Queer Theory

Originating in the early 1990s, queer theory comprises a diverse body of intellectual inquiry. It takes as its premise the notion that specific psychological, political, and cultural codes have elevated heterosexuality to the status of a sexual "given." By revealing these codes and exposing their limitations, along with the unstable foundations upon which they operate and sustain their power, queer theory aims to "undo" the heterosexual norm, and to extend the power of cultural presence and voice to sexually marginalized groups who do not adhere to the workings of heteronormativity. A "queer" perspective, then, is attentive to a multiplicity of sexual codes that operate in the products of cultural institutions, and does not privilege heterosexual codes as natural or authoritative. The designation of "queer" is itself a form of empowerment, through which a disenfranchised subculture has taken charge of a term that dominant heterosexual culture has used historically as a derogatory label.

Theorists vary in their configurations of which groups and perspectives are included under the blanket term. Many theorists find any articulated challenge to the normative nature of heterosexuality to qualify as queer; others use the term to apply specifically to gender and sexual orientations (such as transgender) that challenge or complicate the presumed alliance between sexual identity and gender identity. Making a useful operating distinction, Alexander Doty argues that "'Queer' is used to describe the non-straight work, positions, pleasures, and readings of people who either don't share the same 'sexual orientation' as that articulated in the texts they are producing or responding to … or who don't define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual (or straight, for that matter)" (p. xviii).

Doty's definition locates two specific sites of potential queerness, in the realm of the production of texts and the reading strategies individuals use to make sense of these texts. He also implies that the term "queer" may not always be useful in describing cultural artifacts produced as intentionally gay or lesbian, and specifically for consumption by gay or lesbian audiences. This qualification enables a tentative distinction between "queer" films and "gay" or "lesbian" films, with the former category more specifically referring to those works that invite their viewers to construct nonnormative sexual perspectives that in some way differ from those articulated within a filmic context. The distinction is also useful because it does not assume that any film with gay or lesbian subject matter, themes, or characters necessarily accommodates nonnormative perspectives. For example, one might argue that despite the overtly gay subject matter in its representation of an ill-fated love affair between two men, Making Love (1982) would not qualify as queer because it reinforces rather than challenges codes of heteronormativity by stereotyping gay behavior and by focusing upon the homosexual act as a disruption of the heterosexually based institution of marriage. On the other hand, Big Eden (2000) might be more suited to queer status since it radically challenges heteronormativity in setting forth a world whose citizens (in northwestern Montana) not only refrain from assuming everyone is straight, but who also rally others to celebrate their nonnormative sexualities in the interests of human companionship.

Collectively comprising what B. Ruby Rich identified as "New Queer Cinema," a set of independently produced, gay-themed films released in the early 1990s

Brad Davis in R. W. Fassbinder's Querelle (1982), an examination of homosexual power dynamics.
evidences the political and narrative strategies that filmmakers were introducing to contest the strictly heteronormative formulations of human experience that were also becoming the target of queer theorists. Rich's marking of the homosexual relations between Brian Epstein and John Lennon in Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times (1991) as "just a simple view of history with the veil of homophobia pulled back" becomes an apt description of the queer positions that this cinema was enabling in its characterizations as well as its audiences. Foregrounding the queer and sexual context (and content) of road movies and buddy films, Gregg Araki's The Living End (1992) and Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992) overturned mainstream cinematic conventions of male bonding as sexually innocent, in the process disrupting heterocentrist perspectives of genre and history. Operating metaphorically, Todd Haynes's Poison (1991) used the horror film genre to investigate the politics of gay sexual practices of the AIDS era. In narratives whose structural and formal strategies disrupted the conventions of classical Hollywood, filmmakers of the New Queer Cinema dared to conceive of their audiences as unconfined by the tenuous boundaries of the heteronormative, at a historical moment that was all too ready to pathologize the queer and the sexual outsider.

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