Queer perspectives in communication studies vary greatly, but they tend to share some common assumptions about the communicative force of norms, including those related to sexualities, genders, bodies, races, ethnicities, abilities, and desires. In general, queer perspectives question the legitimacy of hegemonic assumptions about bodies and sexualities, opting instead for more fluid and porous discourses and norms. Influenced by Michel Foucault’s theories about the productive and generative nature of discourses and Judith Butler’s elaboration on the performativity of identity and agency, communication studies scholars have mined queer theory for insights into our collective and individual investments in naturalized norms as well as efforts to resist them. One of the difficulties in corralling the varied meanings of “queer” into an encyclopedia entry is that it can operate as a noun, adjective, or verb, which has different implications for critics interested in its employ.
Queer Perspectives in Communication Studies
Isaac N. West
Representations of Drag Culture
Drag may be understood as performing a gender other than one’s self-identified gender. Drag is therefore underpinned by the concept of gender performativity, or acts that naturalize constructs of gender, yet drag complicates gender performativity by imitating and parodying such “natural” performances of gender. Drag is also underpinned by camp, a sensibility combining incongruity, theatricality, and humor emanating from the 1960s gay liberation movement and more recently appropriated by heteronormative culture industries, bringing forth the need to differentiate queer (political) from gay (mainstream) camp deployment. In American popular culture, the focus of this entry, drag most closely approximates cross-dressing as a mainly humorous narrative trope involving a duplicitous cross-dresser (and knowing viewer) and a duped (and often amorous) “victim.” Cross-dressing therefore should be discerned from transvestism, which involves greater subjective investment in performing a gendered other, and from the antiquated terminology of transsexualism, which implies the desire to become a gendered other. In these differences, drag can invoke gender, race, and ethnicity with different levels of performative consequence, such that women and Black men performing drag assume historical and institutional significance differently from (white) men role-playing as women. Lastly, RuPaul’s Drag Race, the American reality/competition television series, has brought drag into global, commercial mainstream culture by establishing drag as a paradigmatic, professionalized set of performances. While Drag Race has moved queer politics into public discourse with greater visibility for LGBTQ+ peoples and communities, the reality series has circumscribed “winning” and “losing” versions of drag and, by consequence, versions of gender performativity, most notably by circumscribing the boundaries of drag between gender performativity and transgender identities.
Judith Butler and Communication Studies
Judith Butler is one of the most important contemporary critical theorists. Best known for her influential concept of gender as performance and her critique of the idea of natural binary sexual difference, Butler also develops a critical perspective on wider issues arising from the idea that “being is doing,” insisting on the many alternate possibilities of lives that can always be “done” differently. In this context Butler develops a complex account of what it is to be a subject and revises some basic philosophical assumptions regarding how to think about moral deliberation. Butler displaces the assumption that the human subject is responsible only on the condition of being autonomous in order to reconceptualize subjects as beings thrown into a world of interdependency and cohabitation. Butler characterizes us as part of “precarious life,” beings whose exposure to desire, loss, and grief is constitutive of our existence, but who nonetheless find agency within a critical relation to constituting social norms and through building more generous public worlds. It is helpful to understand the rich engagement that Butler’s work has with the philosophical perspectives in the background of these ideas, from the Hegelian criticism of abstract universalism to genealogy, deconstruction, queer and feminist theory, speech act theory, and the psychoanalytic account of subject formation, as well as the interlocutors who have become increasingly important in Butler’s recent work, including Levinas, Benjamin, and Arendt. These engagements ground a distinctive ethical and political approach that Butler brings to bear on contemporary and urgent questions, central to which is how alterity is engaged with. With a focus on how lives become “intelligible” as those of the kinds of beings that are recognized and find protection in law, Butler contributes rich insights into contemporary political phenomena. In particular, she describes how only certain lives appear as valuable in public discourses, while others lives and deaths become a matter of indifference, tracking the role of images and rhetoric in enforcing such differences. In demonstrating how state violence is bound up with this differentiation between “grievable and ungrievable lives,” Butler draws out a complex account of the relationship between violence, law, and justice. There are clear continuities between Butler’s earliest and latest work in the exploration of these issues, based in her methodological commitments to practices of critique and genealogy.