Biological essentialism and performative genders
Traditional conceptions of sexual difference view sex as a biological category dividing men from women on the basis of their chromosomal, anatomical or hormonal characteristics. This biological difference then determines their ‘gender identity’, and for the majority, their ‘sexual orientation’ towards the opposite sex. This binary model of the sexes is known as biological essentialism. Chapter 5, ‘The Science of Sex’, shows how television science programmes reinforce this model. In wildlife programmes, the same assumptions inform the ‘sociobiological’ discourses that interpret animal behaviour in human terms. The perspective of these high-status, masculine genres rarely acknowledges the feminist emphasis on the social construction of gender as a process that is determined by culture rather than the biological differences between the sexes.
Performative theories of gender, derived from Judith Butler’s influential book Gender Trouble (1990), are a more extreme form of social constructionism in which fixed categories of biological sex are denied as the grounds for a politics of identity. Instead she argues that the binary division of the sexes is actually an effect of cultural discourses of gender rather than their material foundation. This binary, she argues, institutes and maintains heteronormative identities and the resulting hierarchy between men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. ‘Speech act theory’, on which her concept of performativity rests, is based on the way in which the codes of language and other forms of symbolic communication work by repetition to construct the very thing that they name. The ‘codes of gender’ are learned early and reinforced at every turn until they appear to be natural, but their reliance on ‘reiteration’ opens the possibility for change. Butler’s ‘queer’ politics, therefore, is based on the transgression and destabilization of these culturally produced categories in order to undermine and refuse their disciplinary effects. Heteronormative practices are subject to deconstruction through drag, masquerade and signifying play. These practices break the normative link between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation by drawing attention to the production of gender and sexual identities in the reiteration of bodily gestures and discursive categories. The disruption of discursive regulation is therefore at the centre of Butler’s theory and works against a politics founded on sexual identity, whether of women or gays and lesbians.
The growing visibility of ‘queer’ performances on television, not only on the margins but in advertising and mainstream music videos, comedy, drama and ‘reality’ television, raises questions about their relation to consumer capitalism. Rosemary Hennessy (1995) argues that the queer emphasis on identity as style and performance is entirely complicit with the aestheticization of everyday life that characterizes consumer culture. ‘Lifestyle’ becomes a way for the privileged to fashion their identities from commodities that mark their individuality. It is a malleable identity, ‘open to more and more consumer choices, rather than shaped by moral codes or rules’ (Hennessy 1995: 166). The metropolitan politics of ‘queer’ is discussed further in Chapter 7’s analysis of the drama series Buddha of Suburbia and Queer as Folk.
This questioning of the foundations of identity politics and a renewed emphasis on ‘style’ and sexual display has also contributed to the reappraisal of feminism in the 1990s, in what has become characterized as a postfeminist era. For a new generation of women, second-wave feminists are often stereotypically imagined as men-hating, dungaree-clad dykes who didn’t shave their legs and had puritanical attitudes to sexual pleasure. Rejection of this image is manifest in a transformed relation to the display of women’s bodies, now reappropriated as an assertion of women’s sexual power and autonomy and a self-conscious return to the feminine pleasures of body adornment and fashion. This new sensibility, in which femininity as glamour has been rehabilitated as a form of power, is discussed in Chapter 6 in relation to the way in which strippers have been represented in documentaries about the sex industry, and in Chapter 8 in relation to the global success of the comedy series Sex and the City. In both these cases, rather than women being seen as victims of male exploitation, their economic independence is presented as a means to reappropriate the objectified body as a source of pride and empowerment.
In summary, then, the questions that structure this book are focused on the concept of sexual citizenship. I consider the forms of address used by television and how they work to construct and thereby regulate sexual subjectivities. These forms are understood in relation to the discursive politics of a specific time and place as the industry
moves into the digital era of multichannel, global distribution, oriented towards a diversity of consumer tastes. Detailed examples are used to identify continuity and change in the embedded conventions of genre and the implications these have for a politics of sexuality informed by the claims for cultural recognition made by the postwar identity movements. The conclusion points to emerging issues of sexual citizenship as television continues to adjust to new regulatory regimes.