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.

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