“Queer Theory posits a radical – and often irreverently funny – assault on the very idea of the normative,” Exeter Uni Benedict Morrison tells D&CFilm. We’re chatting because Benedict hosted the Q&A with Doozy director Richard Squires at the Exeter Phoenix. This is all fascinatingly new and we’re hooked and are now watching TV and film in a new way. Here’s the convo…
D&CFilm: What is ‘queerness’, how is it represented on film and TV and how did you get interested in it?
Benedict Morrison: This is a huge question, and I’m inevitably going to be able to give only a partial answer.
I have been politically engaged with LGBT+ civil rights campaigns since I was a teenager. Growing up under the shameful shadow of the Conservatives’ Section 28, in a country with an unequal age of gay consent and an employment law that still permitted discrimination against sexual minorities, there was plenty for us to campaign about. Even though UK LGBT+ citizens may have achieved a great deal over the last fifty years, there’s still more to do, especially in the light of the persecution that continues in many societies around the world.
That, though, is not quite the answer to the question you asked. Crucial to my work is the view that queerness is not the same, and perhaps not even easily reconcilable with, discussions of LGBT+ identities. When I first encountered Queer Theory as an undergraduate, it was one of the great formative intellectual experiences of my life. Queer Theory, as I understand and practise it, does not campaign for assimilation into an ideological social structure whose violent processes of normativisation have traditionally excluded sexual minorities and will always inevitably exclude someone. Instead, Queer Theory posits a radical – and often irreverently funny – assault on the very idea of the normative. Notions of binary gender, stable sexual identity, and articulable desire – all bundled together in reductive labels such as ‘homosexual’, ‘heterosexual’ and so on – are exposed as myths. Identity is revealed as the performance (knowing or otherwise) of socially-prescribed behaviours.
Perhaps most importantly, the queer – as I see it – is not simply opposition to or exclusion of the normative. That view results in an us-and-them mentality which can end up being politically unproductive. Rather, the queer is a potential for disruption that exists within the normative. The most seemingly normal identity can be unsettled by traces of a disruptive queer energy. This is why Queer Theory is not and never has been just for LGBT+ citizens. It is a theory for everyone who is hemmed in by cultural norms, i.e. everyone. Rather than talking about queer criticism, it can be more helpful to think of queering criticism, i.e. criticism which reads texts unexpectedly, detecting in them a kind of latent subversiveness or challenge to convention.
Today’s cultural landscape is sometimes hailed as unprecedented in the quantity of its depiction of LGBT+ figures. But this representation often offers only the very stable identities that I argue Queer Theory seeks to question. Alongside the question of content (that is, the presence of gay, lesbian, bi, pansexual, trans characters, stories, and themes), I look at form. I read texts closely and try to discover the moments when seamless normality to is disturbed and the logic of heteronormativity doesn’t make sense for a moment. Something like Queer Eye is not queer because it features gay men. Indeed, their relentless pursuit of the normative goals of marriage, domestic ownership, and conventional family ties makes them the least queer thing about the show. I would argue, instead, that it is in the narrative ellipses, the modelling of performative identity, the manufactured and unsatisfying resolutions and so on that the show displays its queerness. Queer TV and film challenge what we think we know about how TV and film should be made.
D&CFilm: You’re looking into characterisation and film form, can you give a few examples, and which comes first?
Benedict Morrison: I’m not sure that I think that either comes first. Too often, I think, there is an assumption that character comes first and is then expressed formally. This suggests a kind of expressionist mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing and so on in order to represent the temperament or experience of the character. This is fine as far as it goes, but it always seems to me to end up being rather reductive. It’s hard to get further than statements along the lines of ‘the character is panicked, so the camera whips around a lot’ or ‘the character is mad, so the mise-en-scène is distorted.’ I think these kinds of comment rarely do justice to the complexity of the character or to the minute detail of a film’s form.
I think of film as being a bit like a haunted house. A haunted house is a series of discontinuous, illogical, inexplicable phenomena, working contrapuntally with each other. Things behave as they shouldn’t. They break the rules. In order to explain these disparate and illogical phenomena, we narrativise them and introduce the character of a ghost. While the ghost may be unsettling in some ways, it nevertheless works to explain and thereby tame the house’s strangeness (or, perhaps, ‘queerness’). I think that character is sometimes used in film criticism to make disrupted, discontinuous, rule-breaking film form safer. I try to make such form seem dangerous again.
The book that I’m currently finishing looks particularly at characters who struggle to articulate themselves, making it hard to determine precisely what it is they’re thinking or feeling. Their situation is sometimes paralleled with what I describe as an inarticulate form; the film’s structure and style becomes disjointed in some way and draws attention to its composition. The films that I’m looking at include Roberto Rossellini’s Germania anno zero, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes. In each case, criticism has often described the complex play with formal convention as a straightforward expression of a disturbed character’s perspective. I think that this encourages a reductive view. These two parallel achievements – form and character – are in dialogue, but this dialogue is not about clear expression, but rather the complexity of all expression.
D&CFilm: Representation and visibility isn’t your focus, but does representation and visibility play a part in ‘queering’, and could token representation undermine it?
Benedict Morrison: Representation is clearly hugely important. When I was seventeen, growing up in the vicarage of a tiny English village, the airing of the original Queer as Folk was enormously important to me. We should, though, think carefully about what is being represented. The making-visible of ideologically-inflected, stereotyped images of LGBT+ experience is not necessarily helpful, and can end up putting new pressures on LGBT+ citizens. I worry that future generations of gay men and women will feel the same irresistible pressure to believe that marriage is the only legitimate condition for a relationship that straight kids have always felt. This doesn’t feel like queer progress to me (although I am delighted that same sex marriage is now available). Leo Bersani, echoing Foucault, suggests in his ground-breaking 1996 work Homos that, while visibility can be the beginning of political recognition, it is also the beginning of surveillance and control. So – visibility is crucial, but we must be mindful to who and what is being made visible and what the results of that visibility are.
D&CFilm: What’s the difference between diversity and queerness?
Benedict Morrison: Diversity is about recognising and giving platforms to a range of identities, and I applaud it wholeheartedly. Queerness – which is more radical and more dangerous and, I think, has more potential for fundamental social and political change – is about dismantling the very idea of identity. ‘Queer’, as I see it, is never just a synonym for LGBT+. Queer is a space available to everyone (including people sexually attracted to members of the other sex). It says nothing concrete about them, except their rejection of the constraints of conventional structures of identification.
D&CFilm: For you what are your favourite representations of queerness in TV and film?
Benedict Morrison: This is a tough one. I adore classic British cinema. I think that British cinematic eccentricity – the inhabiting of a space outside the centre of cultural normativity – has nothing to do with whimsical cosiness and is one of the great sites of queerness. Margaret Rutherford, Alastair Sim, Edith Evans, Irene Handl: my queer icons! I think there’s more queerness in one scene of The Lavender Hill Mob than in all the utopian posturing of Call Me by Your Name. I also love the experimental queer British directors Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway. Blue and A Zed and Two Noughts, in wildly different ways, represent for me what is most precious about queer cinema.
In terms of TV, the wild experimentation of Dennis Potter has never been matched by anyone else. The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, and his stand-alone TV plays are particularly daring. Despite Potter’s presence as a towering figure in the shows, they are all still, in one way or another, interrogating the identities of their characters and, even more excitingly, their own identities as TV dramas. It makes me enormously sad that so many people, especially students, are unfamiliar with his work.
Recently, the elliptical Killing Eve was exciting to watch. Although there isn’t a huge amount being made at the moment that I think of as queer, I retain optimism that online platforms will begin to realise more of their potential for experimentation.
D&CFilm: Culturally, what’s the benefit of queerness?
Benedict Morrison: Queerness is an unapologetic and witty attack on the logics of our culture, logics which disadvantage so many. Heteronormative, patriarchal capitalism is not running for the benefit of most people. Queerness is one of the names for the resistance. And it’s the funniest, the most playful, and the most inclusively subversive form of resistance that I know.
D&CFilm: How can we find out more about your research?
Benedict Morrison: I have a number of articles coming out, so look out for those. More importantly, researchers at Exeter University are always keen to meet and talk with our neighbours. If you want to talk about Queer Theory, European art cinema, Ealing comedies, or the best things on TV, please do drop me an email.