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What we see on the horde of screens that comprise and dictate the majority of our daily actions are vital in composing not only our personal narrative but also society’s at large. The importance of one of those screens, the television, has been such a longtime player in the representations of different societal, cultural, and sexual norms that it has oftentimes been the subjects of critique, ridicule, and praise. One of those critiques, Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire by Professor Amy Villarejo at Cornell University probes into how representations of queer life have changed since the evolution of the TV in the 1950s and provides a bold new way for queer people to understand themselves through the programs they watch on TV and the world and cultural niches they occupy.
In the latest analysis to join the canon of television critiques, Villarejo offers a new and insightful look at how “[society] live[s] life as and through television.” Utilizing critical theorist Theodor Adorno, Villarejo weaves a tale of a personal exposition through not only her own specific interests displayed on television but also how those displays “take [society’s] time in a way that enfolds all aspects of socialization [through] Adorno’s ‘spell of selfhood’” that in a way ultimately explores the temporalities of queer and television modalities. Throughout each chapter the question isn’t how television has effected one’s understanding of whatever they are watching but rather, what becomes of said understanding when we start to view ourselves and the world through the communities and characters that we invest in and live our lives through. Examining the new ways in which queer lives have become more frequent on television screens and their implications, Villarejo aptly investigates how queer representations on television have become modes of becoming, being, and surviving for a community that has been long depicted on television–ever since it became fashionable for every show to have a gay best friend, sidekick, or story-line.
Although Villarejo does an ample job of eloquently writing to her theoretical strengths with her use of Deleuze, Heidegger, and Adorno, her use of their complex philosophies can oftentimes get lost in her exploration of investigating her main question: who we [queer people] are in relation to television. Even though everything we see on television today is not must see queer TV, her explicit analysis into one-off queer characters in television shows such as All in the Family, Maude, and Sanford and Son to the television docu-series An American Family, which is heralded with having the first openly gay character on television, symbolizes the staying power and historicity that queer characters can have in shaping the worlds the represent and the pasts they leave behind. Queer identified people attached themselves to these characters and created a sustained relationship with not who they, the characters are but what they, the viewers, can be in relation to their own lives that are silenced and glossed over by the heteronormative narrative that dominates the mainstream cultural and social tone. Much to Villarejo’s strength, her use of queer attachment proves to be vital in the study of not just television but the people who watch it and invest their time into the characters they see on the screens in front of them.
At points, Villarejo’s book reads like a memoir where she recounts her favorite pastime shows. However, what’s most important about Villarejo’s Ethereal Queer is that it doesn’t stop itself from being highly critical of the industrial complex of queer characters on television that we now see today on the countless “remakes, rip-offs, and repackaging” of LGBT lives and communities. Rather than selecting a single program to focus on, her exploration doesn’t stop after looking at the history of queer characters on television and the roles they’ve had in developing the LGBT identities that we see today. The queer characters of yesterday worked to subvert the heteronormative domestic narratives that were seen on countless television shows prior to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Will & Grace gay and lesbian character boom of the early 2000s. The brilliance of Villarejo’s argument is that she shows that prior to the increase of open LGBT characters on television, closeted or one-off queer characters represented an act of survival, representation, and identity that television lacked. However, now that the LGBT character has become an industrial complex that television studios must sell to, exploring the different modes of we, as viewers, consume these images, is vital to not only the survival of queer characters on TV themselves but ones in real life as well.
Although she doesn’t specifically state it, Villarejo’s analysis suggests that at its core, television might just be queer itself. Although television is always changing and the ways that we consume its consummate tailored high-definition images varies, to say that something or someone is queer, to paraphrase Judith Butler or Eve Sedgwick indicates that it is indeterminate or indecipherable. Placing limitations on queer or television itself specifies that the act of changing or evolving stop. As we have witnessed, TV has gone from analog to digital, through a cable in the wall to a satellite dish beaming down to a receiver or an internet router attached in our homes, proving that our connection to television and the ways that we consume its images is and will always continue to evolve as much as the lexicon of our identities. Even though we tune into our favorite shows on a weekly basis or map our free time onto the screens that we use to watch them, the queerness of television isn’t that it has gone through multiple reincarnations but rather that through those reincarnations our LGBT identities have been seen in a much higher-definition. It is in this point that Villarejo’s thesis proves worthy of tuning into and remembering for a long time to come.
Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire
By Amy Villarejo
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822355113, 216 pp.