ISSN: 2241-6692


25 Years of (new) Queer cinema and theory

Almost 25 years after the release of Jennie Livingston’s unapologetic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) and Judith Butler’s groundbreaking book Gender Trouble (1990), one might wonder what happened to the queer project. Born out of the discords of postmodern identity politics and the frustrations of AIDS activism in the late 1980s, the queer movement evolved and flourished throughout the 1990s, introducing a radical critique against the dominant heteronormative and homonormative culture and politics, as this was hammered through the movement’s unique amalgamation of theory and aesthetics (particularly if one bears in mind how queer theory has inspired New Queer Cinema’s filmmakers and vice versa). But it was not long before Hollywood contained the oppositional energies of a Gus Van Sant, a Todd Haynes, a Gregg Araki, reducing the movement to a moment, as Ruby Rich, who coined the movement’s cinematic epithet, laments (2000). However, this brief essay is not meant to be a eulogy. It is more of a re-evaluation of the way theory has engaged with the queer aspects of cinema in the last 25 years, as well as an investigation of queerness’s value at a theoretical, aesthetic, and political level in the contemporary neoliberal context where politics is replaced by “technocratic, corporate, post-political governance”, the so-called “governmentality of the crisis” (Butler, 2013).

Drawing on the traditions of deconstruction, feminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Foucault’s thought, queer theory has aimed at the exposure of the incoherence, instability and artificiality of social codes and discourses of sexuality, which conceived sexual pleasure or desire as “a force of nature that transcends any cultural framework”, rather than a “performative effect of language, politics, and the endless perversity and paradox of symbolic (which is also to say historical and cultural) meaning”, as Hanson points out (1999: 4). Resisting the normalizational strategies of compulsory heterosexuality, the very term queer, having been radicalized and re-appropriated, has re-established the once marginal, yet “vast range of stigmatized sexualities and gender identifications”, as “central to the construction of modern subjectivity” (ibid.: 4). Without obliterating other sites of difference, namely race, ethnicity, and class, queer theory’s targets have been the hegemonic structures of sexual oppression and normalization, what Foucault has exposed as discursive systems of power, such as education, art, religion, and politics, which have diachronically regulated the production of a particular set of (sexual) identities, desirable or abject.

Meanwhile, being in dialogue with the ideas being formulated by queer theorists, a growing group of independent filmmakers ignited a “backlash against [gay and lesbian movement’s] preoccupation with ‘positive images”’ (ibid.: 9), offering instead more “nuanced and complex images of queer lives and issues” (Benson & Griffin, 2004: 11). Gaining critical acclaim within the international festival circuit as well as commercial success, films likeParis Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991), My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991), and Edward II (Derek Jarman, 1991), proved that queer films “could be both radical and popular, stylish and economically viable” (Aaron, 2004: 3). Though “charged with elitism” and considered greatly “rigorous and difficult both thematically and formally [even for] queer spectators” (Benshoff & Griffin, 2004: 12), New Queer Cinema’s ‘Homo-Pomo’ style (Rich, 1992) quickly provided the ideal textual vehicle for queer theorists’ interrogation of essentialist models of sexual identity and the exploration of sexuality in its intersectionality with gender, race, class, age, etc.

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

However, the relation between queer theory and film clearly exceeded the boundaries of critical analysis of queer representation and authorship. Michele Aaron synopsizes queer film theory’s main preoccupations “as operating on three, not unrelated, levels”: first, the “critical exploration of queer imagery and directors”, such as those of New Queer Cinema; second, the “retrospective queering of film history”, namely alternative re-readings of classical texts from a queer perspective; and third, the “discussion of queer spectatorship”, that is people’s queer responses, desires, identifications, and, generally, experience of cinema, even if these people or texts themselves are not (self-)identified as queer (2004: 10).

Criticizing the rigidity and heterocentrism of traditional psychoanalytic models of spectatorship, such as Mulvey’s famous feminist analysis of the cinematic gaze, and rebuffing the essentialist and binaristic conceptualizations of gay and lesbian film criticism’s work with spectatorship, queer theory’s concern with the spectatorial phenomenon re-establishes the “ever-shifting gender and sexuality positioning in relation to film and popular culture”, which “obliterate[s] for the spectator the sense of functioning within any particular gender and sexuality categories” (Doty, 1998: 151).

One notable example is Evans and Gamman’s application of the notion of “gendefuck” [i] to the analysis of cinematic spectatorship, as an effective way to address the question of cross-gender identifications and, most importantly, “to make the case” not necessarily “for the ‘queer’ gaze”, but “for identifications which are multiple, contradictory, shifting, oscillating, inconsistent, and fluid” (Evans & Gamman, 2004: 217). As they suggest, “there are many visual clues and ‘cultural competences’ which generate interpellation, identification and voyeurism in the cinema”, based on the subcultural experiences and knowledge that the viewers may bring to the reading of specific texts (ibid.). Going a step further, Aaron claims that cinema itself is “rooted in queer processes” (2004: 10). As she explains, “founded upon the spectator’s alignment or identification with or gravitation towards a ‘character-not-you’, narrative cinema itself depends upon establishing empathy, alliances and desire along lines not restricted to normative patterns of attraction” (ibid.).

Judy Garland

Clearly, queer theory’s reframing of cinematic spectatorship engendered a reconceptualisation of one of the most prominent subcultural reception strategies, what has been known as “camp”. As Smelik notes, “camp can be seen as an oppositional reading of popular culture which offers identifications and pleasures that dominant culture denies to homosexuals” (1998: 141). Such identifications have been significantly addressed by Richard Dyer (1986) in his discussion of Judy Garland’s appeal for gay men. According to Dyer, Garland’s star image’s embodiment of both authenticity and theatricality highly reflected the – so-called – “gay sensibility”; characterized by excess, irony and exaggeration, Garland was a favourite object of drag acts, which, nevertheless, combined humour with pathos, “the knife edge between camp and hurt” (1986: 180). Humour, as “the chosen way of dealing with the painfully incongruous situation of gays in society”, is identified by Babuscio as one of the four basic characteristics of camp, alongside irony, aestheticism and theatricality (2004: 128). Thus, ultimately, “camp was a means of queering heterocentrist film culture, [which] both celebrated and satirized Hollywood films and their ‘larger-than-life’ characters and situations” (Benshoff & Griffin 2004: 7). Indeed, as Benshoff and Griffin notice, the visual and stylistic excess of genres, such as the musical and the melodrama, as well as the “overly mannered performances of ‘natural femininity”’ by stars, such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Judy Garland, “allowed some audiences the opportunity to view gender and sexuality as performative, unnatural, and queer” (ibid.). Notwithstanding the essentialist and, to a great extent, ambiguous nature of the concept of “gay sensibility”, the above descriptions of camp reveal its strong associations with queer and, generally, postmodern theory. Medhurst humorously remarks that “postmodernism is only heterosexuals catching up with camp” (1991: 206), while Smelik observes that Babuscio’s understanding of camp as signifying performance rather than existence practically anticipates Butler’s notion of gender signifying performance rather than identity (1998: 142). Indeed, camp’s emphasis on style, surface, and the spectacle remind us of Butler’s notion of gender performativity, as the deliberate stylization of the body and the repetitive enactment of a set of discontinuous performances that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance. Smelik even goes to assert that in the 1990s the notion of “camp” has been replaced by the term “queer”, for “not unlike camp, but more self-assertive, queer readings are fully inflected with irony, transgressive gender parody, and deconstructed subjectivities” (ibid.).

Along similar lines Sedgwick regards the queer as “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality, aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (1993: 8). Following on De Man’s deconstructive demonstration of “a radical estrangement between the meaning and the performance of a text”, Sedgwick argues that queer referentiality can be spotted within the “aberrant relation” of the performative “to its own reference”, or as Savoy explains, “the aberrant relation, the ‘torsion’, between narrative intentionality and queer performativity” (1999: 168). In this way, the possibility of an analytical queering of mainstream cinema lies exactly within this “interlinearity between theatrical performance and the slippery excesses” of an “unaccountable” queer moment, that is a “moment that cannot be subsumed within the heterosexist strategies of containment, but remains in excess precisely as excess” (ibid .). Discussing the possibilities of a political and analytical application of Butlerian performativity in classical Hollywood, Savoy notices that such a task requires “a return to spectacle, that is, to the body in performance” (ibid.: 167). However, he departs from Butler’s dismissal of cross-dressing and gender fusion and confusion in mainstream cinema as “a ritualistic release for a heterosexual economy that must constantly police its own boundaries against the invasion of queerness” (Butler, 1993: 126). Instead he argues that “queer performativity within mainstream cinema is almost always far in excess of the heterosexualizing strategies of containment and remains in suspension, as ideologically fissuring and problematic”, deploying such an analytical queer reading on Doris Day’s performance in Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953) (ibid.). In this sense, filmic queerness, as Doty suggests, ultimately, occurs “simultaneously beside and within [...] straight positions”, working to confuse and challenge “the articulation of the film’s straight ideological points” (1993: 15, 29).

Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953)

The above arguments refer to those unaccountable queer moments embedded within mainstream cinema, which offer the possibility to apply queerness to practically any text as long as it exposes the impossibility to bind sexual and identity categories to the binary logic of heteronormativity, not only through representation but even more so through those excessive moments of queer performativity, which in the past were also referred to as “camp”. As Aaron reminds us, “the critical power of queerness, its sheer force, is not to do with its content so much as its stance, its very oppositionality to conservative culture” (ibid.: 198). Here, exactly, lies queer theory’s political power as well, as “the rigorous questioning of the very concepts of correctness, identity, stereotyping, visibility, and authenticity” (Hanson 1999: 12).

Shifting interest away from issues of queer visibility, representation and spectatorship and towards issues of queer historicism, futurity and sociality, queer film theory enters the new century aligning itself with the broader theoretical turn towards the notions of time and space. Lee Edelman’s No Future (2004) is perhaps the most controversial text of this turn owing to its polemical critique of teleological accounts of queer temporality and historicism, but most importantly of the quintessential North American homophobic discourse framed around the fantasy politics of what he terms as “reproductive futurism”[ii]. Edelman introduces the sinthomosexual as the figure that embodies queerness’s radical anti-sociality, an incarnation of jouissance as associated with the death drive, for the queer fixation on sexuality and refusal of reproduction is for him nothing but a negation of both futurity and sociality. In this way, Edelman inaugurates a long debate over the so-called anti-social thesis that will nearly monopolize the queer project for almost a decade and clearly infuse much of contemporary queer critical work with film.

Tying the Knot (Jim de Seve, 2004)

Indeed, queer film theory now focuses on the way film engages both thematically and formally with such issues as queer bonds, temporalities and politics, particularly the vexed issues of marriage and kinship. For example, BJ Wray’s article ‘Screening Desire’ (2009) examines the limitations and possibilities of film as a site of political and social intervention. Wray warns against the so-called “sameness” arguments with respect to the character of same-sex relationships that frame the homonormative rhetoric of such political documentaries as Tying the Knot (Jim de Seve, 2004) and The End of Second Class (Nancy Nicol, 2006). Being part of “the strategic representation of same-sex marriage within familiar cultural narratives”, such as monogamy, domesticity, childrearing, and commitment, such films, he argues, seek “to place same-sex relationships within the realm of legal and cultural intelligibility” (2009: 16), thus risking the normalization and homogenization of same-sex relationships and, ultimately, sketching out a teleological if not regressive account of queer futurity. Instead, he believes that film should be used to create a discursive space for alternative forms of same-sex relationality, so that it can honestly accommodate the queer experience of those “who resist normalcy” (ibid.: 20). Queer film criticism seems, indeed, to privilege more experimental filmmaking. Julianne Pidduck (2009) acknowledges the critical and aesthetic value of queer video-autoethnographies, whose innovative formal strategies (such as spatial and temporal fragmentation, and the unexpected juxtapositions of different elements and contexts) reflect, as she observes, the fragmentation and discontinuity that kinship ontologies comprise. Pidduck suggests that experimental queer films can accommodate queer theory’s critique of the heteronuclear family and the familiar familial narrative drive of “reproductive futurity”, while helping us imagine “different sites, practices, and configurations of queer kinship” (2009: 464).

Drawing on Edelman’s critique of heteronormative and homonormative conceptualisations of time and space, as encapsulated in the axiomatic “queer refusal of meaning”, Teresa de Lauretis, ultimately reframes queer textuality as one “that not only works against narrativity, the generic pressure of all narrative toward closure and fulfillment of meaning, but also pointedly disrupts the referentiality of language and the referentiality of images” (2011: 244). This queer defiance of narrativity and identity, as well as the repudiation of normative conceptualizations and representations of time and space as meaningful and productive provide Rosalind Galt with a fertile theoretical ground to coin “default cinema”, which refers to a strand of contemporary global art cinema which responds to recent histories of economic crisis by means of a radical queer critique that infuses both its form and content (2013). In the menacing face of the global crisis and the dangerous therapeutics imposed by post-democratic neoliberal regimes, these films, Galt argues, materialize the “queer refusal to signify”, as precisely a formal and thematic repudiation of the intertwined meanings and narratives of neoliberal capitalism, patriarchy and heteronormativity. As Edelman reminds us, “[t]he narrative that raises meaninglessness as a possibility, after all, necessarily bestows a particular meaning on such meaninglessness itself” (2004: 120).

Xenia (Panos H. Koutras, 2014)

Interestingly, Galt’s conception provides a useful queer methodological approach for the analysis of cinemas of the crisis. The textual and contextual differences notwithstanding, the strand in contemporary Greek independent filmmaking that has been dubbed “weird” (Rose 2011) is, indeed, characterized by such a “crisis of meaning”, but a crisis of a particular set of meanings, namely, the meanings of heteronormativity, of patriarchy, of nationalism, of neoliberalism and the incessant production of precarious and disposable bodies and subjectivities. In effect, when bodies are reduced to fiscal figures and desires thwarted in the search of survival, difference (racial, gender, sexual, etc) is not a matter of lifestyle debate but the very condition of precarisation. In this shadow, this essay cannot be a eulogy. It is more of a voicing of the existential need to keep in and up with queerness and its radical, polemical cry against the violent structures that regulate and allocate differentially the category of the ‘human’ and their totalitarian narratives that frame the biopolitical.


[i] According to Reich, the notion of “genderfuck” pertains to the detachment of the “free floating signifier”, i.e. biological sex, from its signified, cultural gender. As Reich argues, this notion invites “a politics of performance”, since “it structures meaning in a symbol-performance matrix that crosses through sex and gender and destabilizes the boundaries of our recognition, of sex, gender, and sexual practice” (1992: 125)

[ii] Reproductive futurism refers to Edelman’s account of “straight time”, his theorization of the heterosexual/patriarchal conception of time as teleological, progressive, ordered by reproduction, both biological and ideological, and consummated in the image of the Child as “the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics” (2004: 3).


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