Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Encounters with Media and Popular Culture

Joshua Gamson. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

‘The big lie about lesbians and gay men,’ the late Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet, his 1980s’ landmark study of homosexuality in the movies, ‘is that we do not exist.’

America was a dream that had no room for the existence of homosexuals. Laws were made against depicting such things on screen. And when the fact of our existence became unavoidable, we were reflected, on screen and off, as dirty secrets. We have cooperated for a very long time in the maintenance of our own invisibility. And now the party is over. (Russo, 1987: xii)

Indeed. By the start of the twenty-first century, gay and lesbian characters were all over American popular culture and, at least most of the time, neither secret nor particularly dirty. Gays and lesbians now routinely appear in US mainstream newspaper and popular magazine coverage, often sympathetically or matter-of-factly; entertainment and sports stars such as Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche, Greg Louganis, Martina Navratilova, Ian McKellen, Rupert Everett, and Melissa Etheridge are out and about in American culture, gracing magazine covers and celebrity gossip news; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered characters abound in Hollywood films and independent films too numerous to list, and have appeared as lead and recurring characters on many television programs, from the famous Ellen coming-out episode to Will and Grace, Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, NYPD Blue, and South Park, to name just a few; major companies such as Ikea, Budweiser, United Airlines, Subaru, and American Express have targeted gay and lesbian consumers with flattering images of themselves, often published in slick gay and lesbian magazines or on well-trafficked gay and lesbian Internet sites (Chasin, 2000; Walters, 2001). Even Disney World has an annual gay event.

Although the effects of such cultural changes on public opinion—which has become increasingly supportive of lesbian and gay civil equality while remaining morally disapproving (Yang, 1999)—are never direct or obvious, the shifts have been stunning in both breadth and rapidity. As Suzanna Danuta Walters puts it in All the Rage, a scant twenty years after Russo, ‘the love that dare not speak its name became the love that would not shut up’ (Walters, 2001: 29).

The study of the relationship of lesbians and gay men to popular culture and media roughly tracks and responds to this dramatic move into the cultural spotlight, a move that has not only been actively pursued by lesbian and gay social movements but has also exacerbated long-standing divisions within them. Lesbian and gay media and culture studies, like lesbian and gay studies in general, are partly shaped by their close relationship to lesbian and gay social movements (Epstein, 1996; Gamson, 2000), and they have thus reproduced key, interesting tensions in the movement. For those generally assuming stable identity categories, who see gays and lesbians as a minority group subject to unjust discrimination, the concern has tended to be with the fate of ‘positive images’ of gays and lesbians in media and popular culture; for those who see sexual identities as fluid, multiple and constructed, and aim to question and deconstruct those categories as a means to social change, the concern tends to be with ‘queering’ popular culture. In an overlapping but not identical tension, those celebrating ‘mainstreaming’ and assimilation as a means to gay power tend to view cultural visibility, implicitly or explicitly, as political progress; those who want to see the goal of gay politics as the pursuit of major changes in, rather than integration into, the dominant culture, cultural visibility in its more commercialized forms tends to be seen as problematic and sometimes regressive.

Thus, within lesbian and gay media and pop-culture studies—much stronger, notably, than within lesbian and gay communities at large—a profound and growing ambivalence has emerged along with, and about, the increased cultural visibility of lesbians and gay men. This is the story of a field of study that is still catching up with, and struggling to understand, the enormous changes in the cultural terrain: from suppression and stereotyping of gay people’s images and voices to their circulation in the spectacles of mass media; from often covert, self-created relationships to heterosexually-oriented popular culture to overt visions, produced or distributed by commercial cultured industries, of unapologetically lesbian and gay people. If the invisibility party is over, new questions are still circulating about the new visibility party that has taken its place: who is invited, and by whom, and at what price, and with what political and social consequences.

Invisibility, Stereotyping, and Sensibilities: The Minority Model

Sustained scholarly attention to the relationships between gays and lesbians and popular media began in the late 1970s, and grew out of the burgeoning gay and lesbian movements of that time. Much of the work, in fact, was conducted by scholars explicitly identifying as activists, whose scholarship was as much a political intervention as an intellectual one. For the most part, these early studies operated from a ‘minority model,’ in which a shared, fixed sexual orientation is the basis for a quasi-ethnic minority status for gay people (Epstein, 1987); the question was primarily one of the kinds of images of homosexuals and homosexuality that had been and were being produced, especially in Hollywood. The often explicit goal was to help transform the social and political status of lesbians and gay men: to demonstrate the kinds of distortions and exclusions of gay people produced, and prejudices being encouraged and reproduced, in cultural forms.

Coming primarily out of cinema studies, scholars such as Russo (1987), Parker Tyler (1972), and Richard Dyer (1984), brought home the key point that homosexuals, when not being written out of the culture entirely, were scripted in narrow, stereotyped roles—as comic devices, as sissies and tomboys, as suicidal and self-hating, as targets of violence, or as violent predators. When they were not being treated as laughable, that is, gay people were either killing themselves or killing others. Examining the images of lesbians in film, for instance, Andrea Weiss argued that ‘Hollywood cinema, especially, needs to repress lesbianism in order to give free rein to its endless variations on heterosexual romance,’ and that the result, when lesbian images managed to surface at all, were ones that ‘helped determine the boundaries of possible representation’—the ‘lesbian vampire, the sadistic or neurotic repressed woman, the pre-Oedipal “mother/ daughter” lesbian relationship, the lesbian as sexual challenge or titillation to men’ (Weiss, 1992: 1).

Stereotypes, such scholars have suggested, are the majority culture’s ideological means of legitimizing the political oppression of sexual minorities. As Larry Gross summarized it, nicely capturing the merger of scholarship and minority-group politics:

Mostly, [lesbians and gay men] are ignored or denied—symbolically annihilated … The stereotypic depiction of lesbians and gay men as abnormal, and the suppression of positive or even ‘unexceptional’ portrayals serves to maintain and police the boundaries of the moral order. It encourages the majority to stay on their gender-defined reservation, and tries to keep the minority quietly hidden out of sight. For the visible presence of healthy, non-stereotypic lesbians and gay men does pose a serious threat: it undermines the unquestioned normalcy of the status quo, and it opens up the possibility of making choices to people who might never otherwise have considered or understood that such choices could be made. (1991: 26, 30)

The stigmatization function of popular culture, from this perspective, serves to keep gay people, as individuals and as a group, mired in self-hatred, to justify their status as, at best, second-class citizens, and to legitimize a moral and political order that is deeply discriminatory.

Such minority-model study of gay and lesbian cultural representation, with its focus on distortions and exclusions, has remained one of the dominant approaches in the field (Fejes and Petrich, 1993; Gross, 1994). Gay and lesbian identity and community, in these studies, are treated as stable; the gay minority is seen as facing straight-majority prejudices that are encoded in popular culture and institutionalized in cultural organizations. In a useful review essay, for instance, Fred Fejes and Kevin Petrich argue that, while media discourse has become less homophobic, it remains deeply heterosexist.

Overall, mainstream network television does not present gays and lesbians in the context of their own identity, desire, community, culture, history or concerns, but rather as woven into the dominant heterosexual metanarrative … Aspects of gay and lesbian identity, sexuality and community that are not compatible or that too directly challenge the heterosexual regime are excluded. (1993: 401, 412)

Thus, a gay character may appear on Melrose Place, for instance, but seems to have neither a sex life nor any ties to a gay and lesbian community (Walters, 2001); lesbians may become ‘chic’ advertising icons, while ‘the representation of lesbian identity politics’ is precluded, since within the ads ‘there is no lesbian community’ (Clark, 1993: 195-6).

Pointing out the homophobic and heterosexist aspects of popular culture, for both scholars and activists operating within gay-minority politics—who by the 1970s were routinely targeting cultural institutions with ‘zaps’ and lobbying—has been a means to undermine stigma and challenge a discriminatory moral and political order. Indeed, the anti-defamation work of media advocacy organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has been directly informed by, and has directly informed, research of this kind (Alwood, 1996; Montgomery, 1989). In protests against television shows such as 1980s’ Midnight Caller, films such as Cruising and Basic Instinct, and radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlesinger, activists have translated into action the basic arguments of minority-based gay media criticism: popular culture routinely discriminates against lesbians and gay men, through stereotypes and invisibility, and that must be challenged. Even strategies by radical activists, who eschew the assimilation-oriented work of more reformist activists, have often emphasized membership in and obligation to the gay minority. When in the early 1990s some advocated ‘outing’ public figures rumored to be gay, its ‘most radical aspect’ was in fact ‘the argument that all homosexuals are members of a community, whether they admit it or not’ (Gross, 1993: 126; Mohr, 1992; Signorile, 1993).

Despite a heavy early emphasis in the scholarship on film and television, it is not only entertainment media that have been subject to scrutiny and analysis. Edward Alwood’s (1996) comprehensive historical study of gays, lesbians and the news media, for example, charts the dramatic change from 1950s’ news coverage, in which homosexuals were routinely referred to as ‘perverts,’ ‘sex deviates,’ ‘fags,’ and ‘child molesters,’ to 1960s’ discussions of ‘the sad gay life,’ to the coverage of Stonewall (‘Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,’ read the New York Daily News headline) and the ‘militant’ gay minority and the gay ‘lifestyle’ in the 1970s, to the increasingly sympathetic coverage of gay civil rights struggles and the renewed victims-and-villains frameworks in 1980s’ AIDS coverage.

Like many of his colleagues studying entertainment culture, Alwood’s explanatory framework is largely structural. In trying to understand ‘how and why the news media perpetuated antigay stereotypes throughout much of this century,’ Alwood turns not to ‘the prejudice and bigotry of individual journalists’ or ‘slipshod reporting,’ but to ‘a structural bias of the media, one that causes journalists to favor the established power base and defend the status quo while shunning the perspectives of those who are politically powerless’ (Alwood, 1996). Objectivity, balance, and fairness, Alwood argues, are ‘myths’ that ‘cannot assure that the news will be accurate, fair, or objective’ (ibid.: 7). Journalists ‘frequently fall short of their own standards, particularly in covering minorities’—Alwood includes gays and lesbians in the category ‘minorities’—and need to be accountable for the resulting double standards, exclusions, and derogatory stereotypes. When journalists and news organizations grasp that it is ‘unfair for them to render gays invisible or paint them as a menace,’ they will mend their ways, including more minority managers, reflecting all segments of society, and getting rid of stereotypes (ibid.: 327-8). The logic here quite typifies the minority-model study of popular culture: the subject in question is the reality of lesbian and gay experience, which is assumed to be relatively stable and unified; the goal is fair and accurate reporting of that reality; the obstacle is bias and institutionalized homophobia and heterosexism; the solutions are enlightenment and the reform of the practices and institutional arrangements that encourage bias.

The study of the media and popular culture treatments of AIDS has also been quite firmly influenced by this tradition of study, in part because the stakes of misrepresentation were especially clear: if coverage followed the invisibility and stereotyping pattern, policy-makers and the majority of the public were unlikely to see AIDS as a disease in need of resource provision. Indeed, research confirmed that this was, at least early on, pretty much the case. Early media accounts of the disease linked it to homosexuality, and drew on the stereotype of gay promiscuity; gay male identity, which had only recently overcome the stigma of homosexuality-as-disease, was being remedicalized through AIDS; the victim-or-villain dichotomy of earlier years was being reinstated in both fictional and nonfictional accounts, as was the treatment of gay men as spectacular ‘others.’ Distorting social divisions of race, gender, class and sexuality were reinstated culturally: AIDS was represented as a white gay disease or a disease of heterosexual drug users of color; some people with AIDS were ‘guilty’ while others were ‘innocent.’ At the root of these sorts of representations, most analysts suggested, was a combination of homophobia and generic institutional dynamics (such as assessments of news-worthiness, or disease-of-the-week TV movie conventions) (Alwood, 1996; Cohen, 1999; Cook and Colby, 1992; Gross, 1994; Kinsella, 1989; Netzhammer and Shamp, 1994; Watney, 1987). The result was not unidirectional of course—the re-stigmatization of homosexuality and bisexuality (for men, especially) also triggered renewed sympathy for, and mobilization of, gay activism. But many scholars saw in the AIDS crisis a crucial example of how majority prejudice and ignorance played out in popular culture and media, with great costs to a gay minority.

Another key aspect of minority-model gay and lesbian media and culture studies has been the flip side of the invisibility-and-stereotyping arguments: documenting the positive contributions to popular culture, and uses of popular culture, by homosexuals. This scholarship, too, has been deeply informed by the affirmative 1970s’ identity politics from which it was born: it shows the creative, complex ways lesbians and gay men have bent the stigmatizing culture to their own positive purposes, creating their own culture and identities from it, and how elements of ‘gay sensibilities’ have, for all the attempts to write them out, become woven into American culture. Although some simple, romanticized, essentialist versions of ‘gay sensibility’—as the inevitable, transcultural, transhistorical result of an innate sexual orientation—have circulated here and there, for the most part such analyses, with nods to the social constructionism that would soon dominate the field, considered gay culture in its historical and cultural context.

These studies are less about charting a minority group’s representations than about calling attention to the uses of popular culture in the group’s self-construction. In part because gays and lesbians, until recently, were rarely addressed directly as an audience, they have a rich history of turning pieces of heterosexually-oriented popular culture into their own expressions of individual and collective identity, or of generating their own subcultural languages, which are sometimes then picked up by the dominant culture. In The Homosexualization of America, Dennis Altman, for instance, distinguished the ‘traditional gay culture,’ built on the needs for concealment and evasion, with camp as its signature, from post-Stonewall ‘contemporary gay [and lesbian] culture,’ built on self-affirmation and assertion, with its ‘preoccupation with realism … and with authenticity’ (Altman, 1982: 152, 158). These different sorts of self-created subcultures demonstrated, one with subversive wit and the other with assertive sexuality, the creative resistance of gay people to their oppression and the weaving of that creativity into the fabric of popular culture (Bronski, 1984, 1998).

Camp has been one prime example of the gay male (and, to some degree, lesbian as well) poaching of popular culture, and also of gay male cultural contributions. The camp sensibility has been seen as ‘a strategy for rewriting and questioning the meanings and values of mainstream representations’ (Newton, 1972; Creekmur and Doty, 1995: 2; Cleto, 1999). Writing on camp typically defined it in relation to gayness, as ‘those elements in a person, situation, or activity which express, or are created by a gay sensibility,’ and that sensibility as ‘a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream … a perception of the world which is colored, shaped, directed and defined by the fact of one’s gayness’ (Babuscio, 1984: 40). Many analysts saw in the experience of pre-Stonewall male homosexual life, in particular, the roots of camp’s humorous, ironic, subversive, theatrical celebration of ‘any highly incongruous contrast between an individual or thing and its context or association’—exaggerated, hyper-feminine drag may be the prototype—especially incongruities of gender (ibid.: 41). ‘To gay men,’ as Russo put it, ‘camp has been both a lifeline and an anchor’ (1979: 206).

Gay men’s adoration of film stars such as Judy Garland, similarly, and lesbians’ admiration of stars such as Greta Garbo, have been seen as a means of expressing and celebrating a marginalized identity (Dyer, 1986; Weiss, 1992). Lesbians, Andrea Weiss has argued, have also ‘looked to the cinema … to create ways of being lesbian, to form and affirm their identity as individuals and as a group’ (ibid.: 1). Weiss traced the ways the ‘faint traces and coded signs’ that result from Hollywood’s restricted and restricting treatment of lesbians are ‘especially visible to lesbian spectators,’ who use them for their own identity work (Weiss, 1992: 1; Straayer, 1985). Even the strategy, used by some marketers since the 1980s, of ‘gay window advertising’—ads that target gay and lesbian consumers with subcultural codes or subtexts that straight viewers are unlikely to pick up—can be a means for affirming and strengthening the identity it is unwilling to explicitly name. Lesbians and gays can ‘read into’ such ads ‘certain sub-textual elements that correspond to experiences with or representations of gay/lesbian subculture,’ Danae Clark has argued, finding, if not politics, at least a space for identification, pleasure, and validation (1993: 188, 195-6). For gay people, that is, popular culture has not been simply a site of repression and stigmatization, but a crucial site of self-expression, identification, and individual and collective identity construction.

Whose Identity is it Anyway?: The Challenges of Difference and the Rise of Queer Theory

By the 1980s and 1990s, the gay and lesbian ‘minority studies’ model had come under scrutiny and fire from a variety of directions, shaking the theoretical ground on which many scholars—including students of media and popular culture—were standing. Within gay and lesbian movements in the 1980s, the strong gay-minority emphasis on what people with same-sex inclinations have in common was met with resistance from many of those who did not see themselves included in the ‘we’ of gay and lesbian culture. Social differences within gay and lesbian communities, especially racial, class, and gender differences, erupted. Mainstream gay culture—exactly what was being traced and celebrated in minority-model studies—was criticized for its exclusion of the ‘experiences, interests, values, and unique forms of life’ of people of color and working-class people (Seidman, 1996: 10). The gay rights movement was criticized from within, by lesbian feminists in particular, for its male bias; the lesbian-feminist wing was itself then challenged by sex radicals in the feminist ‘sex wars,’ and by working-class women and women of color, for its assumption of a unified lesbian sexual identity based on women’s shared characteristics and circumstances (Phelan, 1989). From multiple fronts, then, the ‘homosexual’ subject at the heart of minority-model studies was criticized for posing unproblematically as ‘us,’ while actually representing the viewpoint and experiences of white, middle-class gay men, and sometimes women; only a select piece of the gay ‘minority’ was becoming visible enough to even be stereotyped.

On one level, these criticisms gave energy to a project of filling in gaps in the field: writings focused on the specific representations of lesbians and lesbianism in film (Holmlund, 1991; Weiss, 1992), television (Moritz, 1994), popular music (Stein, 1994), and advertising (Clark, 1993); on the representation of Asian American men in gay male pornography (Fung, 1991) and black gay men on television (Hemphill, 1990) and music (Thomas, 1995); on images of bisexuals (Garber, 1995) and transgendered people (Bornstein, 1994; Meyerowitz, 1998). The logic of these accounts, however, has never simply been additive, never simply filling in the missing pieces in the puzzle of gay-minority representation. They also posed a challenge to the notions of identity underlying much of the work that preceded them.

As gay men and lesbians of color, for example, asserted and voiced their own specific identities, much of their attention went to the exclusion and distortion of those identities not only by mainstream, white, heterosexual popular culture but also by both straight-dominated black popular culture and white-dominated gay and lesbian popular culture. Marlon Riggs, whose film Tongues Untied was a ground-breaking exploration of black gay male identities, wrote of ‘the determined, unreasoning, often irrational desire to discredit my claim to blackness and hence to black manhood’ in ‘the cinematic and television images of and from black America as well as the words of music and dialogue that now abound and seem to address my life as a black gay man’ (Riggs, 1995: 471). Robert Reid-Pharr pointed to what he called the tendency to ‘spectacle-ize Black bodies’ that pervades not only American culture in general, but also American lesbian and gay culture; taking the example of the popular documentaryParis Is Burning, which took viewers into the world of New York City black and Latino ‘houses,’ he argued that ‘the black image is still used by whites, even and especially white gays, to entertain themselves, and more importantly to validate their position as the dominant people of the Americas’ (Reid-Pharr, 1993: 65). Film-maker Isaac Julien and film scholar Kobena Mercer wrote of the new images of masculinity in gay life that ‘depend on the connotations of power inscribed in symbols of white masculinity’ (1991: 168).

As black men, we are implicated in the same landscape of stereotypes in the gay subculture, which is dominated by the needs and demands of white males. Black men fit into this territory by being confined to a narrow repertoire of types – the supersexual stud and the sexual savage on the one hand, the delicate and exotic ‘Oriental’ on the other. (ibid.: 169)

As Julien and Mercer summed it up, ‘White women and men, gay and straight, have more or less colonized cultural debates about sexual representation,’ exhibiting a ‘profound absence of any political awareness of race among white gays’ (ibid.: 167).

In the course of these studies, the ideas of a unified minority and a clear homosexual subject (or, for that matter, black or white or female subject), to be represented or distorted in popular culture and media, became much harder to assume. In calling attention to the unexamined assumptions of whiteness in gay culture, and in studies of popular culture, for instance, critics were calling attention to the complexity of gay identities and culture: to the fact of multiple, intersecting, overlapping identities rather than one overarching shared gay identity, to the fact of a diverse, shifting, often divided community in tenuous coalition rather than a fixed, unified ‘gay minority.’ As Kobena Mercer (1991) put it, ‘There is no such thing as a homogeneous and unitary … community, but only communities, in the plural, made of interdependent, and sometimes contradictory, identities.’

These critical voices dovetailed with, and pushed along, those emerging more strictly within the academy, of the assumptions about identity inherent in the minority model—voices that congealed into what became known in the 1990s as ‘queer theory.’ Queer theory’s roots, of course, were in the ‘social constructionist’ thinking that took hold in the 1970s and 1980s; put simply, constructionists view sex, and especially categories like ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual,’ as social rather than natural. Heavily influenced by Michel Foucault’s history of sexuality—the movement from sodomy as ‘a category of forbidden acts’ to the homosexual as ‘a personage, a past, a case history, a life form’ (Foucault, 1990: 43)—social constructionists confronted the dominant, ‘essentialist’ notion of homosexuality as the outward expression of an innate homosexual nature (Epstein, 1987; Stein, 1992). Constructionists thus documented the different ways ‘the homosexual’ came into being historically and cross-culturally (Greenberg, 1988).

As queer theory took shape, it both built on and went beyond constructionism, presenting a ‘challenge to what has been the dominant foundational concept of both homophobic and affirmative homosexual theory: the assumption of a unified homosexual identity,’ and putting in its place the assertion that identities are ‘always multiple or at best composites,’ that identity construction is ‘arbitrary, unstable, and exclusionary,’ necessarily entailing ‘the silencing and exclusion of some experiences of forms of life’ (Seidman, 1996: 11-12). ‘I’m permanently troubled by identity categories,’ wrote Judith Butler, for instance, ‘consider them to be invariable stumbling-blocks, and under stand them, even promote them, as sites of necessary trouble’ (1991: 14). Identity is, she argued, a ‘necessary error’ (Butler, 1993: 21). This was quite a departure from the identity-affirmation politics that informed much of lesbian and gay cultural studies, which saw the error not as identity itself, but as the distortions of that identity by an anti-gay cultural system.

Influenced by post-structuralist social theory, queer theory, as Steven Seidman has described it, shifted the focus from the emergence of the modern homosexual to ‘questions of the operation of the hetero/ homosexual binary, from an exclusive preoccupation with homosexuality to a focus on heterosexuality as a social and political organizing principle, and from a politics of minority interest to a politics of knowledge and difference’ (Seidman, 1996: 9). As Seidman explains,

Queer theorists view heterosexuality and homosexuality not simply as identities or social statuses but as categories of knowledge, a language that frames what we know as bodies, desires, sexualities, identities. This is a normative language as it shapes moral boundaries and political hierarchies. … Queer theory is suggesting that the study of homosexuality should not be a study of a minority—the making of the lesbian/ gay/bisexual subject—but a study of those knowledges and social practices that organize ‘society’ as a whole by sexualizing—heterosexualizing or homosexualizing—bodies, desires, acts, identities, social relations, knowledges, culture, and social institutions. (Seidman, 1996: 12-13)

It was thus not so much the lives or identities of gays and lesbians, or the construction of homosexual identities or minority status, that required attention, but the ways the very homo-hetero distinction underpinned all aspects of contemporary life. ‘An understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture,’ wrote Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, for example, in Epistemology of the Closet, generally considered the founding text of queer theory, ‘must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition’ (1990: 1). The deconstruction and criticism of ‘heteronormativity’ in its various forms and guises, of the notion that ‘humanity and heterosexuality are synonymous’ (Warner, 1993: xxiii) became a key goal and rallying cry of queer studies. As opposed to ‘lesbian and gay,’ Rosemary Hennessy suggested:

[queer] embraces a proliferation of sexualities (bisexual, transvestite, pre- and post-op transsexual, to name a few) and the compounding of outcast positions along racial, ethnic, and class, as well as sexual lines—none of which is acknowledged by the neat binary division between hetero-and homosexual. ‘Queer’ not only troubles the gender asymmetry implied by the phrase ‘lesbian and gay,’ but potentially includes ‘deviants’ and ‘perverts’ who may traverse or confuse hetero-homo divisions and exceed or complicate conventional delineations of sexual identity and normative sexual practice. (Hennessy, 1994-95: 34)

Or, as Alexander Doty put it, ‘Queerness should challenge and confuse our understanding and uses of sexual and gender categories’ (1993: xvii).

As opposed to the criticism of gay people’s cultural invisibility or stereotyping, queer theory-influenced studies of popular culture have thus largely involved a project of deconstruction and criticism of the dichotomous sexual and gender categories promoted in pop culture. Indeed, as Michael Warner put it, ‘almost everything that could be called queer theory is about ways in which texts—either literature or mass culture or language—shape sexuality’ (1992). Queer ‘readings’ of popular culture often aimed to demonstrate the covert operation of the homosexual-heterosexual ‘binary’ in cultural texts, and of the ways in which the texts of ‘heteronormativity’ are never entirely successful at suppressing the complexities of sexual desire and gender identity. ‘Connotation,’ Doty has argued, ‘has been the representational and interpretive closet of mass culture queerness for far too long,’ and queer readings of mass culture aim to remove ‘mass culture queerness from the shadowy realm of connotation’ (1993: xi). Pop-culture subjects such as Michael Jackson (Erni, 1998), Hitchcock films (Berenstein, 1995; Miller, 1990), Paul Lynde (Hainley, 1994), I Love Lucy and Laverne and Shirley, (Doty, 1993), Madonna (Schwichtenberg, 1993), and Pee-Wee Herman (Balfour, 1993; Bruce, 1995) began to be mined for queer meanings and subtexts, or were themselves ‘queered’ by the reading of the scholar, who stood in for readers and viewers ‘adopting reception positions that can be considered “queer” in some way, regardless of a person’s declared sexual and gender allegiances’ (Doty, 1993: xi).

John Erni, for instance, found in Michael Jackson a ‘queer figure,’ one whose ‘hyperbolic poses of the body and other significatory practices [are] drawn toward the parodic dramatizing, and the political questioning, or normalcy’; looking at the media treatment of the scandal over Michael Jackson’s alleged child molestation, he traces ‘the meanings of non-normative—and specifically queer—subjectivity in the discursive layers of the scandal,’ finding in the scandal ‘an assemblage of a social discourse about queer eroticism and identity politics out of a history and iconography of “weirdness” attached to a name branded to the problems of secrecy and sexual ambiguity’ (Erni, 1998: 159, 164). Sasha Torres, analysing the 1980s’ prime-time drama HeartBeat, demonstrates how the series’ lesbian character, Marilyn, was written as simultaneously similar to and different from the straight characters. The ‘often-confused and always-implicit vacillations between universalizing and minoritizing depictions of Marilyn,’ she wrote, in an explicit reference to Sedgwick’s work, ‘themselves demonstrate the productive possibility, as well as the evident limitations, of such liberal representations’ (Torres, 1993: 183). Ian Balfour, one of a number of cultural studies scholars to turn their attention to the ‘gay subtext, intertext, or just plain text’ of Pee-Wee s Playhouse, argues that ‘a principal effect of Pee-wee’s histrionics … is to unsettle culturally codified notions of masculine and feminine, indeed to twist them around’ (1993: 143, 145-6). In one episode among many in which gender is treated as an ambiguous playhouse, Balfour notes, Pee-wee coaches a character named Cowboy Curtis for a date with the big-haired Miss Yvonne.

The Cowntess (a cow who occasionally wears a muumu) ropes Pee-wee into pretending to be Miss Yvonne for Curtis’s benefit. Pee-wee protests that he doesn’t ‘want to be a girl.’ But the Cowntess urges him to ‘Have some fun with it.’ Pee-wee then cheerfully adopts a falsetto voice and revels in his role as a woman …. muses about lipstick, hairspray and the dress he’ll wear, while flirting with Cowboy Curtis, and decorum is only restored at the moment when Pee-wee balks at Curtis’s attempt to kiss him goodnight. The explicit moral of this episode … is ‘Be Yourself.’

The exhortation to be yourself, Balfour concludes, ‘includes the possibility of being your twisted self, which is to say a self less twisted according to prefabricated structures of desire’ (Balfour, 1993: 145-6). Queer media and culture studies pursue these twisted possibilities with a vengeance: on the one hand, the transgressive, disparate sexual identities and practices present, if suppressed, in popular culture, and, on the other, the myriad ways in which the oppressive, binary categories of sex and gender (gay versus straight, male versus female) are routinely purveyed by popular culture.

Margins and Mainstreams: The Normalization of Gays and Lesbians in Popular Culture

‘The most effective force of resistance to the hegemonic force of the dominant media,’ communications scholar Larry Gross wrote, ‘is to speak for oneself,’ and ‘the ultimate expression of independence for a minority audience struggling to free itself from the dominant culture’s hegemony is to become the creators and not merely the consumers of media images’ (Gross, 1991: 41). For a time in the earlier parts of the contemporary gay and lesbian movements’ history, much energy had been devoted to creating alternative institutions, some of which gave rise to an alternative popular culture by and for gay people: lesbian feminist singers recorded on the Olivia Records label and played at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Taylor and Rupp, 1993); local papers emerged, along with national magazines such as The Advocate, to provide news and information that the mainstream press ignored or distorted (Streitmatter, 1995); gay-produced films such as Word Is Out, The Times of Harvey Milk, and Tongues Untieddocumented aspects of gay experience, and played at lesbian and gay film festivals.

Until recently, however, the cultural images gays and lesbians produced were known and distributed mostly within lesbian and gay communities, and the images in the popular culture at large were produced by and for heterosexual audiences—although, of course, homosexuals were among their most avid consumers. Over time, in a process that began slowly in the 1970s, picked up over the 1980s, and sped up like crazy in the 1990s, the volume of mainstream popular culture featuring gays and lesbians, and of gay- or lesbian-produced culture ‘crossing over’ into the culture at large, mushroomed dramatically (Bronski, 1998).

In large part, this newfound visibility was, in fact, the result of the erosion of corporate caution about being associated with gay and lesbian culture, which opened up big new revenue and investment sources for cultural products featuring, or targeting, gays and lesbians. The gay and lesbian ‘community’ had, largely through the efforts of some of its own (for instance, firms specifically geared towards helping companies market towards gay and lesbian consumers), been transformed into a market niche (Chasin, 2000; Gluckman and Reed, 1997; Lukenbill, 1995; Strub, 1997). Although various studies have challenged the idea that gay men and lesbians earn more than heterosexuals (Badgett, 1998), and statistics on stigmatized populations are notoriously difficult to collect, the perception that lesbians and gay men are a huge, untapped, brand-loyal group with lots of disposable income began to become conventional business wisdom. Thus major advertisers, such as airlines and music companies and alcohol companies, sought ways to penetrate the gay market. One of those ways was through gay-and-lesbian produced popular culture, especially the glossy magazines such as Out, 10 Per cent, Genre, and Curve,which emerged in the 1990s, and long-standing magazines such as The Advocate. ‘The growing visibility of the gay and lesbian community,’ as Michael Bronski put it, ‘has been largely a direct result of the emergence of the gay market and the commodification of gay life’ (1998: 145).

The visibility grew not only in print advertising and magazines. The decreased perception of financial risk on the part of corporations loosened up investment in gay-and lesbian-themed film and television projects, and a series of test cases proved that they could be profitable. The AIDS drama Philadelphia demonstrated that audiences might not turn away from Hollywood films with gay central characters; the indie film Go Fish, which centered around a group of twenty-something lesbians, became a hit in 1996, demonstrating that films emerging from the budding gay and lesbian independent film world could be highly profitable. The episode in which the title character of Ellen came out proved to be a ratings bonanza, demolishing the idea that gay topics were too controversial to retain TV viewers’ valuable attention—which had informed earlier advertiser pullouts from episodes of television shows, such as LA Law and Roseanne, in which same-sex desire was a key storyline, and which had kept networks from supporting programs with gay or lesbian lead characters. Film companies became less cautions about producing and marketing gay-themed films, distributors were on the lookout for independently produced films about lesbian and gay characters that had ‘crossover’ potential, and advertisers became less skittish about sponsoring television programs with lesbian or gay characters. By the late 1980s, the ‘funding, production, and distribution opportunities’ for people pursuing lesbian and gay themes in independent media, and the field of lesbian and gay film and video itself, were ‘expanding, exploring, exploding’ (Gever et al., 1993: xiii); lesbian and gay cultural producers who a few years before would have been ignored found eager commercial sponsors and distributors. Lesbian and gay images have made a fast march towards the center of American popular culture. ‘Gay life and identity,’ as sociologist Susannah Walters says, ‘defined so much by the problems of invisibility, subliminal coding, double entendres and double lives, has now taken on the dubious distinction of public spectacle’ (2001: 10).

Very few observers dispute the claim that the recent pop cultural visibility of gays and lesbians has primarily taken the form of emphasizing gay people’s similarity to their heterosexual counterparts, that as opposed to their stereotyping as scary, deviant ‘others’ in the years preceding it, they have become increasingly ‘normal’ cultural figures. Even their deviance, in fact, has become normalized: gays and lesbians, who had been relegated to occasional talk show appearances in the 1970s and 1980s on which the morality of their practices and identities was the topic, for example, were in the 1990s integrated into the tabloid world of daytime talk shows, as nasty and loud as most everyone else on the shows (Gamson, 1998a).

What scholars and other observers disagree about, however, is whether and how the new visibility is a cause for celebration. For students of media and popular culture, the mainstreaming of lesbian and gay people in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has generated new questions, and reproduced once again the political tension between those advocating assimilation and normalization as routes to social progress and those pursuing a ‘queer’ challenge to norms as a social change strategy. For more conservative critics, the new visibility is progress, a sign that the culture at large is getting over its stereotypes and ignorance and accepting gay people. In After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, for instance, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen described a strategy of ‘good propaganda’ that seemed to then play out almost as if drawn from their pages. In a reiteration of a conformity-oriented strategy with a long history in gay politics (D’Emilio, 1983), they proposed producing ‘favorably sanitized images’ and a ‘single-minded’ focus on ‘gay rights issues and nothing more’ (Kirk and Madsen, 1989: 170, 180).

You must help them relate to you and your humanity, to recognize that you and they share many good things in common, and that they can like and accept you on their own terms … Persons featured in the media campaign should be wholesome and admirable by straight standards, and completely unexceptional in appearance; in a word, they should be indistinguishable from the straights we’d like to reach. In practical terms, this means that cocky mustachioed leathermen, drag queens, and bull dykes would not appear in gay commercial and other public presentations. (ibid.: 174, 183; my emphasis)

This is exactly one of the major objections to others witnessing the movement of gays and lesbians into the mainstream of popular culture. ‘Far too often this new visibility and acceptance,’ writes Walters, ‘is predicated on a comparative model: the straight person (or character in a film or TV show) can only “accept” the gay person once he or she has interpreted that person as “just like me”’ (2001: 16). Normalization, some critics have pointed out, comes at a price, the need to ‘tone down, clean up, straighten up gay life and gay identity’ (ibid.: 285), a neglect of the diversity of gay populations, and a writing out of the sexually transgressive and politically challenging aspects of the lesbian and gay communities and movements.

Most critical analysts point to the distortions provided by the commodification of gay and lesbian life, the driving force behind the new cultural visibility. ‘Not only is much recent gay visibility aimed at producing new and potentially lucrative markets, but as in most marketing strategies, money, not liberation, is the bottom line,’ writes Rosemary Hennessy. ‘The increasing circulation of gay and lesbian images in consumer culture has the effect of consolidating an imaginary, class-specific gay subjectivity for both straight and gay audiences’ (Hennessy, 1994-95: 32). The overwhelming majority of advertising material in which gay people appear, Alexandra Chasin has found, for instance, ‘depicts that “community” as white, affluent, educated, healthy, youngish adults’ (Chasin, 1997: 14-15). ‘In the world of the market,’ Walters adds, ‘all the gays are men, all the men are white, and all the whites are rich’ (2000: 313). Recent gay magazines, cultural critic Daniel Harris argues in The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, ‘have consolidated their economic base by catering exclusively to the needs of the emerging youth constituency and perpetrating pictorial genocide on men over the age of 40, who have been ethnically cleansed from their pages, leaving behind a racially pure group of young, prosperous beauties’ (Harris, 1997: 71). Gay activism, he continues, has been redefined to include ‘things like shopping and careering,’ and images of gay culture ‘have been completely desexualized’ (ibid.: 77). The new magazines, Harris argues:

strive to create a sanitized forum that will satisfy even the most conservative businesses … [Editors] drive home to their advertisers the normality of gay people whose Middle American mediocrity is celebrated in article after article … The methods of sterilization involved in creating an ad-friendly marketing vehicle capable of pacifying the fears of large corporations involves the annihilation of gay identity, the eradication of every vestige of difference between ourselves and the heterosexual markets the advertiser is accustomed to addressing. (ibid.: 80-2)

The new visibility, the more radical observers suggest, has brought new distortions. At a minimum, the move of some gay people into the cultural mainstream has heightened the tension between assimilationist and anti-assimilationist wings in gay politics.

It has also called attention to analytical and political difficulties that were not present when the task was simply documenting and opposing images that were blatantly demeaning (Gamson, 1998b). The assumption that a ‘positive’ image is easily recognizable, is no longer so easy to hold. ‘Is it any image that avoids the harshest stereotypes?’ asks Jane Schacter.

Is it a highly assimilated image that makes it impossible to ‘tell’ if someone is straight or gay? Is it an image that attributes transgressive gender roles to a gay character—an ‘effeminate’ man or ‘masculine’ woman—but does so from a ‘sympathetic’ perspective? It is simply any such ‘transgressive’ image, available for a potentially empowering appropriation by lesbian and gay viewers, irrespective of the ways in which nongay viewers might react? (Schacter, 1997: 727-8)

These are questions triggered by the move into the spotlight of popular culture, and their answers are primarily normative ones – they depend on where one stands on the value of transgression, assimilation, and normalization.

Conclusion: Looking to the Future

These are never bad questions to ask, not least because gay people’s ambivalent relationship to media and popular culture – as stigmatizing enemy and destigmatizing savior—is productive. They also force new and difficult issues, about the politics of visibility, into the forefront of the field. It is no longer so easy to assume that visibility, for instance, is always and necessarily a political step forward. The means by which much of the new cultural visibility was achieved – the promotion of an affluent, powerful gay market—has become one of the organizing tools for the anti-gay right, for instance. Now, as Michael Bronski sums up the results of these ‘myths created by means of market research,’ gay people are seen by some not just as a sexual threat, but ‘a sexual threat with economic and social power’ (Bronski, 1998: 148-150). ‘It is at least possible,’ Schacter points out:

that representations of happy, healthy, well integrated lesbian and gay characters in film or television would create the impression that, in a social, economic, and legal sense, all is well for lesbians and gay men. To the extent that some viewers believe that media images reflect the ‘real world,’ perhaps these images will induce or confirm their belief that lesbians and gay men are already ‘equal’—accepted, integrated, part of the mainstream … It is at least possible that ‘positive’ images of gay and lesbian characters, untethered to any representation of the legal status of homosexuality, might prompt in some viewers the rallying cry of ‘special rights’ that has been so central to the antigay campaigns. (Schacter, 1997: 729)

There is, thus far, no indication that new cultural visibility translates into new political and social rights and fuller, freer citizenship for gay people. Indeed, the impact of popular culture on political opinion, the impact of this new visibility—whether the exposure has generated tolerance or backlash—remains to be seen and studied.

That is a difficult question to transform into research, of course, but its prominence calls attention to one of the largest gaps in the field of lesbian and gay media and pop-culture studies: the dearth of cross-cultural comparison. As this chapter itself reveals, most of the work in the field has focused on North American and British culture, not surprisingly, since those are arguably the sites with the most active and visible gay and lesbian presence in popular culture. Especially as world culture continues to compress, and cultural industries continue to consolidate and globalize, it becomes even more crucial to look beyond the American and British cases alone for clues to the difficult, less-than-obvious relationship between cultural visibility and political freedom.