Morality and Queerness: The emergence of Queer Morality in media
This was an essay I wrote a few years ago while in grad school. I’ve gone back and edited some of it and added some citations. I stand by a great bit of what I’ve stated but I am open to discussion!
Media depictions of queerness run the gambit of different explanations, interpretations, and subversive coding that scholars have talked about for decades. Queer permutations within the text (especially in early traditional texts) have often resulted in many depictions of queerness as inherently deviant, malicious, and subversive. In trying to take control of this narrative and/or combat this, many queer activists, intellectuals, and other scholars sought to counter with their own narratives and depictions in what is called positive representation. Queer filmmakers such as Cheryl Dunye have even created films (Watermelon Woman 1996) making fictional queer folk within their films as a sort of meta-commentary on the lack of positive representation within mainstream media. Historically, however, queer liberation has often fallen into the trappings of essentialism not uncommon from the rapid essentialism born out of second-wave radical feminism. Feminist figures such as Luce Irigaray wrote ‘To secure a new social order women need a religion, a language, and a currency of exchange, or else a non-market economy” (1993:79). The consistent essentializing of “queer” has led to what I believe is an unabashed moral qualifying of the word. Ultimately in this essay, I wanted to follow the logic of second-wave thinkers. I analyze these different queer permutations within media and explain the root of this essentialism and suggest the concept of “Queer Morality.” Queer Morality is, as I believe, the idea of anything readily understood as queer has an inherent innocence, socio-political stance, history, and is “moral”.
The object of this essay will be the recent HBO television show Euphoria. Euphoria works well with examining the phenomenon of queer morality. The show is set in a fictitious universe with multiple queer and queer coded characters and whilst watching the show many themes surrounding the concept of queer morality became emergent. A lot of the motivation in looking at this particular idea came from my own previous research looking into queer subjectivity and affective transformation. More than just research, many of the queer circles I have been adjacent to or participated in have led me to even understand this as an emergent phenomenon. Online queer discourses became the catalyst for me to want to write about this concept I call queer morality. This essay will provide the reasoning for how queer affectations are used to construct queer subjects and how morality is thus extracted from it. Additionally, this essay explores how queerness is essentialized through depictions of queerness through media.
It is not novel to suggest that “queer” as an identifier and readily set ontological presence is a recent cultural invention. Recent, however, does not mean lacking in importance or having a coherent way of tracking its construction. Well documented by social theorists such as Michel Foucault and John D ’Emilio respectively, we understand that a decidedly “gay” or queer identity is an invention of time, and more pointedly the structures within that time that help shape identity. Foucault comments on the emergence of sexuality as a means of societal control, explaining the top-down subjectivizing structure of bourgeois society. Foucault writes “it was in the “bourgeois “ or “aristocratic “ family that the sexuality of children and adolescents was first problematized, and feminine sexuality medicalized; it was the first to be alerted to the potential pathology of sex, the urgent need to keep it under close watch and to devise a rational technology of correction” (Foucault 1990, 121). Foucault goes on to explain that 19th-century bourgeois society began a campaign to create a moralizing framework for the rest of society. This is the birth of modern western sexuality according to Foucault. (Foucault 1990)
Historian John D’Emilio (1993) delves into the construction of not just sexual identity but specifically gay identity. D’Emilio tracks the expansion of capital as the prime motivator for the creation of gay identity. Transitioning from household economies to the free labor capitalist market, different industries of production also created different affective permutations on sexuality. D’Emilio writes “The Puritans [of the 18th and 19th century] did not celebrate heterosexuality but rather marriage; they condemned all sexual expression outside the marriage bond and did not differentiate sharply between sodomy and heterosexual fornication.” (D’Emilio 1993, 469–470) The development of industries dedicated to capital, fracturing the family as an economic unit lead many individuals, many of whom had already engaged in homosexual activities, to coalesce into many homosocial environments. The household, where at least gay men could not congregate became the factory where many men were together at the same time (D’Emilio 1993). D’Emilio’s article on the construction of gay identity is not just pertinent to the background of gay identity but to the main thesis of queer essentialism that is inherent to the phenomenon of queer morality. Morality is intimately tied to the mythos that necessitates it, and during the epoch of gay liberation (1970–80s), the construction of the mythic queer was in full swing. D’Emilio writes
“When the gay liberation movement began at the end of the 1960s, gay men and lesbians had no history that we could fashion our goals and strategy. In the ensuing years, in building a movement without a knowledge of our history, we instead invented a mythology. This mythical history drew on personal experience, which we read backwards in time” (D’Emilio 1993, 467–468).
“Queer Morality” in its modern iteration is not a new phenomenon, though multiplied through the newer affective dimensions of media such as Euphoria. “Queer Morality” is in fact a sort of re-articulation of early radical feminist discourses. In the height of feminist advocacy and women’s liberation efforts, many individuals within these groups acceded to the idea of an interiority of women. Women started to believe the myth projected to them, that there was a clear biological (and social) difference between men and women that held a sort of pureness, innocence, and progeneity. Radical-Feminist and social theorist Monique Wittig writes:
most of the feminists and lesbian feminists in America and elsewhere still believe that the basis of women’s oppression is biological as well as historical. Some of them even claim to find their sources in Simone de Beauvoir. The belief in mother right and in a prehistory” when women created civilization (because of a biological predisposition) while the course and brutal men hunted (Because of a biological predisposition) is symmetrical with the biologizing interpretation of history produced up to now by the class of men. It is still the same method of finding in women and men a biological explanation of their division, outside of social facts (Wittig 1981)
These feminists and lesbian feminists were relishing in the status of the “other,” working purely to access the “real” of femaleness. Their introduction into the symbolic order is stunted by the introduction of the phallus though Wittig points to their doubling down of the phallus. Giving ground to patriarchal and gendered logic. The issue was that there was never any “real” femaleness or womanhood. Monique Wittig writes “For me, this could never constitute as a lesbian approach to women’s oppression since it assumes that the basis of society or the beginning of society lies in heterosexuality. Matriarchy is no less heterosexual than patriarchy: it is only the sex of the oppressor that changes” (Wittig 1981).
While I believe queer to be contextual within this essay, it is important to put in the legwork of operationalizing queerness. It is possibly more important to operationalize the term since the bulk of the work being done here is to showcase how queerness is permuted within mainstream American media. Briefly, I’ll discuss the criteria I am using to suggest that certain people, characters, or actions are queer.
Defining queerness exists in time immemorial in academe, as many theorists have commented that it defies definition, existing outside of the epistemological framework that codes the binary in western ideology. Queer theorists such as Annamarie Jagose define queer as “those gestures or analytical models which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (Jagose 1996, 3). While this definition is functional, I am partial to Alexander Doty’s simplified definition as it can be better to interpret the text within Euphoria with it. Doty writes “Queerness… is a quality related to any expression that can be marked as contra-, non-, or anti-straight” (Doty 1997, XV). While suggesting queerness so starkly as anything anti-straight could be understood as reductive, it allows for a sort of fluidity of straightness that can be readily juxtaposed to queerness despite temporality.
The myth that has sustained within queer culture to this day is the idea that anything that is permutated as queer has a moral interiority. It is clear that this is the case considering online arguments debating which queer permutations are allowed to have a clear ontology. There are many social media posts and other discourses still dedicated to the “asexual question.” The question was whether or not asexuality should be considered “queer” or even be in the LGBTQ+ community at all. Asexuality, despite its many manifestations, can be understood as queer by definition, in that it defies normative gendered and sexual practices/signifiers. Queerness, however, is not understood in terms of being non-normative but its association to the myth of queer creation. Its proximity to readily made and understood ontologies present in the moment.
Queerness as an identity and as a descriptor functions through a series of different affectations that latch onto the readily understood ontologies that are presented. Sara Ahmed speaks on how affect functions this way writing, “Importantly, then, hate does not reside in a given subject or object. Hate is economic.; it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement” (Ahmed 2004, 119). These affects, the ones languishing asexual people, for example, do things. They construct and deconstruct subjectivity in ways that create the ideological component of identity. Lin Proitz et al. comment on how individuals in their study of the Norwegian show Skam show how affect is a powerful mediator of subjectivity. They write “At various points in the data, emotion is described in ways that suggest that it is
experienced as embodied and beyond conscious control; for example, some wrote of“tears streaming down my face,” being touched so deeply,” Skam leaving with a piece of my heart,” “not being able to stop crying,” and “falling in love with Skam.”” They go on to comment “Writing about emotion on Instagram can, therefore, in itself be understood as an embodied process that brings particular kinds of subjects, connections, and boundaries into being” (Proitz et al. 2018, 6).
It is clear that from the media, subjectivity can be discerned and articulated onto the masses. More importantly, it can create permutations one existing subjectivities, sustaining them for whatever purposes. In this case, aspects of demonstrably queer media construct an essentialized queerness that radically separates and segments other queer people while doing as John D’Emilo says, “limiting our political perspective” (D’Emilio 1993, 468). Affect functions as a free-floating set of signifiers or desires (Deleuze & Guattari 1977) attaching characteristics, personalities, and identity to those it circulates between. Affect, additionally, stylizes the body. Where there was just the body, the affectations of fear, disgust, or bliss associated with morality displaces the “real” body into a “bad” body or a “good” one.
Queer Morality in Euphoria
Euphoria is an American-made television show based on a popular Israeli mini-series of the same name. The show stars many different characters but the main characters are Rue, a 17-year-old recovering drug addict played by Zendaya, and Jules, a trans woman played by Hunter Schaefer who is best friends with Rue and is later involved in a romantic relationship with her. Another character, though minor in the series, should be hailed, which is Jules second female romantic interest, Anna, played by Quintessa Swindell. Euphoria was a surprise hit spawning multitudes and hitting viral popularity. This is due to the down-to-earth high school narrative and even being executively produced by a popular Rap artist, Drake. The show’s main narrative follows Rue who, after coming home from rehab, is slowly attempting to reintegrate into high school life while balancing her troubling drug addiction.
In the first episode as well we are introduced to Jules, who moves into the town and throughout the course of the first couple of episodes, becomes fast friends with Rue. Much of the main narrative follows these two characters' experiences with drugs, family, sex, and sexuality. Jules’ sexuality is explicitly shown in the first episode when she is shown having a sexual encounter with an older man (later revealed to be a main character’s patriarch), and it being hinted at (and outright told to us) that Jules routinely has random sexual experiences or hookups with men. Jules’ queerness is also explicitly showcased to the viewer not only textually by Jules exclaiming that she is trans but through the para-text as well. Many knew that Hunter Schafer, who is a trans woman off-screen as well, was being cast for the show. The show became incredibly popular among queer audiences with this inclusion and the show’s queer themes are quickly iterated to the viewer with the inclusion of Jules as a trans character within the text.
Conversely, the sexuality of Rue is less explicit until she is in intimate settings with Jules. The show hastily sets up the very close homosocial relationship between the two women which is explored throughout the ensuing episodes. In the episode “Made you look” Rue helps Jules take lewd and nude photos of herself so she can send them to a man she knows only as Tyler. Tyler is in fact one of the main characters Nate, a high school football player who has sexually repressed his homosexual desire and his desire for trans women. The scene where Rue is taking photos of Jules is fraught with sexual tension as the camera, utilizing Rue’s perspective, lingers longingly on Jules body and we the viewer are not gazing at Jules from a patriarchal lens. Despite attempting to be sexualized, the camera does not sexualize Jules yet shows a longing for her, an intimacy embodied by the main character Rue. It is now that we see that Rue is both sexually and romantically attracted to Jules.
Rue and Jules relationship continuously amps up throughout the series with them eventually entering into a romantic relationship. In the show Rue’s character suffers from acute manic depression, often while she is in the low the cinematography highlights this. The colors are muted, backgrounds are dark and grey though while she is with Jules the colors are vibrant, the music is upbeat, and the exploration of Rue’s sexuality is not just emergent but center stage. Queerness, then, within the text takes on a sort of vibrance, a celebration of the body whereupon the phantasm of sex is pushed away and the “real” emerges.
In the series, all heterosexual encounters (and male homosexual encounters but more on this later) are castigated in being identified with sex. In fact, multiple characters’ subjecthood is defined through this violent identification. Judith Butler writes how this limits one’s subjectification stating “The forming of a subject requires an identification with the normative phantasm of “sex,” and this identification takes place through a repudiation which produces a domain of abjection, a repudiation without which the subject cannot emerge” (Butler 1993, 3). Butler’s Abject zone is the place where individuals do not fully become subjects but must submit to the rule of subjectification. Heterosexual sex in Euphoria constantly places women (and men) in roles where their subjectivity is limited. Additionally, many characters have race but are not racialized. Rue is a black woman, and minor character Anna is also a black woman. A main character, Football player McKay, is a black man. The show has many hip-hop aesthetics and musical choices yet is devoid of any racial commentary or subtextual racialization. Individuals are incidentally racially diverse with it never playing any real or important part in the narrative. It is only within the dimension of gender and sex that subjectivity is intelligible.
Characters Maddy and Nate have sex multiple times throughout the show but neither is fulfilled. In the episode “Bonnie and Clyde” it is told to us that Maddy only imitates representations of desired heterosexual sexuality but rarely does she actually enjoy the sex itself. At one point, Maddy’s romantic partner, Nate, violently chokes her because of her insistence that Nate is into men. Maddy later goes home and cries when she sees the heavy bruising on her realizing that she is seemingly trapped within the cycle of violence brought about by the extreme heterosexuality of Nate. The show does not just show crying as an innate feeling that Maddy feels but as an affective displacement of her subjectivity. Crying is not just crying, it attaches heterosexuality, and masculinity as violent, malicious, and dangerous. Conversely the character Nate is also violently harassed by the heterosexual matrix, his own subjectivity limited in a zone of abjection. Nate is routinely violent against his partner Maddy, and even other men. Nate’s secret interactions with Jules seem to be the only time Nate is seen happy or not despondent. Their relationship is decidedly queer considering Nate utilizes a gay dating app to facilitate his desire.
All of the encounters with heterosexuality are decidedly violent and the show enforces this theme with many heterosexual encounters being profane, and the colors muted. The show’s thesis concerning sexuality seems to celebrate not just queerness, but female queerness. All female queerness is decidedly “good” or lacks the violent abjection from all heterosexual encounters. In the episode “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed” Jules meets a character named Anna. Jules describes to Anna her ideology on gender. Describing that performing femininity was like “leveling up” and that she has no set cap or idea where her level currently is but that she has not “reached her full power.” Anna responds by asking if Jules exclusively dates men, to which Jules explains that she uses men to make her feel closer to or level up in femininity. Anna troubles this by suggesting that men should not be a prerequisite for femininity saying “Why do you need a guy to make you more feminine?” to which Jules cannot give an actual answer. In the same episode, Jules and Anna have a sexual encounter that is bathed in pure neon excess and the scene is supposed to transmit Euphoria.
Anna and Jules’ dialogue do not just suggest but outwardly state that a feminine queer relationship is a radical divorce from the violence of heterosexuality. It is this scene in fact that inspired me to understand the themes and messages that were latent within Euphoria’s subtext. All acts of Queerness, specifically female queerness, within the text of the show is shown as not only a rejection of violence but bathed in the excess of calmness, euphoric desire, and affective morality. Rue and Jules relationship have issues (Jules even stating that Rue ``is a mess”) but their issues are external to them rather than interpersonal. Rue suffers from drug addiction and manic depression(because of the loss of her father) and Jules suffers from depression and constant torment from cis heterosexual patriarchy. These issues are formed around the individuals but not within them. In turn, all depictions of male queerness are bathed in dim lighting, violence, abuse, and trauma. Is this not unlike what Wittig pointed out to lesbian feminists in the 80s? If this film’s text is to be read as a permutation a moral interiority to queer female sexuality, then this piece of media is a re-articulation of the affects of radical feminist past.
In the show, Nate has extremely disturbing violent convulsions after a brutal altercation with his father. Effectively understanding himself to be trapped in the violent cycle of masculinity and not allowed to freely associate his homosexual desire. Mckay is abused by fellow football players in his dorm room while he initiating sex with his girlfriend Cassie. Mckay feels humiliated and the camera looms on him as he goes to the bathroom afterward and proceeds to cry. He insists that he and Cassie still have sex, in an effort to prove his masculinity. This scene does not have any euphoric tones or hues. It is silent, dry, dim. These are just two examples of many on how male homosocial and homosexual behavior is drowned in abjection, limiting the scope of experience and suggesting that masculinity is the barrier between the “good” of queerness.
Conclusion: What queer morality does
The affective dimension of the show relays the core of queer morality. Sex and gender are used purely as affective devices to facilitate a message about the trappings of a form of violent masculinity or perhaps masculinity in its entirety is indicted. This becomes clear when other social identifiers such as race, and class do not even play a modicum of narrative weight within the show. It is only in the realm of libidinal loss and pleasure that the show can convey its epistemological framework of heterosexuality being a violent symbolic system. It is not a contestation of this essay to suggest that heterosexuality isn’t violent or that masculinity does not trap one into an ontological/ideological hellhole. In fact, I will say outright that this is my belief, however, the show supposes that the opposite is the answer. That female queerness or better put, queerness more proximal to femininity, has the quality of being inherently nonviolent and where liberation, excess, and purity can be obtained.
Despite what showrunners may have intended, shows with subtextual themes such as this, that shows female queerness as inherently unproblematic and the main site of liberation, double down on a sort of queer essentialism that limits rather than expands queer horizons. Alexander Doty warns of the possible issues of what this does to queerness as a project. Doty writes
“Any “queerer than thou” attitude, based on politics, style, sexual behavior, or any other quality, can only make queerness become something other than an open and flexible space.” Queerness runs the risk of being readily defined, something other than “contra-straight” (Doty 1993 XV), and actively “limits the political perspective” of queer bodies (D’Emilio 1993). Thousands of queer fans of the show Euphoria have celebrated the unabashed celebration of female sexuality (CITATION NEEDED) and this is not to say that lesbian sexuality should not be shown nor celebrated. It is to say that lesbian sexuality is seen as the lens by which morality can be extracted and not as well trapping of sexuality, runs the risk of creating queer essentialism and limiting queer experience and subjectivity entirely.
Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 22, no. 2 (2004): 117–39. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-22-2_79-117.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. Taylor & Francis, 1993.
D’Emilio, John. “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 467–76. Great Britain: Routledge, 1993.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Euphoria. Season 1, episode 5, “Bonnie and Clyde.” directed by Sam Levinson. Aired on July 14, 2019, on HBO Now
Euphoria. Season 1, episode 3, “Made You Look.” directed by Sam Levinson. Aired on June 30, 2019, on HBO Now
Euphoria. Season 1, episode 7, “The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed.” directed by Sam Levinson. Aired July 28, 2019, on HBO Now
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: an Introduction. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1996.
Prøitz, Lin, Erik Carlquist, and Katrina Roen. “Affected and Connected: Feminist and Psychological Perspectives on Emotion in Social Media.” Feminist Media Studies 19, no. 8 (2018): 1114–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1546210.
Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1981.