Generic inertia and innovation
I have argued that television clearly has a significant role to play in the development of sexual citizenship and that there is a legitimate ‘public interest’ in the forms of representation made available that shouldn’t simply be left to market relations.
The historical formation of taste means that generic conventions constrain the production and consumption of sexual representations in ways that cannot quickly be undone. Nevertheless, we need to recognize, and challenge, the limitations in what is currently in circulation. Diversity of sexual representations on the margins cannot be equated with a generalized shift towards more ‘progressive’ portrayals in the mainstream. The rhetoric of choice obscures the effects of generic inertia as producers look for predictable audiences based on established categories of consumers that normalize and restrict what programmes are made. I will offer a brief overview of what has emerged from my detailed examination of the television of the recent past before offering a few comments on where television in the future might be heading.
There is plenty of evidence for a continuing conservatism in the mainstream of television that works to maintain the sexual exclusions that have characterized modern industrial societies. Those genres associated with the ‘respectable’ public sphere, which carry cultural weight as conveyors of ‘truth’, such as news and science programmes, tend towards normative constructions of gender and sexuality, understood as a fixed category of being based on biological difference, and an assumed heterosexuality. In science and nature programmes this is linked to the hegemony of sociobiology as an explanatory framework that reproduces these normative conceptions of masculine and feminine gender identities. The embedded conventions of visual spectacle also work to position the body of the ‘other’ as subject to male power, whether this is in ‘respectable’ documentary of various kinds or in the pornographic forms that exist on the margins. Sexual diversity is most often defined as ‘deviance’ in the scandal discourses of the mainstream, where the pleasures of concealment, exposure and moral condemnation can be enjoyed as a means to disavow sexual wishes that cannot be acknowledged. A space for carnivalesque ‘licence’ does exist in scandal and comedy but the ideological ambivalence of these forms makes it easy for people to be confirmed in their prejudices as they distance themselves in their laughter from the rule-breaking object of the humour.
This is not to deny that public service remits and the search for new markets have stimulated generic innovations that have allowed for new citizenship claims to be recognized. New, more pluralistic ‘ways of telling’ have emerged that don’t conform to ‘rationalist’ models of political debate and that give voice to subordinated ‘others’. The widespread adoption of a feminized aesthetic of subjective perspectives, emotional empathy and the open-ended forms of serial narrative, across both factual and fictional genres, has contributed to new forms of ‘recognition’ that are an important component of sexual citizenship. The address to a post-war generation, who have challenged the relegation of sexuality to the private sphere, has allowed for a relaxation of ‘bourgeois’ respectability and a broadening of ‘legitimate’ sexual identities, especially for women and gay men. The equation of emancipation with visibility has contributed to a greater diversity of sexual identities finding expression, in ‘quality’ drama and documentary, for example.
The normalizing and disciplining effects of discourse are as true for these ‘progressive’ representations as for more traditional ‘stereotypes’, such as the boundary that has emerged between the respectable gay citizen and his transgressive queer ‘other’. The right to privacy is also an issue, in a culture where visibility is pervasive, to protect the powerless from voyeuristic intrusions, especially for the sexually ‘marked’ bodies of women and minorities. The ways in which feminist, bohemian, queer and postcolonial identities have been taken up in contemporary forms of postmodern consumer culture are double-edged politically. Only certain kinds of sexual identity are compatible with consumerism and new exclusions are created that disadvantage the poor. There is a gap between images of the self-fashioning consumer and the reality of most people’s lives, especially if the global circulation of these programmes is taken into account. Who will be included and excluded from the system of global communications and consumption?