'How I View Myself': A Profile of Queer Visual Culture

by Jaden Young | 11/1/17 2:25am

“I’ve really always liked a degree of ambivalence in texts,” women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Gabriele Dietze said. “I think if you are looking to something which is not organized by binaries — gender binaries or epistemological binaries — you learn, you find some kind of tension. I like to use a queer lense to open my own perception and open the perceptions of the students.”

Dietze’s course, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies 65.04 “Queer Visual Culture,” attempts to give students an opportunity to develop that queer lens. Taught at the 10A hour this term, the course asks students to take a critical eye to films and television shows about queer characters, incorporating historical context and queer theory.

“The idea was to go through a history of queer movie culture,” she said. “Every week has an organizing principle; one goes about the closet, the other goes about drag queening, or the dangers of transgender hate crimes, another on AIDS — I try to address a combination of historical and content-driven questions.”

Dietze also makes a point of introducing intersectional perspectives into the course.

“I appreciate Professor Dietze for doing that,” Carlos Tifa ’19 said. “There’s a [lot] of intersection between queerness and race and queerness and class. I feel like that’s something the queer community can benefit from, seeing things from an intersectional gaze.”

The course covers a range of films and television spanning from the start of the 20th century to the present, incorporating critical readings on queer theory. Films and media featured in the course include “Paris is Burning,” “Orange is the New Black,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” “Interview with a Vampire” and “Brokeback Mountain,” among others.

Through it all, though, Dietze tries to keep the course’s look at queer visual culture grounded in reality.

“I try not to teach a narrative of progress, and the students are not eager to buy a narrative of progress,” she said. “We try to look into moments of resistance, of fantasy, even of beauty, which can be in very reactionary texts as well, especially if it’s dealing with a long repressed minority.”

For Dietze, her motivation for creating the class was to give students an important, queer critical lens to apply to popular culture.

“I think the students sharpen their critical possibilities because they are forced to look into stuff which is partly mainstream, partly resistant,” she said. “They get more critical of popular culture artifacts.”

To Tifa, who identifies as queer, the lure of the class lay in the promise of understanding representation.

“It’s learning about my culture, and that’s something I love about the class,” he said, “We started off with something I didn’t know I was going to like, the foundations of the homosexual and how the word was conceived, and we watched German silent films. When you think German silent films, you don’t think queer, but apparently the first queer movie was a German silent film because of the sexual revolution that happened during the Weimar Republic era. It sets a foundation for the class to talk about contemporary queer issues.”

In a class of only 10 people, discussions are intense and personal.

“The movies encapsulate things that people in our class are going through,” Tifa said. “Most people in that class are queer-identifying; we have been through those tough times that we see displayed on the screen, so a lot of the class is personal experience, which I love hearing and learning from. Even though we’re all queer, we all come from different places, we all have different experiences of being queer, and the class helps explore that.”

For Dietze, that exchange of knowledge was especially important to meaningful discussion.

“If the course is doing well, you can develop something with the students and you can learn a lot from them,” she said. “I learn a lot from them. They see things I never would’ve thought of myself.”

Some the films covered in the class have depictions of violence and hate that are difficult to watch, and are all too real. Images like the violent murder reenacted in “Boys Don’t Cry” or the homophobic language in “Dallas Buyers Club” can be tough to swallow. For the class, feeling safe to talk about the difficult subjects is vital.

“If you hear a certain thing in a film, you’ll feel affected, but you know people will feel the same way around you,” Tifa said. “It’s sort of like standing in solidarity. “We’re all there under the same mission to understand queer representation in the visual form and we’re there to support each other when we have these difficult conversations.”

Dietze has taught versions of this class before, sometimes in different countries, and has found new class responses and discussions each time.

“I had taught it at Dartmouth two or three years ago, and the funny thing, it was different,” she said. “The last class I had, it was a majority straight people looking for information — ‘What about this queerness? We don’t understand.’ Now, everybody knows in this class, in a way, what queer is, and some — not all — identify as queer. The consciousness about what queer is is very much there more than it was three years ago.”

The class changes, too, depending on where she teaches it.

“I taught part of the class in Switzerland, which is quite different,” Dietze said. “There is a climate in the university where you are not so outgoing. The answers were very reluctant and investigative, more modest in their reactions. Not different in quality, but very much scaled-down.”

Like any good class, Dietze’s current version has left students with as many questions as answers.

“We’ve been having the discussion, are queer films for queer people? Or is it for the straight gaze so they can understand queerness?” Tifa said. “I think that’s something that’s become more prominent as the weeks go by. What is queer visual culture? Who is it for?”

But Tifa has found an affirming takeaway.

“I love being queer,” he said. “I appreciate who I am as a person more seeing how we are portrayed in the media, feeling like I don’t fit those stereotypes, I surpass those stereotypes. This class has given me a confidence about how people may view me and how I really don’t care how they view me because at the end of the day what matters is how I view myself.”