New Queer Television. The label, you have to agree, has a delightful ring to it. This is not only because it echoes Ruby B. Rich’s wonderful foundational essay on “New Queer Cinema” but because, in appropriating Rich’s term (“queer”) you get a whiff of progressive language that feels much more modern than say, “LGBT” or, God forbid, “gay.”
In his article up on IndieWire, Matt Brennan, goes to great lengths to prove that the quantity and quality of current television shows depicting characters that identify themselves as the various letters in the ever-increasing LGBT Alphabet, means we’re living in a TV landscape that shows “a growing desire to investigate queerness in genres usually considered pulpy or lowbrow (melodrama, horror, comedy) without using these forms as a way of passing” — a sentence so earnest that in its attention to history seems all but to forget it (or, better yet, cannot see that in “passing” is precisely where queer culture began). Brennan extolls the joys of seeing “an interracial gay couple engage in a little ass-play on primetime network television” but aiming for diversity and visibility (steering away from “passing”) seems less queer than Brennan would have you believe. This is why in a rather astute appraisal of the gayness (yes, not queerness) of current TV, the article lost me when it attempted to (re?)claim Rich’s concept of New Queer Cinema.
There’s a way to make the argument that there’s a ton of gays on television without resorting to Rich yet that choice seems both strategic and misleading.
Here’s Rich explaining what New Queer Cinema was:
Of course, the new queer films and videos aren’t all the same, and don’t share a single aesthetic vocabulary or strategy or concern. Yet they are nonetheless united by a common style. Call it ‘Homo Pomo’: there are traces in all of them of appropriation and pastiche, irony, as well as a reworking of history with social constructionism very much in mind. Definitely breaking with older humanist approaches and the film films and tapes that accompanied identity politics, these works are irreverent, energetic, alternatively minimalist and excessive. Above all, they’re full of pleasure. They’re here, they’re queer, get hip to them.
This specific quote, which attempted to diagnose what Rich was seeing (in film festivals, one must add) was both description and prophecy. As Nick Davis points out, New Queer Cinema was always first and foremost a journalistic meme, not a scholarly rubric and thus since its inception, it became a capacious label that was both historically and aesthetically specific yet one all-too-often (mis)used as an umbrella term. Yes, the film’s of Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes, Cheryl Dunye, and Greg Araki (among others) bore little resemblance to one another, but one could understand what Rich was sensing in all of their work. Sadly, what Brennan zeroes in is on the fact that they were “full of pleasure,” leaving the more thorny understanding of Rich’s concept out to pasture.
Note that Brennan excludes what I’ve bolded in the quote. He may wish to posit (accurately, one might add) that there’s something different and potentially revolutionary in Orange is the New Black when compared to, say, Will & Grace, but at heart both of those shows still work in tandem with “humanist approaches” and “identity politics.” Yes, Piper might be struggling with her sexuality and the prison could be seen to stand as a liminal space that allows for fluid notions of sexuality, but the language of the show still depends on “lesbians” and “straight girls”, while being grounded in a “realistic” take on the world of Litchfield (therein lies a lot of the praise for the show, actually, in its ability to re-present faithfully the many lives of the women it houses).
They exist more within the type of “mainstreaming” that Rich herself saw in 2000 taking over; she enjoys seeing films like Gods and Monsters, Boys Don’t Cry, and The Talented Mr Ripley yet she can’t help but bemoan the way they don’t quite keep the spirit of New Queer Cinema alive (for her money, Being John Malkovich fit the bill more adequately). If that distinction doesn’t tell you enough about the transgressive and irreverent nature of what New Queer Cinema could set out to do, then I don’t know what else will.It is unfortunate then that in an article that seems intent on framing New Queer Cinema historically, with attention to Rich’s own words (albeit oddly filtered through Rich’s own retrospective look), the concept of New Queer Cinema needs to be robbed of its specificity; Brennan may wish to brush aside the fact these new, fascinating and buzzworthy shows are “are surely less experimental than Benning’s videography or Friedrich’s intellectual avant-gardism” but in doing so he forfeits one of the main things that defined New Queer Cinema. Indeed, in looking back on The New Queer Cinema in an essay titled “Queer and Present Danger” published in 2000, Rich attests that the term “was meant to catch the beat of a new kind of film-and video-making that was fresh, edgy, low-budget, inventive, unapologetic, sexy and stylistically daring” (Sight and Sound); Brennan’s examples tick very few of these boxes, something he acknowledges himself. A cursory look at Brennan’s piece itself shows the way a desire to see HBO’s Looking, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Amazon’s Transparent & FX’s American Horror Story as “New Queer Television” comes with the caveat of distorting all that made New Queer Cinema, well, queer!
This is not to say that it isn’t worth noting that the success of the women at Litchfield, the bumbling boys of Andrew Haigh’s San Francisco, Ryan Murphy’s fun house of mirrors anthology series and Jill Solloway’s Trans-Parent protagonist might tell us something about the ever-changing state of contemporary television and the great strides the gay community has made in creating interesting and challenging new series. But let us not bend over backward trying to test the very flexibility that defines “queer” to dub a contemporary trend. In truth, that seems to be the very point of Brennan’s intervention (“the New Queer Television can count the generation of filmmakers identified by B. Ruby Rich as its foremost progenitor”); has queer only begat queer (and must we really use a reproductive metaphor to extoll queerness at all?).
I’ll leave you with more Rich:
For truly, madly, deeply, without all that groundbreaking and heart-stopping work of the early days, it’s impossible to imagine the existence of the more mainstream films coming along now to play with the same concepts, cast bigger stars and shuffle the deck for fresh strategies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have them. I’m happy to be part of a new niche market. And, yes, I’m working on my ability to synthesise current fashion with memories of the good ole days. I think of it as a millennial strategy.