Television is Burning: Revolutionary Queer and Trans Representation on TV
Danielle Seid / Baruch College, CUNY


Angelica Ross in Pose GIF
Angelica Ross burning up the screen as Candy Ferocity on FX’s Pose.

2019 continues recent worrisome political trends and the threat of planetary and world systems collapse. The summer months were the hottest on record, causing an alarming amount of the remaining ice on the planet to melt; meanwhile, in politics, right-wing populism and authoritarianism have shown little indication of slowing down. Given such existential urgency, how do we measure and value progressive mainstream televisual entertainment? Does representation even matter in a world that may soon be unlivable for humans?

In the midst of so much social and political turmoil, one television series, FX’s Pose (2018-present), shines bright precisely because it depicts, with tenderness and compassion, lives that have for too long been rendered seemingly unlivable: the lives of black and brown queer and trans people. Heavy on pathos but with regular doses of camp and sheer joy, Pose puts a spotlight on queer/trans community in NYC’s ballroom scene of the 1980s and 90s. The backdrop for the show is the HIV/AIDS crisis and subsequent queer activism, as well as the conservative yuppie politics of the 1980s that further dismantled the US welfare state and resulted in concerted attacks on poor urban communities. The series centers on two houses—the House of Evangelista and the House of Abundance—and their catty infighting, but this plot device is in many ways subordinated to the series’ exploration of the intricacies of sex work, trans fetishization and dating, gender transition, HIV care, homophobia, and gender and racial discrimination. Under the guidance of their femme mothers, the self-selected families on the show offer refuge in an unforgiving world. In irresistibly entertaining fashion, the show presents the kind of queer utopia and horizon the late José Esteban Muñoz envisioned in his 2009 book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

Given the ever-increasing attention both to trans issues and the politics of mainstream representation, this brief article asks: How does a show like Pose embody the demand for diversity and inclusivity in media industries today? What developments and breakthroughs have made a show like Pose possible? Finally, what does revolutionary queer and trans representation on TV look like? And who is helping to usher in this revolutionary moment in TV?


Janet Mock talks to Actors on set
Co-executive producer, Janet Mock, one of the strong creative forces behind Pose.

Both on screen and behind the camera, Pose, co-executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock, exemplifies the most progressive trends in television today. The category is Trans Casting and Trans Production. Pose stars a group of trans and queer of color actors, the majority of whom are new faces on TV—including MJ Rodriguez, Billy Porter, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross, Angel Bismark Curiel, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Dyllón Burnside, and Hailie Sahar. While recurring trans and gender-nonconforming characters appear on a range of TV programs in 2019, Pose stands out for the simple fact that trans of color performers dominate the cast. So much of the show’s critical success, though, belongs to Janet Mock, a former People magazine columnist and author of the memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Since Mock first disclosed her trans status in an article for People in 2011, she has been a fierce advocate for trans issues and rights in the public eye. Many TV viewers were introduced to Mock in 2014 when she verbally sparred with Piers Morgan on his TV talk show about trans identity and popular (mis)understandings about sex and gender. For readers of Redefining Realness, Mock’s presence is undeniable in the characters and situations on Pose, especially in the character Angel’s tense ordeal with a fashion photographer intent on exploiting trans femme sexuality and vulnerability. In addition to Mock’s work on the show, Pose sets a high bar for having a diverse writer’s room, a host of queer and trans directors, and a sensitivity to the need for consulting queer and trans people who directly experienced the ballrooms and who hail from the communities portrayed on screen.

Nearing the end of its second season, Pose “poses” questions that are not only relevant in 2019 but also long overdue in popular and political discourse. The category is Trans Activism. As of September 2019, eighteen trans people (the vast majority being Black trans women) in the US have been murdered this year—their names to be added to the list of trans lives to be remembered on November 20 for the annual trans day of remembrance. Such statistics exist in tandem with the kinds of self-congratulatory data that watchdog media organizations like GLAAD publish on LGBTQ televisual representation. In fact, for the 2018-2019 season, the uptick in regular and recurring trans characters and LGBTQ people of color on television can largely be attributed to Pose. Like other contemporary trans representations on TV, Pose builds on the work of recent trans activism, labor, and visibility within popular media industries. The show, moreover, speaks directly and emphatically to transphobic elements in contemporary culture and politics, the latest being Trump’s pursuit of legalized trans discrimination in the workplace.


CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox
CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox, leveraging mainstream trans representation for activist ends.

Only a few years ago, a show like Pose might have seemed unimaginable for broadcast television. In 2014, Orange Is The New Black (Netflix, 2013-19) actress and activist Laverne Cox, hailed as a pioneer for trans people working in television, appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine as the face of the so-called “transgender tipping point.” Cox and other trans celebrities raise the paradox of trans visibility—that is, what are the limits of trans visibility for effecting change? And at what costs to individuals does trans visibility come? In 2016, Cox seized the opportunity to leverage her newfound celebrity for activist ends when she teamed up with and brought media attention to CeCe McDonald, a black trans woman who accepted a plea deal for second-degree manslaughter after she fought off a man who violently attacked her outside a bar in Minneapolis. Both Cox and Mock demonstrate how mainstream representation and trans activism can collide and yield positive results. For now, busy with Pose and her recently-announced multi-year Netflix deal, a first for a trans woman, Mock has focused her energies on producing, writing, and directing. Her creative contributions on Pose emphasize hope, love, and community in the face of systemic violence.

Even the most cynical “armchair critics” have embraced Pose. The show breaks through barriers in a culture and medium long beholden to white, cis, heteropatriarchal norms, but the show also challenges the dominance of white, cis, gay televisual representation. As with most television programming, Pose portrays kinship and community, and the black and brown love and romance on the show feels revolutionary. Moreover, the ballroom community on the series bears the weight of racial history that calls out for attention in 2019. It is the weight of such history that sets it apart from Murphy’s earlier “queer-themed” TV series Glee (Fox, 2009-15) and the white, middle-class gay sensibilities of the “queen of gay TV” Ellen DeGeneres. Ultimately, Pose is about working-class struggle and the realities of American racial capitalism. The category is Live and Survive. This perspective is sorely needed on television and in popular discourse. For black and brown trans people in the U.S., U.S. imperial contact zones, and other areas where racial-colonial legacies mix with patriarchal structures and machismo, the refrain “it gets better,” all too common in mainstream gay discourse, has never or weakly resonated. Pose manages to confront the violence of the dominant sex/gender system and the glaring racism and brutality of US capitalism without falling back on too-easy narratives of aspirational social climbing. On the series, the characters’ tenacity and their tragedies implicitly criticize the ways in which the mainstream gay rights movement has marginalized and left behind trans people, especially trans people of color.


Paris Is Burning 1990
Remembering Venus Xtravaganza and Paris Is Burning.

One recent standout episode of Pose that exemplifies the show’s commitment to representing poor trans of color struggle is “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” a title borrowed from Stephanie Mills’ R&B hit song of the same name. The episode calls to mind the tragic circumstances surrounding Venus Xtravaganza, one of the main figures from Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary about the ballroom scene directed by Jennie Livingston. In the episode, Candy Ferocity, played by the brilliant Angelica Ross, lives, fiercely, beyond the violence that regularly extinguishes the lives of poor black and brown trans women. Although violence against trans women of color, and especially those who perform sex work, can appear trite, Pose celebrates Candy and gives her star treatment.

In 2019, there are certainly many TV representations that deserve recognition for storytelling highlighting people of color and redressing the long history of televisual underrepresentation of “minority” groups. For queer and trans of color representation, though, and communities of color long neglected by TV and media industries and exploited by American racial capitalism, Pose is tens across the board. Television is burning and we are all better off for it.



Image Credits:

  1. Angelica Ross burning up the screen as Candy Ferocity on FX’s Pose.
  2. Co-executive producer, Janet Mock, one of the strong creative forces behind Pose. (From Variety)
  3. CeCe McDonald and Laverne Cox, leveraging mainstream trans representation for activist ends. (From Takepart)
  4. Remembering Venus Xtravaganza and Paris Is Burning. (From Variety)




The Kiss Heard ‘Round the World: “Juliantina” and International Lesbian Soap Opera Fandom
Kira Deshler / University of Texas at Austin

Juliantina's first kiss
Juliantina’s first kiss.

In the last decade or so, a peculiar phenomenon has begun to occur in certain corners of the internet. Soap operas, particularly of the Latin American variety, have slowly begun to feature more lesbian couples. There was “PepSi” from Los Hombres del Paco (Antena 3, 2005-2010), “Jemma” from Hand aufs Herz (sixx, 2010-2011), Kate and Rana from Coronation Street (ITV, 1960-), “Clarina” from Em Família (Rede Globo, 2014), “Flozmín” from Las Estrellas (Channel 13, 2017-2018), and most recently, “Juliantina” from Amar a Muerte (Univision, 2018-). Suddenly, it seemed, with the advent of YouTube and Dailymotion, fans from around the world were able to engage with these relationships without having access to the full series themselves. Hundreds of videos of these couples, completely detached (through editing) from the context in which they originally aired, were uploaded to video sharing sites, and an international lesbian soap opera fandom was built. These videos, what Stephanie M. Yeung has called “fugitive representations” [ ((Yeung, Stephanie M. 2014. “YouTube as De Facto Lesbian Archive: Global Fandom, Online Viewership and Vulnerability.” Spectator, Vol 34.2 (Fall), p. 43. https://cinema.usc.edu/spectator/34.2/6_Yeung.pdf))] because of the ways in which they are queerly archived and consumed, has continued to proliferate on YouTube and on other video sharing platforms, as more queer women discover and become invested in these relationships. The most recent, and arguably the most popular of these couples, is Juliantina.


Juliantina screenshot
Screenshot from a Flozmín video on Dailymotion.

Juliantina—a portmanteau of Valentina and Juliana, the two character’s names—is a relationship that exists on the telenovela Amar a Muerte. The series aired both on American Spanish-language network Univision and Mexican network Las Estrellas. Amar a Muerte follows a typically complex telenovela storyline centering on the deaths and reincarnations of Valentina and Juliana’s respective fathers. This central storyline, however, is only peripheral to Juliantina fans, who are focused exclusively on their love story. Most of this content is archived on YouTube. The most popular Juliantina channels have posted between 270 and 336 videos of the couple. These videos are between one and fiveminutes long (though usually closer to one), and span their entire relationship, from their first meeting to the conclusion of the series. Juliantina’s popularity has expanded further than the usual niche existence of these fugitive representations, with several famous lesbian YouTubers posting reaction videos, and popular queer websites, such as Autostraddle posting articles about the couple. The two actresses who portray Juliantina, Macarena Achaga and Bárbara López, even commissioned a special Juliantina photoshoot for their fans. (It is likely that López and Achaga’s enthusiastic engagement with fans has contributed to the overall popularity of the pairing). In addition, because viewers were so enamored with the couple, one fan created a fake Juliantina Netflix movie trailer, and another created and circulated a petition to make a Juliantina spin-off.

Instagram photo
Post from Achaga’s Instagram depicting the Juliantina photoshoot.

Juliantina’s popularity and the fan practices that comprise its fandom illustrate several unique factors that are central to the maintenance and production of queer female fandom online. One of the most intriguing aspects of Juliantina, and of all these soap opera lesbians, is the way that most viewers consume this content. As I mentioned above, the videos that are uploaded to YouTube and other social media sites are edited in such a way that the narrative only focuses on the lesbian relationships, while other storylines become peripheral or even nonexistent. Yeung calls this process “queer cutting” and suggests that “these capabilities [online streaming] are also allowing fans to rescue and preserve generative and meaningful lesbian representations whose value is further discounted within an already disparaged form.” [ ((Yeung, p. 44.))] This process of queer cutting complicates normative understandings of television viewership, as Juliantina fans are only interested in one storyline within the series, rather than the series as a whole. The Juliantina videos are edited in such a way as to include only scenes that involve either Valentina or Juliana (or both), so that viewers can follow the Juliantina storyline in its entirety. Understandably, viewers who only watch the Juliantina videos are often confused about the other narratives within the show (namely the reincarnation storyline), and in this case the comments section acts as a space where fans can ask questions and receive answers from more knowledgeable viewers. YouTube then acts as an archive for this queerly-constructed content, which in turn provides a space for this fandom to coalesce. However, this archive is tenuous, as videos are often flagged for copyright by the networks, which leads to them being blocked in some countries. Fans often combat this problem by making the videos as short as possible or uploading them to Dailymotion, Facebook, or Dropbox instead, where copyright issues are less of a concern.


Fan-made Juliantina Netflix trailer.

In addition to this particular style of editing, every Juliantina video is also translated into English by the Latin American fans who upload these videos. (The identities of these video creators remain unknown to most, as they are often only known by their usernames). This extensive fan labor allows for the existence of an international fandom surrounding these representations, with fans often expressing their gratitude for the video creators in the comments section as they wait for the next batch to be uploaded. (See more on translation in footnote below). [ ((While many of these videos are from telenovelas and thus translated from Spanish (or Portuguese) to English, there are some videos of pairings from English-language series, such as Kate and Rana from Coronation Street, that are translated into other languages (most commonly Spanish). There is even one channel that, with the help of several international fans, has uploaded every Kate and Rana video with English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic subtitles! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB5tqINJWAWtNSwoLC4REi5NvyqBphdNJ.))] The international reach of this fandom is made visible in the comments sections of these videos, with viewers often revealing their location through comments such as “Thank you from Thailand!” or “Watching from Germany!” Though all fandoms are now more international than ever, the international scope of the Juliantina fandom is significant in that it makes visible the labor that is involved in maintaining this fandom. Additionally, the global flow of Juliantina content is unique, as much (though not all) of queer media that is celebrated and viewed globally is American or English-language content. Furthermore, the international popularity of Juliantina and other similar couples indicates the continued lack of affirming portrayals of queer women on a global level, as well as the almost indescribable draw these couples have for fans across borders and across language.


Comments section
A portion of the comments section from a Juliantina video, with commenters praising YouTube user “All the Lilies” for their translation work.

While soaps and/or telenovelas like Amar a Muerte are often perceived as unrealistic because of their reliance on melodrama, the international popularity of Juliantina with audiences who may not normally watch telenovelas indicates that it is the content rather than the form that draws viewers to the couple. Despite the connotation of soaps as frivolous, many Juliantina fans describe their investment in the couple as predicated upon the perceived “realness” of the relationship. I don’t mean real in the sense of “existing in the non-televisual world,” but rather real for the viewer in the sense of relatability (I have felt/experienced those feelings) or aspirationality (I haven’t experienced that, but I would like to someday). Ien Ang describes this structure of feeling as “emotional realism.” [ ((Storey, John. “Gender and sexuality,” Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, Routledge, 2015, p. 153.))] It is queer fans’ investment in this emotional realism that produces their enjoyment of these fugitive representations, regardless of the national or generic context in which they exist, and it is sites like YouTube that allow these representations to proliferate on an international level.


Suggestions screenshot
Youtube suggestions after I watched Juliantina videos on a guest account. Many of these videos are clips of other lesbian couples from Spanish-language soaps and serials.

Though I have focused this article on Juliantina specifically, as I outlined above, there are a number of soaps from around the world that have engendered similar fan practices. These soaps, and the lesbian relationships therein, are part of what we might call the canon of queer female media. As Yeung points out, YouTube, as the disseminator of much of this content, acts as an archive for this canon, and connects these texts to one another through its algorithmic functions. [ ((Yeung, p. 46.))] YouTube’s algorithm, as well as the cultural knowledge of fans, allows for and encourages fans of one pairing to become invested in another, as fans who watch these queer soaps are pointed towards similar content hosted on the platform. These fugitive fan practices illustrate what Susan Driver calls the “queer possibilities of cultural literacy” [ ((Driver, Susan. Queer Girls and Popular Culture: Reading, Resisting, and Creating Media. New York: New York: Peter Lang, 2007. p. 13.))], wherein the meaning of a text is decoded according to its queer resonances rather than its narrative cohesion. This canon is rarely made visible to those outside the queer female community, as this niche content remains only peripheral to the broader public, despite these couples’ centrality among queer viewers.


Juliantina screenshot
Screenshot from a Juliantina video on YouTube entitled “Juliana & Valentina #47 (english subtitles)”.

The fan practices that define the Juliantina fandom illustrate the unique ways in which queer female fans create and consume content, engaging with media in a manner that circumvents problems of access. [ ((This circumvention however, also creates an ambivalent relationship between Juliantina fans and the Amar a Muerte producers, as Juliantina fans often do not consume the series in ways that are directly economically beneficial to the network.))] As Kelsey Cameron puts it, the models of fandom that pioneering fan studies scholar Henry Jenkins often engages with, models that center the practices of white men and are generally divorced from identity work, “do not necessarily translate to queer women, who lack both identity reinforcement from mainstream culture, which Jenkins’s subjects constantly receive, and the embodied sexual spaces that many position as key to the cultural lives of gay men.” [ ((Cameron, Kelsey. “Constructing Queer Female Cyberspace: The L Word Fandom and Autostraddle.com.” Transformative Works and Culture, Vol. 24, June. 15, 2017. p. 1.6. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.0846.))] Indeed, the global reach of Juliantina and the fan labor and viewing practices that define its fandom demonstrate the continued marginality of queer women on screen, and, subsequently, the lengths fans must go to in order to preserve and centralize these stories.

Image Credits:

1. Juliantina’s first kiss.
2. Flozmín video on Dailymotion. Author’s screenshot.
3. Achaga’s Instagram post. Author’s screenshot.
4. Fan-made Juliantina Netflix trailer.
5. A portion of the comments section from a Juliantina video. Author’s screenshot.
6. YouTube suggestions. Author’s screenshot.
7. Image from a Juliantina video. Author’s screenshot.




Normalizing Subversion: The Comedy Approach of ‘Take My Wife’
Ashlynn d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin

Roseanne

Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989

In 1989, despite network pushback, executive producer and comedian Roseanne Barr’s self-titled comedy sitcom, Roseanne (1988–1997), aired an episode in which her character’s 11-year-old daughter experiences her first period. This was the first time a network television show addressed the topic of menstruation, and the series included several punchlines about Darlene’s period that make the physicality of the “cramps” and “blood stains” that accompany menstruation tangible. Along with her excessive speech, laughter and liminal status, this is an example of how Barr’s comedy style in the ABC sitcom unsettled social norms in the ’90s; now widely acknowledged to be racist, Barr was considered one of the titular unruly women of her generation of comedy voices. [ (( Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genre of Laughter. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 50-91. ))]

Unruly

Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively

As stand-up comics have transitioned from stage to television over the past few years, a range of comedic styles has unfolded. Many women on television today are boldly challenging social and gender boundaries through comedy. Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson and Samantha Bee, for example, carry Barr’s unruly comedy torch as much as any of their contemporaries. These comics are providing deeper and more complex representations of women on television; however, not all comedians are bringing their brash stand-up humor from the stage to television. Compare Barr’s insistent inclusion of jokes about menstruation on her sitcom with the contemporary television series, Take My Wife (2016–), which was distributed nearly three decades later on the subscription streaming service, Seeso. In this sitcom, comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher eschew graphic descriptions of their bodies in order to focus attention on their conventional domestic and professional lives together. Instead of landing punchlines about menstruation, they are simply two comedians who happen to menstruate. Esposito certainly does not hesitate to use her period as comedy fodder in her stand-up, illustrated in a video of a live performance in 2015 that she shared on YouTube, “The Greatest Period Joke Of All Time #CHUNKS.” The stars of Take My Wife simply repackage their unruliness—in the case of Esposito and Butcher, their queerness—into a less attention-grabbing representation on their television series.

Cameron Esposito performing stand-up live, published on YouTube, 2015

Couched within the formulaic narratives of the sitcom genre, the comedians situate their characters precariously within modern neoliberal multiculturalism. Their messages can be interpreted as subversive to societal norms, particularly by audiences—women and queer—that identify with the characters. For them, these stories and representations may prompt reflections on societal misogyny and bigotry, albeit without resolution. Rather than challenging social norms from the margins, these comedians stealthily center themselves on screen and in doing so, reposition their LGBTQ+ identities as conventional, further normalizing their subversiveness. This strategy is distinct from assimilationist storytelling, which tends to erase non-normative identities, and conventional post-feminist storytelling, which as Angela McRobbie describes, operates on the assumption that equality between the genders has been achieved. [ (( McRobbie, Angela. “Postfeminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime.” Interrogating Post-Feminism: Gender and Politics of Popular Culture edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 27-39. ))] The strategy described here does not make this assumption, nor does it portray women or gender non-conforming persons in opposition to cis maleness, which de-centers their intersectional identities. Instead, it centers their existence, relationships, and experiences within the text, framing them as “the norm” in order to then introduce new and original content related to their queer identities.

Take My Wife

The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke”

The portrayal of Cameron and Rhea in Take My Wife is reminiscent of the charming awkwardness of another comedy predecessor, Ellen DeGeneres. DeGeneres’ comedy differs from that of her bawdy and bitchy peers of the ’90s; her inoffensive and “feel good persona” [ (( Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2014, p. 94. ))] helped make her character on Ellen (1994-1998) relatable and beloved by hetero- and homosexual audiences alike. There are many similarities between Esposito and Butcher’s performances and that of DeGeneres: both tell their stories using the traditional sitcom format, perform endearing portrayals of their on-screen characters, and attempt to frame their queerness as conventional. The television medium has changed since Barr’s and DeGeneres’ iconic series; it is no longer the monolithic network medium of thirty years ago. In this era of post-network niche audience targeting, why would the show’s creators be concerned with broadening the appeal of the characters in the series?

Ellen

The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life

Esposito and Butcher’s queer identities—both comedians identify as lesbians and Butcher as genderqueer—complicate the portrayal of their characters on television in a time in which half of the country elected a Vice President with a record of opposition to gay rights. It is not surprising that the LGBTQ+ creators and stars would explore more modest representations of their identities on a television sitcom as DeGeneres did twenty years earlier. For Esposito, framing her identity and critique of mainstream culture as lighthearted joking has been a necessary strategy from early in her career. She explains, “I’m tiny and smiley. I think a lot of it comes from creating safety for myself because as a queer person, I was just very unsafe. Then as a survivor, I feel really unsafe all the time. I think something that I did without knowing it was about introducing myself to people, to be like, ‘Please don’t kill me.’” [ (( Robinson, Joanna. “The #MeToo Movement has a Place in Comedy: Just Ask Cameron Esposito.” Vanity Fair. 23 May 2018. ))] Esposito has intuitively attempted to make herself palatable to heterosexual audiences and recognizes how others like DeGeneres paved the way for her with a similar approach, “Ellen has to exist in people’s house during the daytime so that people aren’t so scared, and then I can get married. That has to happen.” [ (( Kravitz, Melissa. “How Cameron Esposito Plans to Revolutionize Comedy in 2018.” Broadly. 22 December 2017. ))]

Thus, in spite of the often subversive nature of their stand-up performances, Esposito and Butcher chose the traditional sitcom format to convey their stories on the television series. The two queer characters, Cameron and Rhea, are portrayed as conventional specifically through conformity with familiar aspects of the sitcom narrative, an emphasis on the couple’s domesticity, and the downplaying of their gender and sexual identities, a contrast with the more candid approach of their other media projects. This strategy positions the comedians as the non-normative leads of the television series, which allows the writers to introduce discourse from the point of view of its queer characters. The comedians then subtly address the struggles of gender non-conforming persons in our gender binary culture, assault and rape culture, as well as present novel, intimate, and authentic storylines for the show’s queer characters. In the second episode of the first season, for example, the comedians address the topic of sexual assault. The topic of rape is first raised indirectly as the comedians take to the stage to interrogate whether rape jokes are funny given the likelihood of sexual assault victims present in the audience. The following sequence in which individual characters in the show say “me too” to the camera is powerful, though, it should be noted a great deal more nuanced than Esposito’s recent #MeToo stand-up set in Rape Jokes (2018), “a blistering, masterful, tragic, hilarious hour of comedy about sexual assault and the culture that supports it” in which the comedian explicitly shares her personal story on stage. [ (( Fox, Jesse D. “Cameron Esposito Is Taking Rape Jokes Back for Survivors.” Vulture. 28 May 2018. ))]

Rape jokes

Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016

Take My Wife should be celebrated for its authentic portrayals and for taking on the everyday aspects of lesbian existence after coming out, while acknowledging that it is also consistent with the marketing plans of a growing number of over-the-top platforms creating niche content that is geared toward distinct subsets of viewers. In this series, the show’s creators offer novel representations of real and intimate queer characters on screen to LGBTQ+ viewers, and more broadly, two inconspicuous lesbian characters, unthreatening to the heteronormative status quo. Gilbert has noted that female comics’ use of self-deprecatory humor can be interpreted as either subverting the status quo or affirming oppressive gender norms; likewise, in the case of Take My Wife, “it is up to the audience to interpret any form of cultural representation.” [ (( Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994, p. 139. ))] This palatability of the series’ humor is not without potential drawbacks where the queer community is concerned; the tokenism of DeGeneres [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. “Ellen, Television, and the Politics of Gay and Lesbian Visibility.” Critical Studies in Media Communications 18.2 (2001): 123-140. ))] and homo-normativity in many popular contemporary series with queer characters [ (( Doty, Alexander. “Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism.” Flow Journal, 12.9 (2010). ))] are cautionary tales of the appeal of similar comedic approaches of series on broadcast networks. It is too early to know if the normalizing strategies described here will contribute to greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and progressivism, either on- or off-screen, in the current post-network context.

Image Credits:

1. Roseanne Barr and Sara Gilbert in the first season, episode 15, “Nightmare on Oak Street” of the ABC series Roseanne, 1989.
2. Comedians Amy Schumer, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, and Samantha Bee on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (2015), Out (2016), and Variety (2016) magazines, respectively. (author’s screen grabs)
3. The tagline for the Seeso series, Take My Wife, is “Marriage is no joke.”
4. The ABC series, Ellen, ran for five seasons; it was canceled one year after its star came out on the show and in real life.
5. Rhea and Cameron joking about rape jokes on stage in the second episode, “Punchline,” of the first season of Take My Wife, 2016. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




An LGBTQ Netflix: Productive? Restricting? Lasting?
Chelsea McCracken / Beloit College

Logo for Revry

Logo for Revry

In March of 2016, Revry debuted a streaming subscription service that prides itself on providing content that includes a range of LGBTQ perspectives. By August of 2016, several sources had dubbed it the “LGBT Netflix” and “the Gay Netflix we need,” and questioned whether niche streaming sites could “take on” larger companies like Netflix and Amazon. In the history of independent LGBTQ filmmaking, distribution has often proved to be one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome. Failing to find a distributor meant your film would not play outside of local screenings or film festivals. Even films that did secure distribution were often limited to short runs in large cities with active arthouse theaters. With the development of streaming video technologies, even a relatively small scale operation can reach people around the world, connecting films with audiences to reach a broader, targeted market. This exciting development has yielded utopian visions alongside frustrating realities.

While streaming services have opened up new possibilities for worldwide distribution, niche distribution of LGBTQ media is not new, having occupied a distinct niche market for decades. A substantial infrastructure of publications, activist groups, film festivals, and LGBT production companies formed around this market beginning in the late 1970s, allowing LGBTQ cinema to flourish within American independent cinema. Distributors who focus primarily or exclusively on LGBTQ films began appearing in the 1980s and include Wolfe Video (1985-present), Water Bearer Films (1988-present), Strand Releasing (1991-present), and Ariztical Entertainment (1994-present). The longevity of these niche distributors suggests that the market supports them, even as many comparably sized independent distributors have undergone changes in ownership or gone bankrupt in the shifting indie landscape from the late 1980s to the 2000s.[ ((During this time, over 20 independent distributors went out of business (Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006): 258.).))]

Viewers searching for LGBTQ content today have an assortment of options. Behemoths like Netflix include an LGBTQ category in their content browsing options. Established home video and theatrical distributors, including Wolfe Video, have made the transition to Video on Demand, as has HereTV, “America’s only LGBT TV network.” Other distributors license their films through digital distributors, as Water Bearer did with FilmRise. Established distributors have a firm foundation in the move to digital distribution—a library of films, continued income from hard-copy sales, and/or support from a conglomerate parent company.

The lower costs of digital distribution and the revenue potential from streaming media to worldwide audiences created an environment for small distribution companies to form. In addition to Revry, there are other newcomers to the field, such as Dekkoo, a site launched in 2015 that specializes in gay content. Inexpensive means of distribution theoretically allows access to unlimited content, and the market has seen increases in LGBTQ media being offered. However, streaming distributors also act as curators for this content. They select what they consider to be the best available media that fits their brand identity, producing, as Revry calls it, “queerated” content. Streaming services have a great deal of control over what work gets shown, which in turn shapes the direction of LGBTQ media.

Wolfe Video Logo

Wolfe Video Logo

Some companies, like the relatively short-lived BuskFilms, attempted to build streaming distribution platforms that did not last. BuskFilms, formed in 2011, offered worldwide digital distribution of first lesbian and then a full range of LGBTQ media, and boasted viewers in around 160 countries. [ ((Andrea Wing, interview by author, 22 March 2013.))] Sadly, Busk ceased VOD services in 2014. While Busk did decent business and had an interested audience, the numbers were not strong enough to continue operating the site. The closing of Busk brings out the question of whether this mode of distribution is sustainable and highlights concerns over the endurance of smaller, niche streaming companies. Can these businesses find long-term, sustainable financial models? And what does the future viability of these distributors mean for LGBTQ media makers?

While the developing trends in digital distribution come with idealized possibilities, there are pitfalls and dangers involved with this mode of distribution. In independent filmmaking, distribution often comes into play before a film is complete. Historically, independent filmmakers have relied on pre-selling distribution rights for domestic and foreign theatrical release, home video, and/or television. These pre-sales provide essential production funds. While there is a lot of potential for using digital distribution to monetize distinct niche groups and for producers to recoup a larger percent of the profits from sales or rentals, there is also the danger that media makers may not break even. And even if they do eventually make back their money, filmmakers would not have access to the pre-sale lump sums needed in order to finance the large negative costs of production. One way around this is for subscription sites to use the “Netflix model” and become producers that fund original content, an option that Revry is exploring. This option, however, can be an expensive, risky endeavor.

Dekkoo Promotional Image

Dekkoo Promotional Image

Can distributors like Revry and Dekkoo survive? They can, if people support them. The call for community support of LGBTQ media has been renewed continually. As a 1981 article put it, “You can have gay media but you have to support it… Gays will pay $5 to see Ordinary People but won’t pay to see a gay film. It doesn’t come with the trappings—the Hollywood seal of approval, or Robert Redford.” [ ((Sheila Roher qtd in Stefan Pevnik, “Gay Filmmakers Confront Media Homophobia in the U.S.” The Advocate 331 (26 November 1981): 37.))] The accusation that the LGBT community does not support its own media recurred, harshly, in 1990 with a bitter article by Vito Russo who, towards the end of his life, berated gays for accepting homophobia in mainstream media and not supporting independent works like Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986). Russo writes, “Most gay people have turned out to be nothing but a bunch of Americans who just want to be entertained for two hours and not have any hassle. It stinks. They should be ashamed of themselves.” [ ((Vito Russo, “Malice at the Movies: A Critic Gets ‘Bad,’ Mad, and Just Plain Fed Up With Bigots and Spineless Gays,” The Advocate 552 (5 June 1990): 60.))]

In addition to industry concerns, questions arise around the utility of niche distributors, whether their presence opens or restricts the potential of LGBTQ media. One could draw comparisons to the debates that have brought the role of LGBTQ film festivals into question. [ ((These are most thoroughly seen in Patricia White’s “Queer publicity – A dossier on lesbian and gay film festivals.” GLQ-a Journal of Lesbian And Gay Studies Vol.5(1) (1999): 73-93. This spawned the later: “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take one.” GLQ Vol.11(4) (2005): 579-603. “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take two.” GLQ Vol.12(4) (2006): 599-625. and “Queer Film and Video Festival Forum: Take three.” GLQ Vol.14(1) (2008): 121-137.))] In 1991, filmmaker Pratibha Parmar was calling the gay and lesbian festival circuit “key” to her work, while others like Derek Jarman were speculating on whether their usefulness was at an end, that “maybe life in the ghetto now offers diminished returns.” [ ((B. Ruby Rich. “New Queer Cinema.” Sight and Sound 2(5) (September 1992): 32.))] Some defend the lasting benefits of these institutions, claiming that they are critical in creating spaces for the continued growth of LGBTQ filmmaking and the visibility of non-heterosexual identities onscreen. Others see them as an outdated institution that continues to marginalize these films. Similar arguments could be made of the work done by streaming distributors.

So, do we need an LGBTQ Netflix? I would say that we do not want to need it. Ideally, we would live in a world where distribution and exhibition opportunities were as readily available for films with LGBTQ content as those without. A world in which Netflix offered abundant options for queer viewing, perhaps even options that were readily accessible in integrated genre categories, rather than isolated in its own niche. We are moving towards that day, but it still seems distant. In our current media moment, I see a great value in streaming distributors who connect viewers to LGBTQ works and provide a support network that cultivates future LGBTQ films. If you want to see more diverse media, you have to support it. And in low-budget indie media making, a little goes a long way.

Image Credits:
1. Revry Logo
2. Wolfe Video Logo
3. Dekkoo Promotional Image

Please feel free to comment.




The Homogenized Queerness of Historical Television
Britta Hanson / University of Texas at Austin

Borgias 6
A queer seduction in Renaissance Italy on The Borgias between Micheletto (Sean Harris) and Pascal (Charlie Carrick).

How much does historical representation matter? On television, it is in a grey area at best.[ ((Aspects of this topic were originally presented at the Film and History conference in Madison, Wisconsin and QGRAD at UCLA. My thanks to all those who gave feedback there and elsewhere.))] Although many historical series are conceived of as prestige productions, their fidelity to the eras they depict is hardly by-the-book.[ ((As one measure of prestige, 18 of 32 Emmy nominees for the Drama Series Emmy in the past five years (2012-2016).))] In a much discussed, example, The Tudors decided that Henry VIII didn’t need to grow round as he aged. With the exception of the occasional diehard historian, though, most audience members don’t see significant harm in these changes – and perhaps rightly so. The setting, historical or present-day, is ultimately a stage on which the characters and stories play.

If we change the question to how much LGBT representation matters, though, the stakes are exponentially higher. In spite of increased numbers of LGBT characters on television overall, the quality and diversity of their representation remains spotty at best, with the Spring 2016 “Kill Your Gays” [[http://ew.com/article/2016/06/11/atx-bury-your-gays-trope-lexa-100/]] epidemic serving as just one recent example. [ ((4.8% of series regulars in 2016-2017 were LGBT, a 60.4% increase over 2011-2012, according TO GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV reports.))]

It is at the intersection of historical and LGBT representation, then, that we find a curious (or, shall we say, queer) niche: same-sex-oriented characters in non-modern contexts.[ ((Given the brevity of this article, and the paucity of representations in that category, I will not be discussing transgender experiences, although I wish to stress the importance of and need for such representations on the air.))] While little explored, these kinds of representation are arguably even more important than contemporary portrayals of queer experiences.

Yes, portraying modern, everyday queer experiences has great socio-cultural importance. But it’s also important to remember that, historically, the nature of queer experiences have been an especially difficult to track. Across many periods and cultures, people who pursued same-sex attraction often faced dire ramifications for their actions, legal or otherwise. This illicit connotation means that, while historical accounts do exist for the eagle-eyed researcher to find, the archival record of queerness is often hidden from view.[ ((See the revised preface and introduction of Jonathan Ned Katz’s landmark collection of primary sources, Gay American History (New York: Meridian, rev. ed. 1992) for further discussion of the trials of writing queer history, as well as that history’s diversity.))] By depicting queer figures in history, then, television has the power to break through this seeming invisibility, and give queerness a voice where many assume it had none.

These historical same-sex experiences, though, are far from equivalent to the present-day concept of homosexuality. Indeed, the Western concept of binary sexual orientations – i.e., of homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive and immutable categories of personhood is of radically recent vintage.[ ((Most historians of sexuality more or less support Foucault’s argument that, in the Western context, the contemporary understanding of a “homosexual” as a “species” of person did not begin to take shape until the nineteenth century. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 43.))] And neither this nor any other unified definition of homosexuality has applied throughout history. Quite the opposite: the meaning and experience of same-sex desire has shifted radically across periods and cultures.

Yet many historical television series apply our contemporary understanding of gender and sex to their period, ignoring the ideas unique to that era and culture. This trend is most obvious on shows set in the distant past, beyond the easy recollection of our parents or grandparents. A sampling of such shows featuring queer experiences is in the chart below. By applying a homogenous, contemporary framework to the varied past, these series provide a misleading portrayal of the ever-shifting concept of sexuality in culture.

Distant-Period Series Chart

For example, The Borgias follows the titular clan’s schemes for ever-greater power across the Renaissance Italian city-states. Renaissance Italy was relatively tolerant of same-sex relations, generally speaking. Men often did not marry until their thirties, and then took brides barely in their teens. In this culture of bachelors, sexual relationships often formed between older and younger men.[ ((See here and Laura J. McGough, Gender, Sexuality, and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: Disease that Came to Stay (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 27.))] The practice became so common that one reformer moaned that “[t]here is no distinction between the sexes or anything else anymore,” and “to Florence” was slang for sodomy in sixteenth-century Germany.[ ((Judith C. Brown and Robert C. Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy (New York: Routledge, 1998), 150; Katherine Crawford, The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010), 11.))]

Borgias Website 4

Borgias Website 5
The Borgias‘ website frames Micheletto as a tragic figure.

The Borgias does not reflect this historical reality, instead portraying a binary conception of sexual orientation, as well as an idea of undifferentiated intolerance of same-sex actions. Micheletto (Sean Harris), an assassin for the Borgias family, tells his lover Angelino (Darwin Shaw) that the latter’s impending marriage “will be a lie.” Angelino replies that he must proceed anyway, given the punishment for their relationship would be to be “disemboweled and burnt.”[ ((The Borgias, Season 2, Episode 5.))] What’s more, the show’s website describes Micheletto as having a “sexual orientation that has no place in Renaissance Italy.”

A similar transposition of contemporary ideas occurs on Reign this time to Elizabethan England and France. At this time, neither country thought of “homosexuals” as a defined minority (in fact, that term had yet to be invented).[ ((Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop, 29 (1990), 1-19.))] That era of Christianity considered sex between members of the same sex sinful largely because it could not lead to reproduction. Thus “sodomy” was more closely linked to “debauchery” than “homosexuality.”[ ((See N.S. Davidson, “Sex, Religion, and the Law,” in Sodomy in Early Modern Europe Tom Betteridge, ed., Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.))] Yet on Reign, when Mary, Queen of Scots is told that her lady’s suitor prefers men “in bed,” she immediately understands this to mean that he is unfit to marry a woman. The lady in turn unequivocally rejects him, as she sees any romantic connection between them as impossible: “I’d be living a lie forever with no chance of happiness.”[ ((Reign, Season 1, Episode 15.))]

Reign 2
Reign’s Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) shows shock and instant understanding of a man who “prefers men…in bed.”

A more subtle, but still troubling, example occurs on Taboo, set in 1814 London. Georgian London was home to molly houses or clubs, where men met to make romantic connections as well as to cross-dress. At this time, “molly” meant an effeminate man, but did not necessarily connote same-sex interest.[ ((See Morris B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), and Charles Upchurch, “Liberal Exclusions and Sex between Men in the Modern Era: Speculations on a Framework,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 19.3 (2010), 409-431.))] It is significant for a practice so specific to a historical queer subculture to get representation on television.[ ((Molly houses have also recently appeared on Ripper Street and Dracula.))]

When Delaney (Tom Hardy) discovers Godfrey (Edward Hogg), a childhood acquaintance, at one such club, however, their conversation is still shaped by modern ideas of the closet and gay male identity. Delaney remarks that Godfrey “hasn’t changed” since they knew one another, and Godfrey replies that he was formerly in love with Delaney, a fact Delaney “of course” knew, and the experience of which was “torture…exquisite.”[ ((Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.))] Thus, Godfrey is not understood as merely effeminate, but as having always been imbued with gay male identity, a fact readily apparent to all around him. His association “straight” boys was torturous because crossing the divide between the two categories was wholly impossible.

Taboo 2
Godfrey (left, Edward Hogg) admitting his hopeless love for Delaney (right, Tom Hardy) on Taboo.

While these differences in presentation versus history seem more extreme in distant-period shows, they are still significant in more recent-set historical series.[ ((See here for a list of twentieth-century period programs featuring queer experiences.))] The Halcyon is set in London during the Blitz, a city and time with a fast-developing queer subculture, but which still did not entirely sentence “gay” and “straight” persons to opposite sides of the fence.[ ((For more on the historically distinct queer subculture of early-twentieth-century London, see these books.))] On this show, when the clandestine affair between a well-to-do man and a waiter at his family’s elite hotel is discovered, their discoverer states that, “in my experience, a man doesn’t choose who he falls in love with.”[ ((The Halcyon, Series 1, Episode 6.))] It is perhaps possible that he would have turned a blind eye. It is very unlikely, though, that he would have used the twenty-first century “love is love” and “born this way” rhetorics, and that the couple would have readily understood such language, thus naturalizing it as part of that historical environment.

At first glance, this argument may seem an inconsequential quibble over historical accuracy, akin to the squabbles over Mad Men’s typewriters. However, these representations have much more dire effects than a Remington.[ ((The intention of the writers in making these choices is too big a question for this study, although some preliminary thoughts on the matter can be seen here for further consideration of this issue.))].

First and foremost, these representations homogenize queerness. Queer characters are presented as equivalent to modern homosexuals, with little room spared for bisexuality or any other form of queerness. The place of same-sex experiences within culture is shown as entirely undifferentiated, essentially one long slog of oppression and tragedy. While different types of oppression were the reality in many eras and places, leveling all historical periods minimizes the unique struggles of those who lived through those eras. It is a pity to obscure the multiplicity of ways in which same-sex experiences were navigated in specific environments, and how queer people carved out their own subcultures.

Furthermore, by creating this faux-modern, unvarying slate of queer characters and experiences, these shows frequently fall back on today’s standard queer tropes, most of which reinforce negative stereotypes. The “tragic queer” and “kill your gays” appear constantly: i.e., queer sexuality is a burden that causes personal unhappiness, misfortune, and even death. The seemingly-accepting man on The Halcyon quickly resorts to blackmail. On The Borgias, Micheletto discovers his new lover Pascal (Charlie Carrick) has been selling his secrets. The Borgias order Micheletto to kill Pascal, after which Micheletto flees the city in grief – and permanently exits the show.[ ((The Borgias, Season 3, Episode 9.))] Men seeking sex with other men are shown as predators and rapists (Outlander) or straight men in a easily-dismissible, one-time “experiment” out of “curiosity” (Da Vinci’s Demons).[ ((On Outlander, Captain Randall rapes Jamie in the first season, and the Duke of Sandringham is essentially a villain, revealed to have been secretly orchestrating the misfortunes of the protagonists. Granted, the author of the original book series, has described Randall as a “pervert” and “sadist” as opposed to having a sexual preference, but this distinction is not clear on the show itself. And despite historians’ near-certainty of Da Vinci’s sexual preference for men, on Da Vinci’s Demons, he prefers to sleep with women, with his one-time male-fling a failed experiment.))]

This homogenizing trend is significant beyond the confines of historical series. Rather, it points the broader ability of media to win praise for fleetingexclusive gay moments,” no matter how brief or problematic.[ ((Queer audiences also fall into this trap, such as when the queer media outlet NewNowNext.com (formerly AfterElton.com, now owned by the queer-focused Logo channel) celebrated the scene of queer erasure cited above in Da Vinci’s Demons, for despite the damning context, it contains a kiss between men.))] The question should not merely be quantity of representation, or even quality. As trite is may sound, it is about equality: queer characters should be constructed with equal care as their straight counterparts. Bickering about historical television may seem silly. But given that these shows’ audiences care enough to rage over Henry VIII’s haircut, they must take a stand on an issue with much higher stakes, and demand halfway-decent historical queer representation.

Image Credits:
1. The Borgias (Showtime, 2011-2013), Season 3 Episode 7 (author’s screengrab).
2. Chart created by author.
3. The Borgias official website (author’s screengrab).
4. Mary, Queen of Scots on Reign (The CW, 2013-2017), Season 1, Episode 15 (author’s screengrab).
5. Godfrey and Delaney on Taboo, Season 1, Episode 3.

Please feel free to comment.




Teen TV’s Post-Closet and Postracial Fictions
Wendy Peters / Nipissing University

Featured Image WP

Blaine and Kurt from Glee

On American television, homophobia and racism are increasingly characterized as “passé” and relegated to a bygone era. [ (( Becker, Ron. “Guy Love: A Queer Straight Masculinity for a Post-Closet Era?” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Eds. Glynn Davis and Gary Needham. New York: Routledge, 2009. 127; Ono, Kent A. “Postracism: A Theory of the ‘Post’- as Political Strategy.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 34.3 (2010): 228.))] On teen TV, high schools are often imagined in postracial and post-closet terms. And representations of racism and homophobia do the work of staging the moral enlightenment of the present.

I am interested in how these “post-” pretenses intertwine with neoliberalism on teen TV and give rise to post-closet narratives that serve to confirm whites as idealized gay subjects while symbolically disciplining or annihilating racialized gay and bisexual teens. Related to Melanie Kohnen’s column on Ugly Betty, [ (( Kohnen, Melanie. “Tying Narrative Threads by Opening Closet Doors: Coming Out on Ugly Betty.” Flow 12.05 (July 2010). ))] post-closet and postracial narratives minimize homophobia and reassert racial hierarchy, while each is denied. In this column, my focus is on representations of post-closet high school students in the 2010-2011 season of teen TV.

The 2010-2011 season of scripted Canadian and American teen TV featured more non-straight teen characters in one year than each previous decade. Given the concurrent media focus on LGBT youth and homophobic bullying in schools, I selected series set in high schools. As Ron Becker explains, post-closet characters are introduced to viewers as already “out” and never struggle with their sexuality. They tend to be white, affluent, male, avid consumers, apolitical and likeable. Their sexuality is presented as innate, stable, permanent, desexualized and chaste, or more recently, monogamously committed. [ (( Becker, Ron. “Post-Closet Television.” Flow 7.03 (November 2007); Becker, “Guy Love,” 121-40. ))] These characteristics are in line with the values of neoliberalism, including self-reliance, affluence, consumption, privatization and the family as the site of social reproduction. [ (( Cossman, Brenda. “Sexing Citizenship, Privatizing Sex.” Citizenship Studies 6.4 (2002): 484.))] By showing certain privileged and privatized gay men—and to a lesser extent lesbians—television made room for gay characters who conform to what Lisa Duggan calls “the new homonormativity… a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of… a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.” [ (( Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003. 50. ))]

Image 1 Brothers and SistersImage 2 New NormalImage 3 The FostersImage 4 Modern Family

Left to right: Brothers and Sisters, The New Normal, The Fosters, and Modern Family

The examples I show illustrate how race, class, sex, sexuality and privatization figure in the depictions of Blaine on Glee, Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Ian on 90210, Maya and Samara on Pretty Little Liars, and Zane on Degrassi. These post-closet teen characters are depicted as likeable, confident, out, proud, fashionable, affluent and popular with their high school peers. They are much like their “good” straight peers who desire long-term monogamous relationships. Of the six characters depicted as post-closet in 2010-2011, three read as white and middle-class while identifying as gay and male (Blaine on Glee; Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager; Ian on 90210). Additionally, there is one white, affluent, lesbian (Samara on Pretty Little Liars). The remaining two post-closet characters read as mixed-race and middle-class, one gay-identified male (Zane on Degrassi) and a bisexual / queer female (Maya on Pretty Little Liars). [ (( I write that these characters “read as” white or mixed race because my claim is not that they “are” white, for example, but that they are presented and likely read as white. I offer these categorizations to reflect the shorthand that is often employed in “racial sightlines” (Guterl, Matthew Pratt. Seeing Race in Modern America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). I also want to clarify that Kurt Hummel, a white, gay-identified teen character on Glee is depicted in 2010-2011 as out, but I apply Becker’s definition of “post-closet” to exclude all teen characters who are shown to struggle with coming out onscreen. ))] That both of the racialized characters are fair-skinned conforms to the ongoing televisual erasure of darker bodies, a representation Amy Hasinoff describes as where “marketable lighter-skinned mixed-race [characters] can be positioned to stand in for all racial differences.” [ (( Hasinoff, Amy Adele. “Fashioning Race for the Free Market on America’s Next Top Model.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 25.3 (2008): 330.))]

Image 5 Blaine on GleeImage 6 Secret Life of American TeenagerImage 7 90210Image 8 Pretty Little Liars

Left to right: Blaine on Glee, Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Ian on 90210, and Samara on Pretty Little Liars

In the 2010-2011 season of teen TV, all four of the white post-closet teens are safe, secure, well-integrated into their schools and do not face homophobia. [ (( A notable exception is that 90210 utilizes the trope of the closeted bully. In that narrative, Ian is called a “faggot” and is physically attacked by a closeted character. Importantly, the series neoliberally individualizes homophobia at West Beverly Hills High School to the mind and actions of one closeted character. ))] Blaine on Glee, Samara on Pretty Little Liars and Ian on 90210 all attend schools that are explicitly wealthy and opposed to homophobia, while Griffin on Secret Life attends a middle-class public high school that is implicitly post-homophobia. The privatization of gay-positive schools offers a tacitly neoliberal acknowledgement of homophobia when Blaine is shown attending a lavish, all-boys private school with a zero-tolerance policy on homophobic bullying, while Samara’s private prep school has an LGBT Pride Club. Glee and Pretty Little Liars explicitly link privatization with safety for gay and lesbian students when Blaine and Samara are shown mentoring their counterparts who are struggling to come out in public schools. Such narratives present homophobia as a metric to evaluate schools and implicitly frame public schools as lacking. Well-adjusted and physically secure post-closet teens are articulated to whiteness, affluence and—in some instances—privatization.

Dalton Academy

Blaine’s private school is visually characterized by an all-male and racially diverse cast in formal uniforms surrounded by heavy drapery, wood paneling and oil paintings.

The narratives of the two racialized teens are distinct from the white post-closet characters and unique in relation to each other. Race is not mentioned in relation to post-closet characters in 2010-2011, and the avoidance of race is nearly acrobatic at times. In a Pretty Little Liars episode, tellingly titled “The New Normal,” a parent complains that Emily, who is racialized and “out,” is given preferential treatment on the swim team over his white and (presumed-to-be) heterosexual daughter. A teacher explains: “He came in making a big deal about how he thinks Emily’s getting special treatment because she’s gay.” [ (( S01 E17. To clarify, Emily is “out,” but does not meet the criteria for a post-closet character as she is shown to “come out” as part of her narrative (see footnote 6). ))] Race is entirely overlooked and in keeping with “post-” discourses there is a suggestion, though narratively discredited, that a privileged student is the victim of so-called “reverse discrimination.” It is within this kind of postracial context that the violence faced by Zane is characterized as exclusively homophobic in nature, while the violence faced by Maya is individualized and narratively divorced from racism and homophobia.

Image 10 DegrassiImage 11 Pretty Little Liars

Left to right: Zane from Degrassi and Maya from Pretty Little Liars [ ((Actor Bianca Lawson (right) has been playing a teen on teen TV for over 20 years, including Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Secret Life, Pretty Little Liars and more. ))]

Degrassi’s Zane conforms closely to Becker’s description of post-closet gay characters. His narrative diverges from the white teens when he is bullied by other “jocks” in his Canadian public high school and in response he promotes and attends a community roundtable addressing homophobia in schools. [ (( S10 E19 ))] Zane is a rare post-closet character who is shown facing and resisting homophobia, particularly through a public, community-based, activist solution. He is an atypical post-closet character insofar as he is racialized, in a high school that is not exclusively anti- / post-homophobia, and in contact with a politicized queer community. When taken together with the white, post-closet characters, it is notable that Zane’s divergence from more common representations of whiteness and privatization leave him symbolically vulnerable to homophobic violence and harassment in his ostensibly postracial high school context.

Image 12 Zane

Zane speaks at the community roundtable about homophobia in schools.

Maya on Pretty Little Liars (PLL) is a lone and extreme outlier in relation to post-closet characters and homonormativity. She is racialized, female and known to have sexual relationships with male and female characters. Her transgressions are underscored as dangerous when she is stalked and murdered at the end of the first season. Her killer is later revealed to be a young black man with whom she was romantically involved when her parents sent her to rehab for smoking pot and skipping school. Maya’s vulnerability and death are not narratively linked to homophobia or racism, but rather individualized as consequences of her unfixed and active (racialized) sexuality, opposition to valued institutions such as family, school and the law, as well as the jealousy of a violent and homicidal black man. It is striking that the teen who falls furthest outside the valued characteristics of post-closet TV and homonormativity is symbolically punished with a horrific death.

Maya's DeathMaya's Killer

Maya at the time of her death; Lyndon, Maya’s killer, attempts to kill again, but is slain in self-defense by one of the PLL protagonists.

One might argue that the relative safety of white teens and the violence faced by racialized youth is a realistic aspect of these storylines or that teen TV draws attention to under-resourced public schools lacking supports for queer students. Yet, these narratives primarily elide the existence of racism, homophobia and normative privilege, despite their tacit acknowledgement. Together, these post-closet narratives favour white gay teens—especially those whose families can afford to privatize their schooling—while endangering lighter-skinned racialized queer youth. Further, darker-skinned racialized post-closet characters are precluded from representation entirely, while tropes of the violent black man round out this “postracial” hierarchy. The dangers of “post-” politics are dramatized implicitly in these series as post-closet teens often serve to highlight the lack of homophobia in fictional high schools, while postracial discourse enables the continued privileging of white gay subjects alongside the penalizing and vilification of racialized teens. Narratives denying the existence of such discourses are bound to repeat them.

Image Credits:

1. Blaine and Kurt in Glee
2. Brothers and Sisters
3. The New Normal
4. The Fosters
5. Modern Family
6. Blaine on Glee
7. Griffin on The Secret Life of the American Teenager
8. Ian on 90210
9. Samara on Pretty Little Liars
10. Blaine’s private school is visually characterized by an all-male and racially diverse cast in formal uniforms surrounded by heavy drapery, wood paneling and oil paintings.
11. Zane on Degrassi
12. Maya on Pretty Little Liars
13. Zane speaks at the community roundtable about homophobia in schools. (author’s screen grab)
14. Maya at the time of her death
15. Lyndon, Maya’s killer, attempts to kill again, but is slain in self-defense by one of the PLL protagonists.

Please feel free to comment.