I just wrote a book on queer media studies, but I never fully understood how I got started on it until I sat down to write this piece.1 In retrospect, I see the questions that started it off and the research that provided me with jumping-off points more clearly. The scholars whose work I sought to model were located in feminist media studies. My book is a good example of how queer media scholarship is informed and contoured by work in feminist media studies insofar as it relies on the conceptual logics and unconventional archives that characterize that body of work. What follows is a story in reverse. I chart how my own research in queer media studies owes a tremendous debt to feminist media studies, working backward to identify overlaps and tensions between the two. From there, I underscore why the gaps and overlaps between queer and feminist media studies are so useful for rigorous analysis of sex, gender, sexuality, and media culture.
In my book, I parse out the feelings of freedom, belonging, and transcendence that contemporary cinema, television, and online media make available to audiences comprised of sexual minorities. The book is heavily informed by Lauren Berlant's work on twentieth-century women's culture in The Female Complaint (2008).2 I am most moved by how deftly and sympathetically Berlant highlights the pleasures of normativity, pointing to affective response as a use value to the people who consume such pleasures. The elegance of that argument provides a way of thinking through the conflations, slippages, and differences between media forms that often limit themselves to the representation of gay men and lesbians, the audiences of more varied sexual minorities who consume them, and the modes of queer critique that attempt to parse out the mutual operation of power and pleasure at work in the texts themselves and the practices that attend them. For that reason, I cannot separate Berlant's decidedly feminist project from work in queer media studies like my own, which attempts to resist convention in considering the fantasies that media culture makes available to people.
In the interest of strengthening my argument, I engage an archive of purposefully “bad objects” to demonstrate that rigorous analysis of affective response troubles many conventional ways of assessing it. What I mean by that: even the most hackneyed, banal movie or television program might allow for glimmers of self-recognition among sexual minority audiences. The interpretations of queer media scholars do not necessarily map neatly onto the desires of more varied audiences. In my book, Feeling Normal, I devote chapters to direct-to-video LGBT cinema (for instance Latter Days , a treacly romance that pits gay male identity against Mormonism), as well as canceled television programs featuring sexual minority characters (for example It's All Relative [ABC, 2003–4], a little-seen, quickly shelved program that relies on jokes about gay men loving opera and home decor). In those unlikely objects of analysis I see evidence of having my mind blown by Janice Radway's and Tania Modleski's work as a graduate student.3 As a newcomer to studying sex, gender, sexuality, and media culture, I assumed that lowbrow texts like romance novels and soap operas were evidence of the complicity of commercial media with patriarchy. But in Radway's and Modleski's hands, romance novels and soap operas, respectively, are sites of gendered pleasure that offer women moments of distraction, escapism, and mutual recognition as they weather the norms that attend womanhood in late modernity. I see queer media scholars approaching their objects of analysis in similar ways, especially when they examine texts from the cultural dustbin, seeing evidence of transcendence even in the mundane. I have always connected the wide, varied body of work on queer reading practices (for instance camp or “reading against the grain”) to this feminist scholarship insofar as it makes unlikely arguments about the potential for pleasure amid the operations of power at work in texts that seem wholly problematic, politically.4
Even so, the relationship between queer and feminist media studies is not necessarily seamless. I see such tensions playing out most clearly in analysis of pornography. For instance, Tim Dean's Unlimited Intimacy (2009) highlights the pleasures of anal sex without condoms for men who have sex with men, in terms of both sexual practice and its representation in gay male pornography.5 He points to the awareness of risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV/AIDS, and the willingness to embrace it as a mode of desire that warrants further attention because of the extent to which it violates social norms in the name of pleasure. Yet “risk” is a highly gendered phenomenon. Put simply, cisgender and transgender women weather overlapping but still different sets of risks when engaging in unprotected sex. I see recent work on feminist pornography as an attempt among feminist studies scholars to move beyond mere critiques of sexually explicit media.6 Because pornography is so often a milieu that is less than conducive to female sexual agency, I am especially drawn to feminist media studies research that melds theory and practice in the attention it pays to the production and distribution practices that allow women to make pornography for other women.7
The combination of scholarship and praxis at work in recent research on feminist pornography is a good example of how media scholars of all kinds might alter the terrain of the call and response between different ways of thinking about sex, gender, sexuality, and media culture. As an area of inquiry devoted to problematizing binaries, queer media studies is at its best when, like some feminist research on pornography, it resists neat delineations and clean oppositions. To this end, Kara Keeling offers an invigorating call to arms in arguing for queer media scholarship that prompts new ways of thinking about media technologies and the ever-changing realities of queer experience as mutually constitutive.8 The fungibility of media texts and practices in the context of digital production, distribution, and consumption is such that they morph and mutate in ways that parallel the means by which sex, gender, and sexuality shape and are shaped by race, capital, and the nation-state. For that reason, Keeling sees the potential for media scholarship to offer important models for mapping the transformations of queer life in the contemporary moment. The ease of manipulating code lends itself to nonbinary, intersectional ways of conceptualizing sexual identity and desire. To my mind, Keeling parses out a model for doing queer media studies that is as practical as it is exciting. In the face of new regimes of power and control in what is now a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, Keeling advocates for a method of conducting research that is vital for its adaptability.
In identifying that necessarily messy approach to scholarship as a goal of queer media studies, Keeling provides an imaginative framework for thinking about how research might be an activist practice. Luckily for me and the many other researchers who approach scholarship with similar objectives, there are many scholars who provide great models. For instance, Noah Tsika thinks through the normalizing impact that algorithms have on queer cinema when it circulates on the internet.9 He complicates widespread understandings of online pirating and remixing as enabling queer permutations of identity and desire by situating such practices amid attempts by publishers, distributors, and online aggregators to extract value from content. What I like best about Tsika's work is that he complicates his very own suggestion that queer cinema on the internet reifies staid categories. For instance he highlights how the online circulation of Nollywood cinema opens it to queer fan practices that run counter to Nigerian legislation that seeks to curtail homosexuality.
In Ethereal Queer (2014) Amy Villarejo offers a similarly nonbinary take on television.10 Like Tsika, Villarejo confronts a generally accepted truth head-on and offers a new way of thinking about it. Where conventional wisdom understands stereotypes negatively, as though problematic images have become more progressive over time, Villarejo suggests that stereotypes are the units of time in which television communicates ideas about desire and identity: scenes, episodes, story arcs, series. She complicates conventional understandings of the medium's representations as having “improved” over the course of its history by looking at programming from different eras in order to parse out how seemingly facile representations of queer sexualities can offer viewers meaningful forms of identification. In essence, Villarejo argues that television's representations of nonnormative sexualities have not improved, per se, but they have gotten longer: from moments of innuendo to regular features of series. By doing that, Villarejo argues that queer criticism of television is most insightful when it grounds analysis of representations of sexual identities and desires in the historical conditions of their possibility: funding models, production practices, means of circulation. She suggests that those changes are made manifest in television's temporal units and, as a result, the medium's organization of time offers a rigorous way of understanding the politics and pleasures of the medium.
Where Villarejo breaks new ground for understanding the representation of sexual minorities on television, in Virtual Intimacies (2013) Shaka McGlotten rejuvenates analysis of same-sex intimacy online.11 Using ethnography to study men who look for sex with men on the internet, McGlotten critiques common assumptions of internet-enabled intimacies as “less than.” He suggests that the connections and disconnections between virtual intimacies and “real” intimacies offer new ways of understanding people's experiences of desire. In a chapter I like a great deal, “Feeling Black and Blue,” he argues that the prevalence of racism on mobile media applications, which gay men use to make connections with one another, enables world making among Black gay men rooted in shared experiences of injury. In doing so, McGlotten offers a provocative take on being and wanting on the internet, pointing to desire as a category that facilitates multiple modes of attachment, troubling easy assumptions of how love, sex, and queerness function online.
In sum, queer media studies is a varied, diffuse set of research questions, objects of analysis, and methodological approaches employed by scholars who work in an array of institutional locations, employing diverse critical habits of mind—all of which inform and are informed by feminist media studies. I find myself most excited by work that stretches their boundaries further than where they are now. Although “where they are now” is a bit of an artificial marker. Queer media studies is always, necessarily, a becoming: a breaking down and building up that is best characterized as simultaneously episodic and uneven, involving shimmers and flashes of sites, approaches, and modes of critique that change shape in uncanny, intriguing ways. In doing that, queer media studies is necessarily in dialogue with feminist media studies. The two work in concert and in tension with one another—as do all fortuitous relationships.