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Reviewed by:
  • Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire by Amy Villarejo
  • Nguyen Tan Hoang
Amy Villarejo Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014, 203 pp. ISBN 9780822355113

Amy Villarejo’s Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire constitutes an exciting contribution to the fields of film/media studies, critical theory, queer theory, and cultural studies. The monograph is exceptional in bringing together a rigorous theoretical framework, detailed production histories, eloquent close readings, all delivered in a witty and engaging personal voice that makes the pages steadily turn. The book’s impressive archive ranges from early network television sitcom in the 1950s to PBS documentary in the 1970s to Showtime drama serial in the 2000s. In the place of a comprehensive survey, Villarejo uses key television shows from the past six decades to examine the ways television and queerness have mutually co-implicated each other. The book’s pivotal intervention lies in its theoretical optic of temporality, for as she boldly proclaims, television constitutes “the implantation of social time of the twentieth century” (77, emphasis in original). Such an implantation, effected through the nodes of gender and sexuality, shapes how “we live life as and through television” (11).

The contemporary U.S. media landscape is littered with news items about gay marriage legislation, male athletes’ coming-outs, celebrities’ homophobic slip-ups (and apologies), and speculations about movie and TV characters’ sexual orientations. The media’s melodramatization of LGBT existence [End Page 321] functions as a regulation of knowledge and ignorance, public and private, a mode of policing that is organized around visibility politics. LGBT media activism, found in its guises as popular journalism and scholarly research, has commonly conflated “positive” depictions of queer people with political progress. More representations, the logic goes, lead to better, complex, well-rounded, and therefore “more real” gay men, lesbians, and trans* folks. The method of “character counting” practiced by the influential media watchdog group GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) bears out this point. This policing of media imagery comes with an additional caveat: in spite of its targeting of homophobic slip-ups and censuring of negative images, this camp of media critique believes that things are getting better and better. In other words, it invests in a teleological narrative of media progress.

This is precisely the context in which Ethereal Queer launches its searing critique. The book explicitly refutes the following assumptions: “that television reflects its viewers; that television ought to do so; that it has an obligation toward diversity of representation; or that diverse representation leads to political change” (3). To be sure, scholars of queer film and media, drawing on cultural studies, poststructuralist theory, and other fields, have mounted strong challenges to the limitations of this school of “reflection theory” of representation. Villarejo’s unique contribution lies in her exacting focus on the structural architecture of television: its temporal dimension. To move beyond the limits of ideological criticism based on character development and storylines (i.e., in the mode of GLAAD), she trains her attention on what the temporal structure of television allows and disallows in its production, programming, broadcast, viewing, and interpretation. Doing so enables a fierce interrogation of another assumption stubbornly attached to televisual representation, that it provides unmediated access to reality. (For example, consider the commonsense “liveness” and instantaneity of television in comparison to the dreaminess and deferral of the movies.)

To support her rejection of televisual realism, Villarejo employs an innovative combination of critical theory on mass culture and queer theories of temporality. For example, she posits that the use of gender-sexual stereotyping in 1950s sitcom can be read as a function of the time slot. The limited programming slot required the economy of the stereotype to signify queerness. Instead of complex characters, we get recognizable fey and butch types and innuendoes about their gender-sexual deviance. In a similar vein, Villarejo offers an expanded archive of queer television. Challenging the presentist view that dates queer TV starting in the late 1980s, she includes not only predictable titles such as Ellen, The Golden Girls, Queer as Folk, The L Word, and Ru Paul’s Drag Race, but also unlikelier candidates...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2155-0905
Print ISSN
2155-0891
Pages
pp. 321-325
Launched on MUSE
2016-02-03
Open Access
No
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