Preface.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. N. pag. Print.

Jagose, AnnaMarie.  Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press,      2010. Print.