Queer Production Studies
Queer Production Studies
- Eve NgEve NgSchool of Media Arts and Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Programs, Ohio University
Queer production studies is a subfield of production studies that specifically considers the significance of queer identity for media producers, particularly as it relates to the creation of LGBTQ content. Its emergence as a named subfield did not occur until 2018, but there have been studies of queer production prior to that. While general production studies scholarship has focused on industrial production, the scope of queer production studies includes not just production spanning commercial, public, and independent domains, but also fan production. Queer production studies often make use of interview and ethnographic methods to investigate how nonnormative gender and sexual expression factor in the work of media producers, and also examines relevant industry documents, media texts, and media paratexts to discuss how LGBTQ media content reinforces or challenges existing norms. It considers how queer media production relates to the degree of integration or marginalization of LGBTQ people and representation within media as well as society more broadly. Currently, almost all research explicitly identified as queer production studies is conducted in U.S.-based or European-based contexts, and there is thus a large gap in scholarship of queer media production occurring elsewhere.
Research on queer production in the commercial domain has addressed how LGBTQ workers have shaped the content and marketing of queer media, and the relationship of commercial LGBTQ media to independent queer media and to LGBTQ activism. In commercial print, television, and digital media in the United States, there has been some integration of LGBTQ workers beginning in the 1990s, with mixed results for content diversity and for the injection of resources into independent production, as well as a complex relationship to advancing LGBTQ causes. In national contexts with prominent state-supported media, such as the United Kingdom and various European countries, the presence of LGBTQ workers at public service broadcasters interacts with mandates for diversity and inclusion. This has had mixed outcomes in terms of both work environments and the kinds of media texts produced. In independent queer production, issues of limited resources and viewership are persistent, but the professional trajectories of queer cultural workers show that they may move back and forth between major commercial and low-budget production. Digital media has been transformative for many independent producers, facilitating the creation of more diverse content, although web series still face issues of securing resources and dealing with competition from commercial media. Queer fan production has often occurred in response to deficiencies of representation in canonical (official) media texts, taking the form of narrative works such as music videos as well as paratextual commentary. While queer fan texts typically challenge the heteronormativity of mainstream media, many do not depart significantly from other norms around gender and sex. Some fan-written queer-themed fiction has been adapted into commercial television series in countries such as China, although state censorship has precluded the series from being explicitly queer.
- Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
- Mass Communication
This article describes queer production studies as a relatively new subfield within media studies, while also contextualizing its emergence in a longer history of studies of media production. Reflecting existing scholarship, the bulk of the discussion focuses on televisual production in legacy and digital platforms, with some mention of other media forms, such as radio. It also focuses on entertainment programming, while acknowledging the significance of content produced more explicitly for didactic or political purposes. In addition, it is worth noting that the “queer” in queer production studies refers to media content as well as to producers and users when they are something other than cisgendered or heterosexual. As Martin (2018a, p. 7) summarized, queer production studies examines “the production of LGBTQ imagery, the ways queers produce their own media both within and outside the ‘mainstream’ culture industries, and the ways queers work as oppositional readers of texts and paratexts.”
Situating Queer Production Studies Within Media Studies
In situating queer production studies within media studies as a whole, it is useful to understand it both in relation to production studies more generally and as its own developing subfield. Partly in response to a focus on textual analysis by many media studies scholars, production studies has directed attention to the identities and practices of workers in the media industries, including not just actors, directors, and producers, but also those in “below-the-line” occupations, all of whom are often referred to as “producers” or “cultural producers” in a broader sense than the occupational role usually denoted by “producer.” One goal has been to provide deeper context for how and why media producers create particular kinds of media texts. Another is to better understand how producers both help create and become shaped by the production cultures that they are part of, or as Mayer et al. (2009, p. 2) put it, “how media producers make culture, and, in the process, make themselves into particular kinds of workers in modern, mediated societies.”
Queer production studies emerged as an explicitly named subfield in a 2018 special issue of the Journal of Film and Video, edited by Alfred Martin Jr. Martin’s (2018a) introductory article argued for the utility of distinguishing it from production studies more generally, for several reasons. First, much production studies scholarship examining the identities of media producers has paid little attention to the significance of nonnormative gender and sexual expression. Second, there has been no coherent approach to queer media production that examines the economic scale from major commercial to independent domains or that includes fan production. A third reason, which this article should make clear, is the significance of examining queer cultural production in relation to the politics of marginality in both media and society more broadly.
Another pertinent differentiation is between production studies and media industry studies. There is some overlap, as studies of the media industries also include some attention to production while production studies necessarily refers to conditions of the media industry. However, much media industries studies research focuses more on broad economic, regulatory, and technological developments while production studies research frequently makes use of interviews and ethnographic research with producers, often combined with analysis of relevant industry documents and media texts, to center the practices of cultural producers and the outcomes of these practices. In these ways, production studies draws from methods of both the humanities and social sciences, and such mixed-method and interdisciplinary approaches are also reflected in queer production studies.
Before moving on to discuss queer production studies research, it is therefore useful to note a separate body of work in media industry studies about LGBTQ media that examines changes such as commercialization and conglomeration or the significance of how media consumers are imagined and sought by media producers, but is not focused on production practices and producers themselves. For example, Becker (2006) discussed how U.S. television networks began producing gay-themed programming in the 1990s to appeal to a segment of educated, liberal heterosexual viewers who would be attracted to content seen as edgier. Aslinger (2009) discussed the emergence of LGBTQ television networks in the United States also from a media industry studies perspective, highlighting trends in the television industry to carve out niche audiences in a “post-network” era (Lotz, 2007) and the role of emergent digital technologies. Comparable approaches have been taken by Aslinger (2010), Campbell (2005), and Gamson (2003) about the trajectories of LGBTQ websites in the United States during the 1990s. For radio, Martin’s (2018b) account of OutQ, the now defunct LGBTQ-focused satellite station, discussed how it was imagined by its producers as a “queer listening public” that was not an overtly resistant “counterpublic” (Fraser, 1990) the way that some queer spaces have been theorized to be (Warner, 2005), but which still functioned importantly as a live space of what Tongson (2011, p. 130) had termed the “remote intimacies” of community formation via radio listening.
The outcomes of media deregulation and globalization have meant that a media text (such as a film or television program) is often distributed in multiple countries. However, this does not mean that different national contexts all have the same production environments. In particular, there remain important differences with respect to how acceptable LGBTQ identity and expression are within a country, and the prominence of government-funded (“public”) broadcasters, which may produce media that includes LGBTQ content. The next section provides an overview of transnational perspectives on queer production studies, followed by sections on queer production in the domains of major commercial media, public media, independent production, and fan production. Taken together, these show that queer production studies addresses a number of issues in media and cultural theory to do with how the identities of media producers influence their work, inclusion and marginality in different production domains, and the relationship of media production and media texts to society more generally.
The conditions for the production of LGBTQ content vary across different national contexts for at least two major kinds of reasons. One is the degree to which gender and sexual nonnormativity are accepted at a legal and societal level, as this affects both the regulatory conditions for queer content and the ability of queer media to be distributed even if it can be legally produced. A crude measure for societal acceptance is whether homosexuality is legal, although in terms of its outcomes for queer media production, the relationship is not entirely predictable. For example, homosexuality is legal in China, but there is substantial censorship of media for queer (and other sexual) content (Lavin et al., 2017; Zhou, 2017). Thus, several Chinese series revolving around a male–male relationship, even when not explicitly romantic, have been the target of government censorship (Ng & Li, 2020). In contrast, homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, but there is more leeway for LGBTQ media (Chua, 2014; Ng, 2018).
Unsurprisingly, the majority of queer production studies scholarship has been conducted in countries where homosexuality is legal and there are substantial amounts of LGBTQ media being produced, particularly the United States. Queer production studies research remains relatively new even for the European context, and so far, it has centered on Ireland and Belgium based on research by Páraic Kerrigan, Anne O’Brien, and Florian Vanlee (see also the section “Queer Production in Public Media”). For example, drawing on interviews, Kerrigan and O’Brien (2020) and O’Brien and Kerrigan (2020) investigated how LGBTQ-identified workers in Irish film and television production have negotiated the heteronormative conditions of the industry, finding that some of them adopted a more assimilationist, “homonormative” (Duggan, 2002) approach, while others asserted their queer identities during production practices, such as editing. Also, while there were experiences of bias and discrimination sidelining the workers or blocking career advancement, many were also able to form useful professional networks with each other and sometimes successfully challenged the heteronormativity of their work environments.
National contexts are also important with regard to prominence that state-supported media has in content production, particularly television. Even as public service broadcasting has become increasingly driven by commercial considerations (Dornfeld, 1998; Johnson, 2013), official mandates for public service broadcasters have retained language about producing a slate of programming that reflects the country’s diversity. Thus, while in the United States, which has no equivalently significant public service broadcaster, it is commercial media that has led the way in the production of LGBTQ-themed television; in the United Kingdom, both the primarily state-funded British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as well as the commercially supported Independent Television (ITV) and the independent Channel 4 channels have contributed significantly to LGBTQ content.
Unfortunately, there is little scholarship centered on queer media production outside of the Global North or Asia, especially in places where homosexuality is illegal, although there are occasional references to production conditions in primarily text-focused analyses of LGBTQ media, such as Harvey’s (2012) discussion about AIDS documentaries in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the availability of digital technologies and the internet, there may well be queer media production occurring under the radar of current scholarly attention.
Queer Production in the Commercial Domain
A large amount of queer production occurs in the commercial domain, and it is the topic of most queer production studies scholarship. Central issues addressed include how LGBTQ workers have shaped the content and marketing of queer media and the relationship of commercial LGBTQ media to independent queer media and to LGBTQ activism. A key work is Sender’s (2004) account of how gay and lesbian print media in the United States, which had mostly begun as independent publications, developed into national, commercialized magazines. Sender interviewed a number of mostly gay-identified workers associated with producing and marketing these new publications and discussed how their activities had become increasingly professionalized in comparison to the more grass-roots activist, community-based newspapers that had preceded them. The tastes and dispositions of these workers regarding how queer sexual identity should or should not be presented resulted in major publications such as the Advocate and OUT magazines shifting away from overtly sexual content (such as ads for commercialized sexual services), while constructing more sexually “tasteful” representations of gay men and lesbians intended to make the publications attractive for major corporate advertisers.
Several subsequent projects have examined the significance of having LGBTQ-identified cultural workers involved in creating or marketing LGBTQ content for television. Farrell (2008) interviewed gay professionals at three LGBTQ-centric U.S. television networks—Logo, Here TV, and the now defunct Q Television Network—as well as workers at GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and queer producers of LGBTQ media. Overall, she noted that although many of them discussed their work in both political and economic terms, there was a tendency to evaluate their contributions to LGBTQ equality optimistically without sufficient recognition of the constraints from operating within contexts of commercial production. In another study of U.S. television, Ng (2013, 2013b) described how a new cohort of LGBTQ workers became part of the Logo network during a period of website acquisitions, resulting in a more complex mix of cultural producers that included those who had previously been active only in fan and nonprofessional domains. Initially, Logo’s strategies for acquiring content also contributed to a burgeoning of independently produced LGBTQ media, although eventually the network shifted toward a mix of lifestyle-oriented reality programming intended to draw a broader viewership. However, these developments, Ng argued, still constituted significant changes to queer production culture.
Himberg (2018) interviewed a different set of U.S.-based LGBTQ workers across a range of media occupations, including network executives, producers of television programming, and marketing and public relations professionals, discussing how these industry insiders helped generate “common-sense” concepts about LGBTQ identity and politics seen on television. Arguing against assumptions that workers within mainstream media would fail to advance LGBTQ issues, Himberg presented a more complex picture of how they navigated commercial production, both in terms of more visible practices, such as GLAAD advocacy work, and “under-the-radar” activism by network executives invested in effecting significant social change.
In a different line of inquiry looking behind the scenes of television production, Martin (2018c) interviewed Hollywood casting directors to investigate the casting of gay male characters, finding a persistent discourse that the “best actor” would be chosen regardless of an actor’s sexuality. However, commercial considerations, such as how well-known an actor was, also shaped the decisions made. Furthermore, gay roles were sometimes described with language such as “masculine” that seemed designed to exclude gay actors by virtue of the stereotypical association of male gayness with effeminacy. Thus, Martin argued that the industry must address the structural conditions that mean that heterosexual actors play gay far more than gay actors play heterosexual roles.
Well before LGBTQ media content had become prevalent, there have been activists criticizing mainstream LGBTQ representations and seeking to shape commercial production cultures in this regard. In an early account of such activism in the United States, Montgomery (1981) examined how gay activists, particularly those working for the New York-based National Gay Task Force (now the Washington, D.C.-based National LGBTQ Task Force), established “routine, informal relations with network personnel” (p. 55) at the three major U.S. television networks at the time—ABC, CBS, and NBC—to provide feedback about LGBTQ content and exert pressure for improvements. Johnson and Keith’s (2001) history of queer radio also highlights the contribution of activists to LGBTQ media production, concentrating on U.S.-based independent radio but also noting efforts to reach international audiences. Juhasz (1995) focused more specifically on media arising out of U.S. AIDS activism, some of which was in response to problematic mainstream representations. For example, dissatisfied with the first television movie about AIDS, An Early Frost (NBC, 1985), AIDS activists produced several documentaries “which attempted to provide accurate information and expose the distortions of the mainstream press” (p. 47). Doyle’s (2015) research on the U.S. organization GLAAD traced a shift from the more militant queer activism of some AIDS activists in the 1980s to a “politics of respectability” in the next two decades as LGBTQ media advocacy became professionalized and institutionalized. While this enabled a certain level of influence on mainstream media as GLAAD leveraged carefully calibrated public criticism and successfully fundraised from wealthy donors, it also entailed a skew toward the participation of White middle-class gay men and pushed GLAAD away from a more strongly inclusive agenda around gender, race, and class, although the organization now takes a more comprehensive approach to diversity in its critiques of media representation (e.g., see GLAAD, 2020).
Queer Production in Public Media
Within television, production of LGBTQ content by state-supported broadcasters is similar in certain respects to LGBTQ media that is solely commercially funded in that there is typically a substantial enough budget for higher-quality production values and longer programming. However, public service broadcasters are mandated to serve their viewers in particular ways, including reflecting a nation’s diversity. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Communication Act of 2003, which applies to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), ITV (Independent Television), and Channel 4, states that these media services must ensure that the “cultural activity in the United Kingdom, and its diversity, are reflected, supported and stimulated by the representation in those services” (Communication Act, 2003, p. 235). In Ireland, the 2004 Public Service Broadcasting Charter for RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) states that it should “reflect fairly and equally the regional, cultural and political diversity of Ireland and its peoples” and that “no editorial or programming bias shall be shown in terms of gender, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, religion or membership of a minority community” (Kerrigan & Vanlee, 2020, p. 4). In the Flanders region of Belgium, the 1997 management agreement for the Flemish public service broadcaster VRT (Vlaamse Radio-en Televisieomroeporganisatie [Flemish Radio-and Television Broadcasting Organisation]) stated that “the diversity of the Flemish population should be fairly represented,” although so far neither sexuality nor gender expression have been explicitly listed the way that ethnic and cultural minorities and people with disabilities were later added (Kerrigan & Vanlee, 2020, p. 5).
These public service broadcasting remits came to be interpreted to include content with diverse gender and sexual identities around the time when activism around LGBTQ rights began having an impact on mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ people (Edwards, 2010; Kerrigan, 2021; Kerrigan & Vanlee, 2020) and, in the case of Ireland’s RTÉ, also in setting a preliminary goal of having 4% of its employees be LGBTQI-identified (see Kerrigan & O’Brien, 2020; the “I” in “LGBTQI” stands for “intersex”). Drawing in part from interviews with producers at RTÉ and Flanders’ VRT, Kerrigan and Vanlee (2020) outlined how the emergence of LGBTQ content at these broadcasters was influenced by LGBTQ activists and outside expertise such as academics with progressive views on gender and sexuality. Early programming around LGBTQ issues on RTÉ and VRT was thus often explicitly pedagogical or didactic, taking the form of talk shows and documentaries, which was also true of British television (see Buckle, 2018; Edwards, 2010). Scripted programming with LGBTQ content on British and European public service broadcasters increased partly in response to competition from commercial content, as media deregulation and globalization made programming from the United States and elsewhere readily available.
Scholarship, including interviews with producers at public service broadcasters, reveals issues around the scripting of LGBTQ characters despite intentions to create diverse representations. Examining television in Flanders, Vanlee (2019) discussed how producers at VRT were conscious about the need to integrate diversity of sexuality into its programming, but generally wrote characters who had fully assimilated and displayed no conventional markers of queerness. This homonormative presentation of LGBTQ characters arose from the writers’ desire to avoid negative stereotyping, but also resulted in a paradoxical lack of diversity. In Ireland, Kerrigan (2021) described how LGBTQ representations on RTÉ’s sitcoms and soap operas soon after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993 continued to be queer-coded through stereotypes, ambivalently depicted, or problematically conservative in terms of what sexual behaviors were shown, due at least in part to the writers’ uncertainties on how to represent queer characters. In the following decade, RTÉ did better with more complex depictions of LGBTQ characters, although these representations were entwined with discourses associating the characters with a cosmopolitanism consonant with the turn of Ireland as a nation toward neoliberal globalization.
Queer Production in the Independent Domain
Despite the increase in LGBTQ production in mainstream media in recent decades, much queer media production has continued to occur within an independent realm of modestly budgeted production. Scholars have examined how producers negotiate the issue of resources and the relationships between the independent and mainstream domains of production, including producer trajectories across the divide, and how independent queer producers can distinguish their content to appeal to sufficient viewers. In an early example of such research, Henderson (2008) discussed the making of the short film Desert Motel, centered on a lesbian couple and a transgender support group. In terms of the creators’ professional trajectories and the funding of the film, the producers discussed the possibility of a distribution deal with the Viacom-owned Logo television network, and several crew members had worked in commercial media before making Desert Motel or took on positions in commercial media after the completion of the film. Thus, Henderson argued that even for an ostensibly independent film, producers of such content actually tend to “move in a cultural middle range” (p. 572) rather than simply at one pole of an industry-independent opposition.
In another study, Coon (2018) interviewed the founders of Mythgarden, an independent production company established by several gay Hollywood producers and actors to produce queer content specifically for queer audiences. Mythgarden had one moderately successful film, Save Me, a critical look at the ex-gay movement, which played on the festival circuit and helped the company garner additional pitches, However, facing a challenging financial environment, the company disbanded without producing more content. Still, Coon argued that Save Me illustrated the potential for queer-made LGBTQ-themed media to contribute to positive social change. However, Martin (2018a, p. 6) noted that Mythgarden’s trajectory “exposes the inherent marketplace contradictions between producing queer content for queers and producing queer content that might have more ‘mainstream’ appeal,” thus also illustrating the struggles faced by independent queer filmmakers working in legacy media. In a different study on how the independent film distributors sought to define the category of “LGBT film,” Wuest (2018) discussed how the “packaging, promoting, framing, and naming” of various films with LGBTQ content reflected the still fraught status of queer media. Still, independent producers prioritizing grass-roots queer aesthetics and community over market appeal, as Nault (2018) discussed for Three Dollar Cinema’s “DIY” (do-it-yourself) approach in the Austin, TX indie film scene, remain able to produce content distinctive in form and purpose from mainstream LGBTQ media. There has also been some work on the production of queer independent video games, which provide alternatives to mainstream games in terms of not just queer representation, but also the function of the games, which frequently have an explicitly political and/or pedagogical purpose (see Wonica, 2017). Additionally, here it is worth mentioning again Juhasz’s (1995) account of independent media production by AIDS activists, much of which was also educational and political in orientation.
Digital platforms have offered important alternatives to producers of queer media, as they have for many communities that have often found mainstream production inaccessible due to economic and other barriers. Christian (2018) discussed various independent web series in the late 2000s and 2010s centered on queer characters, which contributed to the emergence of websites dedicated to LGBTQ content. For example, GLO, The Arthouse, and SLAY TV hosted multiple series about queer people of color, while Between Women TV streamed web series centered on queer women, and the Open TV platform, which helps fund and host diverse web series, includes several centered on queer characters of color. However, many such websites do not survive beyond a few years, with producers facing the challenges of securing funding and attracting viewers amidst an increasingly competitive streaming landscape, not just from the major streaming services, but also general video sites such as YouTube, which has a large amount of LGBTQ content available for free. The sites that have persisted the longest have depended either on user subscriptions or have significant funding from nonprofit organizations.
Radio has been important for independent queer media (see Johnson & Keith, 2001), even in the era of digital technologies, and there has been some research incorporating a production studies perspective. For example, Bosch (2007) conducted participant observation and interviews in examining the South African program In the Pink, which aired on the Cape Town community radio station Bush Radio. While there was a range of content on In the Pink intended to create an alternative space for LGBTQ listeners, Bosch noted that the majority of the program’s producers were middle class, and there were also gender and racial asymmetries: White gay men and Black lesbians constituted the bulk of the production team, but many of the Black lesbians were hesitant to go on air. In another study, examining the LGBTQ-oriented Irish radio station Open FM, Kerrigan and O’Brien (2018) found a programming approach intended to appeal to both LGBTQ and heterosexual listeners, a strategy that Sender (2007) had termed “dualcasting” in relation to U.S. cable network Bravo’s goal of attracting straight women and LGBTQ viewers. Thus, Open FM’s producers recruited volunteers from radio and media students without requiring them to be queer-identified and generally prioritized presenting content in a “professional” manner over a more overtly queer political vision.
Queer Production Within Fan Cultures
A sizable amount of queer production occurs within the domain of media fandoms. General production studies scholarship, with a focus on industrial practice, does not typically address fan cultural production. However, attention to fan production that has significant points of intersection with industrial producers and texts is consonant with the goal of queer production studies to address areas traditionally neglected within general production studies. One set of issues revolves around fan–official producer boundaries, including how queer fan producers interact with official producers as well as how fan texts relate to canonical (i.e., official) texts and industrial production. Another line of discussion concerns the extent to which queer fan texts challenge dominant norms of gender and sexuality that are prevalent in mainstream media.
In this vein, a number of older studies on queer fan videos can be considered through a queer production studies lens. Research on fan-produced “slash” music videos featuring the Kirk and Spock characters of the Star Trek series by Bacon-Smith (1992), Jenkins (1992), and others discussed the practices of remixing segments of the show’s episodes with a music soundtrack, creating new homoerotic narratives that suggested a romantic relationship between the two men. Fans have also produced music videos for pairings that are canonically queer, sometimes because the representation on the official media text is found to be inadequate (Ng, 2008). While fans producing videos about pairings between two women are typically queer women themselves (Ng, 2008; Russo, 2017), videos about pairings between men are mostly made by heterosexual women, reflecting a broader trend in fan cultures (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Jenkins, 1992). Thus, although the narratives of queer-themed fan videos may contest the heteronormativity of the canonical texts to some extent, the interest of straight-identified women in eroticizing male–male relationships has also been argued to arise less from progressive conceptualizations of gender and sexuality than from a depoliticized interest in male homoeroticism that may even veer toward misogyny (Jenkins, 1992; Scodari, 2003). Fan videos about lesbian pairings made by queer women, which are more clearly examples of content creation by members of a marginalized community, also offer alternatives to heteronormative narratives, but they also frequently fail to challenge various mainstream norms around gender roles, sex, and romance (Ng, 2008; Russo, 2013).
Fans also produce paratextual commentary (i.e., verbal or graphic content and other creative works that engage with a canonical text and its official paratexts), such as marketing materials, cast interviews, and producer commentary on DVD releases (Gray, 2010). Similar to fan videos, queer-themed paratexts can be examined for the extent to which their production “seeks to neutralize social, cultural, and industrial anxieties around mediated homosexuality” and how they “contest ‘preferred’ readings of LGBTQ texts” (Martin, 2018a, p. 5). A variety of digital platforms are now important, although not all have garnered equal scholarly attention; as Tsika (2016) argued in an account of fan paratexts around cinematic depictions of queer men, while corporate media is invested in “affirm[ing] male homosexuality as a fixed identity category” to maintain a commercially appealing, recognizable gay male consumer (p. 18), this is challenged by “a proliferation of short, extractive media such as GIFs, Vines, photomontages, tweets, Facebook uploads, Instagram renderings, Tumblr productions, and various other forms of digital encoding” (pp. 25–26).
Drawing on such sources, Ng (2018) examined fan-produced paratexts about the lesbian-themed films Carol (2015) and Freeheld (2015), finding that while official promotional materials and mainstream media reviews stressed themes of “universality” that downplayed the nonnormative content of the films, fans reworked segments of the original texts and offered commentary that explicitly asserted the queer specificities of both films, including the “Harold, they’re lesbians” meme about Carol that briefly went viral. Tsika (2016) argued that the paratexts he examined constituted understudied “‘perverse archives’” that are “unauthorized, openly fetishistic, libelous, and downright pornographic” (p. 20). For example, screenshots of Jude Law’s feet from the film The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) were circulated on “a foot-fetish Tumblr” blog (p. 63), and clips of James Franco’s character in his 2011 master’s thesis film The Broken Tower performing oral sex on another man were featured in a sex blog video post entitled “Here’s That Video of James Franco Sucking a Dick.”
Another genre of paratextual commentary is the videographic essay involving the combining of remixed material, mainly from television and film, with analysis to produce critical readings of these texts in audiovisual format. Such essays about LGBTQ media are commonly made by fans and shared on video platforms (e.g., see NINTH SHOW, PrideBrary, and Rowan Ellis’ YouTube channels), as well as being authored by scholars and published in videographic journals (e.g., Daigle, 2018; Francis, 2018). The production of such commentary has not to date received significant attention in production studies scholarship, although remix is an important topic in fan studies. On this note, Navar-Gill and Stanfill (2018) explicitly pushed back against the traditional separation of fan studies from production studies, arguing that fan activist hashtags criticizing certain television representations of LGBTQ characters should be theorized as “production interventions” (p. 98) rather than simply insular fan practices that are only tangentially related to media production.
The emergence of digital technologies has to some extent increased the permeability of the boundary between industry and fan production (Jenkins, 2006). While scholars such as Ng (2017) and Navar-Gill and Stanfill (2018) described instances of fans criticizing industry producers via social media, in other cases, there have been more collaborative relationships. In a study about the mainland Chinese series Guardian (Youku.com, 2018), adapted from a novel in the “boys’ love” genre popular in several East Asian countries (Suter, 2013; Zhao et al., 2017), Ng and Li (2020) examined how fan interactions with the series producers as well as fan paratexts about the series demonstrated a careful negotiation of the conditions for expressing enthusiasm for the central relationship between the two male characters; fan discourses in the more public online platforms generally hewed to the official producers’ line that the relationship was brotherly rather than romantic, while only in less well-known fan spaces did fans more openly circulate explicitly homoerotic content. Online fan works have also crossed over to industrial production. Examples of non-LGBTQ fan fiction being adapted into mainstream media forms in the West, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, are well-known, but the phenomenon has emerged elsewhere too. For example, in China, several works of popular online fiction have come to the attention of television producers and been made into series (Gong & Yang, 2017). Some of these belong to the “boys love” category (see Chen & Hu, 2018), including The Untamed (Tencent Video, 2019), which was distributed globally by Netflix.
Areas for Further Research
To date, research on LGBTQ media, as in much analysis of the media in general, remains primarily focused on textual content as opposed to production, no doubt due in part to the fact that meaningful access to media producers and the processes of their work, particularly those in the commercial domain, is often challenging to obtain. Furthermore, queer production studies is a relatively new subfield within media studies. As such, there are many research settings that require further examination in terms of the type of production domain (e.g., mainstream commercial or independent), the form of media text (e.g., film vs. television), and the geographical location of the production, all of which significantly shape the particular conditions of production. With a larger body of work, scholars would be better able to theorize the significance of nonnormative sexual and gender identity within different production contexts, including the key issues of the relationship between producer identities and the media texts they produce. It is also important to investigate how queerness intersects with other axes of marginality, such as class, race and ethnicity, and language, especially given existing scholarship suggesting that particular forms of LGBTQ identity are positively associated with consumerism and neoliberal cosmopolitanism (Ng, 2013; Sender, 2004).
At another level, Martin (2018a) proposed queer production studies as a framework encompassing areas of research that have not been consistently theorized together, particularly the inclusion of fan paratexts alongside industrial production (although texts such as fan videos have been discussed within scholarship about the media industries; e.g., see Jenkins, 2006). The existing research in queer production studies suggests this is a promising theoretical endeavor that can reconfigure traditional subdisciplinary boundaries, but more work is needed to see how theoretically generative such an approach will be.
The key reference for demarcating queer production studies as a subfield is the 2018 special issue of the Journal of Film and Video, 70 (pp. 3–4). Martin’s introductory essay outlines the rationale and goals and situates it against general production studies. Also in this special issue are articles about official and fan paratexts around queer media (Navar-Gill & Stanfill; Ng; Wuest) and queer independent film production (Coon; Nault) focused on the U.S context. Since then, the work of Páraic Kerrigan, Anne O’Brien, and Florian Vanlee has extended the queer production studies framework to European contexts (Kerrigan & O’Brien, 2020; Kerrigan & Vanlee, 2020; O’Brien & Kerrigan, 2020; Vanlee, 2019).
As the article mentions earlier, there are a number of studies about queer production prior to this special issue that did not explicitly name themselves as queer production studies. Important examples include Sender (2004), Henderson (2008), Ng (2013), Himberg (2018), and Christian (2018), which are producer and production-focused studies of mainstream and independent queer media in the United States. There are also a number of studies on fan production of queer media, both of narrative forms such as music videos (Ng, 2008; Russo, 2017) and various forms of paratextual content, as noted. See also Lavin et al. (2017) for a discussion of fan cultural production in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
Additionally, it may be helpful to refer to a couple of key texts for general production studies, such as Banks et al. (2015), Caldwell (2008), Mayer et al. (2009), and Mayer (2018). Although these do not address queer production, they lay out the theory and methods of industry-focused production studies.
- Christian, A. (2018). Open TV: Innovation beyond Hollywood and the rise of web television. New York University Press.
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