This video discusses how the cultural fascination with drag queens, and the media produced about Drag in the 1990's, led to the crossover of drag subculture into mainstream culture. However, somewhat exploitative, and reductive representations of drag queens and gender nonconforming people led to an effective co-optation of drag, and drag aesthetics by the beauty, fashion, and media industries.
For my project, I want to explore how the cartoon Steven Universe complicates portrayals of queerness by addressing the nuance of gender, presentation, and performativity of its nonhuman characters. The shows nonhuman characters are a magical non-organic species known as the “gems,” named for the gemstone within their body that functions as their basic form. In order to interact with their environment, and especially to blend in on earth (with some suspension of disbelief required) the gems project humanoid bodies as “physical manifestations of light,” essentially holograms with mass. Gems are able to construct their form when transitioning from their base gemstone to their physical manifestation, and for the most part, these presentations are stable, although some gems are able to modify their form. In the context of humans, both within the diegesis and without, the gems use she/her pronouns and present as feminine (to various degrees). Many of them willingly accept labels such as “woman” or “mother.” But the gender of the gems is not simply denotatively female and this is something the show uses to its advantage, especially in portraying relationships between gems and between gems and humans. Gender itself is something that is arguably inapplicable to the gems, the same way it is inapplicable to inanimate objects, such as rocks. The performativity of the gems, therefore, can be seen as something analogously applicable to us as well, encouraging discussion of human gender as performative.
Another element of the gems that is relevant to the audience is how intimate relationships work for gems. Intimacy for gems is often made quite literal by a process known as “fusion” in which the physical manifestation of the gems is combined into one, which shares elements of both gems’ presentation. Fusion, like gem performativity, complicates the impulse to denotatively label the relationship. It is unfair to say that fusion equals sexual intimacy, romantic intimacy, platonic intimacy or any other constructed human category of relationship. Elements of all of these forms of intimacy can be found in different fusions between different characters and that is inherent to the metaphor of fusion as intimacy.
Traditional classification of sexuality is based on gender, such as a person's gender seen in relation to the gender they are attracted to. While it is simple to say Steven Universe shows queer characters because following this model of sexuality, it has relationships between female or female-coded gems, it is more accurate to say Steven Universe queers gender and relationships on the whole. Not only is this complex portrayal of queerness something relatively unexplored in popular television, but Steven Universe manages to accomplish this nuance on a show whose target audience is children. Thus by complicating the denotative and connotative notion of gender, Steven Universe manages both to create nuanced discussion on gender and sexuality, but also get past restrictions on stricter definitions of queerness imposed by the standards of children’s television.
Introducing the movement that dominated independent film in the early ‘90s, B. Ruby Rich writes of the New Queer Cinema (a term she coined): “there, suddenly, was a flock of films that were doing something new, renegotiating subjectivities, annexing whole genres, revising histories in their image” (Rich, 16). Here she is writing specifically in response to the slate of queer independent films premiering at the 1991 Toronto Festival of Festivals (now known as the Toronto International Film Festival), but My Own Private Idaho, which premiered only a few months earlier at the comparable Venice International Film Festival, is surely included in her designation. Famously an amalgam of various and separate scripts all combined into one story, My Own Private Idaho takes a subversive approach to both generic tropes and formal construction. Street hustlers, the American West, Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and the road movie all collide, strung together by the episodic life of Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a gay, narcoleptic street hustler on a quest to find his mother.
In their book Sexual Identities and the Media, Wendy Hilton-Morrows and Kathleen Battles call attention to and question the common presumption that the “ultimate goal” of queer scholarship/activism is “the assimilation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals into mainstream society” (Battles, 93). Conversely, the authors uphold ideological approaches that are interested in “questioning dominant norms, our very framework for thinking about sexuality, and imagining a world free from heteronormativity and all its attendant oppressions” (93). These principles are very much in line with the New Queer Cinema movement on the whole. These queer, independent filmmakers of the early ‘90s pushed boundaries both in terms of subject matter, rejecting simplistic, assimilationist ideals of “positive” representation with complex, oftentimes transgressive, depictions of queer characters, and in terms of form, rejecting traditional mainstream filmmaking techniques in favor of experimentation. My Own Private Idaho embodies both of these tenets, its characters and story too ambiguous to simply label as “positive” or “negative” representations, and its formal style far more abstract than typical studio fare.