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  • Contesting the Queer Subfield of Cultural Production:Paratextual Framings of Carol and Freeheld
  • Eve Ng (bio)


a substantial body of scholarship attests to the production of queer content across various media platforms, but there is little attention to how cultural producers differently positioned in those spaces differentially define the cultural field. In this article, I draw on recent reexaminations of Bourdieu's framework to address the complexities of where and how queerness is being produced, by taking a multisited approach to two 2015 films, Todd Haynes's Carol (2015) and Peter Sollett's Freeheld (2015), that examines official promotion, critical commentary, and social media content. Even though Bourdieu's work preceded the spread of digital media and had relatively little to say even about mass electronic media (e.g., see Couldry; Hesmondhalgh), scholars have argued for the continuing utility of some of his central concepts, especially the forms of capital and the field of cultural production, as well as, more broadly, a sustained consideration of the relationship between art and commerce. Bourdieu's explicit recognition of the hierarchical character of the field is particularly pertinent to considerations of production subfields that negotiate mainstream/margin relations. In addition, his discussion of how the field is continuously formed and reformed through contestations among cultural agents underscores its historical contingency and accommodates the possibilities of shifts in media cultures.

In both Carol and Freeheld, a romantic relationship between two women is central, with the films' creators seeking to bring their narratives to a larger audience than the works from which they are adapted—Carol from Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt (1952) and Freeheld from Cynthia Wade's 2007 documentary of the same name. Carol, set in the 1950s, chronicles the romance that develops between a wealthy married woman and a young shop clerk and for the most part does not offer explicit comment on the subordinate status of queers at the time, except for a legal struggle for child custody between Carol and her husband late in the film. Freeheld depicts the struggle of a reallife lesbian, Laurel Hester, who, while dying of cancer, fought in 2004–06 to have the state of New Jersey pass on her pension benefits to her female partner. Paratexts for both films illustrate how queerness is variously framed by different cultural agents within specific contexts of marketability and distinction. The key data come from published interviews with Carol actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and members of its creative team, particularly director Todd Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, and producer Stephen Woolley; published interviews with Freeheld actors Julianne Moore and Ellen Page and director Peter Sollett; reviews and commentaries published in major newspapers and entertainment outlets; and social media content about the films on Tumblr and Twitter. [End Page 8]

Bourdieu, Production Studies, and Analyzing Contemporary Queer Media

In returning to Bourdieu's framework to consider questions around queer production, I am interested in paratextual discourses that pertain to the negotiation of meanings for LGBT narratives, including the position of its queer content vis-à-vis mainstream media. In recent years, paratexts have been examined by media scholars not simply as additional or supplementary to the main "real" text but as increasingly integral to contemporary media (Gray). Although Bourdieu recognized the importance of critics and award organizations as part of the cultural field, he did not theorize critical commentary as paratexts; however, his model can accommodate paratextual discourses as components that structure the field of cultural production. Pertinent questions for films such as Carol and Freeheld, then, include how cultural agents differently positioned on the field contest the films' meanings through the production of these paratexts. As I will discuss, the producers of much of the discourse around Carol and Freeheld for mainstream domains were the creative teams of the films, mainstream critics and entertainment journalists, and award organizations, whereas queer viewers produced discourses that worked both to increase the mainstream footprint of Carol and Freeheld and to claim queer specificity against the grain of other paratextual commentary.

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Figure 1.

Bourdieu's field of cultural production.

Bourdieu's model of the field of cultural production has three key...


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