Should gay people seek to cultivate representations of a unified gay identity in the media, or is this counterproductive?
By Ross Horsley
Reading this statement, made by a homophobic New York school governor in 1992, I was incensed. "Stonewall!" I felt like screaming. "The Pink Paper, k.d. lang, the films of Gregg Araki!" I read through the governor's categories again. What about body language? Colour-coded handkerchiefs? Quiche? And what exactly was the difference between "clothing" and "dress-wear" anyway?
Suddenly questioning my own initial reaction, and imagining the steely-eyed gaze of Judith Butler, I sought to reconcile my emotional response with the revisionist perspectives of queer theory. In bracketing together a sixties riot, a certain newspaper, a popular singer, and a relatively obscure filmmaker, what did I want to achieve? In shouting out their names, what did I want to demonstrate? And why did I feel I was trying to protect something?
This essay will examine the ways in which theorists (and gay people) have grouped expressions of gay identity into a 'gay culture'. It will argue that the mass media is only capable of representing this fusion of diverse and eclectic elements as a single identity shared by all of its (gay) exponents, and ask whether gay people should seek to cultivate - or even participate in - such a process of representation. Is it beneficial to gay interests and society as a whole to propagate the notion of gay culture? Or must we, as queer theory might suggest, look beyond subdivisions of sexual identity if we are to make any positive progress?
The idea of gay people belonging to any kind of culture seems to upset the school governor quoted above because she presumes that, for a group to qualify as a culture, its members ought to share, in particular, visible characteristics such as traditional costume and cuisine. This is a rather superficial definition of culture, beyond which many writers have looked to propose much richer and more meaningful descriptions of the term.
Richard Williams (1976: 80) sees culture as "a particular way of life, whether of people, a period or a group", often (but not necessarily) growing out of "a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development". While the first part of this definition sounds deceptively simple, and the second somewhat grand, combined they provide a wide-reaching and useful picture. We may, for example, link certain foods with preparation rituals and religious festivities - both "ways of life" which carry cultural significance in terms of perceived history, symbolism and value systems. Other ways of life might include gymnastics competitions, the concept of money, or the idea that one should apologise for causing offence.
Through the notion of "ways of life", we can see how physical objects and acts are able to take on cultural meaning. Michel Foucault suggests that the physical act of homosexual sex, when categorized as a symptom of a particular condition by nineteenth-century medical practitioners, began to assume cultural characteristics: "The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology" (1976: 43). Foucault's allusion to a "type of life", with its similarities to Williams' "way of life", implies that this point in history marks the beginning of modern gay culture.
Discussing Foucault's thinking, David Halperin points out an even more explicit example of how a "specific non-normative sexual practice" can bring about cultural formation (1995: 101). He argues that the growing community of gay "leather-men" in 1970s San Francisco meant that fist-fucking and S/M sex (two actions associated with the leather image) "did not remain merely occasional or isolated practices but became linked to other expressions of subcultural development, including dress, patterns of life and work ... and ultimately the emergence of locally based and funded social and political groups" (1995: 101). Such cultural developments, he is saying, are the manifestation of sexual identity and, by extension, sexual activity - "the new sorts of things that gay men could do with their sexuality" (ibid.).
Noting, then, that the shared performance of sexual roles arguably forms the basis for a culture, we have begun to answer the question of what makes a gay culture possible. But it is unlikely that many gay people would want to say their entire way of life is founded on fisting, or that anyone would reduce their cultural identity to any simple sex act. So what other aspects of identity have theorists suggested might link gay people?
Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick claims that "the epistemology of the closet has given an overarching consistency to gay culture and identity" (1993: 46). This widely-accepted idea refers to the fact that, faced by similar social conditions, gay people share many of the same experiences and feelings, specifically those associated with 'coming out of the closet', or asserting their difference from the 'heterosexual norm'. Indeed, Margaret Cruikshank asserts that "the basis for a gay subculture is the perception of being different" (1992: 119). In her very positive account of the 'gay and lesbian liberation movement', she paints a portrait of a culture unified by its struggle against the mainstream, and celebrating the "loving bonds" between lesbian and gay "pioneers" (1992: 126). It is this image which many gay people would like to see represented in the mass media.
Instead, Larry Gross argues, the media portrays gay people as "weak and silly, or evil and corrupt" (1989: 137). His concern is that, "since the mass media play a major role in [the] process of social definition" (1989: 135), the negative stereotyping of gay people will hinder their acceptance by the majority of society. This notion presupposes two beliefs about audience reception: firstly, that all viewers will derive the same messages; secondly, that these will be accepted at face-value. Studies such as Ien Ang's Watching Dallas (1985) and Gauntlett and Hill's TV Living (1999) have demonstrated the critical awareness many audiences have of the media's sometimes limited methods of representation, but it does seem unhelpful to suggest that there is anything of particular value in repeated negative (or simply just overly repeated) portrayals of gay people. (Furthermore, Gross hints that media producers might even be able to use stereotypes in a more insidious and sinister way, by employing "popular" ones as "a code which they know will be readily understood by the audience, thus further reinforcing the presumption of verisimilitude while remaining 'officially' innocent of dealing with a sensitive subject" (1989: 135). The theory is interesting but would be difficult to examine.)
Possibly more convincing is Gross's related theory of "symbolic annihilation" (1989: 136). This states that, regardless of the nature of portrayal, gay lifestyles are undermined in the media by being simply ignored. Growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I recall very few representations of gay people on television, for instance. Those I did uncover (mostly in Channel 4's Out or late-night films) were something to cling onto and pore over, so fascinating was their novelty and apparently taboo status. Gross argues that this relative invisibility makes it difficult for gay people to validate their identity, there being not only a lack of identification- and comparison-points for gay audiences but also an imposing and constant barrage of purely heterosexual imagery.
In another article, Gross explores how this situation is perpetuated. His model (1998: 89) shows most media images of the majority being produced by the majority for the majority. Images of the minority are also mostly produced by the majority for the majority. A smaller number of images are produced by the minority, and most of these are for the majority. Very few are produced of, by and for minorities.
Under Gross's model, then, the reason minorities are afflicted with negative stereotyping and symbolic annihilation is because they aren't represented enough and have too little control over the means of production. His solution: "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" (1989: 145). He would like to see a wider range of media which are "unmistakably the product of gay people's sensibility" (ibid.), such as Harvey Fierstein's play Torch Song Trilogy and Donna Deitch's film Desert Hearts.
Whilst agreeing that any additions to the diversity and richness of the media are of course welcome, I am unconvinced that a simple increase in media production by gay people would bring about an accurate representation of gay identities in the media. The reason for this lies in the fact that, since gay people do constitute a sexual minority (to adopt Gross's terminology), I would argue that the media, however positively it might portray any minority, presents it as having a unified, shared identity. This is because (to adapt Gross's model) the minority by definition will always have less ability to produce media, and the majority will always show less interest in minority product. Thus, gay culture will be presented in and to the mainstream mainly in terms of its most flamboyant, disruptive and noticeable aspects, such as Mardi Gras drag queens or campaigners storming pulpits during archbishops' sermons.
It is debatable, however, whether the manifestation of gay culture as a unified identity strengthens or weakens its presence as part of a wider culture. Cruikshank maintains that "a strong gay culture may be more threatening than a political movement because it emphasizes the existence of separate people" (1993: 138). These are people separated by their mutual sameness: their difference from the majority. She argues that gay people increase their cultural presence by forcing others to acknowledge their existence. Similarly, evaluating the political strength of gay people, John D'Emilio values networks of support amongst members, the establishing of an "affectional community" being a goal as important as the achievement of civil equality (1993: 475). To summarize, sharing characteristics validates and empowers gay people as a culture, and cultural status carries social and political weight. As Joshua Gamson puts it: "lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force ... largely by giving themselves what civil-rights movements had: a public collective identity" (1996: 396).
There is a body of thought, however, which suggests that people have more to gain by not trying to align themselves to particular sexually-defined groups. "Queer theorists seek to problematize the very notion of lesbian/gay identity and challenge the essentializing nature of identity itself" (Esterberg, 1996: 260). Such thinking draws heavily on the work of Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble observes that the notion of gender is culturally constructed (1990: 6) - as much entwined with the racial, class-based, sexual and ethnic areas of identity as the physiological, and incoherently defined across history and geography - thus "impossible to separate ... from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained" (1990: 3). Not only is it therefore extremely artificial to draw divisions of sexual identity from notions of gender but, as Butler writes elsewhere, "identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes" (1993: 308); they are limiting and can be used to control those who seek to assume them (or fail to escape from them).
As such, queer theory offers a more fluid definition of identity. Since gender is a role that is played, sexuality is an unlimited performance that does not define us but simply expresses us at any particular time. One's sexual activities need not describe one as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. The intention is to liberate; we no longer need to force ourselves into rigid frameworks. As Halperin notes, "queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality ... It is an identity without an essence" (1995: 62).
We can already see possible examples of queer identity in the media. Gregg Araki's 1995 film The Doom Generation features three main characters (two constructed as male, one female) for whom sex in various combinations seems to say nothing about sexuality. Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997) explores the consequences of trying to label people. And the TV sitcom character Ellen Morgan (played by Ellen DeGeneres), who causes so many problems for Yescavage and Alexander (1999) - "by what right or authority does one say one is a lesbian? And why should the self-proclaimed lesbian be believed?" (1999: 22) - need merely be 'queered' and all worries about her abruptly-changing, unclassifiable sexuality evaporate.
But after seemingly making social progress as a cultural group, it is not difficult to see why people who call themselves gay (or align their personal identity with gay culture) might feel as if queer theory is trying to take something away from them. Gamson provides the example: "Just as they are gaining political ground as lesbians, lesbians are being asked ... to subvert it, by declaring 'woman' and 'lesbian' to be unstable, permeable, fluid categories" (1996: 410). While in theory "it is as liberating and sensible to demolish a collective identity as it is to establish one" (Gamson, 1996: 411), in present society, the plan offers little comfort to the bullied teenager alone in his or her bedroom.
There really is no immediate solution. It seems unlikely that sexual identities will manage any time soon to float free of the terrible tangle of social behaviour and institutions in which they are so firmly enmeshed, although this is clearly desirable. When trying to decide whether or not they should be seeking to cultivate representations of a unified gay identity, gay people must balance long-term goals against current constraints. For now, Jeffrey Weeks's 'relationship paradigm', which seeks to "displace" questions of identity by concentrating on the need to consider relationships (1987: 48) appears to offer some use:
This perspective recognizes
the fictional nature of identity, and even the limiting power it holds over us,
but sees sense of identity as the individual's personal compass through the uncharted
intricacies of social relations. To let go of it suddenly and completely might
be to lose a valuable reference point in an otherwise incomprehensible and hostile
environment. Instead, we might seek to explore the forms of relationship
that enable our identities to mean anything, taking a more enlightened, conscious
and critical look at ourselves and those we interact with. Thus we may take the
first step towards a wider destabilizing of sexual subdivisions, and the removal
of structures which allow anyone to be marginalized into a minority.
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Cruikshank, Margaret (1992), The Gay And Lesbian Liberation Movement, Routledge, London.
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Halperin, David M. (1995), Saint Foucault: Towards A Gay Hagiography, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Irvine, Janice M. (1996), "A Place In The Rainbow: Theorizing Lesbian And Gay Culture", in Seidman, Steven, ed. (1996), Queer Theory/Sociology, Blackwell, Oxford.
Sedgwick, Eve Kopofsky (1990), "Epistemology Of The Closet", in Abelove, Henry et al, eds. (1993), The Lesbian And Gay Studies Reader, Routledge, London.
Weeks, Jeffrey (1987), "Questions Of Identity", in Caplan, Pat, ed., The Cultural Construction Of Sexuality, Routledge, London.
Williams, Raymond (1976), Keywords: A Vocabulary Of Culture And Society, Fontana/Croom Helm.
Yescavage, Karen and Alexander, Jonathan (1999), "Deconstructing The Lesbian Identities Of Ellen Morgan And Ellen DeGeneres", in Atkins, Dawn, ed. (1999), Lesbian Sex Scandals: Sexual Practices, Identities And Politics, Harrington Park Press, New York.
This essay was written in autumn 2000, when Ross Horsley took the module 'Communications Theory' at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.