The Perils and Promise of Queer Pedagogy

I recently had the pleasure of co-coordinating a session on creating safer classroom space.  In the process, I designed a skit that presented a scenario in which a student is not comfortable discussing LGBT issues as a result of his religious convictions and upbringing.  In the two sessions that occurred, a number of significant points were raised, including the fact that, while racism and sexism are commonly called out for rebuke, homophobia, often in the guise of religious belief or devotion, is excused or tolerated.  Of course, such duplicity occurs not only in the classroom, as the recent political discourse about religious business’s freedom to decline services to LGBT people makes amply clear.

This tension between tolerance for religious difference and acceptance of LGBT equality and dignity poses significant questions for educators at all levels, but especially at the college and university level, where courses dealing with both of these issues are common.  Whose rights deserve more respect and tolerance?  Does the student whose faith precludes or forbids tolerance for LGBT people (as well as other sexual minorities) need to be sternly rebuked in the classroom or the office?  How do we as educators work with such students to engage in meaningful dialogue, rather than just shutting them down?  I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but they do need to be asked by those of us who have an investment in promoting social justice for sexual and gender minorities, no matter how difficult the answers might be.

Furthermore, designing and performing this sketch, as well as engaging in and sometimes answering questions about it, brought home to me just how much I take for granted as a teacher at private institution in New York that, typically, offers significant institutional support for LGBT issues, faculty, and students.  It may not be a perfect school, but it’s far better than many state and private schools in other parts of the country, including my own Appalachia, as well as in other parts of New York State.  Whether or not we want to realize it, those of us that are pursuing doctoral degrees in prestigious schools in urban centers, especially in the northeast, may one day find ourselves in those geographical spaces where there is not an assumed support for matters LGBT.  As terrifying as that prospect is for some people, we also need to recognize that it is precisely people who live in those areas–both those who share our beliefs and those who don’t–who are most in need of pedagogical experience and investment in engaging with the tough questions raised by the intersections and conflicts between religion and human sexuality.  Furthermore, we need to develop strategies for coping not just with students, but also with administrators that do not support LGBT issues.

I have long thought that it is a mistake for LGBT theorists and thinkers to simply assume that people in rural America should flee their intolerant small town and country environs and escape to the welcoming embrace of the big city.  There is a lot about rural queer identity, and rural live in general, that is worthy of celebration, even if it is sometimes tainted with the idiocy of those who espouse bigoted views.  If we want to effect meaningful social change for people in all parts of the country, we need to start engaging in meaningful and sustained dialogue with those with whom we most vehemently disagree.

There are, of course, no easy or simple answers when it comes to this issue.  Or at least there shouldn’t be.  As tempting as it might be to simply state that homophobia, no matter how fancily dressed it may be in its garments of religious devotion, has no place in our contemporary society, the reality is that things are far more complex.  If we, as educators, want to fulfill our mission of opening up minds and fostering critical engagement with today’s pressing political issues, including those that directly affect gender and sexual minorities, we have to be able to engage with even the most religiously devout of our students in deep and meaningful ways.  This is not going to be an easy task, but it is one that many of us will have to confront as we begin to enter the profession.  We would do well to start engaging in that conversation with our students, with ourselves, and especially with those who don’t agree with us.  And we should do so as soon as possible.

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“Outlander” and the Gendered Branding of Starz

There has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding Starz new series Outlander, based on the bestselling series of historical/fantasy/science fiction/romance novels written by Diana Gabaldon (the question of genre is a vexed one where this series is concerned). Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed and Willa Paskin of Slate have both pointed out that the series, unlike other high-end cable productions, actually seems to cater to a female spectator.  This is no small thing in the cable world, which is regularly saturated with fare that, while offering some pleasures to women, is very obviously created for and consumed by an assumed (straight, white, middle-class) audience.  At the same time, however, Starz’s executives and the series’ showrunner have also made it clear that they want to appeal to more than just the female components of the audience, with a concomitant desire to distance this novel from the romance appellation into the more esteemed (and less critically derided term) “great drama.”  Heaven forbid that we have a series that is a straight-up historical romance (one need only look at the critical reception of CW’s Reign or Showtime’s The Tudors to see what happens when a series does that).

And this desire to make a great drama, it seems, poses somewhat of a problem for Starz which, along with Showtime, has always occupied the enormous shadow thrown by the heavyweight HBO.  Few of its original series have lasted more than a season, two notable exceptions being Da Vinci’s Demons and Spartacus (both of which, it should be noted, focus heavily on male exploits and gazes).  For all that Spartacus was a ratings success for the network, it never quite managed to get out of the trap of being largely derided as low-brow, frothy entertainment, due in no small part to its pandering to the perceived lowest common denominator through a great deal of explicit sex and violence.  It would seem, then, that Outlander is Starz’s attempt to harness a presold commodity and, utilizing its own branding efforts, finally break free of its low-culture efforts into the genuine realm of quality TV.

These discussions, particularly the commentary from the executives at the network, also highlight the ways in which TV remains a highly-gendered medium, both in terms of the stories told, as well as in how they are marketed and understood by the executives who approve them.  Almost every major TV series that has gained the distinction of quality–Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Fargo–has focused on the alleged trials and tribulations of white men, and the networks on which they are found, AMC, HBO, FX, have also accrued a reputation for catering to male audiences.  With rare exceptions, it is only when series and networks cater to the fears and anxieties of an assumed male audience that they are able to break away from the low-culture stigma that continues to cling to the medium.  To dare to focus on female subjectivity, still less to make a woman the central character of the drama, threatens to alienate male audiences in a way that focusing on a male character does not, it seems, run the same risk of alienating female spectators.  As we continue into the alleged golden age of TV, it’s worth noting that, in that age, it is men who, at all levels, get to call the shots.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Starz, in its attempt to solidify its brand identity and create a competitor for Game of Thrones, has decided to cater to this male audience, especially by making such public statements about its desire to draw in those same viewers.  This is, of course, no surprise, considering the desperation with which Starz wants to reach the same level of cultural esteem of its competitors.  What better way to do that than to try to cater to both the built-in female audience for Gabaldon’s work and also the allegedly pickier male viewers that certainly won’t tune in to watch a woman’s story, no matter how compellingly or lushly told.  Now, if there were boobs and political intrigue involved (Game of Thrones style), then presumably they would.

What makes Starz an especially interesting case, however, is the way in which it also utilizes history as a means of granting to itself the gravitas necessary to elevate itself to the upper echelons of premium cable programming.  The representation of history itself has a vexed relationship to quality and to masculinity–one of the key ways in which historical films and TV series are denigrated by the critical public is by branding them melodramatic, a sinister and sly way of denigrating femininity–so it should come as no surprise that Starz has attempted to beef up the first few episodes of Outlander by focusing more on the politics and scheming, in addition to the aforementioned emphasis on female subjectivity.

It remains to be seen whether Starz’s experiment in genre-blending will succeed in its desired goals of gathering in a male audience and setting the brand apart from, or at least being able to meaningfully compete with, that already established by HBO.  Even if it fails to draw in the male audience, if it manages to woo the female (and, I might, add, gay male) audience demographic that makes up so much of Gabaldon’s fan base, that should still garner the series’ enough ratings to make the adventure worth it.  Given critical predilection for male-centered dramas (and general dismissal of romance, especially its historical strain), it remains somewhat less certain that it will manage to gather the same accolades (Emmys and whatnot) that have been showered upon its male-drama counterparts.  One need only look at the continually-snubbed The Good Wife to see what happens to series that dare to focus on women rather than men.  Hopefully, however, Outlander will be a game changer in more ways than one.  If we are lucky, we might finally get a top-notch premium cable drama that is not only quality, but also manages to remain tightly and insightfully focused on the historical subjectivities and experience of women.