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Composition Studies, Heteronormativity, and Popular Culture

Cultural Studies in Composition

For an example of composition's lack of representation, I want to return to the beginnings of cultural studies in composition. Specifically, I want to examine John Trimbur’s “Cultural Studies and Teaching Writing.” Certainly, much has changed in thesixfteen years since this article was published in terms of composition’s exploration of sexual identity, but this article is significant because the kinds of silences it contains still occur in composition studies, the media, and popular culture. In discussions of sexual identity in our classrooms, students will benefit much from an examination of what is not said about sexuality in our culture. Trimbur tells us that cultural studies grew “out of a particular historical and political moment in the life of the British left,” and that the “question cultural studies leads us to ask is not just how writers write but how literacy has been, and can be, produced and used to increase democratic participation in public life, to give voice to the needs and experiences of those who have been silenced and marginalized” (8, 13). Leaving aside for the moment the questionable call to “democratic participation” and what it implies about the relationship between cultural studies and liberatory learning that Trimbur develops in this and other articles, I want to focus here on the giving of voice to the silenced and marginalized. Those who need to be given voice, in Trimbur’s view, include “the working class, women, Blacks, the young and the old, the powerless who have not yet learned to speak for themselves” as well as “Blacks, Hispanics, returning women, Asian Americans, Native Americans, working class students, and so on” (10, 14). The three major areas of cultural studies—race, class, and gender—maintain their dominant positions in Trimbur’s lists, while at the same time he tries to expand the lists to make them as inclusive as possible. Curiously, however, Trimbur makes no mention of lesbian or gay people.

Such a reading of Trimbur’s list is even more suggestive when it is placed in its historical context. At the end of 1988, the year in which Trimbur’s article was published, 106,994 cases of AIDS had been reported in the US; 62,101 people were dead. While it is true that by 1988 people of color accounted “for more than two thirds of total new cases” and women were “one of the fastest growing groups in the epidemic,” it is equally true that gay men and lesbians were responsible for the discursive as well as physical resistance to how persons with AIDS were treated (Museum). The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition of the twenty-year history of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis provides additional historical context for Trimbur’s article. In 1984, Michel Foucault died of AIDS. In 1985, a few months before his death, Rock Hudson announced that he had AIDS, and Ryan White was barred from school because he had AIDS. In 1986, William F. Buckley, Jr., called for persons with AIDS to be tattooed on the forearm and buttocks, while the Reagan administration urged the public not to panic since AIDS was confined to gay men and intravenous drug users. In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), resisting the power/knowledge nexus in a manner described precisely by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, staged their first non-violent direct action on Wall Street.

Even in this historical context, however, while the working class, people of color, and women make both of Trimbur’s expanded lists, gay men and the lesbians who joined them in a struggle for survival do not appear in his conception of those who have been silenced or marginalized. In Trimbur’s essay, heterosexuality as a category of identity and experience is so transparent as to warrant no mention at all. His heteronormative practices are not atypical; neither do these practices represent some virulently antilesbian or antigay sentiment. Rather, this example merely illustrates common heteronormative silences.

When representations of lesbian and gay subjectivity do occur in composition, those representations occur primarily in multicultural anthologies. These readers either explicitly or implicitly measure lesbian and gay sexuality against what they always unproblematically assume to be a normal heterosexuality. Readers know that heterosexuality is normal because of its unmarked status; heterosexuality is not generally discussed in terms of the problems associated with it, such as child abuse, domestic violence, and over-population. This unmarked heterosexuality is the vantage point from which students are encouraged by multicultural readers to accept the sexually non-normative. Being accepted on those terms—that is, in terms of a binary of a normal heterosexuality and an abnormal homosexuality—does little to improve the material conditions of sexually non-normative people, who always run the risk of having that acceptance suddenly, irrevocably, or brutally rescinded. Furthermore, multicultural anthologies apparently assume an entirely heterosexual, white, young, middle-class audience, an assumption that positions some of the students in our classes—those who are not heterosexual, not white, not young, and not middle-class—as inferior or defective. These students are in no position to accept anyone, but instead are positioned as in need of an acceptance that will very likely never occur. Thus, composition classes that take multicultural approaches to the study of lesbian and gay subjects—the main approach currently available—often reinforce the very marginality that they are attempting to eliminate.

To their credit, multicultural approaches at least address the subject of non-normative sexuality. Inclusion—however bland and ill-conceived—is better than the complete invisibility that often exists in composition’s other specialty areas, which sometimes fail to mention the sexually non-normative at all. The absence of sexuality as a category of difference is very weighty indeed in parts of the emerging area of masculinity studies in composition. This area of study, as described by the late Robert Connors, claims to focus on “male-to-male questions,” but does not appear to know that gay, bisexual, queer or transgendered men exist (184). In his introduction to Constructing Masculinities, a special issue of Pre/Text, Connors does not once mention sexuality. This absence suggests that sexuality is not significant enough to warrant examination, and the fact that Connors means “heterosexual” men when he uses the word “men” is apparent in what he fails to notice about those men.

What is missing from multicultural inquiries—and from inquiries that completely overlook the subject of sexuality—is exactly what Keith Gilyard claims is missing from composition’s conversations about race: “Insufficiently acknowledged,” he writes, “is that race is at least partly a social and rhetorical construction” (47). In his critique, Gilyard points out that race itself is unproblematized in multicultural approaches to that subject. Racial conflict is characterized as a problem of acceptance and inclusivity, while race itself is assumed to be a natural category. Gilyard writes that casting “race analysis in conventional terms leads students to pedestrian interpretations and constructions inside a bankrupt race-relations model, thus leading to a sort of King to King solution, students dreaming and all getting along—rhetorically” (48). A failure to deconstruct race, Gilyard claims, “in the contexts in which we work, is to confirm the prevailing discourse and to be implicated in the maintenance of an exploitative social order” (49). Similarly, non-normative sexuality is posed largely as a question of acceptability and tolerance, a question that replaces an examination of both heteronormativity and the discursive production of sexuality. Following Gilyard, I argue that a failure to examine the discursive production of sexuality is to reproduce the marginalization that multiculturalism, at least, claims to address. And to fail to address the subject at all, as masculinity studies does, is to implicitly condone existing systems of exploitation and discrimination.

The study of the heteronormative discursive production of sexuality might help students to reconceive of all sexuality—lgbtq sexuality in particular—as at least in part a discursive construction rather than as a stable category. At best, such a reconceptualization of sexuality would expand the possibilities for the production of new, less oppressive discourses of lesbian and gay sexuality in the same way that feminists’ recognition that women are in part discursively produced, for example, has produced counterhegemonic discourses. Because heteronormativity frequently manifests itself as erasure of the sexually non-normative, however, the study of lesbian and gay subjectivity in the age of AIDS is imperative. The most dangerous heteronormative signifying practice is the utter silence on the subject of non-normative sexuality, a silence that puts everyone at risk by insisting that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and the transgendered do not exist.

Because lesbian and gay life has historically been, in Lord Alfred Douglas’ famous if somewhat tired phrase, the love that dare not speak its name, often existing in public life only implicitly, contemporary discursive representations of lesbians and gay men, while more or less consistently heteronormative, are seldom explicitly negative. Blatantly negative discourses of lesbians and gay men in the form of text and image certainly exist, but in comparison, for example, to the discourses about women distributed to enforce the standards of beauty—discourses that pressure women of every race, class, and sexual orientation to look and behave in particular ways—few negative discourses circulate concerning lesbians and gay men. On the contrary, in the realm of popular culture, discourses that are perceived as positive far out-weigh those that are perceived as negative. Negative discourses concerning lesbian and gay people are either relegated to the level of connotation, where the reader can’t be sure if a particular character is lesbian or gay, or, more commonly, the lesbian or gay character is irredeemably evil, strictly laughable, or asexual. And even while these representations are heteronormative, they are not considered to be necessarily negative or destructive by people who enjoy, for example, representations of the homosexual-as-sissy.

Symbolic annihilation, however, is a much more persistent and insidious heteronormative signifying practice. A New York Times article, for example, describes an ad paid for by the Bronx Lesbian and Gay Health Resource Consortium that was displayed for one day at about twelve bus stops in the Bronx. The ad “showed two men, one with his arm around the other, above a caption that read, ‘I’m not gay, but I sometimes have sex with other guys’” (Kennedy). The Bronx consortium, no doubt aware that almost half of the population in the Bronx is of Hispanic or Latino origin (48.4%), designed ads to reflect the cultural views in many Latino cultures concerning sex between two men (Bronx). Since in many Latino communities men who have sex with men do not consider themselves gay or bisexual, the consortium developed new discourses to reach those men. Obviously, AIDS prevention discourses must be developed to target men who have never thought of themselves as anything but straight but who nevertheless have sex with other men as well as with women—their wives or girlfriends—who, in turn, are very likely unaware of their partner’s sex practices. The ads, however, were removed after one day. Even though these ads had cost the consortium $19,000, had been approved by the advertising company (Infinity Outdoor), and were scheduled to run for four weeks, an undisclosed number of complaints from unnamed persons prompted the advertising company to remove the ads from the bus stops (but not, inconsistently, from the inside of the buses). Such is the power of contemporary discursive structures to insist that lesbians and gay men (or in this case men who have sex with other men) not exist. Simultaneous to the erasure of the subject of men who have sex with men from the public eye (at least at the bus stops) is the erasure of AIDS prevention information for those men, information that is potentially life-saving not only to men who have sex with men but also to their partners, their wives, and their children.

Discursive elimination of gay men has been common at the United Nations as well. In what seems perversely to be a celebration of its twentieth birthday, AIDS received in 2000 a good deal of press. Some of the press attention to AIDS is a result of the illegal manufacture of AIDS antiviral drugs in countries too poor to pay the murderously steep retail prices set by Pfizer and other pharmaceutical giants. Consequently, to no one’s surprise, the pharmaceuticals—and the U.S. Government—have instigated several patent infringement lawsuits against those countries. Of more direct concern to this study, however, is a special session at the United Nations—twenty years after the onset of the epidemic—convened from June 26 through June 28, 2001. The purpose of this session, according to New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer, is to determine “how a $9 billion pot of new money to fight AIDS globally will be distributed” (“U.N. United”). On June 27, 2001, Steinhauer reported that at “the outset, the special assembly was sidetracked with a lengthy and acrimonious debate over whether a representative from a gay group should be permitted to participate in the roundtable discussion.” Then, “officials could not agree on which groups they should even proclaim at risk. Because of objections by Islamic delegates, debate continued over whether to mention gays and prostitutes—groups long acknowledged to have been hit hardest by the disease—in the official declaration” (“U.N. United”). One cultural myth that might be provoked from that passage is that of Islamic fundamentalism, a cultural myth that might insist that, had the Islamic representatives been excluded (thereby setting up a false Islamic/gay binary, as if there were no gay Muslims), the other, fairer minded delegates would certainly have carried the day and embraced the sexually non-normative. Such reassuring mythologies might, however, be undermined by Steinhauer’s report in the New York Times the next day: “Language about high-risk groups was eventually deleted from the declaration” (“U.N. Redefines”). This turn of events suggests to me not that Islamic fundamentalists carried the day (even though Islamics apparently instigated the fight), but rather that the U.N. enacted on an international level the heteronormativity that is already commonplace both in the United States and in composition studies—the systematic erasure of lesbian and gay life. In other words, the fact that in this instance Islamic delegates demanded the exclusion of gay men and prostitutes from the list of groups at high-risk of AIDS infection masks the fact that such an objection would very likely have come from some other quarter had the Islamic delegates not been the first to insist. The Reagan administration, for example, did virtually nothing to contain the epidemic when it would have been more easily contained because of the populations affected by it—the queer, the addicted, the poor. The tragic result of exclusions such as these is that gay men, who were first affected by the disease, first brought the world’s attention to it, first demanded that funds be directed to search for a cure, developed and implemented direct-action activism, developed and disseminated educational materials that dramatically reduced the spread of infection, developed networks of care, provided food, housing, clothing and health services to those who could no longer provide these things for themselves, and, finally, watched a generation die, apparently have nothing of value to offer to the world on the subject of AIDS prevention and treatment. Such is the power of contemporary discursive structures to insist that gay men not exist.

My claim that gay men’s experience with AIDS is a valuable resource for current AIDS prevention planning is not to suggest, however, that the education and prevention measures developed by Gay Men’s Health Crisis were equally effective across divisions of race and class among gay men. While infection rates among gay, white, middle- and upper-class men dropped dramatically, infection rates among gay men of color continued to rise or dropped less dramatically. A recent study of AIDS infection rates for gay men in the U.S., for example, mirrors earlier studies in its findings that “race, education, and socioeconomic status played a big part in AIDS awareness and access to treatment” (“Study”). Nor is my argument meant to suggest that the suffering of gay men, since they are after all men, sometimes white, and sometimes middle-class, be elevated to the top of the ranks of the suffering. My purpose, rather, is to demonstrate how particular forms of discursively produced subjectivity actively work to annihilate individuals who are identified as having specific characteristics or exhibiting specific behaviors. In a move to counter the discursive and cultural practices that have made heterosexual women the largest at-risk group for AIDS infection, for example, some of the best language in the U.N.’s Statement on AIDS suggests that women be empowered “to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality to increase their ability to protect themselves from H.I.V. infection” (“Excerpts”). Such language speaks specifically to the conditions for women in South Africa, where AIDS infection rates are soaring. According to South African AIDS activist Judi Fortuin, in an interview with New York Times reporter Bob Herbert, “one in four women’s first sexual encounter is a coerced encounter. And that is by men that they know, and men that they don’t know.” Thus, the discursive and cultural practices through which heterosexual men learn that forcing women to have sex is appropriate can literally destroy women. Similarly, the heteronormative discursive productions of gay men that attempt to prevent us from being visible at all, as in the United Nations Statement on AIDS, can destroy not only gay men, men who sleep with men, and women and children.

Explorations of the discursive production of heteronormative sexuality provide an alternative to complete silence on the issue, as in some masculinity studies, as well as an alternative to the continued production of othering discourse that we see in multiculturalism. Conceptualizing sexuality as a discursive production benefits all students. The failure to interrogate heteronormativity in composition studies is similar to Gilyard’s critique that in composition we have largely failed to identify “white” as a racial construct. Gilyard writes that James Berlin, for example, never gets around “to explaining the controlling, hegemonic discourse that ‘race’ is.” Taking this failure into account, Gilyard asks how, from the “subject position of a white teacher . . . could [Berlin] teach students to ‘resist’ and ‘negotiate’ the controlling discourse that ‘whiteness’ is?” (48). Likewise, if heterosexuality remains an uncontested site of normalcy, any discussion of non-normative sexualities “simply inscribes another othering discourse,” an othering discourse, in this case, that annihilates the sexually non-normative (48).

Troubling Heterosexuality: An Antiheteronormative Pedagogy

In this pedagogical approach, my aim is to contest the normalcy of heterosexuality by providing a close reading of the television shows Friends and Will and Grace. I examine, among other things, the way that heterosexuality is in these programs haunted by the homoerotic. My aim is to trouble students’ understanding of hegemonic heterosexuality. In addition, I want to examine the way that representations generally assumed to be positive actually result in symbolic annihilation or denigration of lesbians and gay men. Specifically, I argue that the implicitly antiheteronormative television situation comedies Friends and Will and Grace do little to interrupt mainstream, hegemonic constructions of lesbian and gay subjectivity and in fact actively reinforce negative stereotypes of lesbians and gay men. My antiheteronormative reading of these two television shows as well as some of the commercials aired by sponsors of the program is intended to provide a different set of grounds from which to examine these television shows in the context of a composition classroom. While popular culture offers us negative representations of lesbians and gay men, it also offers those of us in the field of composition the opportunity to resist those representations.

One brief history of gay people on television begins in 1972, when ABC aired the made for TV movie That Certain Summer. During the seventies, eighties, and nineties, lesbian and gay characters appear regularly if not frequently on a number of television shows. It is not until 1997, however, that the character on the show Ellen reveals that she is a lesbian, and becomes the first feature television character to do so. Simultaneously, of course, the show’s star, Ellen DeGeneres, also revealed that she was a lesbian. At the end of the 1997-98 season, Ellen was cancelled. The opening of the 1998 season, however, saw the introduction of a new television sitcom with a gay lead character, Will and Grace. Eric McCormack, the actor who plays Will, is an out heterosexual, while Sean Hayes, the actor who plays Jack (the other gay character) won’t say one way or the other.

While lesbian and gay characters are quite common, the themes that define our roles remain more or less unchanged. Specifically, lesbian and gay people are used almost universally in order to signify negativity and unhappiness.

click image to view commercial
Of course, there are exceptions. In the summer of 2001, for example, Miller Lite aired an explicitly gay-themed advertisement. In the ad, two women are sitting in a bar, eyeing a man who is sitting across the room, speculating as to his sexual availability. Then, another man joins the man whom they have been eyeing. The women think they’re just about to get lucky. The man who has just arrived, however, places his hand on top of the hand of the man who had been alone, and gives the women an “I’m sorry, he’s taken” look. The women console themselves by remarking that at least the man isn’t married.
This advertisement is refreshingly neutral in its representation of gay men, though it can hardly be said to be in any way progressive. The two men, after all, are young, white, attractive, and apparently middle class, and therefore reinforce the dominant culture’s belief that all gay men follow this same pattern. The men, however, are enjoying themselves in the same bar that two heterosexual women have chosen as a location in which to pick up men. Thus, the gay couple appears to be out in some sort of mainstream night spot, enjoying the evening without fear of harassment from the heterosexual people who are also apparently everywhere. Such a scenario might actually exist in urban centers. In most of the United States, however, this scenario can only be construed as a fantasy space.