An Overview of Judith Halberstam’s [The Queer Art of Failure]

Front cover of Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure

Front cover of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure

I usually steer away from aesthetic judgments when writing about theory books, but in this case, let me start by saying that Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure was an absolute joy to read. What else can one expect from a theory book that opens up with a quote from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, SpongeBob SquarePants? Not only is her book witty and deeply intelligent, but it constantly made me smile, and at times, laugh out loud. Given the fact that this book is centered on failure (and other elements discussed within the anti-social movement in queer theory), I find its use of humor and its use of clear prose absolutely refreshing and delightful.

Moving on to a discussion of the actual text, The Queer Art of Failure centers its attention on products of “low” theory and popular culture (particularly CGI animation movies) in order to devise alternatives from binary formulations and heteronormative traps such as futurity and linearity. Halberstam uses artifacts of popular and low culture to aid her discussion because she deems that they are “far more likely to reveal key terms and conditions of the dominant than an earnest and ‘knowing’ text” (60). Halberstam’s main premise is that success is a heternormative enterprise and invention, and that in capitalist societies, success “equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2).

Failure (and other events/practices related to failure, such as forgetfulness and stupidity), rather than being approached as the inability to comply with a social norm or standard, is viewed by Halberstam as a way of unveiling creative and more cooperative ways of existing in the world. Her queer critique of success as a capitalistic venture stems from the fact that people who live in capitalist systems can only achieve success through the failure of others. To make matters more complex, many tend to view failure as the product of one’s own doing rather than a result of the system itself–and they are expected to remain optimistic despite of the inability to comply with an expected norm. Thus, the book explores alternative ontological and epistemological routes in life that are pessimistic, but this pessimism doesn’t necessarily entail an existential aporia: “It is a book about failing well, failing often, and learning, in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better” (24).

Halberstam shifts her focus to a discussion of animation, particularly CGI animation movies, in order to illustrate how they exemplify topics (such as revolution and transformation) and structures that deviate from linearity. She argues that these films, either deliberately or unintentionally “recognize that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination” (29) by envisioning the queer as a collective rather than a singularity. One of the films she makes reference to is Chicken Run (2000), in which the queer community of female chickens escape their impending doom (becoming the meaty product of chicken-pot pies) by collectively joining forces to build and power a plane to escape the farm. Rather than complying with domesticity, rather than subduing to the demands of the male rooster, and rather then accepting their culinary fate, they transcend their “natural” flightless fate by working as a group to escape (embracing their failure to comply with the norms of the farm). Halberstam mentions other movies, such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Over the Hedge, that promote collectivity over individuality as an alternative mode of existing in the world or as a way of achieving utopia.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The "queer" chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The “queer” chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Halberstam makes an interesting claim: she posits that revolutionary movies are aware of the fact that children are not invested in adult enterprises (in other words, children are queer in that they deviate from heteronormative expectations): “children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have religious morality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents, and they are not masters of their own domain” (47). Thus, cartoons become conventional and fail to be revolutionary when there is an overemphasis on the nuclear family or a “normative investment in coupled romance” (47). Thus, revolutionary CGI animation movies (which she refers to as Pixarvolt films) depict a world where the “little guys” are able to overcome obstacles, and where they are able to revolt against the “business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother” (47).

Halberstam shifts her attention to a discussion of forgetfulness and stupidity, arguing that similar to failure, they “work hand in hand to open up new and different ways of being in relation to time, truth, being, living, and dying” (55). After all,  forgetfulness can be approached as a failure to remember, and stupidity can be approached as a failure to be wise. In her efforts to forge the relationship between stupidity, forgetting, and other forms of being, she alludes to films such as Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Finding Nemo (2003) as examples of narratives that approach forgetting as an act that “arrests the developmental and progressive narratives of heteronormativity” (60). In Dude, Where’s My Car, for instance, the main characters are known for their relaxed approach that allows them to be receptive to others while at the same time being permeable and manipulable. This relaxed approach can especially be seen in the scene where the characters engage in a queer encounter in an effort to “compete” with Fabio (the infamous male model), The characters’ nonchalance (which might be perceived as stupidity) after the kiss, is deemed to be emancipatory because it is in essence a kiss between to straight men, yet it does not cause them to flinch in disgust or react negatively in any way. The kiss is a non-issue, and although it can be approached as an inauthentic representation,  it can also be approached as a way of resisting “the earnestness of so many gay and lesbian texts” (67).

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where’s My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

One of the more interesting discussions in Halberstam’s book centered around a discussion of forgetting, stupidity, and family within the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Halberstam mentions how the intent to break away the power of generation from the process of history is a queer project, precisely because “queer loves seek to uncouple change from the supposedly organic and immutable forms of family and inheritance” (70). Breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes away of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. It is here that Halberstam begins to approach linearity and normative temporality, which favor longevity over the temporary, thus prioritizing family over other possible relationships that can be forged.

Can Dori's short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Can Dori’s short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Her examination of Finding Nemo thusly attempts to demonstrate what happens to queer characters when they forget their families and find alternative ways of relating and bonding with others. This is mostly exemplified by the character of Dori, who suffers from short-term memory loss. Since she can’t recall her relationship or her family due to the fact that she is constantly forgetting, she is forced to (happily) bond with other creatures in a fashion that avoids normative temporality. This, in addition to the fact that she can’t forge a romantic relationship with Marlin (Nemo’s father) due to her condition makes her a very queer character. Halberstam also notes that within Finding Nemo, the mother figure is absent from the narrative, leading to an erasure of the past that facilitates the visualization of new possibilities of being. Thus, forgetting provides a new way to remember, a way to move on from the failure of recollection, and even more so, a way of disconnecting the self from the linear and normative expectations of time, culture, and family.

You can purchase a copy of Halberstam’s book here.

Work Cited

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

AIDS, Gay Rhetoric, and Resistance: Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?”

Written during the height of the AIDS crisis during the late 1980s and a few years prior to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s groundbreaking Epistemology of the Closet, Leo Bersani’s striking essay titled “Is the Rectum a Grave?” was published in the 43rd volume of AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism. The essay begins with a discussion of the violence and anger that the topic of AIDS invokes, especially to people who are not part of the communities that were hit the hardest by the disease. During the drastic outbreak of HIV and AIDS, not only did the US Justice Department issue a legal opinion that enabled employers to fire employees with AIDS if they suspected that the disease could be spread in the work environment (201), but it was also deemed that AIDS was an acceptable motive for exerting violence on People With AIDS (PWAs).

After delving into the legal and social ramifications faced by PWAs, especially gay men during the pinnacle of the AIDS crisis, Bersani makes a bold claim by stating that gay rhetoric has developed a series of lies that have been developed in order to approach gay sex as democratic or compliant with heternormative aims such as monogamy. While Bersani acknowledges the strategic value of these lies, he ultimately believes that “the AIDS crises has rendered [these lies] obsolescent” (206). One of the first “lies” of gay rhetoric that Bersani attacks of Dennis Altman’s suggestion that gay bathhouses are a manifestation of “Whitmanesque democracy” (206) where hierarchies are obliterated, by truthfully describing gay bathhouses for what they truly are: “one of the most ruthlessly ranked, hierarchized, and competitive encounters”  (206).

Screen capture from Season 1, Episode 18 of Queer as Folk (U.S. Version). This scene depicts the "Whitmanesque" version of gay bathhouses according to the views of Dennis Altman. Notice that similar to the fantasy of the bathhouse as a democratic space, the bathhouse in this scene projects an aura of fantasy and the mystical as male bodies mingle indiscriminately with each other.

Screen capture from Season 1, Episode 18 of Queer as Folk (U.S. Version). This scene depicts the “Whitmanesque” version of gay bathhouses according to the views of Dennis Altman. Notice that similar to the fantasy of the bathhouse as a democratic space, the bathhouse in this scene projects an aura of fantasy and the mystical as male bodies mingle indiscriminately with each other.

Another lie of gay rhetoric that Bersani challenges is that which views butch-fem lesbian couples and the gay-macho style as subversive parodies of the behaviors that inspire these styles. The effects of the gay-macho style on the heterosexual world is particularly scrutinized by Bersani, for not only does the straight male with power fail to see any relation between the gay-macho style and their own masculinity, but to some extent, the male with power could recognize that the gay-macho “at least intends to pay worshipful tribute to the style and behavior he defiles” (207). The problem with gay machismo is that it alludes to the possibility that gay men might idealize certain representations of masculinity or feel inferior to these representations, especially when considering that they are already judged according to these standards. With this in mind, Bersani posits that an authentic gay male political identity:

implies a struggle not only against definitions of maleness and of homosexuality as they are reiterated and imposed in a heterosexist social discourse, but also against those very same definitions so seductively and so faithfully reflected by those (in large part culturally invented and elaborated) male bodies that we carry within us as permanently renewable sources of excitement. (209)

Screen capture from Arrested Development showing Tobias and George Michael wearing typical gay-macho attire. Would this be considered a subversion or a perversion to heterosexual man of power? To what extent can the gay-macho be considered a true parody of heteronormativity?

Screen capture from Arrested Development showing Tobias and George Michael wearing what would be approached as gay-macho attire. Would this be considered a subversion or a perversion to heterosexual man of power? To what extent can the gay-macho be considered a true parody of heteronormativity?

In what I consider to be one of the more radical moves in the essay, Bersani argues for an “explosion” of the gay ideological boundary. Instead of gay rhetoric attempting to deny or soften important (although at times politically unpleasant) truths of homosexual desire, Bersani proposes an embrace of truths as acts of resistance. His take is that  even though sexist power might be able to resist social revolutions, it cannot resist gay truths being embraced in a way that they assume or take-on this power (209). Thus, rather than viewing gay identities as a way of parodying male sexist norms, Bersani approaches them as joys derived from transgressing social norms: “it is not because of the parodistic distance that [gay men] take from that identity, but rather because, from within their nearly mad identification with it, they never cease to feel the appeal of its being violated” (209).

It is after this move that Bersani returns to the discussion of AIDS and the violence it induces. He focus on the notion of the media and the government (during the rise of the epidemic), to (erroneously) focus on gay men as agents who deliberately want to see the disease spread: “those being killed are killers” (211). He also begins to focus on how the representation of gay men during the AIDS crisis is remarkably similar to the representation of prostitutes in the 19th century. Prostitutes were not only represented as vessels that carried disease, but they were also characterized as being sexually insatiable (seeing as prostitutes were able to have have multiple orgasms and uninterrupted sex). Bersani then draws a correlation between 19th century views of prostitutes and contemporary views of gay men and anal sex (especially when anal sex is viewed in its “capacity” of being a recipient to uninterrupted penetration, possibly from multiple partners). Thus, both prostitution and gay sex perpetuate the idea of “female” sexuality being “intrinsically diseased,” and where both women and gay men “spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction” (211).

In the final move made by Bersani, he goes on to contest most (hetero)sexual relationships because they automatically convert the sexual act and sexuality into a struggle of power. He then goes on to discuss how power is generally attributed to the man due to his active role as the penetrator; thus, phallocentrism becomes “not primarily the denial of power to women […] but above all the denial of the value of powerlessness in both men and women” (217). With this in mind, Bersani makes his conclusive claim (which years later will influence Lee Edelman’s views of reproductive futurity), in which gay men, instead of welcoming heternormative models (i.e. monogamy) as a positive outcome of AIDS, should “ceaslessly lament the practical necessity, now, of such relationships, should resist being drawn into mimicking the unrelenting warfare between men and women, which nothing has ever changed” (218).

While I see some value of Bersani’s work in terms of assuring that queerness remains actively positioned against normativity, I am skeptical about the anti-assimilationist views that he pushes in that they undermine the social and personal value of monogamy. By suggesting a resistance to monogamy, isn’t there still an imposition of power and control over sexuality? True, the power will not be phallocentric, but under his views, power is still approached in a hierarchical fashion that prioritizes the rejection rather than the embrace of monogamy ( becoming a power that he deems effective enough to overthrow the binds of heteronormativity).

What are your thoughts and suggestions on Bersani’s views? I’d love to know what you think!

Work Cited:

Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism 43 (1987): 197-222. Web.

Queer Times: An Analysis of David Levithan’s [Two Boys Kissing]

Front cover of David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing

Front cover of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013)

In the notes and acknowledgments section written at the end of Two Boys Kissing, author David Levithan states that “This isn’t a book I could have written ten years ago” (199). Levithan is absolutely right. Back in 2003, when I was still a sophomore in high school, I could never fathom the possibility of finding a book that so openly and proudly embraces gay themes. Could you imagine walking through a bookstore in 2003 and identifying a single book written for a young reader with two boys kissing on the cover? Absolutely not. Levithan rightfully acknowledges that his book is symptomatic of the major events, challenges, and changes that the LGBT community has been facing for decades. However, Two Boys Kissing is much more than a focal point of gay and lesbian history. As I was approaching the end of this novel, I could sense that this book will trigger (or already has triggered) a major paradigm shift in the realm of gay (young adult) fiction. This is the book that we’ve been waiting for; this is the book that will change the game.

The heart of this novel’s plot is a narrative focused on two teenage boys named Craig and Harry, who are attempting to break the record for the world’s longest kiss in order to challenge heteronormative attitudes and ideologies present in their lives. But in addition to this central narrative, Levithan weaves the stories of other queer youths that are somehow connected to this record-breaking kiss: Neil and Peter,  who are in a relationship that would’ve been deemed impossible a couple of years ago; Avery, a pink-haired FTM transgender teen, and Ryan, a blue-haired boy Avery meets at an LGBT prom; Tariq Johnson, a teen who was gay-bashed–an event that inspires Craig and Harry to give a shot at breaking a world record; and Cooper Riggs, a gay teen who “could be outside his room, surrounded by people, and it would still feel like nowhere” (5). All of these narratives weave a complex web that attempts to illustrate the state of gay youth today, focusing not only on the progress that has been made throughout the decades, but also the issues that still need to be challenged in order for a progressive politics to take place.

There are two things that I find absolutely ground-breaking in terms of this novel: first and foremost, the novel is an overt attack on the lack of futurity that supposedly haunts queer lives. Rather than viewing queerness as limiting and as a domain of identity that embraces the “death drive” (think Lee Edelman), Levithan constructs a narrative that tries to disrupt these limits by constructing the future as a space that lacks precise definition but that is full of possibility. As the narrators of the novel eloquently put it:

What a powerful word, future. Of all the abstractions we can articulate to ourselves, of all the concepts we have that other animals do not, how extraordinary the ability to consider a time that’s never been experienced. And how tragic not to consider it. It galls us, we with such a limited future, to see someone brush it aside as meaningless, when it has an endless capacity for meaning, and an endless number of meanings that can be found within it. (155)

The second thing that I find groundbreaking comes into perspective when focusing on the passage above. Who are the narrators of this novel? Who are these subjects with such a limited future? The novel is narrated by the collective voice (i.e. Greek chorus) that consists of “your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, […]. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation” (3). Indeed, the novel is narrated by a generation of gay men who succumbed to AIDS during the advent and rise of disease. What we have then is a web of the present, weaved by the voices of the past, in order to enable a future. It can be argued that Levithan’s novel queers time to the extent that the boundaries of the past and present are no longer valid, turning the present into a state that can be perceived, scrutinized, and observed by voices from the past.

The attempt to bridge the past to the present creates a lot of tension within the novel, not only because the narrators seem to inhabit a space where time has no control, but also because these voices are unable to alter or change anything happening in the present. The voices are given the gift of knowledge, but they are unable to do anything with this knowledge other than observe, or give advice to the reader rather than to the characters of the novel itself (this is done several times when the narrators break the fourth wall to address the audience). Despite this tension, I think that the novel is novel in terms of altering the typical discourse of gay fiction. This discourse is altered by working towards a futuristic and emancipatory queer politics, while still keeping hold of the past–a past that triggered the need for a queer politics in the first place. Many gay works that perpetuate a sense of futurity do so by sacrificing the pain and torment found in the past. Levithan’s novel, on the other hand, embraces and highlights the pains and joys of the past-but also depicts this embrace as one that is willing to loosen its hold on queer subjects so they can continue moving forward. The past, in this case, becomes a launchpad to futurity rather than the binds that prevent any forward movement.

I think this novel greatly addresses questions pushed forth by Heather Love in her book Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer HistoryIn her book, Love constantly asks the reader to assess whether or not it is possible to have an awareness of the past without being consumed by it. Furthermore, Love ultimately wonders if it is possible to look back while still moving forward, or in other words, whether it is possible to work toward an emancipatory future without forgetting the past that necessitated this work in the first place. I don’t know if Levithan is familiar with Love’s work, but his novel seems to be a response, and perhaps, a solution towards the temporal issues found in queer lives. If he is not familiar with Love’s work, I think that Two Boys Kissing is the product of the same cultural demands that drove the creation of Love’s book in 2004.

Given that the genre of gay literature is usually saturated with perspectives that are driven by temporal extremes (i.e. the past and the future), it is frankly amazing to encounter an author that has been able to channel both the past and the present in order to envision a queer future. Thank you, David Levithan, for writing this book. Although you are right to establish that this book is a product of many past and current events, you are ultimately the agent that channeled a progressive queer history that still pays its homage to the past (and for young readers, nonetheless). I am more than certain that Two Boys Kissing will shift the paradigm of young adult and LGBT literature. The novel has already been nominated for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and I’m sure that this is only the first of many nominations and accolades to come.

You can purchase a copy of Levithan’s novel by clicking here.

Works Cited and Consulted

Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print

A Queer Overview of Judith Butler’s [Gender Trouble]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble

Rich, complex, difficult, and groundbreaking are just a few of the words that are usually associated with Judith Butler’s works. Despite the fact that her texts are often described as “tedious” and “overwrought,” reading Butler is well worth the effort, and I’m often amazed at the way she is able to wrestle with difficult ideas. Furthermore, I’m delighted by how she is able to add layers of complexity to the already complex domain of (gendered) identity politics. Gender Trouble, originally published in 1990, is not only considered to be one of the seminal texts of queer theory, but it brought into light many aspects of gender that we take for granted today (particularly the notion of gender performativity).

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga's male alter ego. Calderone represents the common place of gender performativity within contemporary society.

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga’s male alter ego. Calderone can be approached as an example of the ubiquitous and overt manifestation of gender performativity within popular culture.

Can a person “possess” a gender? Can a person “be” a gender? Or, can a person “act out” a gender? Even though many people may not be familiar with the concept of gender performativity, it is a phenomenon that is pervasive and somewhat obvious within contemporary society. The picture above shows pop sensation Lady Gaga assuming the role of her male alter ego, Jo Calderone, in Gaga’s attempt to blur the lines that are dichotomously imposed in society’s approaches towards gender and sex. Maleness and masculinity, in this case, are being performed through Lady Gaga’s actions and choices, rather than being a trait that pre-exists within the individual. Gender and sex, from Butler’s perspective, can be approached in a similar fashion to makeup in the sense of being a construction rather than an essential part of one’s being. However, keeping this metaphor of makeup in mind, it is important to realize that our surroundings and environment control (to some extent) the cosmetic options that are available to us. Gender is not ontological, but rather, it comes to existence through actions: “gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the dead” (25, emphasis mine).

Early on in Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to the notion of drag performances in order to illustrate how they disrupt the “very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” (x). Since drag entails the performance of a gender that is supposedly opposite to one’s “true” gender, it pushes one to question the extent to which certain traits that are considered masculine or feminine are true, essential, and indivisible from the self. Rather than viewing drag as an imitation, Butler approaches it as an action that defines the parameters, boundaries, and practices that create the notion of gender in the first place. An important concept to keep in mind when approaching Butler’s notions of gender is the word style, which not only includes obvious factors such as clothing, but also includes other details such as composure, constitution, presentation, and above all, discourse. Butler thus defines gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (33).

Although performativity is the concept in Gender Trouble that tends to resonate among scholars of queer theory, performativity is simply a heuristic Butler uses to achieve her main goal. Tantalizingly, she questions whether the intent to have a feminist politics based on a common identity that binds all women is practical and useful, especially when considering that it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to find a common factor that all women share (unless, of course, we resort to biological notions of gender essentialism). This notion holds particularly true when intersecting gender with other domains of identity, including race, socio-economic status, culture, among others. As Butler eloquently puts it:

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. (3)

Feminist politics generally approach the concept of “women” and gender in universal terms, thriving on the assumption that there is a cross-cultural and cross-geographical quality or factor that ties a large group of people together. Butler rightfully points out that this feminist construction, even when designed with an emancipatory ideal in mind, can still be interpreted as damaging because it is not only designed to include and exclude certain individuals, but it fails to recognize and respect idiosyncratic differences. In simple terms, by establishing a factor as universal, one runs the risk of excluding all those who don’t fit within this particular model. This is why Butler suggests that “Without the compulsory expectation that feminists actions must be instituted from some stable, unified, and agreed upon identity, those actions might well get a quicker starts and seem more congenial to a number of ‘women’ for whom the meaning of the category is permanently moot” (15). Note that even with my use of the term women, there is an underlying assumption that I am able to label an entire community of individuals  based on an unstable, and perhaps ephemeral, trait–this is precisely something that Butler tries to challenge, but I ultimately question whether or not this is entirely possible or useful. After all, isn’t the notion of unity and community building crucial to a pragmatic rather than an academic approach to feminism? This is something I have to contemplate a bit more.

Butler ultimately connects the notion of performativity to feminist politics by questioning the “phantasmic” construction of the “we” that is nearly always invoked in matters of feminism. Despite the capability of “we” to connect people, it achieves this connection through exclusion while simultaneously denying the complexity of the issues at hand. When it comes to identity politics, many tend to assume that the identity exists prior to a political response. However, Butler asserts that “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” (142). We are what we do. There is no such thing as a “self” that exists before one is immersed into a culture, and there is no such thing as a self being corrupted or metamorphosed by its surroundings (how can something be corrupted if it doesn’t exist a priori?). “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (145).

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

Front cover of Steven Bruhm's and Natasha Hurley's Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

Front cover of Steven Bruhm’s and Natasha Hurley’s Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

What is a queer child? What happens when a child moves away from accepted conventions of sexuality and adult heteronormativity? What are the repercussions of protecting children from the inevitable discovery of sexuality? How do storytellers control, regulate, or contest the notion of childhood sexuality? Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children is a collection of thought-provoking essays regarding the juxtaposition of children’s studies, sexuality, and queer theory compiled by Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley that attempt to answer the questions above.

Curiouser approaches the notion of childhood queerness in both its sexual and traditional sense, using the term to depict any deviation from normality. Thus, the essays in this collection not only study children who don’t conform to the (non) sexual roles that are assigned to them, but also children who are “defined by and outside of what is ‘normal'” (x). Bruhm and Hurley make insightful claims not only about the presence of gay children, but also about the presence of gay and lesbian figures in children’s lives. In terms of the latter, they point out that it is deemed acceptable for children to know of gay individuals as long as they uphold and secure “the fantasy of a preferred future” (xiii). But in order for this future to be upheld, a dichotomy must be imposed between the state of childhood and the “threat” of sexuality.

Many of the ideas posited in the introduction of Curiouser were intriguing, but at times I caught myself wondering if the issue of childhood sexuality could be discussed and debated without encountering some backlash or apprehension from an audience. For instance, at one point in their introduction, Bruhm and Hurley point out that “remembered childhood experiences can be traumatic or pleasant; the problem that interests us most here is how to make sense of a child’s pleasure without pathologizing it or reducing it to ‘trauma'” (xxix). On one hand, I agree that it would be questionable to assert that children don’t feel pleasure, and it also would be questionable to deny that children possess some degree of sexuality. But, does this recognition entail that something is wrong with the child? How is this notion of childhood pleasure problematized when taking pedophilia into account? Although there indeed may be a case where a child feels pleasure through a sexual encounter with an adult, does this mean that this action is correct from a moral stance, especially when taking into consideration that the adult is typically more powerful than the child (in terms of experience, body size, and influence)?

Although the questions above aren’t entirely answered (or at times contradicted), the essays in this book collection attempt to demonstrate that children live beyond the fictions of childhood and innocence that we construct for them. This is particularly evidenced by the very existence of the queer child, who by definition goes against established norms and parameters of childhood. The essays are divided into two major sections: one focusing exclusively on the issues of childhood sexuality and the erotic child, driven primarily through the ideas of James R. Kincaid, Richard D. Mohr, among others; the other half focuses on the sexual connotation of queer as it pertains to the study of children and childhood. Among these essays, we find Kincaid’s “Producing Erotic Children,” which perpetuates the idea of the construction of the child, arguing that “erotic children are manufactured–in the sense that we produce them in our cultural factories, the ones that make meanings for us. They tell us what ‘the child’ is, and also that ‘the erotic’ is. I argue that for the last two hundred years or so, they have confused us, have failed to distinguish the two categories, have allowed them dangerously to overlap” (10). These notions become even more complex as we realize that the child, according to Kincaid, is defined “according to what they do not have” (10). From this perspective, the issue with childhood and eroticism is that we impose a divide within two categories that are not well-defined and that are very subjective, putting into question the accuracy and validity of this dichotomy in the first place.

True to the aims of queer theory, the essays in Curiouser expose constructed binaries imposed on society, and deconstructs them by highlighting their inability to be held or sustained in society. These binaries include but are not limited to childhood/eroticism, childhood/adulthood, innocence/experience, pleasure/trauma, among others. The book also does an excellent job of exposing the unwritten rules that are at play when analyzing the concept of childhood in juxtaposition to gender and sexuality, as seen in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s discussion of the war on effeminate boys, where she (somewhat facetiously) questions why the bulk of the discourse on queer children is aimed at steering the child away from homosexuality rather than steering them towards it. Other essays, such as Richard D. Mohr’s “The Pedophilia of Everyday Life” go as far as to present childhood as a concept that “cannot do the moral work society has created it to do” (29). Mohr’s line of inquiry was intriguing because he approaches childhood as a “security blanket” (29) designed to provide a balance for a society characterized by depression, violence, and bleakness. Yet, we come to realize, especially with the advent of the queer child, that even children are capable of possessing the very traits that we are protecting them from. Even more so, as adults, we enforce children to embody traits and characteristics that we ourselves are incapable of upholding.

Work Cited

Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley (Eds.). Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Print.

Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures

Front cover of Guy Davidson's Queer Commodities

Front cover of Guy Davidson’s Queer Commodities

The process of commodification is commonly viewed as antithetical to the notion of queer. While many people within LGBT communities or subcultures have widely embraced the increasing presence and assimilation of gay culture into mainstream culture (which includes an increasing representation of gay and lesbian characters/issues in the media, the nationalization of LGBT rights, among others), some have resisted this embrace due to the implications of commodification (which resonate immensely with the assimilationist strand of queer activism). Does an embrace of consumerism and modification entail a betrayal of a political queer agenda, which thrives not only on the challenging of the status quo, but also on the explicit efforts to avoid normalization or categorizations? 

By focusing his attention on the relationship between LGBT sexualities, liberatory politics, and consumer culture in five contemporary American novels, Davidson’s Queer Temporalities attempts to demonstrate the inadequacy of celebrating or condemning this relationship. This inadequacy leads Davidson to argue that commodification not only has a necessary but varying effects for gay and lesbian subcultures, but he also focuses on how these subcultures can “resist or transform some of capitalism’s more oppressive or pernicious dimensions” (2) through commodities.

Davidson begins his discussion of the relationship between LGBT subcultures and commodifictation by focusing first on the Stonewall Riots, acknowledging how the event led to the development of gay and lesbian urban culture; however, he questions the efficacy of marking this event as the political origin of the gay liberation movement. Drawing from activist John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Davidson posits that the reason gay and lesbian lives were able to exist, and the reason why LGBT politics were developed in the first place, is due primarily to the existence of capitalism. The deviation from a family-based household economy to our current model of free-labor, essentially paved the way to a system outside of the normative heterosexual family that was possible.

According to this perspective, capitalism is the entity that not only propels LGBT politics and identity, but it is ultimately the phenomenon that created this identity domain in the first place. Davidson then goes on to suggest that attacks against the commodification of the LGBT community, despite their sophistication, are driven by “an unachievable desire for a gay and lesbian community that is politically radical and unified in purpose” (7). Because of the impossibility of community given the socio-cultural and political diversity within LGBT individuals, Davidson draws from predominant lines of thought in (Marxist) cultural studies in order to approach queer subjects as a subculture rather than a community. I think that this move is very clever and appropriate, especially when considering that the notion of community goes against the “world-making project” (14) of queer culture, because it is unable to sustain various factors such as the existence of more members than can possibly be identified, a formation of identity based on experience rather than birth, and an identity that is not necessarily tied to space or geography.

Davidson thus uses the term subculture because it still denotes a body of people who identify themselves as part of a group based on things they have in common. However, this body of people is still considered deviant according to the expectations and practices of a larger group of individuals. Within the use of the term subculture, Davidson is particular interested in the use of spectacular style, (which alludes to visible markers of identity, in addition to combinations of dress, dance, slang, music, attitudes, among others), and how this concept is/was crucial to pre- and post-liberation queer subcultures.

In due course, Davidson highlights that commodification has multi-faceted and unpredictable effects in queer subcultures: it can provide a venue for assimilation by sacrificing the “politics” of queerness, it can provide the possibility of resisting and altering the status quo, it can offer the possibility of futurity, or it can be used to refute futurity altogether. Nevertheless, despite of how commodity is embraced, rejected, ignored, or attacked within the queer realm, one must admit that commodity is the center of the past, present, and potential future of queer subculture.

Work Cited

Davidson, Guy. Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Davidson’s book here.

Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

feeling backward cover

Front cover of Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

We supposedly live in a time where it is “okay to be gay.” This growing sentiment can partially be accredited to the nationalization of gay media and representations in our society. When I was a child, finding gay representations in television and movies was a challenge–it was only in my teen years that gayness became commonplace with media. Ellen Degeneres came out in 1997. Dawson’s Creek portrayed the first  kiss ever aired in network television between two men in the USA. Will & Grace portrayed the lives of two gay men in New York City. Even shows targeted at children and teenagers, such as Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2009), had a gay protagonist within its ensemble. These representations portrayed not only the possibility of queers being accepted within society, but also the notion that LGBTQ people are no different than straight people.

Despite the ever-increasing positive representations of LGBTQ individuals in the media, despite the growing number of states that have legalized same-sex marriage, and despite the fact that we’re told that we live in a more accepting society, some LGBTQ individuals continue to face “backwards” feelings when it comes to sexuality, including but not limited to shame, regret, loss, depression, among others. I particularly think that with the current advent of LGBTQ censorship and oppression going on right now in Russia, backward feelings (which include depression, melancholia, despair, secrecy, among others) as pertaining to queerness have especially been under the radar during the past year. Gay acceptance is taken for granted, and any invocation of the dark past of queer identity is accused of being a non-progressive and archaic turn–but what happens when we consider communities labeled under the guise of LGBTQ that are still considered subaltern in a sense, such as queers of color, queers of low socio-economic status, queers in Russia, or even those who have been affected by AIDS? Is it possible that by focusing so much on the progress and on the positive aspects of LGBTQ politics, that we have come to ignore or brush aside the negative feelings and events that demanded a need for progress in the first place?

The questions above are just some of the ones that Heather Love explores in her book titled Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Her book begins by questioning the possibility of exploring the past of communities that have undergone historical injury: is it possible to explore the past without becoming consumed by it? Can history be explored and analyzed without letting it damage the possibility of a future? Through an exploration of various 19th and 20th century texts that contain homosexuality as an undertone or as an explicit topic, Love intends to create an “archive of feeling” (4) that would allow her to not only understand feelings of “queer” authors who wrote before the modern advent of homosexuality, but that will also allow one to asses the corporeal, psychic, and historical costs of homophobia. By focusing on backward feelings, Love intends to advocate futurity based on an explicit embrace of the past. She also argues that despite the privileging of progressive and emancipatory visions in queer politics, it is important to also focus on backwards feelings because they

serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world; they indicate continuities between the bad gay past and the present; and they show up the inadequacy of queer narratives of progress. Most important, they teach us that we do not know what is good for politics. (27)

Thus, Love tries to tell a history of 20th century representation that focuses on backwardness (shyness, failure, melancholia, loneliness, immaturity, self-hatred, etc.) in order to put the notion of “progress” into question, and to demonstrate that “in a moment where gays and lesbians have no excuse for feeling bad, the evocation of a long history of queer suffering provides, if not solace exactly, then at least relief” (146). The call for backwards feeling becomes even more relevant within queer studies and gay activism when realizing that backwardness has played a major role in defining queer politics in the first place. Love refers, for instance, to the re-appropriation of the term queer, which reclaimed the word “from its homophobic uses and turned to good use–while still maintaining its link to a history of damage–was crucial to the development of a queer intellectual method” (157).

What Love’s book makes absolutely clear is that it is impossible to even think of a transformative politics without possessing awareness of what (or why something) is being transformed. Within some approaches to queer theory and gay activism, there has been a trend in which the past has been discredited as no longer being relevant to the conditions of today’s society. Even more concerning is the fact that some scholars and activists have chosen to ignore the past completely. However, can we achieve progress and transformation only by turning our backs on the past? Love tantalizingly suggests that even though queers may feel compelled to envision a more Utopian future, an awareness of the injuries of queer history make this “orientation toward the future difficult to sustain” (162).  Most people are aware of the repercussions and costs of being queer. Given this awareness, the issue is not a matter of learning how to develop hope “in the face of despair”, but rather, learning how to “make a future backward enough even that the most reluctant among us might want to live there” (163). In other words, I take this to mean that the past has to be kept alive not to the extent that it will destroy us, but to the extent that it can provide some sense of comfort and recognition to queers who are apprehensive of their own queerness.

Work Cited

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print

An Overview of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s [The Queer Child]

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Why is there such a hesitancy to label a child as queer? Is it possible that all children are queer (at least in some sense of the word)? How does a child grow, when said growth is being heavily monitored, delayed, and controlled? These are just some of the many questions that Stockton explores in her insightful book titled The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. In this book, Stockton posits that the desire to create a distance between childhood and adulthood has intensified the queerness of the child, due mostly to the wedge that has been placed between the two categorizations. As she points out, “The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back” (5). Because of the constructed nature of childhood, the notion of a “gay child” becomes problematic, especially when taking into account that children are supposed to be viewed as innocent and non-sexual. Thus, the notion of a “gay child” not only implies that children have agency and sexuality, but it also challenges the view of sexual orientation as a phenomenon that emerges later on in life.

Part of what Stockton intends to argue in her book is that there are ways of growing (or developing) that deviate from cultural expectations and norms: “There are ways of growing that are not growing up” (11). In addition, the term “growing up” is finite, in that there is an expectation for the growing process to achieve a state of completion once a certain height is achieved, or once the process of physical growth comes to a halt. Stockton thus adopts the notion of growing sideways as a way of thinking of growth not only as an on-going process, but also a growth that is not restricted to age. Sideways growth entails that “the width of a person’s experience of ideas, their motives or their motions, may pertain to any age, bringing ‘adults’ and ‘children’ into lateral contact of surprising sorts” (11). With this in mind, sideways growth intends to minimize (and to some extent, eradicate) the distinction that is made between the “child” and the “adult” by exemplifying the queerness of children as a socio-cultural construct.

In order to broaden her discussion on the queerness of children, Stockton develops some archetypes, or versions, of the queer child which focus on varying expressions of childhood and queerness. These archetypes, or central versions, present children that embrace traits and characteristics that are antithetical to the idea of childhood, whether it be through sex, aggression, violence, closets, secrets, etc. These versions focus not only on the sexual connotations of queer, but to some extent, Stockton makes the case for reverting to the traditional definition of queer (i.e. strange). This, to me, was slightly problematic, mostly because I think that the term queer should be tied in one way or another to the issue of sexuality or gender identity–less we run the danger of turning queer theory into the study of difference (which becomes redundant at some point). The versions of the queer child that Stockton devises are the following:

  • The Ghostly Gay Child: A child with a definite and unmistakable same-sex preference. This version usually participates in some degree of self-occulting (hence where the term ghostly arises) due to the child’s inability to “grow up” according to the standards imposed by heteronormativity. The ghostly gay child also manifests when parents, peers, or guardians disregard or refuse to recognize the child’s sexual orientation–thus adding an ethereal or otherworldly presence to the child’s sexuality. When the ghostly gay child’s growth is stunted, he or she must find an outlet where growth can take place. Perhaps the best example I could come up with of the ghostly gay child was the character of Justin Suarez in the 2006-10 series Ugly Betty. Although Justin exhibits characteristics that are closely tied to gayness (such as a penchant for fashion and musical theater), and although Justin’s family suspects he is gay, the series does not disclose the character’s sexuality until the concluding episodes of the series (where coincidentally, Justin is no longer a “child”). Therefore, the ghosting process occurs on the micro (family) level, as it does on a macro level (the audience).
  • The Grown Homosexual: This category is used to denote a “retrospective” queerness, in which the adult homosexual is “fastened… to the figure of the child” (22) in a form of arrested development. In other words, this version of the queer child is in essence a queer individual who is unable to become an adult; someone who remains as a child “in part by failing to have their own” (22).
  • The Child Queered by Freud: Unlike the previous two categories, which discuss children that will never be straight, this category pertains to the “not-yet-straight-child who is, nonetheless, a sexual child with aggressive wishes” (27). This child is not queer in terms of sexual orientation, but rather, exhibits behaviors or attitudes that transgress the expectations of innocence and purity that are expected in most children (think of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son).
  • The Child Queered by Innocence or Queered by Color/Money: As mentioned above, children’s innocence queers them, precisely because it distances children from the experiences that will turn them into adults: “They all share estrangement from what they approach: the adulthood against which they must be defined” (31). This expectation explains why children “as an idea” (31) are visualized as white and middle class. A childhood necessitates protection and shelter. Those individuals who are born into inferior conditions need a degree of experience in order to foster independence and to assure survival–they are not allowed to be weak or innocent. Thus, it is unsurprising that the media imbues “innocence” into these queer children by endowing them with an abuse “from which they need protection and to which they don’t consent” (33).

Stockton’s text proceeds to “braid” the different iterations of the queer child in order to ultimately demonstrate that the century of the child is in reality the century of the fictions of the queer child growing sideways (37). In order to support this claim, Stockton focuses on four “realizations” in terms of the queer child and its relationship to society:

  • Those who fetishize “delay” for the child must believe in sideways growth – when trying to determine the appropriate amount of length to delay childhood, it can be argued that children must find a way to grow (sideways) in spite of this imposed delay to eventual reach the adulthood that is being kept from them.
  • Evidently, we are scared of the child we would protect.
  • In the century of the child, the child is feared to disappear (just as the gay child appears to be emerging).
  • Children are vulnerable (and dangerous) as much by means of money as by means of sex – Children are made strange by money because they do not bring income into the family, thus enforcing the view of children as a non-productive commodity. Interestingly, money and consumerism has also allowed children to develop in unprecedented ways, whether it be through comic books that foster the child’s fantasies and imaginations, or playrooms, which are spaces where children share time with each other without adult intervention.

Work Cited

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, 2009. Print