Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics

August 6, 2009

Three key assumptions underpin the collection of essays that editors Glyn Davis and Gary Needham have brought together. The first is that people watch television (a perfectly reasonable assumption, despite stories about its demise). The second one is that there is something queer about television (a more problematic assumption for some, perhaps, although the book makes plausible arguments in support of television's queer status). Finally, the editors have assumed there is a space for a scholarly text, another media studies one, which will interest academic readers or those who may want to know more about television. This third assumption is one worth making, of course, and the editors are to be congratulated on bringing together what is, for the most part, a solid account of television itself, queer or otherwise.

The ten essays they have brought together discuss television and the media with a theoretical (if not always very critical) eye to queer studies. The collection's three thematic sections provide some sense of framework, offering insights more generally into the history, politics and theories of television, and all ten essays are written either in relation to the queering of television production and regulation, or with a view to making queer the very activities associated with television and all its identities.

While some of the essays are more critically queer than others, all, nonetheless, are inflected by an attention to the cultural politics of the sex-gender distinctions that have marked television history and that continue to structure the dynamics of audience consumption of television programmes.

Considered as a collection of essays that examines how the history and politics of television could be theorised, certainly other books do that more critically and more comprehensively. However, as a work attempting to bring recent work in queer studies into the arena of television studies, then there is no doubt that Queer TV will be of interest to a range of readers - queer or not - but particularly those who are interested in how such "queering" may take place.

Chapters by the editors themselves, alongside specific contributions by Lynne Joyrich, Jaap Kooijman and Amy Villarejo, ensure the book as a whole moves beyond highly subjective reminiscences of gay or lesbian television viewing experiences.

What will readers make, then, of the book's supposedly "queer" take on the history and politics of television in a book (and this is not a weakness, it has to be said) that continues to rely not on queerness but on notions of identity indebted to a lesbian and gay, if not to say straight, past? Perhaps part of the answer to that question, and part of the very problem of trying to understand an imaginary queer specificity, is that the term "queer" now circulates in a terrain in which its critical potential has been made redundant and its political impact has become increasingly fragmented.

In the "Theories and approaches" section of the book, Villarejo's essay importantly counters some of the concerns readers may have with the very meaning of queer itself. She maps out some of the terrain that needs to be covered in any attempt that seeks to deploy the insights of queer studies in order to understand contemporary television. Similar to arguments made in Michele Aaron's essay, Villarejo is also aware of a history that sees queer in the context of wider political concerns. For her, the relation between theoretical hypotheses made by researchers on the one hand, and the "people" who use television on the other, is never transparent or direct. In order to understand the complexity of television, argues Villarejo, media scholars need to confront the very critical practice through which the questions and terms are being framed.

Alternatively phrased, Villarejo is proposing that whether the study of television is concerned with cultural reception and consumption, with textual analysis or with television itself, the determining constraints of institutions and markets are also ones that govern subjective identifications - however valorised these identities may have become. Drawing on traditions associated with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and yet alert to some of the theorisations of Butler and Lacan, Foucault or Benjamin (both Jessica and Walter), Villarejo's account is central to a book whose logic is commendable. In examining the complexity of television - more than simply queer television - then the book is well placed in terms of the important contributions it makes to debates about industry, production, audiences and politics.

Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics

Edited by Glyn Davis and Gary Needham. Routledge, 200pp, £70.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9780415450454 and 50461. Published 3 December 2008

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