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Category Archives: queer

I am preparing to teach a graduate course called Queer/ing Popular Culture this fall, and I decided it was time to get around to actually reading the late, great Alex Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. On this second attempt, it was not only just what I need for this course, but there was also a lot of “Yeah! Right on!” that I don’t remember from when I read the introduction howevermany years ago.

I particularly had an “OMG, this explains things!” moment in the “I Love Laverne and Shirley” chapter. Doty contends that Laverne and Shirley, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, and The Golden Girls should be understood as “lesbian sitcoms” because the primary relationships in them are between women and male love interests are generally transient and not central to the ongoing development of the story or characters.

This relies, of course, on Adrienne Rich’s concept of the “lesbian continuum”: “a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman.” In her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Rich proposed that we use this term “lesbian continuum” “to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support,” and other woman-to-woman relationships (all quotations in this paragraph as published in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader in 1993, p. 239).

In saying that all “primary intensity” between women should be framed as lesbian, Rich was making a political move, calling on ostensibly heterosexual women to recognize their kinship to lesbians on the basis of their deep emotional ties to other women, asking them to “consider the possibility that all women [ . . . ] exist on a lesbian continuum,” because this would let us “see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not” (p. 240), in order that women could band together more effectively toward feminist causes rather than being divided by the specter of lesbianism.

Thus, Doty argues, “in mass culture reception, at least, the idea of a lesbian continuum might be adapted and expanded to include those situations in which anyone identifies with or takes pleasure in the ‘many  . . . forms of primary intensity between and among women’” (p. 42). Doty describes the shows he discusses as “lesbian sitcoms” because they are structured around, and audiences “identify with” or “take pleasure in,” the centrality of women to each other’s lives.

And that got me thinking. In the years since Doty wrote, the ways audiences “identify with” or “take pleasure in” relationships between women in television has shifted dramatically with the rise of large, visible femslash fandom, taking this “lesbian continuum” type of lesbianism and weaving it together with the sexual lesbianism Rich termed “lesbian existence.” It therefore seems to me, first, that it makes sense to call all media (not just sitcoms) that have a relationship between women as the central one, or among the central ones, lesbian media, and second, that to locate lesbian media after the Internet is to locate femslash fandoms.

Moreover, not only do such lesbian media objects generate femslash fandoms (because people kind of literally ship everything), but for lesbian media femslash tends to be comparably voluminous and visible and internet-powerful as heterosexual shipping or m/m shipping—which are otherwise dominant in fandom. Lesbian media generate big femslash fandoms in a way that for other shows femslash is present but more minor.

In Xena: Warrior Princess, for example, the Xena-Gabrielle dyad was the core of the show. Other characters came and went, but the two ladies were what it was about, and lo and behold, Xena was the first major femslash fandom. Moreover, Xena-Gabrielle shipping vastly drowned out any other pairing in the show, and I argue that this is because Xena was a lesbian show in its focus on relationships between women as primary.

Or to take a perhaps unexpected example, recent Disney films Frozen and Maleficent have very central relationships between women, and there is femslash about those relationships despite the respectively literally and figuratively incestuous nature of those woman-woman pairs. Where women are important to each other, it seems to me, strong femslash followings arise.

And I think that being a lesbian media object and producing a large femslash fandom plays out in interesting ways the tension between “lesbian continuum”—women’s primary relations to women—and “lesbian existence”—sexual lesbianism. To take the example of Once Upon a Time, it is also, by this measure, a lesbian television show. The first season revolved around relationships between women—primarily Regina and Emma’s conflict over Regina’s adopted son being Emma’s biological son and Regina and Snow White’s conflict in the past that had led to current events, though there were some other ones as well. Those women’s relationships to one another drove the show. And indeed OUAT had a large femslash fanbase for “Swan Queen,” the relationship between Emma Swan and Regina, the Evil Queen, from the get-go.

This pattern of “primary intensity between women” as the driver continued in the second season, when the primary arcs were about mothers and daughters, supplemented with Emma and Regina starting to learn to trust one another. Season three to some extent broke the pattern, with the first half all about fathers and sons, though there was some more “Regina and Emma learn to trust each other,” and while the back half of the third season was ostensibly about conflict between sisters, romantic relationships with men took a lot of screen time in a way they hadn’t before. The first half of season 4 was much the same dual focus, with one main story arc being about sisters and the other main character spending all her time dealing with a boyfriend situation. The most recent half-season got in many ways back to basics and re-centered relationships between women, with the Regina-Emma relationship developing and Emma having conflict with her mother—importantly, despite the fact that her father also did the thing she was upset about, her anger focused on her mom.

In the second half of the fourth season, both of the leads have some kind of romantic entanglement with men on the horizon, but they are deemphasized, showing what Doty calls a show “introducing, and then marginalizing or eliminating, the men who date or marry its women characters” (p. 57). He notes that “the narrative fact of straight romance and marriage does not necessarily heterosexualize lesbian sitcoms any more than being married makes actual lesbians straight” (p. 57), and indeed for femslashers it hasn’t, as they’ve focused, for example, much more on (spoiler alert) the fact that Emma sacrificed her soul to save Regina in the finale than the fact that she told the boyfriend she loved him for the first time right before.

And it seems that the more “lesbian” the show is, in terms of prioritizing relationships between women as the central arc and having the men more or less fail the Sexy Lamp Test—meaning that they can be replaced by a sexy lamp and not change the story (there has also been a proposal by some in the SwanQueen fandom to speak of a the “No Homo”-Sign Test, in which the men could be replaced by “no homo” signs without changing the story)—the more femslashers like it. Season 1 and the part of Season 2 up until one of the mothers was killed are held up as the golden age of the show for femslashers. Season 3 and the first half of Season 4 are pretty universally reviled among this population. The reaction to the second half of Season 4 is mixed.

And the backlash to SwanQueen fandom has taken the form of trying to push “lesbian existence” back into the “lesbian continuum”—to desexualize and deemphasize the relationships between women. First, there has been an attempt to de-lesbian the show by denying that the Emma-Regina relationship is important: both that it’s not important to either woman, and certainly not as much as their boyfriends, and that it’s not important to the show, because they are not the main characters (despite the fact that the two actors involved get second and third billing).

The second de-lesbian-ing strategy is what Doty identifies in an endnote as “straight culture’s careful maintenance of the line between homosociality and homosexuality (p. 42, n. 9). There is much “They are friends or sisterly and why do you have to sexualize things?” from people who are opposed to the SwanQueen interpretation. This, Doty notes, “only encourages homophobia and heterocentrism, as the homosocial is always considered preferable to the homosexual. If there wasn’t some problem about being labeled ‘homosexual,’ straight culture wouldn’t care if certain straight personal relationships and cultural representations were misperceived as being queer.” And indeed, these responses tend to come along with either overt or implicit homophobia. This also show’s why Rich’s move to claim those friend and sister relationships as on a continuum with sexual lesbianism matters. Pulling these two apart is why people opposed to the SwanQueen interpretation can say that seeing a link between “women being important to women” and “women having sex with women” is “delusional.” Insisting on the existence of the continuum—that these two forms of woman-to-woman relationship exist in relation to one another, and can slide into one another—is terrifying for homophobes but vital to femslashers.

(Doty also notes that “lesbian and gay maintenance of the homosexual/heterosexual line is another matter, as this is concerned with keeping same-sex sex as the central definer of queerness in order to prevent the cultural and political neutralization and domestication of lesbianism and gayness by straight culture” [p. 42, n. 9] and indeed this happens in the fandom too, with some segments rejecting a friendship as acceptable, staking a claim for sexual lesbianism.)

What’s interesting to me here is that, while Doty was telling a macro-level structural story about how shows work, he wasn’t an audience researcher and certainly not in fan studies, and so was not equipped to explain (or, perhaps, even notice) this whole other side to how shows are “lesbian”—nor, indeed, did femslash fandom exist at scale when he was writing. In this way, Doty provides a useful contribution to thinking about why large femslash fandoms coalesce around particular texts, but fan studies work on slash also provides enrichment to how the patterns he identifies play out when actual people get ahold of structurally queer texts.

My presentation in the Self Awareness and Identity Politics in Media Pedagogy workshop #g16 at the 2014 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference.

And speaking of my dissertation defense, here’s the Prezi for that for those who were unable to attend, since I wasn’t able to have it streamed or live-tweeted.

In the first part of January, there was an exchange over the email list of the Association of Internet Researchers that started with a scholar looking for pointers to sources on social-media-based tribes. In addition to responses that just answered the question came some that were critical of the racist/colonialist underpinnings of the term “tribe” itself.

(I’m torn here between giving those contributors credit and respecting that what they said was not, strictly, public, particularly given AoIR’s long history of thinking about online research ethics and protecting the identities of one’s sources. So I’m erring on the side of not naming names or even quoting, since that would be Google-able).

The conversation about “tribe” raised a question for me: Can we separate out the usefulness of “tribe” as a type-of-social-organization term from its racist/primitivist history? And if we can’t, how can we talk about those forms of social organization?

It just so happened that I had an upcoming meeting of my queer studies reading group that was going to look at queer indigenous studies, so I put the topic on hold in anticipation of the insight that reading and group discussion would provide. And, sure enough, it did.

(What follows is heavily influenced by having read and discussed excerpts from Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, but in a way that makes it hard to point to specific page numbers. So, this is both a blanket citation and a blanket disclaimer that he may not think about this the same way I do. It might be more accurate to say, like those old anti-drug commercials: This is my brain on Morgensen.)

It seems clear that “tribe” in online contexts works in much the same way as it does in other white folks’ appropriations of nativeness. It gestures toward an untainted, pre-civilizational past upheld as pure and superior, which seems like a positive representation until you realize that it relies on a primitivizing logic and on actual indigenous people disappearing into the past.  (Which I wish advocates of a certain mascot on my campus could comprehend.)

Because of what I’ve read recently, in terms of appropriations of nativeness I’m thinking primarily about gay, lesbian, and transgender social movement uses of indigenous histories of gender and sexual diversity here (I’m not aware of any bisexual organizing using this tactic, but I’m happy to be corrected), but one of the AIR-L contributors mentioned the use of Native American imagery to demonstrate masculinist pride and martial prowess through things like “Apache” helicopters.

Like these uses, the use of “tribe” or “neo-tribe” to describe online forms of social organization both grounds a way of being in a historical, “natural” and so uncontestable, precedent and perpetuates the subordination of the both the thing it defends and the precedent.

How does that work? Well, in saying that “tribal” groupings are legitimate because they have a precedent in real, live indigenous people somewhere, this logic perpetuates the idea that such groupings need a justification rather than being legitimate on their own merits. This is then advocacy for “premodern” forms of social organization without contesting the ways “modern” forms of organization—bureaucracy, say—are considered inherently good. This perfectly demonstrates Morgensen’s contention that “impersonating indigeneity and believing in colonial modernity are noncontradictory acts” (p. 17).

On top of this, and more importantly, the valorization of supposedly spontaneous and natural ways of being aligns nativeness with nature rather than culture and constructs indigenous peoples as the antithesis of civilization, a logic which played a major role in justifying dispossession and genocide in the first place. It relies on a primitivist—or, indeed, primitivizing—logic. So much for this being a sign of respect.

Morgensen discusses this dynamic as establishing “anthropological authority to determine Native truth while leaving their desire for it unexamined” (p. 15). People decide what indigeneity means and then either want to eliminate it or celebrate it (and mourn its elimination), eliding their own process of construction and not questioning the logic that makes nativeness a screen for those anxieties or desires.

But I want to take a step further.

Even if we stop using these loaded tribal logics and languages, we have to also examine the desire for historical legitimacy itself. On one hand, that is, to be able to point to people who have done things differently disrupts the naturalization of contemporary norms—“it doesn’t have to look this way, look, someone else did it differently!” Authenticity begets authorization. But this slides very quickly into resting the legitimacy of one’s difference on there being a precedent rather than making a robust argument for difference as inherently legitimate.

This contention perhaps sounds familiar, as this is the same structure by which people claim homosexuality is biological to legitimize it. What Shannon Weber calls biological homonormativity, in using nature as a cover, supports the idea that no one would ever choose same-sex desire if they weren’t compelled, and in the same way the appropriative logic of tribal authenticity relies on a belief that collective organization is lesser but legitimate because “pure.”

And instead of participating in these logics, I think the arguments in favor of diverse forms of human community need to be much queerer.

This isn’t, of course, to say that indigenous folks can’t or shouldn’t make arguments about authenticity and authority with regard to their own cultures and histories in order to make claims to things like land. I’m not legislating a queer approach to everything or for everyone, because it’s not for everything. (Also, it would be radically unqueer to do so.) Queer is a screwdriver, and sometimes you need a hammer; not recognizing that will lead to trying to screw everything when sometimes it needs nailing.

But I am arguing that appropriating “tribe” to legitimize collectivist forms of organization is not only racist, primitivizing, and reproductive of the crimes of colonization—which would be enough reason to dispense with it—but it’s actually not even productive for the purpose to which it’s set.

As part of my work of professionalization, I have signed up for table of contents alerts for various journals in my areas of interest so that I can keep up on recent work. One such alert came through recently for the journal Sexualities, and Shannon Weber’s piece What’s wrong with be(com)ing queer? Biological determinism as discursive queer hegemony caught my eye.

Though I think the piece does some oversimplifying, I was struck by the feeling that it would be great to teach with–uncomplicated being good for undergrads and then I can complicate in lecture. (Inability to exercise my educational creativity muscles strikes again)

I was thinking, in particular, of starting class discussion with the statement that has become the title of this blog post: Homosexuality is a choice. I think this will be quite a jolt, given, as Weber describes, “the success that the Christian Right in particular has had in framing the debate over LGBTQ rights: telling queer people that they are not normal and do not deserve equal rights because their behavior is chosen and sinful” (687).

To say non-heterosexuality is a choice has come to be tightly linked to an antigay position, that is, and correspondingly saying that it is innate has come to be the only politically acceptable pro-gay position.

As Weber points out, following Jennifer Terry, the idea that sexuality is biologically determined positions it as something one cannot control (680). First, this participates in the same logic that stereotypes non-heterosexuals as sexually out of control—manifesting as homosexuals will always hit on every person of their “same” sex or as bisexuals are slutty.

Moreover, it participates in the same logic by which non-heterosexual desire is seen as a bad thing—that no one would choose it freely. As Weber put is, this is “an always already defensive position that argues not for sexual agency and freedom, but an acceptance of same-sex desire only inasmuch as it cannot be cured away into reformed heterosexuality” (682) which takes me back to beating my dead horse on the trouble with tolerance.

Weber speaks of strategic essentialism in LGBT politics (682), but I don’t actually think it is strategic. When you talk to an average person on the street, most of them believe that whatever orientation they have was innate—I was present recently for a round of “gayer than thou” where people were competing to have been gay earlier, but was too tired to intervene and point out their essentialism, too tired even to put my finger on why the whole thing irritated me. And if that bunch, who has read their weight in queer theory, can do that, it’s pretty pervasive.

But of course, it absolutely is a choice. I am agnostic on where desires come from, but once we have them we have to figure out what they mean and what we are going to do with them.

Even if we could prove that homosexuality was genetic and occurred in a certain percent of every population throughout time (which would be a benign variation like eye color, incidentally), how people responded to those desires in themselves and others has varied wildly. How people have made sense of such desires (as holy, as sin, as act, as identity, as mutable, as immutable) has also varied wildly, as is has how people have perceived nonnormative configurations of relationship (as failed heterosexuality, as nonsexual companionship, as sexual).

People can perfectly well choose to never act on their desires. They can choose their religion over it. (Which, incidentally, as Weber points out, using the framework of religion as a way to make cases for same sex rights is pretty clever: you’re not born locked into a religion forever, you can choose a different one, but if you have one it is a very important part of your identity that many would find it appalling  to try to force someone to change–and it would definitely be unconstitutional if the state did it.) Choosing to suppress rather than act on desire makes a lot of people miserable. But it makes other people less miserable than feeling like they’re sinning. Either way, it’s a choice.

This way of thinking of non-normative configurations as a valid choice rather than only defensible as uncontrollable is a useful framework. Weber gives the example of the way biological essentialism frequently attends narratives about transgender status, critiquing how this, like biological essentialism around same-sex desire, disallows the experience of an identity that has changed over time.

Weber stops with pointing out the trouble of essentialism, but it occurs to me that the framework of choice is also useful here: “I want my body to look like this; I want to be perceived in X way” produces a more livable life than “I can’t control this and am forced to change my body because I really am this on the inside but I was born in the wrong body.” (Though I acknowledge that the latter self-narration is often a strategically necessary essentialism for those who want access to medical body modification.)

We might contest the system that produces the self-loathing of the ex-gay or the sense that having certain wants or desires means anything about a sex or gender category to which one belongs, but people choose how to respond. It’s a sane response to an insane system.

What I’d want to get my students to see is that it’s a choice. It’s not an entirely free choice, of course, because it’s constrained by the socially available options. But it’s a choice people can make how they want to respond to those constraints. The world I want to live in is not one in which we all have to accept that the non-heterosexual can’t control it and tolerate them, but rather to open up the things that are socially possible to choose.