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I still remember what, for me, was the quintessential moment of the media circus that accompanied the April 1997 “coming out” episode of ABC’s sitcom, Ellen. Diane Sawyer, a host of the tabloid-news show PrimeTime Live, took viewers on a voyeuristic tour through, of all things, Ellen DeGeneres’s closet. “Pants as far as the eye can see!” Sawyer belted out in a somber tone, as if she were exposing the secret graves of Bosnian dissidents.
Surely, Sawyer must have a few pairs of pants hanging in her closet, too, so the function of her “revelation” of DeGeneres’s sartorial preferences is, on the face of it, puzzling. Within the logic of heterosexism, however, Sawyer’s revelation is no revelation, but rather the reinforcement of a culturally manufactured correspondence between the interior contents of DeGeneres’s closet—the pants that apparently signal a “masculine” gender performance—and the interior “contents” of her identity—the lesbianism that will become officially public through the speech act of coming out. Judith Roof’s new book Come as You Are: Sexuality and Narrative seems ready-made to explain the absurdity of such media spectacles.
The coming out narrative, Roof argues, is structurally conservative, even when deployed for the positive political purpose of greater gay and lesbian visibility. “The sense of social enfranchisement occasioned by the mainstream appearance of sympathetic lesbian characters reflects a politics of visibility understood as an effective beginning to socio-political gains by lesbians and gay men,” Roof explains. Although [End Page 1048] the politics of visibility have liberatory goals, their impact is contained by the limits of “heteronarrative”—the ideologically loaded conflation of narrative structure with the deferral of desire, threat of sameness, and eventual satisfaction through the resolution of complementary differences. Coming out narratives therefore construct a difference—a disjuncture between public knowledge and private knowledge—that is resolved through the invocation of a true identity that has been squelched by homophobia. This resolution depends on a static notion of identity, and therefore forecloses further analyses of the ideology of identity production. “[V]isibility politics,” Roof argues, “tries to strong-arm opinion by changing the image of an identity within the same logic that produced that identity, instead of trying to identify and alter the process by which identities are produced and situated and by which visibility/invisibility itself becomes the problem.” Roof’s theory would therefore explain the narrative importance of Sawyer’s exposure of the contents of DeGeneres’s closet, for the “revelation” serves to reify a conservative, even sexological, notion of lesbian identity as a form of gender inversion. The difference between DeGeneres’s private and public lives is resolved by a coming out story that nevertheless reinstalls a gender difference that preserves heteronarrative investments in binary couplings.
As one might expect, Roof takes on the “heteroideology” of several theorists of narrative, from Peter Brooks, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Tzvetan Todorov to A. J. Greimas. “Narrative’s apparent rendition of life experience, then, is already an ideological version of (re)production produced by the figurative cooperation of a naturalized capitalism and heterosexuality,” argues Roof. Narratologists unwittingly reproduce this very heteroideology by first describing narrative as the resolution of samenesses into reproductive differences, and then accepting this trajectory as if it were an inevitable (rather than ideological) element of narrative structure. While this critique is very cogent, Roof falls short of offering an alternative theory of narrative structure, hinting only at the possibilities for narrative “insurrections” offered by Monique Wittig, Djuna Barnes, and Nicole Brossard. In this respect, it is surprising that Roof never mentions the work of Gertrude Stein, whose philosophical definitions of narrative revalued the importance of sameness and repetition. To be fair, Roof herself acknowledges the tension in the book between her recognition of heteronarrative’s apparently [End Page 1049] all-encompassing powers and her desire to undo heteronarrative and replace it with a more liberatory form. That form is teasingly, in the spirit of an ongoing narrative...