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Film Spectatorship  
 
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Film spectatorship is an integral part of queer culture, affording a process of self-invention and making possible the coded articulation of queer desires and identities.

The British historian A.J.P. Taylor dubbed film spectatorship, "the essential social habit of the age," and there can certainly be little doubt that, for much of the past century, cinema and its various audiovisual offspring have been dominant entertainment forms for audiences around the globe. Glbtq people have been a significant, if not always readily identifiable, segment of those audiences and have made spectatorship an integral part of culture.

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The image of the movie-obsessed queer has become a veritable staple of homosexual representation, evident in any number of popular cultural texts from Kiss of the Spider Woman (1984) to Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998). While it is an image often skewed to the point of grotesque stereotype, it highlights the significance that spectatorship has come to assume for many glbtq people.

Historical Overview

With its unique combination of voyeuristic fantasies on the screen and bodies thrown into close proximity in a darkened auditorium, film spectatorship is a profoundly erotic experience, which is no doubt one of the reasons it has long drawn the anxious gaze of censors and other moral guardians. Historically, glbtq people have been quick to respond to the erotic capacities of spectatorship, deploying it for distinctively queer ends. As early as the 1910s, for example, gay men in the large urban metropolises of Europe and North America routinely used storefront theaters, nickelodeons, and other such places of film viewing for making sexual contacts and socializing with what one disapproving magistrate of the time termed "congenial spirits."

Movies themselves also emerged quite early as important sites of queer engagement, furnishing opportunities for identity building and subcultural exchange. Unlike many other social groups whose sense of identity is openly recognized from birth and cultivated through public systems of kinship, education, and government, queers have largely grown up isolated from each other and have had to invent their own modes of cultural identification. For much of the twentieth century and beyond, the fantasy world of cinema has been a privileged and particularly fertile forum for this process of queer self-invention.

Not only have movies offered glbtq people an avenue of escape and a chance to imagine utopian possibilities "over the rainbow," they also furnished them with a proto-common culture through which to communicate and bond. According to Andrea Weiss, American lesbians of the 1930s would routinely use popular films and stars of the time as a "shared language" with which to "define and empower themselves."

Gay men developed similarly intense investments in and uses of film. Indeed, throughout the mid-century, gay male subcultures developed a finely nuanced taste culture based on Hollywood film. Certain genres such as the musical and the melodrama, or stars such as Judy Garland, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford emerged as firm favorites of gay men and were consequently charged with particular queer affect.

In an era when gay men and lesbians were rendered all but invisible, film spectatorship became a symbolic sphere for the coded articulation of queer desires and identities.

In line with broader sociohistorical changes, cinema arguably lost its position of unrivalled primacy in queer subcultures during the latter part of the twentieth century, ceding to newer media forms such as television and popular music, and a host of self-authored subcultural practices from the popular gay press to dance parties. However, film spectatorship continues to function as a significant component of contemporary queer cultural life.

The older traditions of gay and lesbian cinematic taste are kept alive through screenings of "gay cult classics" at repertory theaters or through gay video stores, while new modes of queer spectatorship have developed around recent film forms like documentary, new queer cinema, and pornography, or exhibition forums such as film festivals. In addition, new digital media such as computers and the internet have enabled the emergence of various modes of spectatorship from netsurfing to cyberporn, which, though seemingly far removed from classic models of cinematic viewing, still serve vital functions of self-definition and empowerment for many queer spectators.

The Queer Gaze

While it may have been a cultural lifeline for many glbtq people over the years, cinema has not exactly been a trove of positive queer imagery. For much of its history, mainstream film categorically refused the explicit representation of queer lives and loves and, even today, queer presences on screen remain largely exceptional, relegated to the margins of popular cinema and frequently subjected to homophobic stereotyping. As a result, queer viewers have had to develop various modes of oppositional spectatorship through which to combat the heterosexist dynamics of mainstream film and open it up to queer investment and use.

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