In Michele Aaron’s essay “Towards Queer Television Theory: Bigger pictures sans sweet queer-after”, Aaron provides a means of analyzing ‘queer’ television. Through a discussion of current queer television Aaron labels a “New Queer Culture” described as being diametrically opposed to the foundations of the past New Queer Cinema. Gone is the “radical intent” and “anti-normative trajectory” that colored the New Queer Cinema, in its place New Queer Culture.
New Queer Culture is ubiquitous on television; nearly all current shows that can be labeled queer fall into this category. I attribute this to television’s hesitance to broadcast images that don’t fall into the ‘normal’ range of what is expected to appear on television. The queer displays that make it to the air and find success have undergone an intensive mainstreaming process to fit a certain mold. Aaron attributes this mainstreaming to television’s existence in the “realm of the everyday”, a space that strives to reflect the ‘everyday’. After all, consumers want to see themselves and their experiences in what they watch. And in order to draw in the largest possible viewing audience it behooves networks to reduce elements down to their simplest and most relatable components.
This desire to present material in a relatively predictable manner that appeals to a wide audience presents a unique complication for portrayals of queerness. How can an audience that is composed of (presumably) straight viewers relate to the experiences of gay characters? What does the married couple in the suburbs know about gay night club culture? How can the young male bachelor relate to lesbian relationship drama? In situations such as these it is often impossible to reduce the complex and multifaceted dimensions involved into relatable stories, so television’s solution has been to instead try and mold queer issues into a set of conventional storylines. Aaron describes these as a “range of narratives frequently follow[ing] normative developmental narratives of sexuality, which promote (heterosexual) romantic coupling and commitment invariably in the form of marriage and reproduction.” Even among the queer shows we have viewed in our screening there are examples of this normalization of homosexuality to fit the constraints of television.
The show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy follows “five gay men who specialize in fashion, food & wine, grooming, culture, and interior design [as they] go to the rescue of helpless straight men with no sense of fashion or anything else and do a complete makeover.” Through the course of the show the men essentially grant the subject access to a queer sensibility or a gay aesthetic, with none of the other associated marks of homosexuality. This leads to a show that while it is marked as definitively queer by effect of its cast, is not an essentially queer show by judgment of its critical content.
Rather the focus of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is built entirely upon the pursuit of heterosexual desire. The entire purpose of the show is to assist a heterosexual romance; be it through new dating opportunities, the re-kindling of a relationship, or the movement of a relationship to the next level. The main characters of the show may be the ‘Fab Five’, but the audience is always meant to identify with the straight male. Just like the borrowed gay aesthetics, the actual gay men are only there to facilitate ultimate heterosexuality. An especially powerful example of heterosexuality’s privilege on the show is found in the season three episode “From the Doghouse to the Altar”. In this episode the Fab Five go to help Joe U. win back his ex-girlfriend with a surprise wedding proposal. The crew goes all out in their mission to make the proposal a success; Joe is fitted for an elegant suit, given wedding books, put in contact with a wedding planner, and eventually toasted by all of the men before going off to propose and hopefully get the girl. The underlying irony is in the fact that the men that have all the plans and know the right steps to make an unforgettable engagement, would not be allowed to legally marry the man they love in most of the country. This emphasizes the way gay aesthetics are selectively co-opted without acknowledgment of the hardships that come with homosexuality in the New Queer Culture. Whereas New Queer Cinema was by its very nature against the privilege and entire institution of marriage, New Queer Culture allows homosexuality to become a mere tool of the dominant straight culture for its use in an institution homosexuals are barred from participating in.
A prominent example of the normalization of queerness on mainstream television is found in the show Will and Grace. Will and Grace is a sitcom about gay lawyer Will and his best friend the straight interior designer Grace, with regular appearances by his campy gay friend Jack. In the episode we screened, season 2 episode 14 “Acting Out”, there are several instances showcasing the privilege of heterosexual romance. The episode opens with Grace complaining to Will about the relationship problems between she and her boyfriend, from the start of the episode a heterosexual romance is pushed to the forefront. There is an undercurrent of heterosexuality that runs throughout the episode as Grace attempts to dump her boyfriend. Her numerous attempts eventually culminate in her declaration of (false) love for Will. Although the show makes no suggestion that this love is based at all in reality, the fact that one of the select occurrences of romance involving Will is with a heterosexual woman can be seen as a significant dismissal of Will’s sexuality by the show. Similarly to Queer Eye, in this episode homosexuality is once again used to further a hetero-normative narrative.
Though the vast majority of queer texts buckle under the intense normalization of television, I do not mean to imply that it is impossible to have a truly queer television program. I think it there are already some examples of shows that are working to provide a queer viewing experience unconstrained by televisions common narratives or working to destabilize the very narratives that could bind them. I plan to look more into this aspect of television for my final project.