‘Shifting the world’s perspective on what’s beautiful’: identity, youth cultures, and queer ‘performance’
Traditional views of identity have seen it as a unified and coherent essence, a relatively straightforward expression of ‘the Individual’. This essentialist model of identity is rooted in ideas that emerged from the European Enlightenment — the period of rigorous scientific, political, and philosophical discourse that characterised European society from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century. In this tradition of thought, notions of rationality and reason are sovereign, and an onus is placed on the value of certitude and ‘truth’. Many of the assumptions that underpin this mode of thought, however, have subsequently attracted criticism. Postcolonial theorists, for example, have challenged the binary oppositions that underpinned colonialist thought, and have pointed to the destabilising potential of cultural hybridity (see Chapter 8). And, more broadly, poststructuralist theorists have challenged many of the Enlightenment’s certainties. Poststructuralism is a broad theoretical church, though its advocates share a general rejection of the totalising and essentialist concepts associated with Enlightenment epistemologies. Influenced by the ideas of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, poststructuralist theorists have challenged claims to order and ‘truth’, arguing that such discourses have invariably been related to systems of power in which some voices are given authority and status while others are silenced and marginalised. In these terms, the Enlightenment’s view of ‘the Individual’ as a stable and coherent essence is also challenged. Instead, poststructuralist theorists have seen people as composed of manifold identities that are discursively created - and continuously re-created — through cultural meanings and practices. As Stuart Hall explained:
Within us are contradictory identities, pulling in different directions, so that our identifications are continually being shifted about. If we feel that we have a unified identity from birth to death, it is only because we construct a comforting story or ‘narrative’ of the self about ourselves.
(Hall, 1992Ü: 277)
From this perspective, the social, economic and political dislocations that began during the late twentieth century may have brought what Hall (1987) saw as a ‘decentring’ of identity. That is to say, amid the destabilisation of traditional assumptions and securities, potentially liberating spaces may have opened up for the articulation of identities once confined to the periphery of cultural systems. And theorists of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality have all been keen to explore the multiple subjectivities that may have sprouted through the fissures and disjunctions of late modem societies. Perhaps, though, it is the sphere of youth culture that most readily exemplifies this ‘decentring’ of identity. Indeed, with their unstable fusion of fragmented identities and cultural reference points, modern youth cultures — especially the spectacular styles of subcultures - have always encompassed fluid and dynamic subjectivities. Rather than being fixed and coherent, youth cultures have invariably been mutable and transient, youngsters often cruising across a range of cultural affiliations, constantly forming and reforming their identities according to social context.
Anti-essentialist views of identity have been especially pronounced in queer theory." ‘Queer’ was originally a term commonly used to deride and vilify same-sex desire, but since the late twentieth century it has been appropriated to celebrate (rather than castigate) difference from the dominant ‘nonns’ of gender and sexuality. In analytic terms, queer theory encompasses a wide range of perspectives, though they share an anti-essentialist view of sexual identity and challenge notions of sexuality as being underpinned by intrinsic, innate sets of binary oppositions — masculinity/femininity and heterosexuality/homosexuality — that are universally ‘fixed’ across time and place. Such claims to unity and coherence, it is argued, are constantly undermined by the incoherencies of sex and gender, and queer theorists work to highlight and celebrate this fluidity of sexual identity. From this perspective, gender, and sexual identity are understood as enactments, creations, or — as Judith Butler has argued — a ‘performance’.
For Butler, a leading queer theorist, masculinity and femininity are not a monolithic and timelessly fixed set of binary categories. Rather, they are multiform, fluid, and historically variable. Gender, Butler contends, should not be conceived as a stable identity or an ‘agency from which various acts follow’, but instead should be recognised as ‘an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts’ (Butler, 1990: 140). According to Butler, then, gender should be understood as a historically dynamic ‘performance’ - a system of cultural conventions that is fabricated and sustained through ‘a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms’ (Butler, 1993: 95). ‘There is’, Butler contended, ‘no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is perfonnatively constituted by the ver)' “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (Butler, 1990: 24—25).
For queer theorists, therefore, gender and sexual identities are not established on stable sets of essential binary identities, but are constituted through the repetitive performance of behaviours and physical expressions. And, in this sense, the process of ‘queering’, as Robert Corber and Stephen Valocchi explain, refers to ‘identities and practices that foreground the instability inherent in the supposedly stable relationship between anatomical sex, gender and sexual desire’ (Corber and Valocchi, 2003: 1). Butler (1991), for example, argued that cross-dressing ‘drag’ artists caused ‘gender trouble’ because their performance spotlighted the social, imitative character of gender. For Butler, the drag queen effectively ‘queers’ gender — that is to say, it exposes gender as a cultural code which relies on imitation and reappearance, and lacks any intrinsic, essential ‘truth’. The elements of parody in the drag performance, therefore, expose, accentuate, and ultimately ridicule dominant assumptions about the ‘essential’ qualities of gender and sexuality.
Queer elements have also been a pronounced feature in youth subcultures -for example, mods, punks, or goths. Their spectacular styles have often
Youth, identity, creativity, and digital media 179 conjured with different notions of gender and sexuality, and called into question dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity. Often, the history of popular music has also been characteristically ‘queer’. As Jon Savage agrues:
Pop’s relationship to different ideas of sexuality and gender is ... deep and intricate: although it frequently denies it, it is from the milieux and sensibilities of the sexually divergent that pop culture draws much of its sustenance.
(Savage, 1990: 155)
Of course, the history of popular music features innumerable examples where hegemonic ‘performances’ of gender and sexuality predominate. During the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, swaggering machismo was a prevalent theme in hip-hop, and the songs of artists such as 2 Live Crew and N.W.A were often excruciatingly misogynistic. The history of heavy metal, too, is replete with representations of heterosexual ‘hypermasculinity’ and ‘hyperfemininity’. Robert Wasler (1993), for example, highlighted the way a wide variety of masculine archetypes were ‘performed’ by leading heavy metal bands of the 1980s. Guns ‘n’ Roses, for instance, embodied a free-wheeling, non-conformism, Bon Jovi were constructed as romantic heroes, while Poison adopted an androgynous ‘glam’ style. For Wasler, however, they all, in different ways, represented a spectacle of heterosexual masculine power. More broadly, however, theorists such as Susan Fast and Craig Jennex (2019) suggest that popular music has also been a site where performers and fans have challenged dominant ideas of stable, unified subjectivities, and have instead elaborated more fluid expressions of gender and sexuality.3
Indeed, Vincent Stephens (2019) shows how 1950s performers such as Johnnie Ray and Little Richard effectively ‘queered’ rock ‘n’ roll through presenting stage personae that challenged prevailing notions of manhood and masculinity. Disco, meanwhile was decried by critics of all political hues for being vapid and crassly commercial (see Chapter 6); but Richard Dyer (1979) shows how the eroticism, romanticism, and lavish escapism of disco offered experiences that could be the basis for a questioning of sexual and economic authority. Even heavy metal, Amber Clifford-Napoleone (2017) argues, has had spaces of ‘pervasive queerness’, where performers and fans have explored a diversity of gendered and sexual identities.
Artists such as David Bowie, Prince, and Marilyn Manson can also be seen as subverting traditional notions of gender and sexuality through androgynous, sexually ambiguous performances that deliberately blurred masculine and feminine conventions. And, in a similar fashion, E. Ann Kaplan (1993) has argued that the singer Madonna undermined essentialist notions of femininity through adopting a series of ‘performative’ masquerades in her videos and stage shows. Artists such as Annie Lennox and k.d. lang might equally be seen as ‘queering’ gender conventions through their adoption of a variety of masculine, androgynous and (occasionally) lesbian guises. Similarly, Lady Gaga has also underscored the ‘performative’ character of gender through the recurrentreinventions of her stage persona and, especially, through the creation of Jo Calderone — an exercise in ‘gender manipulation’ that saw Lady Gaga develop a male alter-ego to ‘fuck with the malleable minds of onlookers and shift the world’s perspective on what’s beautiful’ (2011: 34).
Alongside popular music, online communities have also been seen as rich spaces for the expression and exploration of identities that destabilise binary constructions of gender and sexuality. From the earliest days of the Internet, theorists such as Howard Rheingold (2000) and Sherry Turkle (1995) were proselytes for the liberating potential of digital communication networks. The disembodied spaces of online communication, they suggested, brought a ‘postmodern’ blurring of distinctions between reality and simulation that dissolved the boundaries of the self and created spaces for new, experimental, and multiple forms of identity. And, in some respects at least, the contingent, fluid character of online relations has undoubtedly leant itself to individuals and groups looking to stake out new terms of identification and belonging.
Susan Driver (2006), for example, shows how an expansive range of online sites — groups, ezines, chatrooms, live discussions, blogs, and so on — have been created by, for, and about LGBT youth. Often designed, developed, and moderated by young people themselves, these online communities have, Driver argues, put LGBT youth at the forefront of do-it-yourself digital media. Connecting online, Driver suggests, has been especially important for LGBT youth as it provides a way for young people, who may be isolated and marginalised in their everyday lives, to access and sustain links with supportive mentors, friends, and acquaintances. Alongside providing friendship and a sense of belonging, however, online networks are also sites for performative practices of self-presentation. And, while there is much variation between the gendered and sexual identities associated with different LGBT networks, Driver highlights their capacity to offer spaces where ‘queer youth actively challenge fixed notions of girl/boy, male/female, and heterosexual/homosexual that proscribe diverse desire and identifications’ (2006: 232).4 In this way, then, online social networks are spaces where queer youth perform gendered and sexual identities that often flow across conventional boundaries, confounding dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity. As Driver explains:
Queer youth cyber-communities challenge simplistic divisions between the virtual and the real, the imaginary and the physical, the textual and the embodied, the experiential and the fictional. They provide insights into the in-between spaces where youth work out the unique contours of their sexualities and genders, as they communicate their identifications and desires in words and images shared with others across diverse contexts.
(Driver, 2006: 244)
‘Queerness’, moreover, does not simply relate to the sexual identities of individuals or groups. For queer theorists such as Eve Sedgwick (1985), it was also possible to produce ‘queer’ readings of the cultural world. According to
Sedgwick, for instance, a ‘queer lens’ could be applied in the analysis of literary texts, thereby highlighting discursive spaces that existed outside the binary identities of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This ‘queer’ reading of texts made evident their fissures of instability and gaps where alternative interpretations could emerge. And this ‘queer lens’ is, in many respects, exemplified by the young One Direction fans who imagined a ‘ship’ between the band members (see above).
As Hannah McCann and Clare Southern found from their (2019) digital ethnography of the One Direction ‘Larries’, whether the fans really believed a relationship existed between Styles and Tomlinson (or simply pretended this, as a source of their own pleasure) was relatively unimportant. More significant was the way the fans (who positioned themselves in a variety of sexual identities) deployed queer reading practices to develop a subtext that ruptured dominant expectations about gender and sexuality. The Larries, McCann and Southern suggest, were adopting a queer gaze ‘that reads “against the grain” of a heteronormative framing’ (54). In these terms, through their celebration of the One Direction ‘ship’, the fans challenged dominant heterosexual narratives and opened space for queer identities and desires. As McCann and Southern observed:
For many Larries the online intimate community surrounding the ship serves as a space for the creation of queer possibility, collectively created and reaffirmed through the sharing of queer digital objects.
(McCann and Southern, 2019: 61)
McCann and Southern’s analysis of Larries highlights the ‘the queer affordances of social media’ (51), and the way online platforms provide young people with opportunities for the elaboration of identities and textual readings that transgress dominant boundaries. This affordance, however, is just one of the myriad ways communications technologies have transformed the means through which young people structure their social relationships and negotiate their sense of identity.