We are focusing on exploring the ways that queer presentation (how people look, speak, and behave while in the public eye) and representation (how queer people are portrayed in the media) contribute to understandings and misunderstandings about what queerness means.
On our sub-pages we are writing about language and fashion, examples of identity as a performance; staged production, as intentional and representational performance; and representations of queer people in reality television and in superhero comics.
Popular culture and public presentation are two of the most accessible ways for the broader community to learn about what being queer is, who the word encompasses, and how the identity looks. The work these performances do is vitally important not only in the political struggle of the queer community but also because these are the places to which queer youth may first look in order to comprehend and articulate their own identities.
We rely on the work of previous queer theorists and anthropologists, including Don Zimmerman and Candace West, Judith Butler’s ideas about the performativity of gender (and other identity categories), Joshua Gamson’s work on queer visibility in the public space of television, and many more.
One article that does an especially good job of addressing the theoretical background for the work we’re doing is Stephen Valocchi’s “Not Yet Queer Enough.” In this essay, Valocchi describes the kind of work that queer theory can do for understanding gender and sexuality, focusing especially on performativity. He writes that queer theory is about deconstructing binaries, especially what he calls “the homosexual/heterosexual binary,” which consists of tropes such as “normal and abnormal, secrecy and disclosure, public and private” (Valocchi 2005: 754). These themes—both their construction and deconstruction—appear in the writing our group has done for this project.
Regarding performativity, Valocchi cites Butler: “For Butler, rather than the expression of a core self or an essence that defines the individual, identities are the effect of the repeated performance of certain cultural signs and conventions” (Valocchi 2005: 756). So there is no original example of femaleness, for instance, from which people draw; instead they are carrying out performances of cultural signifiers of femininity and masculinity.
We are also very interested with the way identity performances can be understood differently depending on the positionality of the viewer and the “viewee”. Context lends meaning to performances, so a certain type of behavior, speech, or fashion might hold a different meaning for a person within the queer community than for someone who has not learned the history and layers of meaning that context can illuminate.
Power has a lot to do with the way people come to perform identity the way they do. Although queer theory and anthropology agree that identity is constructed in the social world, that does not mean that identity is not limited by the circumstances of the external world. “[S]exual and gender identities [are] products of the interaction between structure and agency,” writes Valocchi. “[T]he learning and enactment of these identities are partly constrained by social scripts, social labeling, and material resources associated with various identities and by the force of externally imposed political naming” (2005: 755).
With the work of this project, we want to come to a deeper understanding of how popular culture and public presentations contribute to the social environment in which queer identities are construed, imagined, and performed.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Rutledge, 1990. Web.
Gamson, Joshua. “Publicity Traps: Television Talk Shows and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Visibility.” Sexualities 1.11 (1998). Web.
Valocchi, Stephen. “Not Yet Queer Enough: The Lessons of Queer Theory for the Sociology of Gender and Sexuality.” Gender and Society 19.6 (2005), 750-770. JSTOR. Web.
Zimmerman, Don H. and Candace West. 1987. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society. Vol. 1, No. 2: Pp. 125-151 Web.