QUEER THEORY proposes to understand the construction and operation of categories and the identities they shape and contain. In some early applications of queer theory to the analysis of popular culture, queer theorists examined mainstream texts that have been the staples of American popular culture. Alexander Doty, for example, performed a queer archaeology of such texts as Laverne & Shirley, The Jack Benny Program, and I Love Lucy and illustrated one of the central principles of queer theory: Queerness is about destabilizing conventional categories, subverting the identities derived from and normalized by heteropatriarchy. Queerness defies binary and fixed categories such as homo-/heterosexual, female/male, even lesbian/gay. Queerness, in both social performance and in lived identities, interrupts both convention and expectations.
In a queer reading of an apparently straight text, the analyst looks not for lesbian or gay content in any explicit form, but instead for the torquing of expectations about gender and sexuality. Queer theory has been most useful in the analysis and interpretation of texts that presumably are not gay in any overt way but that contain subtexts that are readable to lesbian and gay audiences as queer in some way. Texts thus operate on several levels of meaning and offer different pleasures for different constituencies.
Queer readings, in this sense, fall into three major categories. First are those texts in which lesbian and gay content is probably inadvertent, such as in the now “queerable” comedies of Rock Hudson and Doris Day in the early 1960’s. Second are texts in which there is deliberate creative effort to create a gay subtext, readable to the semiotically informed but innocuous to those who cannot decode a floating pink triangle. Finally, some mass mediated culture presents a more self-conscious double layering of gay and non-gay signifiers. Vivid examples of this style can be found in Xena, Warrior Princess and episodes of Ellen during the transitional year before the coming out episode and the explicitly gay final season.
The problem comes in what to do with a text that’s explicitly lesbian or gay in its original intent. How, for example, can queer theory explain the queerness in Ellen after Ellen—both the individual and the character—came out? Does queerness vanish when the text is explicitly lesbian or gay? Can there be a queer reading when the text is already presented as disruptive, unconventional, and subverting of norms of gender and sexuality?
Take the popular sitcom Will & Grace, which appears to create havoc for a queer reading.
Melinda Kanner, an anthropologist, is a visiting professor at the University of Houston. This research was funded in part by a research grant from GLAAD, The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.