Alexander Cho on "Media Queered"
Media Queered: Visibility and Its Discontent
Reviewed by Alexander Cho
Media Queered: Visibility and Its Discontents, an anthology edited by Kevin G. Barnhurst, explores issues of queer representation and visibility in the media. Interested parties, however, should take note: this is not a primer on queer theory and the media, nor is it a reader with excerpts from canonical pieces in queer Media Studies. This volume instead fills an interesting if ambiguous niche. It is a collection of very specific original essays that interrogate a variety of topics including the representation of gay men and straight women as couples in mainstream Hollywood cinema, the role of the LGBT press in shaping mainstream discourse of news coverage of queer issues, and Israeli gay men’s consumption of “lesbigay” media.
Barnhurst, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, assembled this anthology from new work presented and discussed by two dozen queer media scholars in a seminar he taught in 2004. Barnhurst wanted to present a collection of “road-tested” pieces that had been workshopped in a collaborative environment rather than a compilation of book chapters vetted only by an editor.
The collection reflects this collaborative agency most notably in its organization. Essays are divided into four very broad thematic sections: historical media practices, the significance of the “professional” queer media maker, issues of popular representation of queer people, and the importance of new media in queer peoples’ lives. Each section has an introduction written by a scholar who collaborated in the seminar. Additionally, there are several interludes that adopt a non-scholar’s voice. The most notable of these are a collection of short autobiographical pieces by lesbian and gay news professionals, and a reminiscence of mid-century queer politics and activism by, oddly, Studs Terkel. These interludes are the most significant sign that this anthology attempts to paint a picture of queer media from several different angles. Indeed, it is refreshing to read about the experiences of media makers and other non-scholars both inside and outside of the LGBTQ media niche; this inclusion is perhaps the anthology’s most original component.
The anthology has several gems that are useful both in a Media Studies context and for those interested in queer theory and its relationship to mass media. Lisa Henderson’s essay, “Queer Visibility and Social Class,” is a smart critique of the intertwined nature of queer relationships, upper-middle class values, and tales of upward class mobility as portrayed on US television, from The L Word to The George Lopez Show. Henderson’s discussion of “queer therapeutics,” in which TV queers hammer out their relationships on screen vis-à-vis normative middle-class logics that emphasize strict gender roles and reproductive potential, is particularly perceptive.
Han N. Lee’s essay, “Queering Race in Cyberspace,” outlines the blatant discourses of race—and racism— within gay male social spaces online. Lee successfully traces the invisible norms of whiteness in dating and hookup sites such as Gay.com, and he cleverly analyzes the conflation of food terms (rice, potato, bean, cream, coffee, chocolate) with racial identity. This essay would find a happy home in any class in Media Studies that wants to address race and sexuality on the Internet or any class in Queer Studies that wants to address online sociality and race.
Edward Alwood’s essay, “A Gift of Gab: How Independent Broadcasters Gave Gay Rights Pioneers a Chance to Be Heard,” is an important intervention in pre-Stonewall queer media history. Alwood describes 1950s and ’60s-era appearances by “acknowledged homosexuals” on independent radio and television stations in Los Angeles and New York City, and highlights the repressive attitudes of the time as well as the efforts of early activists to strive for acceptance. A poignant account of twenty-two-year-old Dale Olson’s 1954 appearance on a talk show about homosexuality on Los Angeles’ independent KTTV—and his immediate layoff from his job as a result—is a stark reminder of an era in which it was not unusual for queers on television to have their faces blurred or rendered in shadow for fear of repercussion.
The theoretical conceit Barnhurst organizes his anthology around is the recent upsurge of queer visibility in popular culture as a “paradox,” “spurring tolerance through harmful stereotyping, diminishing isolation at the cost of activism, trading assimilation for equality.” Barnhurst is invoking the critique of the normative, a major concern for contemporary queer theory, though he does not explicitly use this language, nor do most of his contributors. The almost total absence of the term “heteronormativity,” for example, is striking, given that foundational texts (such as Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal ) were already in circulation at the time of the book’s genesis in 2004. Nevertheless, readers who are invested in the relationship between the queer and the normal will find rich material that focuses on concrete case studies of media and representation largely absent from more theoretical texts. This volume ultimately addresses questions such as: “How does the media perpetuate a logic of homonormativity?”; “How are normative queers shaped in terms of race, class, and sex?”; and “What are the historical underpinnings of normative queer representation in the media?”
The anthology’s glaring omission—which seriously calls into question its a priori assumption of contemporary queer “visibility” in the media—is a discussion of transgender issues. Not one of the thirteen chapters here is devoted to transgender people or representation. This absence is indicative of the pitfall of training one’s lens on normative representations: one runs the risk of perpetuating the same myopic focus on representations of those normative bodies that one wishes to debunk. That the book doesn’t appear to have a problem discussing problems of invisibility, as in Gavin Jack’s essay on male sex work, “A Case of Whorephobia?”, makes the book’s exclusion of trans people even more perplexing.
Ultimately, it is a tricky proposition to develop an anthology under the broad rubric of “queer media studies.” A more focused anthology, such as Queer Online (2007) or Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin’s The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict (1997), can create a rich, multifaceted picture of a particular media phenomenon or practice without running the danger of major omissions. Media Queered has many outstanding chapters, especially when viewed as important elaborations on the media’s role in perpetuating a queer normativity, but the anthology as a whole seems curiously scattered.