Queer Media Studies

Queer media studies are the lens of queer principles and politics to researching media texts, processes, industries, and sociocultural constructions. It is methodologically and theoretically diverse. Specific psychological, political, and cultural codes have elevated heterosexuality to the status of a sexual “given”. Those codes include the fact that initially heterosexuality was used to describe behaviors we may consider today as “bisexual” (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). The term heterosexual lost its negative, pathological meaning far quicker than homosexual did and by the middle of the twentieth century, heterosexual sex outside of marriage was seen as normal (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). Therefore, those codes are created, recreated, and reinforced by mainstream hegemonic media. Exposing the codes and the assumptions they are built on helps queer media studies “undo” heterosexuality as the given sexual norm in media.

Queer media gives impact through giving representation: extends the power, gives cultural presence, and gives a voice to sexually marginalized groups. It provides perspective by focusing on plurality of sexual codes operating in media products without privileging heterosexuality as natural or authoritative. It gives empowerment through allowing a disenfranchised population to reclaim identity that hegemonic heterosexuality demonized and disregarded.

The taxonomy of queer media, or what is considered to be queer media, can be broken up into four parts: queer issues, queer creators, queer characters, and queer spectatorship.

Film that challenges dominant assumptions about gender and sexuality (Benshoff & Griffin 2006) would be considered to be tackling queer issues and thus would be considered queer media. An example of film regarding queer issues, although being a satirical take, would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Benshoff & Griffin 2009). In the film, Dr. Frank N. Furter, a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” constructs and brings to life a blonde muscle-man for his own sexual pleasure (Benshoff & Griffin 2009).

mattAnother way a film may considered queer is if it is either written, directed, or produced by queer people or perhaps when they star lesbian, gay, or otherwise queer actors (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). In many cases queer filmmakers can and do inflect a queer sensibility into their work, even when gay and lesbian characters are not present (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). Thus, a supposedly “straight” film made by a queer filmmaker might be considered a queer film (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). An example of this would be the movie Hairspray which was created by John Waters, a gay man (pictured to the right) (MediaSmarts).

Films that showcase queer characters that are not built from stereotypes and fully integrated as key characters would be considered queer media. In Hollywood’s early years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, homosexuality was often presented as an object of ridicule and laughter (MediaSmarts). From the 1930s to the 1950s, religious and women’s groups criticized Hollywood films for contributing to immorality (MediaSmarts). As a result, the industry introduced the Hayes Code, a system of self-censorship that affected the portrayal of homosexuality. This strict code was loosened in the 1960s and 1970s, which also saw the dawn of the women’s and gay rights movements (MediaSmarts). While gays and lesbians were becoming more visible in every day life, film was becoming increasingly homophobic (MediaSmarts). Since the 1990s, Hollywood has improved its portrayal of gay and lesbian characters. The popularity of films such as Philadelphia, and The Birdcage demonstrates that audiences can and do enjoy films with gay and lesbian characters (Media Smarts). Despite these advances, however, the industry is still cautious in its portrayals of gay themes, characters, and experiences (MediaSmarts).

Another way of defining queer film is one that centers on the issues of spectatorship (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). According to this model, a queer film is one that is viewed by lesbian, gay, or otherwise queer spectators (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). In many cases, lesbians, gay men, and other queers experience films differently than do straight viewers (Benshoff & Griffin 2006). A recent example of queer spectatorship would be the film Top Gun, a robust military action film with heterosexual characters, that has become a queer cult film because of its incessant beef-cake, suggestive word play, and intentional homosocial bonding (Benshoff & Griffin 2006).


Benshoff, H. M., & Griffin, S. (2006). Queer images: a history of gay and lesbian film in      America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Benshoff, H. M., & Griffin, S. (2009). America on film: representing race, class, gender, and sexuality at the movies. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

MediaSmarts. (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2017, from http://mediasmarts.ca/digital-media-literacy/media-issues/diversity-media/queer-representation/queer-representation-film-television

Image Attribution: “John Waters” by PEN America licensed under CC BY 2.0

Written by Matthew Underwood, 2017