- Your Favorite Stars, Live on Our Screens: Media Culture, Queer Publics, and Commercial Space
As in many bars and clubs, video screens are hung prominently on the walls behind the bartender in Atmosphere, a bar in Chicago’s heavily gay and lesbian Andersonville neighborhood. In this way a patron watches the screen and is simultaneously in line to buy a drink. After all, the impetus for installing technology of this ilk is, ostensibly, to increase the venue’s bottom line. In the spring of 2007 I attended a party at Atmosphere and really liked the music video playing on the screen over the bartender’s head. When she asked what she could get for me, I asked her about the video. At that point she shrugged, reached below the bar, and lifted out a stack of DVDs, telling me “I don’t know, we get these from a service every month and I just pop them in.” While identical scenarios undoubtedly unfold in countless bars all over the globe, this practice raises a number of interesting, provocative questions for queer media criticism, specifically. This article examines the varied imaginations of media publics that convene in queer commercial space in order to unpack the ways in which both marketers and consumers utilize these venues. In that way, the complex and often vexed connections between consumer culture and queer publics come to the fore as issues inextricably linked to the politics of space and place.
By examining these issues through the lens of spatial theory, I seek to avoid the irksome “either/or” binary that so frequently characterizes queer criticism of media culture. Eve Sedgwick underscores the utility of spatiality in combating the limitations of such dualistic thinking, calling for a queer critical apparatus that takes up the rich analytical dimensions of spatiality in order to interrogate and potentially overturn staid dynamics of cultural power (8). Spatial theory of the sort that Sedgwick advocates might help in thinking through the possibilities provided in the multiplicity and fluidity of gay-themed commercial venues—after all, the publics that congregate in them shift and change over even a short period of time. And while some offer social opportunities that are very much hegemonic in their politics, I will demonstrate how the erotic and political possibilities of the very same sites differ considerably on different days of the week or even later in the same evening.
Like Lynn Spigel’s work on the introduction of television to the home in the 1950s and Anna McCarthy’s work on visual media in public space, this project aims to understand how queer commercial venues are created, what role screen media and other cultural products play in this process, and the ways in which publics inhabit these sites. Further and perhaps more pointedly, this article highlights how the opportunities for publicness made available to queer people in these commercial venues are as informed by sociality as they are by textuality. While cultural producers and venue staff target various publics via marketing and advertising, the mediated nature of bar spaces does not dictate how customers use these sites, nor does it preclude publics from co-opting places for political purposes. In fact, the spatialized synergy of business interests in queer bar culture—those of corporatized cultural production, venue owners and staff, and so on—might invite or even enable political action among queer publics.
There has been a wealth of research on the ways in which the cultural industries reach out to certain demographics with gay-themed content and the ways in which queer audiences reimagine mainstream texts. The cultural industries’ attempts to attract queer publics are, perhaps, still something of a new phenomenon, and there have been fewer scholarly interventions in the many questions raised by these practices. Recurring issues in all debates about the fairly recent allure of sexual difference in attempts to court media audiences include the fundamental discrepancies between consumerhood and cultural citizenship [End Page 15] and, relatedly, distinctions between mainstream gay rights efforts and an ostensibly more radical queer activism. This project uses space/place to more carefully limn these differences but also to point out the too-frequently elided contiguities between...