A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Villarejo's Ethereal Queer

A Review of Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire by Amy Villarejo, 2014; Duke University Press (Kindle Edition)

Mark W. Shealy, Texas Tech University

(Published: June 8, 2016)

In Ethereal Queer: Television, Historicity, Desire, Amy Villarejo, Professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, provides a theoretically stimulating alternative history of early reality television that “isolates particular rhythms of television and queer time” (location 284) to challenge “the hermetic, quasi-literary, and often precious approaches to television texts that seem at times to dominate academic protocols” (674). Working at the juncture of media studies and queer scholarship, Villarejo advocates moving past current debates on the ideological merits of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters on television – debates that have focused too often on how LGBTQ characters coincide with real-world timelines of emancipatory gay politics.

As a driving premise, Villarejo contends that lesbian and gay characters did not suddenly appear on television over the past few decades, and so Ethereal Queer attempts to present television as independent from the language of social justice, identity politics, and gay desires for public recognition, discourses that have driven most academic writing in LGBTQ televisual studies. Villarejo uses her premise to contribute to an evolving history of early realty TV, arguing against a “realist paradigm and preoccupation with realist representation of LGBT lives on television that excludes consideration on how TV makes and takes time” (237). Rather, she argues for a paradigm that would address temporalities involved in audience engagements with television, one that presents the “queer stereotype as a temporal structure, a way to register existential and affective connection as well as a form of temporal production of queer life” (293).

This register of queer experience and televisual evolution through the lens of temporality itself may be the primary innovation we take from the thrust of her argument. Queer identity and subjectivity are “coimplicated” with historical media events, noteworthy television series, or series episodes during times when America’s concept of television as a medium was radically altering. Villarejo argues that queer realities and televisual realties developed symbiotically so that “changing temporal orders on television [enabled] new modes of queer representation” (287) and so that “changing iterations of queerness lead to new televisual forms” (288). Her focused queered reading of the TV show Starsky and Hutch episode “Death in a Different Place,” (entwined with Villarejo’s childhood memories of growing up in Los Angeles “as television”) in the Introduction is an unexpected pleasure, beginning the revisionist analytic method she proposes.

In Chapter One (“Adorno's Antenna”) Villarejo explores, in a careful, sympathetic manner, Theodor Adorno’s lesser known essay “How to Look at Television.” Villarejo sees Adorno as focused on sexual representation and gender from a cultural criticism perspective that addresses queer appearance. She understands Adorno as suggesting that “television's structural function…is to promote accommodation to the effects of capitalist subsumption: alienation and humiliation” (911), and is interested in how Adorno emphasizes this identification process as a reversal of psychoanalysis and a means of entrapping the spectator. Making use of Adorno’s close reading of the 50’s TV show Our Miss Brooks (starring Eve Arden), Villarejo draws from Walter Benjamin’s ideas on art and Andre Bazin’s theory of cinema to explain that use of the queer stereotype allows television to promote the very syndrome that psychoanalysis seeks to treat. Using this interpretation of Adorno allows Villarejo to understand the queer stereotype as a temporal structure, “a way to register existential and affective connection as well as a form of temporal production of queer life” (293) and allows her to explore the intersection between queerness and temporality.

In Chapter Two (“Excursus on Media and Temporality”), Villarejo examines “synchronization and endurance” in both theater and installation art to outline predominant models for considering cinematic time. Beginning with a concept of cinema as a medium that blurs distinctions between fiction and reality, imagination and perception, characters and actors, the present and past, etc., Villarejo claims that the singular manner in which particular viewers experience time across various media insures that means of adopting these media differ. Those means of adoption depend on the organization of a particular media’s formal and temporal structures, so Villarejo proposes that critics consider televisual time within the constraints of its own rhythms, given this recognition of how viewership styles differ from medium to medium. For Villarejo, the experience of “being television” allows viewers’ existential proxies to be exposed as doubles that confine rather than reflect audience freedoms. She draws on Husserl, Bergson, and Bernard Stiegler to support her argument. In this chapter, Villarejo left me questioning whether freedom from/for this televisual self will develop in conjunction with a queering of LGBT media scholarship along lines she describes. Her intriguing notion of how “we merge with or become cinema or television and reinvigorate (inject new life into) ourselves” (1452) is one she addresses throughout the book.

In Chapter Three (“Television Ate My Family”: Lance Loud on TV), she returns to the overarching concept of television life as both time and being: “It is impossible to say it bluntly enough: television is, defines, and constitutes family life” (1623). For Villarejo at this point, real life feeds the TV show format and causes the viewership to conflate TV time and real time; imaginative links between audience and family fictions allow for a normative ideal (bound up with evolving queer representations). To begin, she reviews the early sexual politics provoked and audience identification demanded by episodes of All in the Family involving the death of Edith’s lesbian cousin and the death of Edith’s friend Beverly La Salle, a real world female impersonator, Lori Shannon (born Don Seymour McLean).

However, the high point of the book may be her meticulous analysis of the 1973 PBS series An American Family, generally seen as the first example of what we now know as “reality TV.” Originally intended to chronicle the daily life of the Loud family, an upper middle class household in Santa Barbara, California, the series ended up documenting the break-up of the family through the parents’ divorce and the “coming out” of gay son Lance Loud. Villarejo explores what she calls “a pragmatic pedagogy of queer life” (1984) that records a persistent insider-outsider tension, one between the straight world and the underground queer world of Lance Loud and his Warholian environs. Her particularly incisive unpacking of a long dialog (that she herself transcribes) in one episode between mother and son in which Lance struggles to articulate the social effects of “isolation, alienation, longing, boredom, desire, [and] style” (2091) associated with queer youth is particularly powerful. Villarejo notes that

[Lance] seems to me most interested in becoming. He is wondrous: he wonders about how he comes to be and to know…Lance seems less concerned with what might be said to be his homosexuality that is revealed to his mother…than with how queerness becomes, how and what grown-ups know…and what they do to nurture or to thwart queer becoming. (2102)

When Villarejo exemplifies and explicates the theoretical interest that she takes in the re-alignment of queer public realities with queer TV lives by detailing and meta-documenting (via a pragmatic pedagogy of queer life) dead celebrity Lance Loud, her veracity for rethinking television-media histories and queer politics is fully realized. As she touchingly writes,

Lance Loud was not an anomalous figure for his time; to the contrary, he represents his time, as many gay men of his generation did, for it was a time that began, in the 1970s, with the full-scale transformation of queer relations to visibility, public life, and the melodramatic structures of disclosure…it was…television time, or rather times: a mesh of temporalities of real life, recording, transmission, repetition, and seriality in which Lance lived, in which we all live. (2305)

In Chapter Four (“Queer Ascension: Television and Tales of the City”), Villarejo attempts to document the link from television reality to urban reality, placing emphasis on architectural environments surrounding queer lives in both realities. She addresses “the spatial arrangements of queer and televisual temporalities that converge in these moments of technological and industrial innovation” (2355). Frankly, this section seems to veer away from the finely developed arguments of previous chapters. While an exploration of “the conditions of queer migration to urban spaces” (2451) and how such conditions unfold on the television screen (via her close analysis of the 1993 TV series Tales of the City in terms of stairs and windows) makes for fascinating deliberation, her argument that risk-taking in this urban queer world can be seen as “a stand-in for other or all experiences of migration by queer young people seeking a future in this world” (2863) is less than fully realized.

In the last chapter (“Coda: Becoming”), her elegant analyses of two little-known works, the made-for-television Losing Chase (1996) and a program made for Channel Four called Wild Flowers (1989), show her interpreting in a manner that reveals a lesbian queer spirit elusively striking at the heart of Ethereal Queer's more deliberate theoretical examinations. These brief final explorations are fascinatingly entwined with highly personalized statements on her adolescent interest in television, “where the familiar and the unfamiliar lock horns: seduction, revelation, betrayal, romance, control, illness, the glance, the touch, the caress, and the kiss” (2897). Villarejo may here speak both ethereally and elliptically to the very queering of television studies she advocates, an academic approach acknowledging that “television requires that we shuttle between the macroindustrial and the microindividual; it is a machine that produces its value from that very movement” (2910).

Villarejo is most absorbing when scrutinizing particular television shows or episodes, mingling analyses with personal memories of being-as-television. One fascinating phrase-concept she explores is “living as television” in which she is “elaborating a fairly strong version of the claim that we are television, resources for which I find in the Heideggerian phenomenological tradition” (527). While a longer book may have allowed additional elaboration of this notion, Ethereal Queer does allow Villarejo to elucidate her theory and exemplify it with some finesse. When she intermingles personal history with analysis and theory, she comes across as both highly academic and vulnerably human…as the sort of TV viewer and critic anyone serious about media and culture might wish to be.

Villarejo at times exhibits a stylistic tendency to use sentence embeddings throughout theoretical examinations in such a way that readers unfamiliar with details of scholars and thinkers she employs may find the nuanced threads of her arguments difficult to follow. However, the book should be of great interest to any scholar or student working in media studies, queer studies, or the rhetoric of popular culture, especially those interested in the newly developing overlap, within which Villarejo is an expert. Her queer notion of “living as television,” especially within the ranging context of Ethereal Queer as a whole, points to a wider argument against representational politics that seems to resonate with recent rhetorical moves away from representation, interpretation, and suspicion and toward new materialisms. The book should also be useful to those considering how televisual media and phenomenological-based concepts and realities of time or space are altered by net-media and how such concepts/realities are being augmented by parallel shifts in evolving notions of sexuality and gender. Also, the close analyses of queered classic TV shows are in themselves worth reading, apart from the formidable theory framings.