Cultural Critique 56 (2003) 158-188
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"Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well"
Memory and Queer Culture in Will and Grace
Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed
Memory, Gay Identity, and the Television Sitcom
Cultural identities depend crucially on memory, collective as well as personal. The cultural critic Stuart Hall goes so far as to define "identities" as "the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves in, the narratives of the past." 1 Hall's formulation stresses the mutable, reciprocal nature of identity as a constant negotiation of memory closer to what some theorists call "identifications" than to notions of identity as essentialized and static. 2 Assaults on memory—on particular memories and on the value of memory itself—therefore threaten not only our knowledge of the past, but our ability to imagine, reshape, and make claims for identifications in the present and future as well.
Assaults on gay memory in particular have been virulent in recent years, abetting the forces that would render us sexually anxious, isolated in dynamics of shame and guilt. Such assaults are often overtly homophobic: initiatives to prevent affirmative acknowledgment of homosexuality in history classes, campaigns to obscure the same-sex attractions of historical figures in museum exhibitions, objections to the designation of gay neighborhoods, and so forth. 3 But antipathy to gay memory runs deeper than these examples. The mainstream press plays up arguments over the locutions of "gay" versus "queer," emphasizing generational differences in conceptions of sexualself-definition in ways that frustrate efforts to strengthen bonds among people—old and young, male and female, straight and gay—outside conventional sex/gender norms. 4 Even the not-overtly-homophobic [End Page 158] media rehearse versions of gay history as victims' tales, in which sexual and political self-assertion leads to violent assault. While the murders of Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepard are important to gay history, we lose something when these become the primary paradigms of the gay past, of cultural memory. The mainstream's focus on gay martyrs, moreover, follows two decades of stories featuring the doomed homosexual victimized by an immature culture that in the 1970s promoted the "promiscuity" that led to AIDS. In this view, the solution to the "problem" of memory is a willed amnesia, in which gay men forget our past in order to assimilate to purportedly healthier mainstream norms.
This campaign for amnesia has been abetted by both nominal allies and media-appointed spokesmen for the gay community who urge us to renounce forms of gay culture generated by sexual dissidents in earlier decades. New York Newsday columnist Gabriel Rotello, for instance, played a central role in a National Public Radio feature, calling on gay men to make "a complete break with the past" in order to "totally rethink the way they conceive their sexual behavior." This is typical of calls on gay men to reject the legacy of the immediate post-Stonewall generation and to reinvent ourselves along supposedly cleaner, healthier lines that end up looking just like the borders of "normalcy" defined by a coupledom conceived as monogamous and (at least in Vermont) state-sanctioned, and by property rights, including the production of progeny. 5
Please pause a beat here for comic timing. Then repeat with Jack McFarland's sarcastic hesitancy: "I'm not really getting the theme of this party." Jack's reaction when he finds his "man-tan reunion" has become a play-date for gay couples with children encapsulates his blissful obliviousness to what we've just described as a range of sex-negative, club-negative, camp-negative impulses at work in and on gay culture. In contrast, Jack's happily wholehearted identification, through his memory of past parties, with the clichés of gay culture—disco, musicals, fashion trends—constitutes a principle pleasure of Will and Grace, helping to make it, according to one study, the most-watched television show for gay audiences. 6 If the chat rooms devoted to the show are any indication, not "Just Jack" individually, but the...