Cinema and Media Studies Queer Theory
by
Maria Pramaggiore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0185

Introduction

Queer Theory emerged from departments of literature, film, rhetoric, and critical studies in universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe during the early 1990s, exemplified and inspired by the publication of two paradigm-shifting books: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Butler 1990) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick 2008) (both cited under Theory). Drawing upon the social constructionist views prominent in the work of French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault, Butler argued that gender is neither a natural nor a stable element of biological or social identity, but rather is constantly brought into existence through a series of performative activities: everyday gestures and actions that have the potential to reconstitute notions and practices of masculinity and femininity and thus resist normativity. Sedgwick similarly attacked foundational models of sexual identity, exploring the closet as more than merely a metaphor and revealing its omnipresence in American culture as a duplicitous social practice (the open secret) and juridical double bind (with a legal system that demands the simultaneous erasure and production of homosexuality). Sedgwick characterized two contradictory and pervasive views of homosexuality, “minoritizing” and “universalizing” discourses. Whereas the former defines homosexuals as a distinct minority, the universalizing view holds that queerness subtends all forms of sexual desire and practice, including heterosexuality. An important antecedent to this flurry of queer scholarly activity was the publication of Foucault’s three-volume work The History of Sexuality, published in English between 1977 and 1984. In it, Foucault rejected the “repressive hypothesis,” which considers sexuality to be a “natural” expression of human identity and treats culture as a repressive force that constrains sexuality. Foucault argued instead that a science of sexuality emerged as one element within the analytic of biopower—a set of 19th-century medical and social technologies that nation-states employed to control their populations. In Foucault’s view, cultural sanctions have not repressed sexual practices but, on the contrary, have produced a modern discourse of sexuality that forces subjects to speak about their sexual practices and desires continually. In addition to Foucault’s work, historical events contributed to the development of Queer Theory. Most important among these was the AIDS epidemic, which decimated queer communities in the United States during the 1980s. The Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge the health crisis spurred the formation of activist groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation. These organizations brought media attention to the disease and to the homophobic practices that slowed progress toward treatment and cure. One key feature of the political theatrics of AIDS activism was an unapologetic and assertive stance regarding queer sexualities, as exemplified in the now-famous mantra, “we’re here; we’re queer; get used to it.” That defiant attitude became the defining sensibility of Queer Theory, queer politics, and queer aesthetics. Indeed, the rebellious repurposing of existing cultural artifacts—a strategy long associated with camp—was made explicit in the reclamation of the term “queer.” A combination of pointed anger, sophisticated academic theorizing, and pleasure in perversity informed Queer Theory, art, performance, writing, and the New Queer Cinema that emerged in the early 1990s from this same potent political and intellectual environment.

Theory

Queer Theory was, and remains, first and foremost a scholarly enterprise, although its adherents often explore the relationship between theory and practice by acknowledging the power relations inherent in the production of knowledge. Engaging with the works of queer theorists typically requires some knowledge of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, the work of Michel Foucault, and possibly a passing familiarity with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, not to mention Jürgen Habermas, among other important modern and postmodern critical thinkers. One central debate within queer theory revolves around the very definition of the term “queer” and focuses upon its theoretical import and potential political usefulness. While political activism energized the notion of queerness as a diverse category comprising sexual dissidents who embrace the subversion of heterosexual normativity (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s minoritizing view), for many theorists, queerness provides an opportunity for deconstructing identity norms altogether (a position more akin to the universalizing view of Sedgwick 2008). For Butler 1990, Butler 1993, Bersani 2009, Halperin 1997, and Halperin and Traub 2009, for example, “queer” signifies not an identity around which to organize an oppositional politics but a refusal of coherent identities as defined under (neo)liberalism and practiced through identity politics. Queer theorizing, for many, aims at disrupting and politicizing all presumed relations between and among sex, gender, bodies, sexuality, and desire.

  • Bersani, Leo. Is the Rectum a Grave? And Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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    The titular essay in this collection of Bersani’s work is a seminal tract within Queer Theory. In “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Bersani diagnoses the profound heterosexual anxiety embedded in 1980s representations of gay sex as infection and gay subjects as killers. He seeks to redefine sex as a practice that shatters the experience of the self rather than reinforcing it.

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

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    One of the most important early works of Queer Theory, Butler’s book proposes that gender is something that people do, not something that they are. From this standpoint, gender can productively be detached from the biological distinction between the sexes. Furthermore, enacting gender is a performative process: invoking gender through acts, behavior, and style produces gender discursively.

  • Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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    Butler extends her discussion of gender performativity by challenging the notion that the body (and, specifically, anatomical sex) functions as a material limit constraining performances of gender and race. Instead, she contends, the body is discursively produced as well.

  • Fuss, Diana, ed. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, 1991.

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    Seminal collection of essays demonstrating queer theoretical approaches to popular culture, literature, film, and history. Many of the essays became Queer Theory classics, including those by D. A. Miller, Patricia White, and Richard Meyer.

  • Halperin, David. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    This controversial book seeks to secure Foucault’s central place in queer politics. Halperin explores the reasons why gay activists have been inspired by Foucault’s intellectual work and personal history. Some Foucault scholars denounce the work, arguing that Foucault would have rejected the use of his ideas for political organizing.

  • Halperin, David, and Valerie Traub, eds. Gay Shame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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    Turning gay pride on its end, this essay collection, which originated with a conference at the University of Michigan, seeks to reclaim emotion, embarrassment, and dissidence as central elements of queer practice.

  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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    In this seminal work of queer studies, Sedgwick analyzes and deconstructs the heterosexual/homosexual binary, exposing its contradictions through examinations of legal discourse and literature. Emphasizing the performative nature of speech acts—that is, the way language brings ideologies and practices into being—the author argues that hetero- and homosexualities are mutually constructed entities that subtend a homophobic culture. Originally published in 1990.

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