Queer(s) Reading began as a panel for the 2020 Seattle MLA—an event that was, for many attendees, one of the last physical gatherings they would take part in for quite some time. We continue that conversation in this forum under the very different conditions generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective concern is the vitalizing possibilities of queer(s) reading—that is, of embodied and located modes of experiencing, engaging with, and interpreting the literary, visual, multimedia, and theoretical texts that inform queer lives. Queer(s) reading, as the six authors in this forum describe it, is both a radical relation and a radical refusal, working to expand networks of queer kinship, collectivity, feeling, friendship, love, and desire. Queer reading may be done alone, but it is never solitary.
This forum’s desire is to play with and expand the potential of how we read, see, listen, and watch. We engage and pursue critical conversations beyond the deadlocked opposition between “critique” and “description.” Queer(s) reading is an invocation, and a provocation, that finds value in the inventiveness of the situated, the sensual, and the relations between.
Many thanks to our contributors, to the audience at MLA, and to the editors of ASAP/J for their support.
I am going to ask you to view a series of clips, the first of which is from a film called Thelma and Louise (1991). This is a film about two lesbians who run away from husbands, boyfriends, and the law whilst falling madly in love with each other and doing very lesbian things together along the way as a result of the fact that this is a very lesbian film. Some of the very lesbian things that they do together are: 1) rob a convenience store 2) shoot at and explode a sexist trucker’s vehicle, and 3) murder a rapist.
In this final scene of the film, the director Ridley Scott makes expert use of the tight close-up, shot/counter-shot cinematic technique to demonstrate these two women’s passionate attachment. Get a room, Thelma and Louise.
This next clip is the opening scene of Little Darlings (1980) a film directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, with a screenplay written by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young.
Little Darlings is another daring lesbian romance. As you can see, it features our hero Kristy McNichol in her full baby butch glory (black converse sneakers—check. Levi’s jeans and denim jacket—check. Cigarette dangling, handless, from her perfectly smirking lips—check). The film tells the sordid tale of the love between Kristy and Tatum O’Neal, well-known for her own baby dyke turns in Paper Moon and The Bad News Bears.
While spending time together in an all-girls summer camp, they come to realize their deep erotic affinity.
Their love affair is predictably mediated, in triangulated homosocial fashion, by a bet over who will lose their virginity first. Kristy opts for Matt Dillon, who, with that haircut, could almost pass for a lesbian.1
In the end, they learn the lessons of queer kinship and friendship as a way of life.
A very lesbian romance indeed.
Perhaps this next clip speaks for itself:
In this made-for-MTV music video of Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” (1993), we can see Queen Latifah code-switching between rap-battle persona and flygirl, and therefore, between butch and femme. Please note the tracksuit and backwards baseball cap in one shot and the tight black outfit and dangling gold earrings in the other. This is a tour de force of sexual ambiguity. Not only does Queen Latifah call out the frequency of the use of derogatory terms for women in rap culture throughout, she also gives a big shout-out to the famous contingent of Pride Parades across the world: Dykes on Bikes.
Of course, none of these films or videos are officially lesbian. But what does it mean to read a text incorrectly on purpose? In the tradition of camp, which we might understand as the performative overvaluation of something historically undervalued, how might misreading queerly and strategically (that is, with political and social purpose) enable interpretations and pleasures otherwise unsupported by the dominance of heterosexuality’s assumed presence? A host of methods of reading otherwise in this manner have been in place for some time. In 1997, Eve Sedgwick called for “additive and accretive” readings not only to pry a text open to its own internal sexual imaginings, but also to center the reading subject’s interpretative capacity in relation to it.2 More recently, Ramzi Fawaz and Shanté Paradigm Smalls have described queer reading practices as micro-level political engagements they call “everyday equipment for living.”3 We can think here, as well, about Jennifer Nash’s practice of “aggressive counter-reading” discussed at length in The Black Body in Ecstasy (2014), which she characterizes as an intentional attempt to read against the grain of prevailing understandings of racialization as one way to engender political and theoretical space for black erotic attachment.4
But it’s not only these reading practices that inspire my thoughts on queer misreading. I am also trying to think through a negative reader’s report for an essay I wrote for GLQ, in part about Thelma and Louise. The reader, let’s call them READER 2, found my “over-reading” of Thelma and Louise’s relationship as romantic entirely wrong. They wrote, “The queer reading of Thelma and Louise here is an overreach. I would not characterize Thelma and Louise’s final kiss as ‘passionate’ and the author’s own emotional reaction at the film’s viewing does not automatically make it a ‘queer’ text.” This comment stayed with me like an unscratchable itch. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that it irritated me not because I thought I was right (about Thelma and Louise’s obvious queer love for each other), but because I was openly, intentionally, wrong. And I assumed that the wryness undergirding my claim would be equally obvious to anyone who read it, when, in fact, it wasn’t. At the time, as now, I was strategically misreading the film as a method of reading beyond the governing narrative, a method that takes into account the context of reception in which the film was viewed, and that I did directly experience as one of the viewers in the theatre at the time (more erotically than “emotionally,” in my memory). Readings such as this have been around since gay men have loved Judy and femmes everywhere swooned to Marlene’s butch cabaret (and have informed readings from Eve Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” (1991) to Andrea Weiss’s Vampires and Violets (1993) to Todd Haynes’s queer attachments to the “woman’s film” (Far From Heaven, 2002) and glam rock (Velvet Goldmine, 1998)” (2007, 2011), both of which were queered by him and, as his renditions aptly demonstrated, already queer5). For me to be wrong, in this instance, was both a calculated risk and an imaginative understanding of the kinds of counter-archives any given text has the capacity to produce.
But—am I wrong? Thelma and Louise as a lesbian couple, Kristy McNicol and Tatum O’Neal as a lesbian couple, Queen Latifah as a lesbian—is this a willful misrecognition? Yes and no. Of course, each of these films and videos amass other, what we could think of as more “heterosexual,” meanings. But they also make available queer(er) readings both within their own internal textual utterances and by way of the flow of gossip and rumor surrounding the personae of some of their stars (McNichol and Latifah, in particular).6 My readings are made possible, then, not only via a strategy of reading against a text’s dominant frames, but by an additional method of close-reading what is encoded within those frames to begin with: what we might think of as a trace of the queer, for which there is, I think, ample textual evidence—a passionate (yes) kiss, a pack of cigarettes tucked into the waist line of a pair of Levi’s jeans, an impish smile, and a bucket hat, like the one worn by Queen Latifah in the U.N.I.T.Y video.
Queen Latifah’s donning of the bucket hat labors in sartorial solidarity with those famously sported by LL Cool J and RUN DMC of the same period in rap music.
Figures 8 and 9: LL Cool J and RUN DMC, respectively.
In wearing the bucket hat, Queen Latifah both inhabits the masculine stylings of rap battle culture and expands the possibilities available for the performance of black female sexuality. As queer readers, when we pay attention to a seemingly minor detail like a bucket hat, we playfully, and sometimes disobediently, train our gazes on the queer(ing) object already in the text. How we read, and what we read for, thus collaborate in the making of queer meaning.
But I am, quite frankly, happy to be wrong. After all, isn’t the possibility that all of our interpretations of texts—and all of our methods of reading them—could be wrong one that is inherent to the profession of literary/cultural scholarship? If there were only one correct reading of a text, everyone in the field would be out of a job. An interpretation can only ever be partial, provisional, and inadequate to the capaciousness of texts and contexts. And that is what makes reading and interpretation so exciting, so possible. Queer misreading relates to a text as an expectant partner in the performance of surprise. It gives erotic substance to the experience of slow, unfolding desire, as you turn the page, scroll down the screen, or watch the scenes flicker and change in front of you. The text, in this sense, is a finite material object with infinite lines of flight.
To favor the messy, the incoherent, the campy, and the mistaken, as I am doing here, is a queer worldmaking gesture. Such an approach refuses singular, grand, overdetermining methods in order to allow the queer traces of a text to hold greater sway, to foreground the ways pleasure is summoned in and through the relationship between an utterance and that which always surpasses it. Perhaps queer readings can instead be understood along the lines of what Ariella Azoulay calls “potential history” in which “the reconstruction of unrealized possibilities, practices, and dreams” become possible.7 For Azoulay, the concept of potential history embraces a practice of archival reconstruction that redresses the regulatory narratives of state violence. It works both to rebuild an archive that can tell the story of the constituent violence of a regime-made disaster and to make historical moments reappear at junctions where other narratives, or paths, might have been chosen. Azoulay powerfully demonstrates the practice of potential history in her reading of a 1948 photograph of Palestinians from Lubya holding a white flag as they move toward a group of Israeli soldiers. Focusing on the white flag as “a clear gesture of non-violence,” Azoulay points to the existence of a reading of this historical moment that was ultimately rejected in order to serve the constitution of a sovereign regime. By reading this possibility out of and back into the photograph, Azoulay generates a counter-archive of a potential past.
I think we can understand Azoulay’s project in relation to what Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation,” an important concept taken up for its queering possibilities by Tavia Nyong’o. For Hartman, as much as for Nyong’o, critical fabulation negotiates the constraining limits of the archive by advancing a series of speculative arguments, what Hartman describes as “a critical reading of the archive that mimes the figurative dimensions of history.”8 While both Azoulay and Hartman struggle to confront the violence of the archive, can the same be said and done on behalf of a counter-archive of queer pleasure? Here, in my deliberately playful account, my (mis)readings are intended to open up the fixed status of both the event and the object to pleasures otherwise. To put this another way, if queer misreading were a genre, it wouldn’t be realism, but fantasy, which is to say that it does not strive to reflect an extant reality; it strives to cultivate a different one. And this is the crucial difference between the kind of queer misreadings I am discussing here and the strategy of fabrication and “alternative facts” we have become accustomed to in the age of trump [sic]. If the latter functions to reproduce the structures of white supremacy and state violence, the former strives to re-situate our resistance back in pleasure and desire. Attending to the veracity of a detail—a bucket hat, a denim jacket, a passionate kiss shot in close up—along with how things like contexts of reception can act as powerfully shaping forces, conceives a queer lexicon of potential pleasures that interfere with the otherwise smooth functioning of a ruling narrative. If such willful readings are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
This is one of seven essays from Queer(s) Reading. Read the other posts here.
- Among all the things I owe to Dana Luciano, this joke is one of them.
- Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Touching Feeling (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 149. (Originally published 1997.)
- Ramzi Fawaz and Shanté Paradigm Smalls, “Queers Read This!: LGBTQ Literature Now,” GLQ, 24: 2-3 (June 2018), 179.
- Jennifer Nash, The Black Body in Ecstasy (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014), 86.
- See Dana Luciano, “Nostalgia for an Age Yet to Come: Velvet Goldmine’s Queer Archive,” in Queer Times, Queer Belongings, ed. E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tukhanen (SUNY Press, 2011), 129-55.
- Kristy McNichol eventually came out in 2012 (as if we didn’t know, Kristy!), and, amidst decades of rumors, Queen Latifah continues to ask us to mind our own damn business.
- Ariella Azoulay, “Potential History: Thinking through Violence,” Critical Inquiry 39: 3 (Spring 2013), 548-74.
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26:2 (June 2008), 1-14 and Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: NYU Press, 2018.