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Review of Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age

Book cover for Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age

The concept of a queer identity is, at times, paradoxical. While half of the definitions Webster lists for “identity” refer to a condition of “sameness,” “queer” is frequently evoked to indicate a breaking away from categorization. Not to begin a review with a dictionary entry, but this is the tension that Kay Siebler beautifully navigates throughout Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). While online platforms and ever-increasing modes of mass communication are often celebrated for presenting the public with a wider array of perspectives, Siebler shows that the queer representations they put forth tend to be limited in their one-size-fits-all depictions. Constrained by capitalist incentives, these representations are meant to encourage queer individuals to buy into (both literally and figuratively) this narrow mold.

The book is divided generally into two parts. After an introduction framing her project, Siebler first lays out her methodology alongside specific findings from the focus groups she conducted (Chapters 2-3). The second part of the book dedicates a chapter each to lesbian, gay, and transgender representations (Chapter 4-6, respectively), before concluding with a chapter on implementing better “transqueer” representation in the classroom. 

In Chapter 2, "Queerness in the Digital Environment: We’re Here, We’re Queer, and You’re Getting Used to Us,” Siebler traces a brief history of queer theory. In referring to earlier works like Annamarie Jagose’s introductory text Queer Theory (1996) and  Victor Russo’s film The Celluloid Closet (1981), she acknowledges that this field is, itself, already established. Referencing this latter text, Siebler observes that portrayals of LGBT characters in the media have begun to shift from being entirely negative, depressing, and stereotypical to being more complex, sympathetic and positive. She refrains from hasty celebrations, however, advising her readers that critical analysis will reveal the ways in which these portrayals (although more positive) are “rigid, one-dimensional, and un-queer” (18). Siebler points to the power of the “pink dollar,” indicating that these homogenous representations are useful for marketing executives. 

Before further analysis, Siebler switches to an overview of her methodology in Chapter 3. Although this transition is not quite as smooth as the rest of the text’s easy-to-follow organization, the chapter nevertheless provides a useful standpoint for the epistemological positioning from which Siebler’s work emerges. Here, she explains that many of her insights have come from intergenerational focus groups of LGBT-identified people, whom Siebler has sought out in order to discuss their perceptions of how identity and community function in and through digital spaces. In an analysis of digital platforms varying from blogs to search engines, Siebler ultimately concludes that digital resources can be extremely useful tools for identity formation, but LGBT individuals ought to be careful regarding how these tools shape us in turn. 

Chapters 4-7 shift from the umbrella term “queer” to thinking about specific LGBT identities. Chapter 4, on lesbian identity, first strays from a digital focus, beginning with a lesbian feminist critique of patriarchal parenting, but it quickly transitions back to consider how online communities have developed around and for lesbians. This earlier nod to parenting resurfaces as Siebler views lesbian representations in the digital age as reinscribing limited conceptions of heteronormativity. “To assimilate, for a woman-loving woman, means abiding by the patriarchal definitions of what it means to be female,” she writes (89). To illustrate this idea, Siebler offers examples from television shows like The L Word, which continue to put forth depictions of femininity that seem specifically engineered for the male gaze.

In the next chapter on gay men, Siebler looks at the figure of “The Great White Queer,” which embodies affluence and teaches that “being gay means assimilation through consumption” (98). Perhaps the most interesting analytical framework in this chapter, however, is Siebler’s breakdown of “camp” (an identity performance by someone from within that group) and “minstrelsy” (an identity performance from someone outside of the group). According to Siebler, representations of gay men on television shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family still tend to fall into the latter category, with straight actors continuing to masquerade as what Vito Russo would call “the sissy.”

While pressures for gay men to conform to the capitalist-driven figure of “The Great White Queer” produce a rigid hegemony, Siebler shows that the limitations are even more severe for transgender folks. In Chapter 6, Siebler points to examples from television, film, and internet communities that not only insist on certain modifications that trans people need to buy into and undergo, but also claim that these bodies then must be offered up for public scrutiny, continuing a long and painful history of policing transgender bodies. A handful of the public figures that Siebler mentions in this chapter have been misgendered (RuPaul doesn’t identify as trans, for instance, and by the time of the book’s publication, model Andrej Pejic, whom Siebler refers to as an androgynous man, was identifying as a woman). This latter instance, of course, may have simply resulted from a lag in the book’s composition and subsequent publication. In which case, the point that Siebler makes in this chapter is only further emphasized; for identities that are in transition and/or flux, there is no specific model they ought to adhere to.

In Chapter 7, “Transqueer Representations: Educating Against the Binaries,” Siebler calls for a wider range of representations, ones that will disrupt, rather than reinscribe, stereotypes of LGBT folks. In this conclusion to the book, the author puts forth suggestions for how teachers at any level might do this work of disrupting patriarchal binaries in their classrooms. While many of the concepts taken up in Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age will be by no means “new” to its readers, the ways in which Siebler handles these issues, incorporating helpful examples from popular culture and suggesting ways to combat the current shortfalls of queer representation, make this work an insightful and exciting project.

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