Queer, There, Everywhere: Buying & Selling Citizenship on Gay Narrowcast TV
by Hollis Griffin — Denison University
March 09, 2009 – 00:34
In looking for instances of sexual and political agency, queer media criticism often champions offbeat or unusual texts and practices. Another critical impulse is to use the “gentle reading,” relying on the queer subject-critic to parse out textual meanings in order to identify what’s “good” and/or “bad” about a text. Frequently, these paradigms are structured by a logic that relegates commercial media to the trash heap of all that is “problematic” or “reductive.” In the contemporary context of converging media platforms, conglomerating media companies, and niche marketing based on notions of taste, desire, and identity, it seems that media forms theorize gay political subjectivity and cultural membership as a matter of course—and not just in the artisanal modes of cultural production that are most frequently connected to queer politics. Rather than isolate particularly revealing texts or laud evermore eccentric interpretations, it seems that queer media criticism might benefit from unpacking how agency and affinity are imagined, debated, and held in tension in even the most quotidian iterations of recent commercial media.
Gay publics are increasingly identified as viable audiences in commercial media, a schema that has given rise to what scholars like John Hartley, Toby Miller, and Sarah Banet-Weiser characterize as a kind of “consumer citizenship.” In this context, identity-bound publics are courted via media forms that showcase fantasies of freedom, belonging, and transformation. I call these things “citizenship” because they are so often self-consciously civic and cultural in nature, though sometimes they do little more than champion market choice or trumpet individual agency. It seems that citizenship is an affective, fluid category in niche media, one that is central to the many fantasies of commerce and connection imagined by and through media forms directed to gay publics. Narrowcast cable television companies like LOGO and here! demonstrate gay consumer citizenship in that they make participation in political discourse a primary pleasure for their target audiences. Their traffic political discourse is not boundless, of course, but they delimit a range of ideological positions on queer issues and politics in courting publics. As such, I see gay consumer citizenship as a useful category for interrogating how, exactly, gay publics are invited to participate in commercial media culture at present.
Travel-related programming airing on the gay cable networks features a pointed example of this gay consumer citizenship. Shows like Roundtrip Ticket and Bump! provide advertisers and other corporate entities with an audience stratified by mutually informing notions of desire, taste, and identity. At the same time, the programs offer narrowcast viewers “armchair travel” via their representations of various institutions of gay life and culture around the world. Their modes of address highlight consumer-friendly individual agency, presenting audiences with an “inside look” at a location’s queer cultures that foregrounds different modes of consumption. The clip here includes a sequence in which Bump! host Shannon McDonough visits a Madrid salon. The segment resolves ethnic difference via sexuality, and alleviates the tensions endemic to sexual difference by articulating the host’s physical attractions as another part of her comedic performance. In this way, it presents viewers with a commerce-enabled form of citizenship available to certain queer publics in the urban center.
Like other instances of gay consumer citizenship in contemporary media culture, Bump! represents some diversity and multiplicity within queerness, trafficking in political discourse through its representations of consumer consumption, cultural participation, and civic engagement in particular locales. The show delimits a range of consumer-citzen activities that enable one’s membership in a broader public as well as a participation in various cultural milieus. To do so, it must negotiate tensions between assimilation and difference, both in terms of the global and the local, but also in terms of gay people and an ostensibly heterosexual mainstream.
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