- Make Room For Straight TV
In the field of television studies, interest in the politics of progressive "quality" programming often patently supports the television industry's own demographic goals. Scholars researching gay and lesbian representation, for example, have generally written on trendsetting texts that feature explicit gay and lesbian characters at the same time that television itself discursively equates "gay" with "hip" to commodify an audience in part composed of academics. Ron Becker's Gay TV and Straight America compels us to reconsider the methodological stranglehold of "out" gay and lesbian representation on queer media studies as it argues that the networks' construction of particular "gay" qualities as the hippest of differences during the 1990s has significantly refigured American cultural hierarchies of social classification.
Gay TV and Straight America details television narrowcasting strategies and other business developments fostered by the corporate ownership and target marketing of the media conglomerates that took over independent production companies and bought up cable channels over the course of the past decade. In a demographic research trend that could be an exception or a new standard in an era of convergence wrought by government "deregulation," executives began to describe their ideal consumers in direct relation to popular debates about a single prominent category of social difference: sexual identity. As Becker's research demonstrates, a whole host of shifting discourses prompted the networks, whose powers had been waning since the late 1970s, to define their most desirable demographic as explicitly straight, mostly white professionals [End Page 201] whose socially liberal attitudes and urban sensibilities attributed a certain amount of cachet to tolerance, multiculturalism, and queers.
Becker describes a climate of "straight panic" in which heterosexuals became as anxious about their own sexuality as gays and lesbians, and increasingly invested in attributing meaning to sexual identity. Straight panic permeated cultural imaginaries as the popular press replaced the radical image they had used to demonize gay rights campaigns in the era of AIDS activism with representations of a more consumable assimilationist movement. As part of another chapter in hegemonic modes of production and the perverse implantation of sexual identity, television executives decided that their ideal viewers could be most effectively marketed to through their increasingly self-conscious relationship to representations of homo- and heterosexuality. "Straight panic" allowed networks to use gay content as a synecdoche for multiculturalism, displacing anxieties about racial, economic and gender difference onto affluent white gay characters. Soon enough, the culture industries marshaled this "hip" homosexuality across media forms in the service of straight consumers' self-definition.1
In Becker's analysis, television programming is an integral part of the political apparatus that arranges American culture in accord with economic institutions. Because networks and cable channels sell audiences to advertisers in ways that relate indirectly to the content they offer, programming is often seen as an epiphenomenon of the industry's political economy. In describing television's exploitation and condensation of the institutional discourses that structure identity in the everyday, Gay TV and Straight America emphasizes the extent to which the construction of a particular demographic's desires informed—and was formed primarily in relation to—the era's fictional television programming. Countless series would "cite and critique" both homosexual and straight panic, promoting these narrative confusions as quality programming.2 With persuasive supporting evidence, Becker offers an important account of the political expediency made of gay material in the construction of markets, as representational content and demographic research so smoothly congealed over the course of the 1990s.
To do so, Gay TV and Straight America engages the basic tenets of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's early work. Becker argues that Sedgwick's models of homo/hetero instability and "homosexual panic" combined in a new way in the 1990s as social hierarchies were reconfigured in relation to debates over diversity, social fragmentation, and cultural relativism. Although the consequences of "straight panic" are not always clear, Becker's term suggests a significant discursive shift in the kind of panic that supports the always unstable but seemingly intractable opposition between homo- and heterosexuality. This [End Page 202] account is compelling, but struggles as...