Queer, There, Everywhere: Buying & Selling Citizenship on Gay Narrowcast TV

Curator's Note

In looking for instances of sexual and political agency, queer media criticism often champions offbeat or unusual texts and practices. Another critical impulse is to use the “gentle reading,” relying on the queer subject-critic to parse out textual meanings in order to identify what’s “good” and/or “bad” about a text. Frequently, these paradigms are structured by a logic that relegates commercial media to the trash heap of all that is “problematic” or “reductive.” In the contemporary context of converging media platforms, conglomerating media companies, and niche marketing based on notions of taste, desire, and identity, it seems that media forms theorize gay political subjectivity and cultural membership as a matter of course—and not just in the artisanal modes of cultural production that are most frequently connected to queer politics. Rather than isolate particularly revealing texts or laud evermore eccentric interpretations, it seems that queer media criticism might benefit from unpacking how agency and affinity are imagined, debated, and held in tension in even the most quotidian iterations of recent commercial media.

Gay publics are increasingly identified as viable audiences in commercial media, a schema that has given rise to what scholars like John Hartley, Toby Miller, and Sarah Banet-Weiser characterize as a kind of “consumer citizenship.” In this context, identity-bound publics are courted via media forms that showcase fantasies of freedom, belonging, and transformation. I call these things “citizenship” because they are so often self-consciously civic and cultural in nature, though sometimes they do little more than champion market choice or trumpet individual agency. It seems that citizenship is an affective, fluid category in niche media, one that is central to the many fantasies of commerce and connection imagined by and through media forms directed to gay publics. Narrowcast cable television companies like LOGO and here! demonstrate gay consumer citizenship in that they make participation in political discourse a primary pleasure for their target audiences. Their traffic political discourse is not boundless, of course, but they delimit a range of ideological positions on queer issues and politics in courting publics. As such, I see gay consumer citizenship as a useful category for interrogating how, exactly, gay publics are invited to participate in commercial media culture at present.

Travel-related programming airing on the gay cable networks features a pointed example of this gay consumer citizenship. Shows like Roundtrip Ticket and Bump! provide advertisers and other corporate entities with an audience stratified by mutually informing notions of desire, taste, and identity. At the same time, the programs offer narrowcast viewers “armchair travel” via their representations of various institutions of gay life and culture around the world. Their modes of address highlight consumer-friendly individual agency, presenting audiences with an “inside look” at a location’s queer cultures that foregrounds different modes of consumption. The clip here includes a sequence in which Bump! host Shannon McDonough visits a Madrid salon.  The segment resolves ethnic difference via sexuality, and alleviates the tensions endemic to sexual difference by articulating the host’s physical attractions as another part of her comedic performance. In this way, it presents viewers with a commerce-enabled form of citizenship available to certain queer publics in the urban center.

Like other instances of gay consumer citizenship in contemporary media culture, Bump! represents some diversity and multiplicity within queerness, trafficking in political discourse through its representations of consumer consumption, cultural participation, and civic engagement in particular locales. The show delimits a range of consumer-citzen activities that enable one’s membership in a broader public as well as a participation in various cultural milieus. To do so, it must negotiate tensions between assimilation and difference, both in terms of the global and the local, but also in terms of gay people and an ostensibly heterosexual mainstream.


What I find interesting about  the clip you chose was that it seems to suggest that the kind of consumer citizenship available to gay publics is built on global capital rather than national purchasing power. This is a very different articulation of consumer citizenship than say the strategies enacted by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, where sit-ins in local diners or bus boycotts demonstrated the African American community's purchasing power in distinctly all-American settings. I find it, on the one hand, ironic that gay publics are offered global passports (or should I say credit cards) when their national civil rights remain elusive, both in the US and elswhere, but on the other hand, telling of the ways that transnational capital seems to recognize no boundaries in its pursuit of new markets. Frighteningly, this seems to offer some legitimacy to the neoliberal argument that the value of the gay market will inevitably ensure its civil rights, since those are, in fact, of lesser value than the gay dollar to free market advocates.


That said, I'm struck by the contrast between this post and Dana Heller's, which seems to suggest that even as gay publics are desirable global consumers, they are mightily constrained in terms of their movements across borders in any capacity other than as viable contributors to the economy. 

To follow on Avi’s comment, one of the things that struck me about this clip was the taken-for-grantedness of the audience’s (and host’s) ability to circulate in the global marketplace without any difficulty; even McDonough’s inability to speak Spanish is beside the point, the common language of global gayness (“muy grand…like Cher”) will remedy the deficit. Indeed the show seems devoted to obscuring both the ends and the foundation of consumer citizenship. Not only is there no political or transformative frame for consumption, as Avi points out, even the forms of civic participation you cite (trumpeting market choice, championing individual agency) are simply assumed. But notably, there’s also little overt reference to the host’s citizenship (Canadian, I think), or that of the audience. Likewise, without the opening montage, I might never have known this was Madrid; the generic gay appeal of the hair salon and the t-shirt shop trumps all cultural/national specificity. The merely national is swept away in favor of gay consumer cosmopolitanism. (Yet of course, as Dana’s concern with the denial of citizenship rights to the same-sex spouse, and others, reminds us, a certain degree of privilege is a prerequisite for neoliberal transcendence.)

The production process for these shows would likely be great sites for exploring how the producers' personal theories about gay identity politics (and the media's role in them) get negotiated in relation to the commerical imperatives, organizational structures, and various time and budget constraints imposed by these start-up channels.  In particular, I have wondered about how specific locations (like the salon) and local guides are picked.  They seem highly ideosyncratic and I could imagine are the result of personal connections.  I'm not one to buy into conspiracy theories, but there just might be a small cabal of global-gay tourist agents out there convincing many gays and lesbians that they need to get their hair blown out at a gay-ghetto salon when they're on vaction!           

Thanks for all of these, they're all apt and thoughtful, thank you --

I agree, the clip (and having looked at hours and hours of this kind of programming, the gay-themed travel shows as a whole) blur the foundations enabling the host's participation in transnational capitalism, elide many of the thorniest questions endemic to its problematization of subjectivity, and present segment choices as inevitable and natural.  Such things should never go unspoken.  My interest is in identifying the political discourse enabled by capital in certain circuits of culture.  As in, if we understand gay niche media as inviting some queer publics to participate in a chain of value, the circuits of use and exchange can be characterized as enabling the flow of capital and affect (I'm thinking of Spivak and Villarejo here). 

To that end, costs and benefits are wrought in both financial and affective terms. What I'm calling "consumer citizenship" are really affective functions of economy -- the range of political discourse made available to queer people in certain contexts of commercial cultural production.  It's necessarily limited and in flux but marks some terrain wherein cultural producers problematize things like cultural membership for queer audiences.  I don't mean to do away with the good/bad argument or anything, it's just that I'm interested in doing "a full accounting" of the kinds of queer pleasures made available for sale in the current media marketplace. 

But like anything made available for sale, there are costs -- particularly ideological ones.  As the saying goes, "money can't buy you everything...." And so marking a space outside of these things continues to be an important critical practice, as Dana Heller does in her post. 

Great post to get the conversation started, Hollis! In a quick response to Ronald's comment, I actually did some freelance work as a travel writer for a gay travel publication when I was in grad school. The tastemakers running the publication I worked for made sure to insist that I include a vast array of shopping options, and focus on targeted sites of "experience expenditure" (like hair salons and spas)--in other words, the activities for which folks would be willing to spend extra money on their vacation, even if they don't usually lead a salon/spa kind of lifestyle. (The entire Vegas economy is structured around this kind of fantasy). The travel pub. I wrote for was primarily gay male in focus, but  they had me scrounging up special "lesbian travel notes," so I was torn between the travel categories they wanted me to cover (often more suitable for gay male incomes) and the ones that intuitively made sense to me as a budget conscious dyke/grad student.  I especially had a tough time figuring out what to do with the shopping angle, since my editors expected me to select more glamorous and upscale "femme" boutiques, and I was personally more interested in men's clothing shops or thrift stores with clothes that might fit butch women really well. Anyway--just a little (print) production insight on why a "blow out in a gay ghetto" captures more screen time on gay travel shows than...well...other varieties of blow.

Karen Tongson | University of Southern California | www.ohindustry.com

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