Queer Theory

Maria Pramaggiore

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
Queer Theory


Queer Theory emerged from departments of literature, film, rhetoric, and critical studies in universities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe during the early 1990s, exemplified and inspired by the publication of two paradigm-shifting books: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Butler 1990) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick 2008) (both cited under Theory). Drawing upon the social constructionist views prominent in the work of French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault, Butler argued that gender is neither a natural nor a stable element of biological or social identity, but rather is constantly brought into existence through a series of performative activities: everyday gestures and actions that have the potential to reconstitute notions and practices of masculinity and femininity and thus resist normativity. Sedgwick similarly attacked foundational models of sexual identity, exploring the closet as more than merely a metaphor and revealing its omnipresence in American culture as a duplicitous social practice (the open secret) and juridical double bind (with a legal system that demands the simultaneous erasure and production of homosexuality). Sedgwick characterized two contradictory and pervasive views of homosexuality, “minoritizing” and “universalizing” discourses. Whereas the former defines homosexuals as a distinct minority, the universalizing view holds that queerness subtends all forms of sexual desire and practice, including heterosexuality. An important antecedent to this flurry of queer scholarly activity was the publication of Foucault’s three-volume work The History of Sexuality, published in English between 1977 and 1984. In it, Foucault rejected the “repressive hypothesis,” which considers sexuality to be a “natural” expression of human identity and treats culture as a repressive force that constrains sexuality. Foucault argued instead that a science of sexuality emerged as one element within the analytic of biopower—a set of 19th-century medical and social technologies that nation-states employed to control their populations. In Foucault’s view, cultural sanctions have not repressed sexual practices but, on the contrary, have produced a modern discourse of sexuality that forces subjects to speak about their sexual practices and desires continually. In addition to Foucault’s work, historical events contributed to the development of Queer Theory. Most important among these was the AIDS epidemic, which decimated queer communities in the United States during the 1980s. The Reagan administration’s refusal to acknowledge the health crisis spurred the formation of activist groups such as ACT UP and Queer Nation. These organizations brought media attention to the disease and to the homophobic practices that slowed progress toward treatment and cure. One key feature of the political theatrics of AIDS activism was an unapologetic and assertive stance regarding queer sexualities, as exemplified in the now-famous mantra, “we’re here; we’re queer; get used to it.” That defiant attitude became the defining sensibility of Queer Theory, queer politics, and queer aesthetics. Indeed, the rebellious repurposing of existing cultural artifacts—a strategy long associated with camp—was made explicit in the reclamation of the term “queer.” A combination of pointed anger, sophisticated academic theorizing, and pleasure in perversity informed Queer Theory, art, performance, writing, and the New Queer Cinema that emerged in the early 1990s from this same potent political and intellectual environment.

Article.  7824 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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