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My Guide to Literary Theory: Queer Literary Theory

The male and female signs that greet us at the toilet door offer us two very binary options, but in reality sex and gender is far more complicated than those signs suggest. Sex is never as simple as a binary choices, and it is this that queer theory wants you to understand; that all our pre-conceived ideas about gender roles and sexual identities are in fact unstable, and can be destabilized by simply picking them apart. Queer Theory is a relatively new cultural theory which emerged out of the 1990s, but very much has its origins in the work of Michel Foucault. It looked to establish sexual orientation as a fundamental category of analysis and understanding, and thus it has both a social and political aim. It is a criticism informed by a resistance to homophobia and heterosexism by exposing the ideological and institutional practices of heterosexual privilege.

It was the feminist critics of the 70s that first began to explore and dissect gender, but the feminist outlook soon began to face growing criticism. Some critics believed that feminism was universalizing the experiences of white, middle class, heterosexual women and found it difficult to accommodate voices of different races, cultures and sexuality. This issue was first brought to the foreground by women of colour such as Bell Hooks. In her work, Ain't I A Woman?: Black women and Feminism she writes:

“While it is in no way racist for any author to write a book exclusively about white women, it is fundamentally racist for books to be published that focus solely on the American white woman's experience in which that experience is assumed to be the American woman's experience."

Prof. Bonnie Zimmerman
This message was echoed by lesbian critics who felt feminism was dominated by heterosexual voices. In her work, What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Criticism, Bonnie Zimmerman attacks what she calls "the perceptual screen of heterosexism" that is at the heart of feminist criticism. She claims that this screen of heterosexism prevented any considerations of lesbian issues in pioneering feminist writing. The argument was countered by suggesting that lesbianism was in fact the purest form of feminism; that relationships among women constitute a resistance to existing forms of social relations, and so, is a rejection of any collusion with patriarchal exploitation. The issue of essentialism was at the heart of these debates. Feminism believed that sex was essential to identity; that there were common, rigid, identity traits shared by all women, but lesbian theorists wanted to move away from that idea. It was not until the 90s that lesbian theorists began to shake off the essentialism of feminism, and establish itself within a separate sphere of study we now call Queer Theory.

Diana Fuss
After lesbian theorists split from feminism, they began to make new allegiances with gay men and adopted the term queer theory in spite of the homophobic origins of the word. Queer theory would reprioritise sexuality over gender as the most fundamental in personal identity. This identity was accepted as not an inherent, essential, unchanging category, but part of many complex factors. There is also a key theoretical difference between queer theory and feminist theory. Queer theory takes a primarily post-structuralist approach as post-structuralism concerns itself with binary language such as hetero/homo. Diana Fuss in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories claims that one of the primary goals of queer theory is, "to call into question the stability and ineradicability of the hetero/homo hierarchy."; to challenge the distinctions and dichotomy of the homo/hetero binary. Gender theorist Judith Butler goes as far as claiming the very concept of homosexuality is itself a part of homophobic discourse as it only exists in relation to that which is hetero.

Judith Butler
From a literary point of view, one of the challenges of queer theory is the inevitable difficulty in deciding what texts are lesbian and gay texts. You could use, as a starting point, a text written by a lesbian or gay person, but how do you determine who is a gay or lesbian person, considering queer theory is an anti-essentialist philosophy. The same can be said about a criteria for a text written about a gay or lesbian character. A third criteria is texts that express a lesbian or gay vision, but there is wide debate over how to define such a vision. It is also important to note that queer theory devalues literary realism since it depends on fixed identities. The omniscient narrator is problematic to queer theory as it presents to the reader events from a fixed intellectual and moral position. Queer theory is far more interested in texts with anti-realist elements; a fluidity that is more compatible with its philosophy. This would include genres that subvert realism in some way such as the thriller, comic novel, parody or sexual fantasy writing.

So what is the role of the queer critic? Queer critics:
  • Seek to identify and establish a queer canon of texts that promote a distinct tradition.
  • Analyse and discuss lesbian and gay episodes in mainstream works. (e.g. Jane and Helen in Jane Eyre)
  • Set up an extended metaphorical sense of being lesbian/gay that connotates transcending boundaries or blurring categories. This mirrors the act of 'coming out' as one of conscious resistance to established norms and boundaries.
  • Expose homophobia of mainstream literature and criticism such as that which ignores or denigrates the homosexual aspects of major literary figures.
  • Foreground the homosexual aspects of mainstream literature that have previously been glossed over. (e.g. The homosexual tenderness found in First World War poetry.)
  • Highlight and deconstruct the literary genres that have significantly influenced ideals of masculine and feminine. (e.g. Rudyard Kipling and other 19th century adventure stories.)
Jose Munoz
Jose Muñoz has further complicated queer theory by discussing the role of racial and ethnic minorities. As queer theory was founded primarily by white people he questions if even the notions of queerness need to be destabilized. The debate is still thriving and queer theory has fully established itself as an important form of criticism.  It does not only deal with matters of sex, but goes to the very heart of our identity; asking us to question who we are?  It offers us a new way to look at and critique literature. Why does Victor Frankenstein attempt to create a "beautiful" man? Why is Peter Pan played on stage by grown women? These are interesting questions that would have never been asked if it was not for the emergence of queer theory. Get out there and begin queering a discourse!

Next time: Marxist theory


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