Queer Recalibration

Curator's Note

This week’s posts spin off of Cinema Journal’s current In Focus investigation of queer methods in media studies. In my contribution, I discuss strategies for historicizing the kind of camp dissonance and genderqueer unintelligibility this Nick at Nite promo showcases. I’m a member of the “TV generation” that the network cultivated in the late-1980s and 1990s and have been convinced for years that “family TV” and “queer TV” are coextensive. Yet I’m still surprised by just how perceptively the network’s promotional material from the early years of cable expansion reveals the importance of queer production to the success of its schedule. This bumper, part of a series on the theme of “television heritage,” presents a montage of gender trouble by way of a tongue-in-cheek narrative of normative nuclear family triumph. It uses footage from the network’s archive of “pre-postmodern” (1950s-1970s) programming to parody public service announcements of the sort that urge mom and dad to talk to the kids directly about sex and drugs. The ad creates a queer interpretive context by carving out discursive space within which nonconformity can be valued and explored. The commercial’s glitchy aesthetic textualizes a rejection of norms that links seemingly sedate postwar sitcoms and queer trans history.

Half of the promo’s clips are flush with the viewer’s screen while the other half appear on a monitor within a shadowy set conjuring the psychosexual space of the imagined normative family audience. The premise and the announcer call for salacious content about which “the kids are bound to ask,” which cues the entrance of Sally Rogers, Rose Marie’s transgressively witty Dick Van Dyke Show character. Sal is clearly getting away with something. Like the network’s promos featuring inverted pink triangles and copious Cher footage, this ad and the heritage series celebrates trans gender queer TV history through camp signifiers: Rose Marie’s style, the otp of Dobie and Maynard, the opaque intimacies of the ambiguously human, and the polymorphous perversity of Don Adams’ perpetually floundering Maxwell Smart. TV is not merely a collection of programs within which characters appear as either straight or gay. Television presents its own strange representational system full of logics that defy dominant ideologies of identity and visibility.

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