John Sloop. The Sage Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publication. 2006.
If I had been asked a decade and a half ago to provide an overview of the state of critical studies of gender/sexuality and media—especially as engaged by communication scholars—I could have written a very short essay focusing on a very small number of readings of representations of (homo)sexuality in mass mediated texts. Moreover, I would have discovered that rarely did these readings interrogate gender/sexuality theoretically or critically. Indeed, as Yep (2004) has recently observed, the field of communication studies in general has long operated under an assumed heteronormativity, given that the first essay focusing on sexuality was published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech as late as 1976. While the number of published essays increased throughout the following decade, each unquestioningly assumed a stable and essential notion of gay and lesbian identity and subjectivity. The dominant political purpose of each was to argue for social acceptance of members of an imagined and unified gay community.
It was not until the 1990s that communication scholars, largely following the theoretical grounding supplied in founding texts by theorists such as Foucault (1978), Butler (1990), and Sedgwick (1990), produced a body of queer scholarship that looked not only at the ways sexuality was represented in mass mediated texts but also how mass mediated discourses were productive of—that is, worked to create or constitute—gendered/sexualized subjectivities. The political purpose of such work moved from assimilation or acceptance to a broadening of sex/gender possibilities as well as an understanding of the ways sex/ gender is performed and constrained. I should note here that while there are numerous scholarly works that quantitatively track the appearance of gays, lesbians, and queers in mass mediated texts, I will maintain my focus on those that criticize and problematize dominant representations of queered gender/sexuality as well as the norms of, and constraints on, gender/sexual subjectivity.
Although Yep (2004) argues that the critical condition of the study of gender/sexuality in communication studies continues to be relatively poor, I want to suggest that the intersection of media and gender/sexuality studies has been enriched primarily because gay and lesbian characters have become staples of prime-time television just as queer theories have become prominent. I take “queer scholarship” to refer in its broadest sense to work that, as Warner (1993) puts it, “rejects a minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal” (p. xxvi). Such work “has the effect of pointing out a wide field of normalization, rather than simple intolerance, as the site of violence” and serves as “a way of cutting against mandatory gender divisions” (p. xxvi). Simply put, assuming the performativity of gender/sexuality, queer scholarship works against the ways in which gender/sexuality is disciplined ideologically and institutionally and works toward a culture in which a wider variety of genders/sexualities might be performed.
As I discuss in the conclusion, there clearly are a number of limitations to recent work in critical communication studies inspired by queer theory, yet the work has become more complex and nuanced, offering insights into cultural meanings and into the production and reproduction of those meanings. In this chapter, I describe some of the theoretical assumptions that guide contemporary studies of gender, sexuality, and media. Second, I divide recent critical scholarship into three broad areas of research—studies focusing on ideological clawback (i.e., constraint and confinement), studies dealing with the political ambivalence of mediated texts, and studies focusing on politically progressive readings of mass mediated texts. Finally, I will outline some of the limitations of work in media/gender/sexuality studies and will suggest potential critical pursuits in this area.
Since the early 1990s, studies of gender/sexuality within the field of communication largely have been influenced and shaped by the turn to theories of discourse and gender performativity. Indeed, if one were to look at critical work in the area of gender/sexuality studies from the 1980s, the dominant paradigm would begin with the common grounding assumption of a fairly nonproblematic distinction between gender and sex in which sex refers to the body’s male or female genitalia and gender refers to the socially constructed meanings applied to the body within a given culture. Within such a framework, sexuality is simply tied to the types of bodies toward which one is attracted relative to one’s own body. When two people of the same sex engage in sexual activities, the act is homosexual (and one who prefers such sex is a homosexual) and, of course, pursuing sex with those of the opposite sex is heterosexual behavior between heterosexuals.
In 1990, the publication of Butler’s Gender Trouble in effect brought about a paradigm shift that made it impossible not only to separate the categories and questions of gender/sex and sexuality clearly but also to identify sexuality in terms of distinct categories. Arguing that gender must be seen as “performative,” as always already emerging as a recitation of cultural norms, Butler in some sense deconstructed the sex-gender binary, arguing in effect that sex is always already gendered. That is, not only does the material, physical body have meaning and matter only as it is understood through cultural discourses and sanctions, but the individual’s understanding of self and acts of self-discipline are largely influenced by the preexisting discursive structure of gender that acts through the behavior of others working with similar understandings. To be sure, Butler was not denying that the body is material nor that an individual body’s organic structure/networks influence and/or limit behaviors (i.e., she is not a “social constructionist” properly speaking). She was arguing that each body—irrespective of its constraints and limits—is always understood, influenced, and encouraged to operate within the parameters of a given temporal-geographic-discursive culture.
As a result, research and criticism concerning sexuality over the last decade and a half is not easily—if at all—separable from research focusing on gender because the very meaning of gender implies an assumption about sexuality. For example, given that we live in a heteronormative culture, to say that one is performing capably as a man assumes that one is sexually attracted to those who are performing properly as women. A man who is not sexually attracted to women is suspect as a man precisely because he is not properly performing his gender. Or, to make the point differently, if one decides to alter one’s gender surgically, it makes little heteronormative sense to do so unless the ultimate sexual orientation one will transition into is a heterosexual one. To be clear, this is not to say, first, that people do not make vernacular distinctions between gender and sexuality— of course they do. Second, it is also not to say that a critical study cannot separate gender and sexuality—focus can be, and has been, placed on either (e.g., one could study representations of men and women without explicit reference to sexuality or one could study masculinity and femininity as concepts removed from men and women and instead performed differently by either). It is to say that if one accepts the assumptions of gender performativity—and this is certainly the case of the largest portion of the critical landscape in contemporary communication studies—one finds that claims about representations of the performance of sexuality necessarily have implications for the cultural meanings of gender (and vice versa). These implications are not always manifest within a given essay, but often they are.
Major Critical Perspectives on Gender/Sexuality and Media
With these theoretical assumptions in mind, critics interested in gender/sexuality and mass mediated texts have approached their task from different angles. The ultimate purpose of gender/sexuality studies seems to be similar among these projects (i.e., an expansion of accepted ways to perform gender/sexuality, an erosion of patriarchal heteronormativity), but critics vary their focus on a continuum stretching from an emphasis binding ideological constraints to an emphasis on progressive and liberatory parodic performances. In the following sections, I group essays in three categories— from essays that emphasize the way gender/ sexuality are ideologically contained, to work emphasizing the way audiences can read some texts as both/either liberatory or constraining, to those emphasizing progressive or fluid understandings of gender/ sexuality, as the scholarship discussed below indicates.
Gender/Sexuality and Ideological Clawback
Far and away the dominant focus media critics have taken when it comes to studies of gender/sexuality has been on the ways in which contemporary representations have been constrained or “held in place” rather than on the ways in which texts offer progressive representations or facilitate liberatory readings. While there are a variety of ways of discussing constraint, my tendency has been to draw upon Fiske and Hartley’s (1978) notion of “ideological clawback” (pp. 86-87). They suggest that mass mediated texts, for a variety of reasons, function to “claw back,” or discipline, meanings that fall outside of dominant ideology: first, in the simple terms of discursive intelligibility, any message must fit within the parameters of the audience’s understanding of the world. Hence, in their example, when one watches a “nature” show, the host of the show often anthropomorphizes animals, giving their actions “human” meanings and human motives (pp. 86-87). Similarly, and directly related to questions of gender/sexuality, anthropologist Zuk (2002) has criticized numerous “public scientists” for the ways they provide human sexual desires and human subject positions to the behavior of animals—often for political purposes—irrespective of the incommensurability of the meanings of human and animal behaviors. Fiske and Hartley (1978) also argue that mass mediated texts in a capitalist economy clawback transgressive or oppositional meanings because it is in the financial interests of producers to gain the largest possible audience. As Condit (1989) observes, mass media outlets do “regressive” or conservative ideological work simply “by addressing the dominant audience that also constitutes the public” (p. 112).
In general, those critics focusing on constraint are not operating from the assumption that constraint works to maintain stereotypes that keep gays and lesbians from presenting their “true selves.” Rather, having taken the “performative turn,” their readings understand constraint to be the very possibility of meaning. That is, mass mediated texts hold in place representations that provide relatively stable—yet problematic— subject positions for gays and lesbians. These are part of the material from which they are understood and come to understand themselves. Further, this focus on constraint is meant to be progressive and enabling. By explaining or underlining the ways in which—and the needs for which— representations/identities are stabilized, such work simultaneously makes their ultimate instability visible or transparent and thereby illustrates “new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes of hierarchical binarisms” (Butler, 1990, p. 185). Critics outline the ways in which ideological constraint operates precisely to encourage the creation of other possibilities, other imaginary spaces of identity.
In communication studies, media criticism of this type has covered a wide range of mass media and mediated texts. For example, among a number of critical studies of film, three serve as strong examples of the ways in which potentially progressive representations of gays and lesbians are drawn back, constrained in ways that reflect heteronormative grids of intelligibility. Evans (1998), for example, argues—countering many liberatory readings given to Butler’s work—that drag operates in both The Crying Game and The Birdcage to rearticulate male gay sexuality in very traditional ways and femininity in regressive ways, rather than in the progressive/ nontraditional ways seen by other critics. For Evans, because we have—post-Butler—come to think of drag as necessarily progressive, consumers are taking in very conservative images in the name of liberation. Second, Nakayama’s (1994) analysis of Showdown in Little Tokyo investigates the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in a text that could have been and was read by some as being progressive on all grounds. Instead, Nakayama suggests that the film recenters white heterosexual masculinity and reconstructs Asian masculinity along conservative or traditional lines. Finally, in an essay combining traditional textual criticism and readings of tertiary texts, Brookey and Westerfelhaus (2002) argue that the “extratext” included on the DVD of the film Fight Club worked purposefully to constrain or discipline homoerotic and homosocial readings which the film encouraged. That is, while the original film was clearly open to ambiguous readings of the two male lead characters, the DVD included both reviewers and commentary by actors and the director that explicitly argued against queered readings. In each of these readings, critics detail the ways in which texts that potentially allowed for queered or homoerotic readings were disciplined back into a heteronormative frame. In explaining the disciplinary process, the critic encourages readers to undermine that very process and re-queer the text.
This process of ideological clawback takes place in gay media outlets as well as mainstream ones. In her important analysis of representations of the gay male habitus constructed in The Advocate—a magazine oriented toward gay consumers—Sender (2001) suggests that heteronormative understandings of gay males are reified even within the pages of a so-called gay magazine. By focusing on a site created/designed for and by gay consumers, Sender highlights the processes through which economic pressures and ideological interpellation function to encourage gay consumers to write themselves into confined understandings of their own lives.
Prime-time television has been an especially rich area of study through which critics have examined and explained the process of ideological discipline and constraint. This is especially important critical work if only because mass media producers have patted themselves on the back repeatedly as a result of the increasing number of gay characters on prime time television. That is, while earlier criticism could often simply point to the “invisibility” of gay characters on television and the homophobic representations of those that did exist, more recent work has to grapple with readings of gay and lesbian characters in a context in which “visibility” alone is being celebrated as liberatory.
Two gay/lesbian prime-time markers on mainstream television most often cited during this period were the coming-out episode of the situation comedy Ellen and the long-running success of Will and Grace. Using a Foucauldian framework, Dow (2001) provided a particularly insightful read not only of Ellen as text but also of the discourse that surrounded the show and the event. Dow argues that while the public “confessions” of Ellen worked overtly through a discourse in which she was able to express “truth” about her sexuality (as if it were essential to be uncovered and disclosed), the discourse itself implicitly produced mainstream and safe meanings for lesbianism. In part, then, the discourse surrounding the show was productive of a safely assimilated meaning for lesbianism, but it also—and importantly—personalized Ellen’s coming out, curtailing the political meaning of the event to the personal.
In similar fashion, Battles and Hilton-Morrow (2002) argued that Will and Grace ultimately reaffirmed heteronormative culture through its employment of conservative situation comedy norms—norms that were necessary because of television’s need for repetition and predictability. Not only do Battles and Hilton-Morrow argue that the program equates gayness with a lack of masculinity, but they suggest that by infantilizing the most potentially subversive characters and emphasizing the characters’ interpersonal relationships over their connection to the larger social world (paralleling Dow’s, 2001, argument), the show ultimately understands these individual characters according to the preexisting assumptions of heteronormative culture, undermining their potential liberatory influence.
Shugart (2003) provided a more detailed explanation of the heteronormative framing of Will and Grace by arguing that while the gay male/heterosexual female friendship has become a stock coupling in contemporary mass mediated texts, the political valence of this coupling is mixed at best. On the one hand, it has provided mainstream visibility for gay men; on the other, this dynamic is popular precisely because it fits snugly within existing ideological understandings of male-female relations familiar from situation comedies. Shugart suggests that this particular dynamic largely undermines its progressive potential because it reproduces traditional patriarchal privilege for the male. Shugart details the commonalities of these texts and the way in which the relationship between the two characters consistently recenters the male, blunting the representation of homosexuality and gay male identity.
Although I realize the importance of all mediated representation, I hold news reports (regardless of the medium) to be an especially vital arena of study because news outlets claim, and are often granted, the mantle of objectivity in their accounts of people and events. While little of the work discussed here relies explicitly on Warner’s (2002) work on public and counterpublic spheres, much of it shares the idea that there is a variety of so-called counterpublics that resist or operate differently than a dominant public. Moreover, as Warner notes, a vernacular or queer counterpublic is only able to “circulate up to a point, at which it is certain to meet intense resistance,” being clawed back into dominant understandings of sexuality (p. 424). I will discuss work focusing on counterpublic resistance; the research here is interested in the ways the “intense resistance—both intentional and implicit” (p. 424) of mass mediated discussions of gender/sexuality issues contains those meanings.
Criticism focusing on news coverage of gender/sexuality issues ranges from discussions of particular policy/scientific debates to coverage concerning particular individuals. On the most general level, Smith and Windes (1997) argued that when progay and antigay political positions are covered in news programs, both positions—albeit it in different ways—ultimately work to reaffirm static representations of gays and lesbians. Gross (2001) argues in Up From Invisibility that both entertainment and news media maintain conventional understandings of the lives of gay men and lesbians and have proven unable to represent the complex richness of gay identity. Thompson (2002) in Mommy Queerest argued that lesbian mothers either met invisibility and erasure from mainstream news coverage or were represented within traditional and constrained understandings of lesbian behavior and lesbian appearance. In an investigation of news discourse surrounding Rosie O’Donnell’s coming out and her simultaneous emergence as an advocate for gay parenting and gay adoption, Shugart (2005) suggests that O’Donnell’s political agenda was largely silenced and contained because she was situated within conventional discourses of motherhood and childhood. More recently, Vavrus (2002), in a particularly insightful essay, argued that news coverage of stay-at-home dads consistently framed both the story about the impetus for the fathers’ decisions to stay home and the work they performed in the domestic sphere through a heterosexual frame, reinscribing patriarchal privilege. Again, a story and behavior that could potentially challenge both gender and sexuality worked to reinscribe notions of femininity, masculinity, and the proper accompanying gender/sexuality.
News reports and narratives concerning individuals also have repeatedly worked to reify dominant understandings of sexuality and its link with proper gender performance. For example, Morris (2002) argues that, while suspending the question on J. Edgar Hoover’s lived sexual practice, a public moral panic concerning sex crimes and sexuality during Hoover’s rise to power functioned to make everyone’s sexual behavior suspect. As a result, regardless of his actual sexuality, suspicions of Hoover’s being homosexual forced him to pass as straight, ultimately reifying the gay/straight understandings of behavior and the accompanying valences. Both the news coverage of Hoover and his own reported behaviors provide evidence of the strength of heteronormative expectations in shaping bodily performance and public discourse.
My own work has focused directly on the ways news coverage of individual cases ideologically reinscribes both gender and sexual expectations. In a variety of case studies, I (Sloop, 2004) criticized the ways transgendered individuals (e.g., Brandon Teena, Calpernia Addams), surgically altered individuals (e.g., David Reimer), lesbians (k.d. lang) and masculine females (i.e., Janet Reno) have been represented in news coverage. Again, in each case, I look at the ways both gender and sexuality are met with the strong gaze of heteronormative assumptions, shaping public understandings of each case and of proper behavior at large. In a metalevel essay exploring similar grounds, Squires and Brouwer (2002) argue that news analysis fixes “the identities of passers” (both race and gender passers) along heteronormative and class lines. They argue in great detail that gender passers (i.e., transgender individuals) find themselves understood through a news lens which understands their “true” gender as proven or supported by their (heterosexual practices.
Finally, media scholars also have focused on the multiple ways in which scientists and scientific organizations have covered gender and sexuality. Most notably, Patton has written several books that have shown in part how news media spokespersons describe and discuss the science of the AIDS epidemic and the victims of AIDS. Not surprisingly perhaps, such news coverage, Patton (1990) argues, represents AIDS as linked to promiscuous and unhygienic behaviors by homosexual men.
Debates about the gay gene and the history of gay science also have been fertile ground for critical queer work. A number of scholars outside of communication studies have talked about the ways public science—in debates on animal behavior or the gendered brain—produce and reproduce a bigendered, heteronormative culture by understanding or framing all nonheterosexual, bigendered behavior as an aberration. Brookey (2001, 2002) has taken a strong rhetorical focus to the ways in which the “gay gene” controversy has played out publicly by investigating the ways such debates frame homosexuality as genetic and as an “either heterosexual or homosexual” issue. He suggests that this misguided coverage creates a rhetorical situation in which debates over sexuality avoid the grounds on which one might argue that antigay discrimination could be seen as a choice regardless of the meaning of the behavior itself. Hence, a scientific logic that might have been meant to help gays and lesbians is reframed as an argument which crystallizes the basis of homosexuality as a genetic structure and public argument into a no-win situation.
A number of examples of criticism illustrate the ways mass media coverage works, in a seemingly natural way, to reinforce dominant understandings of gender/sexuality and the links between gender and sexuality. While ideological movement does indeed take place, it is necessarily slow because commercial discourses function most effectively when they reflect the logic of common sense. If we take seriously the idea that the discourses about gender/ sexuality help reaffirm the standards of performativity under which we all live, shaping our understandings of our own behaviors and identity, then the task of outlining the relentlessness of ideological constraint is a vital one.
Ambivalence and Gender/Sexuality
A second body of scholarship focuses on the ways representations of gays, lesbians, and queers have functioned in politically ambivalent ways—both stabilizing and destabilizing dominant meanings. This section on ambivalent meanings is not intended to point to scholarship on bodies or identities which are ambiguous (unrecognizable gender or puzzling sexuality), although we could certainly profit from more scholarship of this type. Rather, the critical work in this section suggests that while representations of gays and lesbians may indeed be constrained by the demands of performative recognition and capitalist appeal, these texts and representations encourage a politically progressive transformation of dominant meanings of gays, lesbians, and queers in other ways.
A particularly strong example of criticism that deals with political ambivalence is Asen’s (1998) reading of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography. Focusing on the framing of these models and the genre in which these photographs most reasonably fit, Asen argues that because these photographs of male nudes are framed with techniques of the classical genre of the nude and are simultaneously framed as erotic, the photographs themselves are open to being read both through a lens of artistic appreciation and through a lens of male sexual desire (both male and female desire of male bodies). As Asen suggests, the intersection of the classical style with erotic content provides an overall interpretive frame that allows readers to easily understand the text in either politically progressive or artistically constrained ways.
In a similar vein, although more closely connected with economic rather than aesthetic concerns, Sender (1999) provides a rich critical look at “gay window dressing.” She focuses on print advertisements that she argues are designed to be read (and in fact are read) ambivalently. On the one hand, the models can be read through a heteronormative frame in which they are assumed to be heterosexual (and engaging in heterosexual behavior); on another, they are read through a gay/lesbian/queer frame with the models understood as gay or lesbian. Relying on focus group readings of a variety of ads by both heterosexual and gay/lesbian consumers, Sender argues that advertisers respond to the economic incentive of multiple consumers by encouraging products to be read differently by different groups. The advertisements are designed to be read differently by individual readers rather than ambiguously by everyone so that homophobic consumers do not associate the product with gay values. In effect, the advertisements function as heteronormative for some consumers while they may be read transgressively by others.
Gross’s (1993) discussion of the ethics and politics of outing in Contested Closets was, at least implicitly, both a challenge to stabilizing understandings of identity and a critique of the ways in which identity gets stabilized through outing. In the book Gross notes that “an ethic of honesty” (and standards of journalism) suggest that individuals should represent their “authentic selves” to the world. Simultaneously, however, gay individuals are often targets of discrimination when they are outed as homosexual. As Gross works through the ethics of outing and the ways it works as a challenge to journalistic practices, individual privacy, and community accountability, he simultaneously offers a problematization of the assumptions that underlie outing. In short, if we read identity as queer rather than as gay/lesbian, then outing’s assumption of an authentic self is a constricted view of identity rather than a view of the self as transitional. Hence, while the politics of outing is controversial regardless of how we understand identity, the assumptions that undergird most discussions of it are themselves somewhat constraining, as outing reinforces gay identity.
This same dynamic regarding queered vs. stabilized identities (and the turn toward queered readings) is paralleled in Erni’s (1998) critique of the television coverage of Michael Jackson’s first pedophilia case. Using the essay as a way to open up “queer media studies” and relying on Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” (1993), Erni (1998) is interested in understanding both the politically progressive possibilities offered by news coverage of individuals like Jackson and the politically regressive ways that news coverage continues to work. In effect, Erni (1998) argues that while the pre-charge coverage of Jackson was politically progressive in that Jackson’s behavior was un-recognizable through standard heteronormative frames (i.e., he was neither traditionally heterosexual nor homosexual; his desires seemed to have no particular age framing), once charges of pedophilia were raised, the queered Jackson was then easily moved back into traditional and disciplined frames of understanding. What was once queered became disciplined through a heteronormative lens. While noting the heteronormative frame employed in mass mediated texts, Erni (1998) goes on to consider ways in which queer media criticism can work to persistently challenge heteronormative readings.
Another strong example of work that underlines both the constraining and progressive possibilities of mediated texts is Brookey’s (1996) “A Community like Philadelphia.” Brookey reads the film Philadelphia in a way that allows him to simultaneously critique the assimilationist representations of gays and to provide an example of a queered reading that undermines the basis of the assimilationist critique. Although Brookey agrees with numerous past readers of Philadelphia who argued that the film attempted to show the gay characters as “just like” the heterosexual characters (hence, promoting a politics of assimilation by not providing “authentic” homosexual experience or individuals), he goes to on provide a second critique by assuming—in performative fashion—that homosexuality (gays, lesbians) is itself a constructed identity. Like Erni, Brookey suggests that queer media critics need not only to understand how gender/sexuality is tied into heteronormative expectations but to create and disseminate messier ways of reading and, therefore, of being.
In her broad critique of gay visibility in the contemporary mediascape (from television shows to advertisements to film), Walters (2001) provides a textured reading of both the constricted (stereotypical) meanings associated with such visibility as well as the more complicated and progressive representations. In short, Walters argues that gay visibility is not necessarily progressive but neither is it necessarily contained by heteronormative meanings (see also Mayne, 2000). Walters illustrates the ways in which gay visibility offers openings for necessarily slow, semiotic changes. Similarly, investigating the growing visibility of male-male public kissing, Morris and I (Morris & Sloop, in press)—drawing in part on Walters—have discussed the ambivalent ways in which such visibility currently functions and have encouraged critics to take up the task of complicating the meaning of these images.
Progressive Possibilities and Gender/Sexuality
The final group of essays—and by far the smallest group—includes those that provide a celebration of dominant or mainstream representations of gender/sexuality to the degree that these representations are politically progressive or challenging to dominant ideology. What I find especially interesting about these essays is that, unlike the embrace by cultural studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s of liberatory readings of regressive texts by consumers, these critical readings understand the texts themselves as corrective, as encouraging counterhegemonic possibilities. Meyer (2003), for example, reads the construction and outing of gay character Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek as offering a useful and beneficial representation of a gay man for adolescent sexual identity formation. After praising the program for constructing Jack’s sexual identity as acceptable socially rather than in terms of political or legal rights, Meyer suggests that the show provides a strong template through which gay adolescents can learn to enact their own relationships and to develop their own sense of identity. Meyer relies on previous ethnographic work on gay men’s use of mediated texts, and the argument itself relies on the liberatory potential of the text rather than of the readings of it.
Offering a similar reading, Herman (2003) criticizes the thesis that dominant media outlets provide only images of assimilated gays and lesbians (or the gay habitus discussed by Sender, 2001) by looking at Bad Girls, a British drama set in a women’s prison. In part because of its prison setting, the show does not offer the expected read of lesbianism through the male gaze or within a heteronormative context; rather, Bad Girls offers a “gay market” semiotics of lesbianism, presenting it as normal, desirable, and possible. Herman notes that the show offers one model by which the meanings of gender and sexuality can be contested in public. While acknowledging that the show is ideologically constrained in other ways (e.g., in terms of race, especially, the show presents expected/stereotypical images), Herman celebrates the show for its counterhegemonic representations of sexuality.
One critic who has consistently offered celebratory readings of nonheteronormative texts is Cooper. With coauthor Pease, Cooper (2002) analyzes an episode of Ally McBeal as providing a progressive and liberatory interpretation of a transgendered character. After first acknowledging that transgendered characters historically have been presented through a comic frame which ensures that they ultimately reaffirm U.S. culture’s dominant heterosexism, assumption of biologically based gender, and a general intolerance of difference, Cooper and Pease investigate an episode of Ally McBeal in which a presurgical MTF (i.e., person transitioning from male to female) was murdered. The episode, by also featuring a (comic) funeral of a man who was bigoted toward short people, provides a narrative structure which ultimately indicts bigotry and intolerance and thus “resists heteronormative culture by exposing the inevitable limitations and consequences of the dominant discourse of heterosexual ideology” (p. 325).
Similarly, Cooper (2002) turned her focus to the Brandon Teena narrative found in the film Boys Don’t Cry and argues that the film works in multiple ways to challenge and disrupt heteronormativity, despite the fact that news articles about the case interpreted Brandon Teena through a traditional heteronormative lens. In short, Cooper argues that the text offers itself as a problematization of heteromasculinity, centers female masculinity, and blurs the boundaries of gender and sexuality. Countering multiple other readings of the film which investigated its ultimate folding into heteronormative expectations, Cooper notes that the film not only privileges gender diversity but also exposes sexual bigotry by highlighting the deadly consequences of prejudice.
Shugart (2001) reads the employment of gender parody on Ellen as challenging heteronormative gender roles. Shugart focuses on episodes in which Ellen parodies female performance (that is, each episode features a parody of femininity by a woman) and the ways straight and gay audiences read the show in order to suggest that the show worked to challenge both heteronormative understandings of females and the link between females and traditional femininity. In short, Ellen’s ability to parody femininity (and her inability to perform it properly) not only illustrates that femininity in general is a performance (hence, denaturalizing gender) but that it also renders the traditional male gaze arbitrary and ludicrous. In that way, the show undermines the erotic potential of Ellen’s feminine performance for heterosexual male viewers. For Shugart, when the audience sees this as emanating not only from a female subjectivity but also from a lesbian, it undermines the male gaze and implicitly deconstructs heterosexual desire and heterosexual vision.
While my own reading of each of these televisual/film texts would probably challenge the claims that each should be celebrated for antiheteronormative narratives, these critical readings at the very least function to offer “ideal” readings of texts, opening up the political imaginary to rethink what texts might mean and how culture might understand gender and sexuality differently. In each case, the critic suggests ways that texts can be constructed (e.g., through the juxtaposition of narratives, through parody) in ways that undermine heteronormativity and heterosexual expectation. As such, these critics move us to consider the creation of progressive readings and progressive texts.
Conclusion: Assessments and Future Directions
In Prime-Time Feminism, Dow (1996) argues that, regardless of the multiple meanings a text might provide to consumers, “criticism is not about discovering or reporting the meaning in a text. Rather, it becomes a performative activity that is, in some sense, dedicated to creating meaning” (pp. 3-4). While the critical works I have reviewed here may have a variety of different particular purposes and a variety of different starting assumptions, each loosely shares some underlying assumptions and political goals. In general, each would argue for an expansive definition of sexuality and sexual acts in which a larger variety of behaviors and identities (providing they are noncoercive) would be acceptable, marked, and rendered intelligible. Hence, and again in general, the underlying purpose of each criticism is to expand the variety of representations of sexuality that are acceptable. Given this loosely shared project, we, as a critical community (rather than as individual critics), need to reflect on a number of points.
Balancing Constraint and Liberation
First, in many early readings of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), scholars were fascinated by her brief argument that gender norms (hence, sexuality norms) could be challenged through parody and subversion. The ensuing arguments concerning drag and liberation reached such a peak (and so quickly) that Butler almost immediately toned down and clarified her claims in Bodies That Matter (1993), suggesting that critics needed to keep a strong focus on constraint because constraint offers the very possibility for meaning and because the cultural sanctions against nonheteronormative genders/sexualities were more powerful than she had initially argued. In communication and media studies, however, we rarely find the move to liberatory or celebratory readings. While critical readings of constraint can indeed function to loosen the bindings of sexuality, as scholars trained in the art of persuasion and change we may want to provide more focus not only on sites of liberation but on more expansive ways by which such arguments can be made. I would argue that we, as a community, need a stronger sense of balance in readings we provide.
The Politics of Visibility
Second, media critics—at least within communication studies—should give more careful consideration to the politics of visibility. While those interested in the relationship between mass mediated representations and gender/sexuality are of course interested in the question of visibility and the problematics of particular types of visibility, most of this work simply assumes—implicitly—that visibility is the first step toward progressive visibility. That is, when we do employ discussions of visibility, there is rarely a consideration that perhaps invisibility might be the better option. For example, although Dow (2001) discusses the politics and problematics of lesbian visibility in the case of Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out, she does not discuss the possibility of a politics of invisibility. As another example, in a review of critical work on media and gender/sexuality, Fejes and Petrich (1993) assume that invisibility is something to be worked against. However, as Butler (2004) recently reminds us, we should remain aware that at times, “there are advantages to remaining less than intelligible,” less than visible (p. 3). While it may seem contradictory for someone interested in mediated images to focus on the advantages of invisibility, there are moments and conditions under which invisibility and unintelligibility may be a progressive space for gays, lesbians, queers, and transgendered individuals. Although such a focus need not be the work of every individual critic, it should be more fully represented in the critical community as a whole.
Intersectionality Studies and Global Studies
Third, while most work on sexuality and mass mediated representations of sexuality also (and perhaps necessarily) discusses its links with gender, we remain a group that could work harder to highlight other intersections (e.g., to race, class, age, region). While this is perhaps a predictable critique, it is nonetheless a necessary one. While intersectional critiques are becoming more common in a wide range of work, they are not a strength of gender/sexuality studies. This issue is magnified in my mind not simply because of the relative absence of intersectionality but because quite often authors allow mainstream studies of white, middle-class characters to stand in universally for all comments about gender/sexuality. That is, while we clearly need understandings of gender/sexuality and its links with white middle-class U.S. identity, this is neither the totality of what is needed nor should it stand in as commentary for all representations of gender/sexuality. The best example of the richness of intersectionality in communication studies is Johnson’s (2003) Appropriating Blackness, but other notable exceptions include Ashcraft and Flores’s (2003) discussion of gender, class and sexuality in contemporary film, Erni’s (1998) read of the queering of Michael Jackson, Sender’s (2001) arguments concerning gay representation and class, Vavrus’s (2002) discussion of masculinity and domesticity, and Nakayama’s (1994) take on race and sexuality through an analysis of film.
Similarly, commitment to the notion that gender/sexuality has meaning only within culture necessitates greater effort to investigate their function beyond a U.S. context, where the majority of the studies discussed here are confined (for an exception, see Herman, 2003).
By including discussions of gender/sexuality and media studies in other national contexts (or across national boundaries), we will broaden our understandings of both the types of constraints that hold gender/sexuality in place as well as the ways in which other possibilities might be imagined.
Questioning the Stability of Identity
Fourth, one of the aspects of studies of gender/sexuality and media studies that most surprised me as I was reflecting for the purposes of this chapter is that, even in a critical context in which theories of performativity are assumed, there remains slippage between the understanding of identity assumed by performativity and the way it is often discussed in critical studies. That is, a theory of performativity necessarily queers any stable understanding of identity, but one gets the sense that, as a whole, we remain tied to stability. Often, a critical focus on constraint seems to implicitly suggest that it holds one back from the expression of a “true” identity (e.g., one passes as a straight man rather than expressing a true and essential homosexuality). But the discourses which constrain also set up the frames through which one performs an identity. Identity is always expressed through the frame of performativity. Focusing on constraint does not solely or simply serve the purpose of helping individuals express their “true” selves because we alter constraints to change the conditions of possibility through which identities may emerge. While I certainly understand the calls for what Prosser (1998) calls a politics of “home identities” (i.e., stable identity categories for those who desire them), we should productively interrogate the construction of those categories before endorsing the theory as a whole (pp. 13-15).
Queer Studies and Feminism
Finally, one of the ongoing struggles faced by critics and theorists of gender/sexuality and the media (for that matter, of anyone interested in questions of gender/ sexuality)—especially as such studies have become more queered and more engaged with issues of transgenderism and intersexuality—is the relationship between a queer project and particular brands of feminism. In Butler’s recent Undoing Gender (2004), she once again tackles the meanings and import of both gender and sexuality under the loose umbrellas of “feminism” and gender or queer studies. Most notably, Butler is interested in the tensions between queer criticism and those feminist projects that require or rely upon relatively clear gender/sexuality divisions (i.e., man/woman, hetero/bi/homosexual). Ultimately, Butler (2004) notes that the struggles that take place under these broad categories, as well as the meanings of the shared terms employed under them (sex, gender, sexuality), are ones that should be productively kept alive, “so that we might work theoretically and politically in broad coalitions. The lines we draw are invitations to cross over” (p. 203). Her point here, to my mind, is a powerful one: the tensions between feminism and queer studies are neither to be solved nor ignored. Rather, these tensions, and the questions they raise, are productive when used to continually focus and interrogate our terms. This lesson is one that needs to be learned by all, even those who are not necessarily inclined to think within both domains. Regardless of where one publishes or with whom one talks, consistently interrogating the terms and thinking about the challenges brought about by these tensions helps create strong work both theoretically and politically, opening new possibilities.