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Queer Theory

Drawing on feminist, gay/lesbian, anti-racist, and postcolonial studies, queer theory redefined existing concepts and epistemologies. Rather than consolidating a new academic discipline within the confines of traditional institutions, queer thinking fundamentally questions epistemologies based on binary oppositions (Sedgwick, 1990; Ahmed, 2006) and explores new forms of intellectual commitment as alternatives to the market-oriented neoliberal university (Halberstam, 2006; Berlant, 2011; Berlant & Edelmann, 2013). Thus, contributions to queer theory advanced “critiques of normalizing ways of knowing and being” (Sullivan, 2003). Queer theory focuses on the study of sexual/gender identities, on cultures and histories of gendered and sexed lives, and on non-heteronormative forms of desire and belonging. Queer studies provide tools for analyzing cultural practices and social institutions, which regulate sexualities and normalize subjectivities.

Queer Film Studies

The identity politics and social movements of the 1960s scrutinized the relational and culturally constructed characteristics of identity categories. This non-essentialist understanding of identities was key to gender studies’ inquiry into the repetitive, dissident, or improvised performances of gender (Butler, 1990; Muñoz, 1999). In film and media studies the works by Teresa de Lauretis (1984, 1987), Richard Dyer (1990), Alexander Doty (1993, 2000), and Ruby Rich (2013) fostered critical debates on the connections between technology and gender, queer lives and popular film culture, the representation of sexualities and embodiments of desire, and the aesthetics and filmmaking practices of queer cinema. In recent years, queer theory exemplified some of the major strands of conceptualizing film and opened up new approaches to subjectivity and representation, spectatorship and affect, film historiography and local film cultures, media archives and temporal dissonance.

To point out the wide scope of cultural references, methodologies, and intellectual interests in queer film studies, I want to briefly comment on three texts. All three texts blend the theoretical interests of queer theory with close analyses of audiovisual media: computer animation, European feature films, and American TV series.


1. “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation” is a chapter from J. Halberstam’s (2006) book The Queer Art of Failure. With a keen sense for the disregarded pleasures of supposedly ‘low’ genres and forms, Halberstam looks for “counterknowledge in the realm of popular culture and in relation to queer lives, gender, and sexuality” (p. 19). In Pixar movies Halberstam finds queer forms of embodiment and desire as well as narratives of resistance, revolt, and collective struggles for social justice. Halberstam’s reading of the “Pixarvolt” (p. 29) genre shows that profit-driven corporate media production can articulate a desire for difference. For Halberstam Pixar movies animate and celebrate the “weirdness of bodies, sexualities, and gender” (p. 48). The films’ narratives are driven by lively, rebellious commodities and animals. These disorderly protagonists—or: revolutionary subjects—strive for alternative forms of affinity, labor, cooperation, pleasure, and sociality. Briefly, Halberstam reads the animated characters’ silly, yet serious-minded utopian projects as allegories for political action. According to Halberstam the anarchic animal bunch in Tim Johnson’s Over the Hedge (2006) presents a model for collective thinking. How can we as film viewers and instructors sustain new forms of knowing?

2. In her monograph Cruel Optimism Lauren Berlant (2011) scrutinizes outmoded and despairing attachments to fantasies of a good life in contemporary neo-liberal capitalist societies. Given the now obsolete social-democratic political visions—and their promises of upward-mobility and prosperity—Berlant asks: „Why do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies—say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work—when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds?” (Berlant, 2011, p. 2) Berlant introduces the notion ‘cruel optimism’ to describe the strong and lasting affective bonds to unattainable fantasies, which turn out to be obstacles for individual beings to achieve a transformation of their personal life and their feelings of social belonging. The emergence of precarity and economic contingency in contemporary neo-liberal capitalism forces individuals and social groups to constantly adjust to crisis, loss, missing access to health care, inequality in education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, scarcity, debts, etc.

In the chapter “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal:  Post- Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta” Berlant describes a new realist aesthetics in European films of the 1990s as a “cinema of precarity” (p. 7). In her discussion of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999) Berlant focuses on the destitute teenage protagonists, who strive for ‘a normal life’, which the films show to be unrealizable. Bringing together analyses of contemporary cultural and economic shifts with thoughts on filmic realism, Berlant shows how cinema’s narratives of everyday life and notions of agency change, once precarity has become the ordinary.

3. In her essay “Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)streams” American television scholar Lynne Joyrich (2014) addresses the question: what happens to queer theory’s critique of hetero-normative imaginations, when LGBTQ+-characters are incorporated into mainstream television programs and are assimilated to neo-liberal stories of self-improvement, family values, reproduction, and progress.

In her discussion of American TV series (e.g., The New Normal, NBC 2012–2013) Joyrich engages with clichéd and positive representations of queer characters and communities. However, what is at stake for her in queer television studies is to analyze television’s own models of transformation, renewal, and redefinition. Accordingly, Joyrich examines temporal structures of television that might support alternative, non-linear, digressive, excessive, or negative temporalities and experiences of time. She claims that “televisual temporality and narrativity hardly adhere to a linear model of simply positive progression. Rather, television operates via restarts and reversals, iterations and involutions, branchings and braidings. Its imaginary is thus one of futurity without direct forward thinking, involving propagation without necessarily measurable progress and generation without necessarily clear continuity” (Joyrich, 2014, p. 136).

Joyrich’s essay invites us to rethink moments of televisual texts, which are disruptive and undo—or complicate—the fantasies of the good life and progress that liberal-capitalist societies perpetuate, despite individual beings’ real experience of crisis, contingency, and marginalization.


Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press.

Berlant, L. & Edelmann, L. (2013) Sex, or the Unbearable. Duke University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge. 

De Lauretis, T. (1984). Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Indiana University Press.

De Lauretis, T. (1987). Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Indiana University Press.

Doty, A. (1993). Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. University of Minnesota.

Doty, A. (2000). Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. Routledge.

Dyer, R. (1990). Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay Film. Routledge.

Halberstam, J. (2011). The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press.

Joyrich, L. (2014). “Queer Television Studies: Currents, Flows, and (Main)streams.” Cinema Journal, 53(2), 133–139.

Muñoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota.

Rich, R. B. (2013). New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Duke University Press.

Sullivan, N. (2003). A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York University Press.

Ulrike Hanstein

Professor of Film Studies

Ulrike Hanstein is Professor of Film Studies and dedicated to diversity and equality work at the ifs internationale filmschule köln. For her research on film, video art, and visual cultures she has been awarded grants from DFG, Volkswagen Stiftung, DAAD, Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Her research interests include experimental film and video practices, feminist art and collaborative artistic strategies, performance art, feminist pedagogies, queer theory, minor cinemas, and the materials and methods of media historiography.